The American Legion Magazine
April 2004
Alan W. Dowd 

Why do America’s armed forces fight? That’s the question the US Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute asked in the wake of Operation Iraqi Freedom, in a wide-ranging study that compared the combat motivations of the current cohort of American troops to that of earlier cohorts. Although some of SSI’s findings will come as a surprise, many reflect exactly what the American people would expect of their military. 

Getting the Job Done

Science tells us that at least one reason why men fight is genetics. Military historian John Keegan notes that some scientists cite “a psychological basis for a theory of aggression.” Freud, for example, concluded that “man has within himself a lust for hatred and destruction.” British biologist Richard Dawkins argues that the aggressive traits which ultimately lead to conflict—whether interpersonal or international—as well as the traits which lead to conflict-avoidance are hard-wired into the gene itself. The history books tell us that we fight because of pride and politics, resources and riches, king and country.  

Of course, perhaps the highest motivation of all is also the least common—to fight for freedom, especially the freedom of others. Yet this concept of what might be called “altruistic war” is not at all foreign to Americans. After all, one of the most stirring stanzas from The Battle Hymn of the Republic (penned in 1862, during what some call a war of liberation) declares, “As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free.”  

Relying on interviews of Iraqi POWs, perspectives from embedded media, discussions with personnel from the 3rd Infantry Division, 101st Airborne Division and 1st Marine Division, and comparisons with similar data from earlier wars, SSI’s aptly titled “Why They Fight” found that the motivations of the men and women who liberated Iraq are very much in line with that Civil War anthem. Although there were plenty of national-security justifications for this war—from Saddam’s links to terror, to Iraq’s underground weapons program, to the need to enforce UN resolutions and thus stabilize the Middle East—the troops believe they are fighting and dying in Iraq in large measure to make Iraq free.  

According to SSI, this reflects a steady evolution in the motivations of US combat forces—or perhaps better said, an evolution in how these motivations are expressed.  

The SSI researchers note that studies conducted after World War II found that most American GIs were motivated by a desire to finish the job and return home. This strand of thinking runs throughout the American experience. Recall the words of Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf on the eve of the Gulf War, some 45 years after World War II: “I have seen in your eyes a fire of determination to get this job done, and done quickly, so that we may return to the shores of our great nation.” SSI found that veterans of the Iraq War offered similar responses about the desire to get the war over with and get home.  

This should come as no surprise. For most Americans, war is not glory; and conquest is not a sign of strength. Ours is something less than a warrior culture—something, happily, altogether different than Rome or the militarist societies of the last century. Hollywood’s howls notwithstanding, we don’t goosestep into battle or romanticize the horrors of war. So it stands to reason that the people who fight America’s wars yearn for home rather than empire.

Post-World War II surveys also found that troops were motivated by the “strong group ties that developed during combat.” Some call it unit cohesion, others the brotherhood of war; it was a potent motivator for American troops throughout the Cold War and remains so today: According to data cited by SSI, group ties and “buddy relations” were critical factors to combat motivation in both Korea and Vietnam. Likewise, among US veterans of the war in Iraq, “the most frequent response given for combat motivation was ‘fighting for my buddies.’” 

Ideological notions such as liberty and equality “were not major factors in combat motivations for World War II soldiers.” Obviously, this isn’t reflective of every GI; indeed, it may be quite contrary to our popular conception of the WWII combat veteran. However, it does resonate with what my grandfather, a veteran of Normandy and the Ardennes, once told me. He didn’t go to war to liberate Europe. He went because “someone or something had to stop the Nazis and the Japanese once and for all.” 

Likewise, the anecdotal evidence from the postwar period seems to indicate that the grand idea of fighting for freedom was seldom a motivator during the Cold War, as historian Derek Leebaert explains in The Fifty-Year Wound. “Military draftees and recruits lost millions of man-years in places like Kiska, Alaska, belowdecks on some stinking supply ship in the Pacific, or stenciling jeeps at Fort Ord in California,” he writes. As a consequence, “Most of these men’s first impression of public service was that it wasted their time. Later, when others were conscripted after them, they believed it wasted their money as well.”


Conversely—and surprisingly, given the historical record—“liberating the people and bringing freedom to Iraq” were commonly cited by the troops in describing their combat motivation.  

However, as the SSI study is quick to point out, the rather detached rationale for fighting and serving among veterans of earlier conflicts may not be a function of an apathetic view of freedom. Rather, it is more likely a byproduct of the implicit and sometimes overt social constraints placed upon earlier generations. Sentimentality and flag-waving were frowned upon within the military in decades past. “While today’s soldiers still feel awkward speaking of idealistic motivations, they may be relatively less inhibited about articulating idealist notions compared to soldiers of the past,” the SSI report concludes. “New soldiers are socialized to be comfortable talking about value-laden ideas,” according to the study. 

In other words, veterans of the war on terror—what tomorrow’s history books might call the September 11 Generation—are more willing to talk about freedom than earlier generations; and they are fully capable of explaining the sometimes-complex rationale that compels them to fight and die for something bigger than themselves. As their commander-in-chief explained, in words he borrowed from the prophet Isaiah, “Wherever you go, you carry a message of hope, a message that is ancient and ever new—‘to the captives, come out; and to those in darkness, be free.’” It may sound corny or quaint, but it isn’t patriotic propaganda to conclude that many of the men and women who are waging the war on terror have openly embraced that as their mission.  

What has triggered this change? Other changes.  

First, our culture has changed. For good or ill, today’s culture encourages people to be more open, more transparent, more emotive, more “real” (whatever that means). The stoicism of men like my grandfathers is no longer admired, let alone celebrated. Satellites and the Internet enable us not only to observe the war, but to observe the warrior, in real-time. The openness is unfiltered, the emotion unrehearsed. And SSI’s findings are a reflection of what we have seen. “Neither bloodthirsty nor triumphalist,” as military historian Victor Davis Hanson explained after the statues fell in Baghdad, “American soldiers came across on our television screens as idealists eager to liberate the unfree and return home, content that they had defeated killers and saved innocents.”  

The Iraqi people are glad they did. According to a Gallup poll, almost two-thirds of Iraqis concede that liberation from Saddam’s rule is worth the temporary privations of the US-led occupation. And more than two-thirds believe their lives will be even better five years from now.  

SSI researchers identified yet another important cultural change: Today’s troops “come from a generation that trusts the military.” In the aftermath of Vietnam, only 20 percent of Americans between 18 and 29 expressed confidence in the US military. Today, 70 percent of college students say they trust the military “either all or most of the time.” The impact that public support (or its absence) has on troops in the field cannot be overstated. As Alexis de Tocqueville observed long before America turned sour on Vietnam, “Among democratic nations, the private soldiers remain most like civilians; upon them, the habits of the nation have the firmest hold and public opinion has the most influence.” 

The military has changed as well. Unlike their fathers who fought in Vietnam, unlike their grandfathers and great-grandfathers who fought in World War II or Korea, the veterans of Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom are all volunteers. Every soldier, sailor, airman and Marine wants to serve. That makes all the difference, especially in a conflict like this—a conflict that blends all the killing and suffering of traditional warfare with all the draining tension and uncertainty of a cold war. As Fred Peck, a military writer and retired Marine, wryly observes, “In today’s [all-volunteer force]…it’s a punishment to kick people out. In the draft era it was a punishment to keep them in.”  

The all-volunteer-force (AVF) concept makes the US military more lethal, more flexible, more motivated, and more intelligent than it has ever been—and more cosmopolitan, more thoughtful, and more open to differences than most of the people it defends. As Hanson comments, “Students are more likely to be segregated by race in the lounges and cafeterias of ‘progressive’ universities than they are in the mess halls of aircraft carriers.” 

However, there are limits to what the AVF can achieve. SSI’s report warns that the AVF is not more patient than earlier fighting cohorts. In Iraq, as in postwar Japan and Germany, as in Korea and Vietnam, uncertainty is corrosive. If the mission is unclear, if the finish line keeps moving, if the sacrifice appears to achieve little, even the most motivated and professional troops will grow weary.   

Freedom and Fear

If there has been an evolution in the stated motivations of the typical American soldier and Marine, SSI found that there has also been a shift in what motivates America’s enemies. The Nazi and North Vietnamese armies, for example, were motivated by a sense of solidarity with their fellow comrades and the drive to defend their homeland. Iraqi troops, by contrast, were motivated by coercion and fear of retribution. “Even with coalition forces to their front,” SSI’s researchers concluded, “they were fearful of the dreaded Baath Party to their rear.” Yet according to the SSI study, some Iraqi POWs reported that they were willing to kill their officers in order to surrender rather than face the US juggernaut.  

In addition, SSI found that Iraqi units often fragmented along tribal or regional lines, thus drastically diminishing their combat effectiveness. 

This provides a fascinating contrast. On the one hand, we have a military that essentially refused to fight for its own homeland, let alone for the freedom of its people. On the other, we have a military that fought for the freedom of a foreign people. On the one hand, we have an authoritarian system that couldn’t hold Iraq’s relatively homogeneous army together; on the other, a military made up of Jews and Muslims and Hindus, Christians and atheists, blacks and whites, Latinos and Islanders, Asians and Arabs, rich and poor, immigrants and native-born, that is held together by little more than an idea.  

Freedom and the God-given right to be free has proven more powerful than those centrifugal forces of faith, ethnicity and race that sometimes call into question the unity of the United States—and far more powerful than the fear that created an illusion of unity inside Iraq.

In this way, the Americans who are fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan and all the other pitched battles of the global war on terror have much in common with their forebears. They are fighting for our freedom and, whether or not they admit it when interviewed, for the freedom of others.