Why do common soldiers fight in wars? Do they fight for all the lofty ideals their governments broadcast?
For a couple of years I had a part-time weekend job of interviewing American soldiers who returned from battles in Afghanistan and Iraq. My mission: to diagnose any lasting medical issues of the soldiers and get them to the appropriate specialist for further management. But the main focus of my job was to screen for traumatic brain injuries, PTSD and suicidal or homicidal ideation.
So, as you can imagine, my interviews (lasting between 10 minutes to an hour for each soldier, depending on their issues) could be very personal. And besides hearing horrible stories of the psychological impact of war, I would also hear stories of why the soldiers joined the American volunteer armed services, why they stayed and accepted return deployment or why they left.
Patriotism, freedom, democracy and national security were almost never a reason. Instead, needing a job, needing money for education, escaping their town and seeking adventure were far more common. I don’t have statistics to back me, but that was my impression.
Well, apparently the reasons of soldiers for enlisting and remaining in the armed services has been studied by many people. I am listening to a course on “The American Civil War” which reminded me of this issue. As you can imagine, reasons for going to war vary widely — there is no one reason, but from the Civil War to World Wars I and II, soldiers’ reasons for joining are often not the same ones that the government tries to inculcate.
Thinking about this issue today, I was reminded about writing I’ve done about the reasons the average lay religious believers belong to their mosques, temples, churches, synagogues and such? Is it because they believe the dogmas and rhetoric of their religious professionals? No, far less than we’d imagine. I wrote an article here addressing that issue for Christians: “Most Christians Don’t Believe“.
All of this is complicated — our minds aren’t homogenous — we hold multiple contrary beliefs and motivations simultaneously and are usually unaware of our own motivations. Instead, our minds make up reasons for us AFTER we make a move. Reasons to protect us from ourselves and make us acceptable. Soldiers and Lay Believers alike may echo the reasons that others like to hear for why they joined, but with very little effort and exploration, the inconsistency of their stories and the other more simple, earthy, practical reasons become clear. We often present ourselves as noble. We make ourselves the heroes of our stories.