Motivations: Soldiers & Religious Laymen

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.


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

8 responses to “Motivations: Soldiers & Religious Laymen

  1. Earnest

    It is possible that only the very well-read and self aware would endorse “the pressures of tribalism” as a reason, but that is certainly mine regarding Catholicism.

  2. Earnest:
    Even more motivating than peer pressure is spousal pressure! 😉

  3. Yes. For decades I put my noble “spin” on why I was an ordained monk for 14 years. Looking back I see that I really wanted to escape from a dysfunctional home environment.

    The church and ashram gladly took me in for “training”. Where else would I have turned? What would have happened if I didn’t become a soldier for god or guru? I don’t know.

    My dad, on his deathbed, told me he joined the Army in his early twenties mostly because he had nowhere else to go, he had been drinking too much making a mess of his life, and needed a direction in his life. He met my mom while he was stationed overseas and a few years later I was born.

  4. @ Skeptic Med,
    Thank you so much for your honest story. It is so hard for us to admit such things, but it can be so freeing.

  5. rautakyy

    I think you are right. However, as a side note, I would want to point out, that for the individual soldier joining the fight for the reasons of protecting their land are more likely seen as true, if their land is actually being invaded by foreign military, than if their country is the invader of someone elses land.

  6. @ rautakyy,
    I totally agree.

  7. This was great. Do you see any relation with this topic and the research done in the Stanely Milgram social experiments? I suppose following the mob or the obedience issue. (I just watched ‘experimenter’ on Netflix, so the topic is on my mind) Good movie, I thought.

  8. @ called2?
    But no, I don’t see them connected. But I know what you are speaking of. But then, maybe I am missing something.

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