Why Do We Fight? A Personal Academic Essay
A brief exploration of historic, social, cultural religious, and genetic influences that lead men and women into a life of combat
Essay 2016 9 Pages
Table of Contents
Part I - Society
Part II - Culture
Part III - Religion
Part IV - Family
“War grows out of ordinary human nature.” Bertrand Russell, Why Men Fight
It is well known that all great empires were built on the backs of men and women who were willing to fight and die for someone else. The Romans, the Mongolians, even the United States of America all rose to power because they had large armies full of strong warriors. What is it that makes these people warriors? What can lead someone to cast aside safety and security, leave their friends and family behind, and lead a life that will almost certainly end violently?
As a United States Army Veteran of both the Afghan and Iraqi wars, this is a subject that has always intrigued me. When you are thousands of miles from home fighting an enemy you know very little about you begin to wonder, “How did I get here?”. Imagine if you will that instead of heading off to college or starting an entry level job the first time you left home you flew to a military base, had a rifle put in your hands, and had extremely dangerous people teach you how to kill with it. Instead of studying for exams you study combat manuals, instead of going on spring break you go to a war zone. What the hell would make someone do such a thing?
If you ask soldiers why they serve you will get the occasional “I needed money for school” or “There are no jobs in the civilian world”. What you’ll hear most often is that they felt compelled to serve, they heard a calling and answered and there’s the occasional overused response, “I was born to do this.”
In this paper, we will explore the social, cultural, religious and even genetic influences that drive the warrior culture and mindset. By blending historical examples, research papers, and my own personal experience I hope to shed some light on the question “Why do we fight?”
Part I - Society
“Success in war and preservation of a country's social framework as a purpose at least equal in importance to welfare of individuals.” Simon Kuznets
Stories, movies, music, advertisements and the list goes on. We’re constantly receiving input that influences our decisions. It’s no secret that the media loves to glorify war. Movies like “Fury”, “300”, “Saving Private Ryan” and many others depict war and soldiers in a manner that elicit a wide range of emotions, the most prevalent is respect. Respect for the men and women fighting. I remember the day I decided I would join the Army; it was right after watching the popular film about the conflict in Mogadishu titled “Black Hawk Down”. The influence of such stories is not limited to our current, media driven, lives. Beowulf is widely regarded as one of the oldest living Old English stories. It tells the story of a man that travels across Europe fighting foreign enemies and monsters to become one of the first heroes in recorded history. (Lawrence)
Does the glorification of war in our media lead people to combat occupations? Is this by design or coincidence? It’s possible that the media does this on purpose to entice people into serving. Careers in the military, law enforcement, fire, and emergency medical response are a necessity in any society but are very intimidating. Perhaps war is glorified in story, song, and film so people will be more inclined to serve and fight for their country.
Another thought is that these stories aren’t meant to entice but to prepare. The great Prussian philosopher of war, Carl von Clausewitz, once said “War is the realm of physical exertion and suffering. These will destroy us unless we can make ourselves indifferent to them, and for this birth or training must provide us with a certain strength of body and soul”. Maybe the onslaught of war-stories is to mentally prepare young, impressionable, men and women for the horrors of combat since it seems to be inevitable. (Henriksen)
Part II - Culture
“Virtually every society that survived did so by socializing its sons to be disposable. Disposable in war; disposable in work. We need warriors and volunteer firefighters, so we label these men heroes.” Warren Farrell 
Many cultures have developed over time were entirely centered around war. Cultures like the ancient Greek Spartans, The Japanese Samurai, Medieval Knights all the way up to our current military culture became immensely influential through the study and use of violence. Many even hold high political positions.
Leon Gautier once said that the Knights of medieval Europe “Too often loved fighting for its own sake, and not for the cause which they had espoused.” These men had been raised to fight since they were boys and knew of nothing else. They became so engulfed in their culture that they no longer cared about the reasons behind a war. They simply loved to fight. I have certainly seen this affinity for conflict in many men and women I served with. (Bliese)
Another large cultural influence is the use of holidays to celebrate wars and soldiers. Nearly every country in the world has, at least, a handful of holidays celebrating great victories and the soldiers that achieve such victories. In the United States holidays like Independence Day and Victory Day celebrate large victories over the nation’s enemies. Others such as Memorial Day, Veteran’s Day, and Armed Forces day celebrate the warriors that achieve such victories. I wonder if these holidays are yet another attempt to encourage people into service or if they were created through genuine admiration. Perhaps these holidays were born of guilt. The guilt of sending so many young, brave, warriors to fight for those that are too afraid.
In any case, I believe it is clear that our culture, along with many others throughout history, were developed around the ability to fight and win wars. We praise this ability so much that we may not even notice it. If you really stop to think about it; aren’t all the stories from our childhood, the history lessons we received in school, and the movies we grew up with all centered on war?
Part III - Religion
“Lebanon was at one time known as a nation that rose above sectarian hatred; Beirut was known as the Paris of the Middle East. All of that was blown apart by senseless religious wars, financed and exploited in part by those who sought power and wealth.” Roger Ebert
There have been countless holy wars throughout the years but the first that comes to mind is The Crusades. The Crusades were called by Pope Urban II in the town of Clermont in Central France. The Pope said, “Whoever for devotion alone, but not to gain honor or money, goes to Jerusalem to liberate the Church of God can substitute this journey for all penance.” The European Christians had been fighting the Muslims in the Iberian Peninsula as well as Sicily for decades and the highest Christian authority had just offered them absolution for all of their sins in exchange for their willingness to fight and die in the name of their God. The Crusades were clearly an attempt to extend the reach of the catholic church and capture new lands but by labeling it as “the will of God” no one questioned the church’s true motives. (Phillips)
The Crusades are only one example of many that show how wars can be started under the veil of a deity’s will. While we may not be quick to admit it, the current conflict in the middle east is yet another holy war. While we may brand it as “The Global War on Terror” it is really the global war against religious extremists. If you really look at it objectively it’s just Muslims killing Christians because Christians kill Muslims. It’s hard to point to one single cause for the current conflict in the Middle East but it certainly got a lot worse once the extremist powers that be convinced their people that it was a jihad (holy war).
I remember hearing stories from the older soldiers in my unit about fighting in Iraq during the initial invasion in March of 2003. In 2003 they were fighting Saddam Hussein and his regime. Most of Saddam’s Army through down their arms and surrendered almost immediately after the invasion. They were not willing to fight for a dictator that they did not love. Most of these men would later begin fighting back against the US after joining religious extremist groups. The men my comrades and I fought in Iraq and Afghanistan did not fight for their government, they didn’t fight for king and country. The Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters truly believed that to fight and kill the infidels (non-believers) was holy and justified. It was this belief that made them so dangerous. They fought ferociously and without any fear because of the strong belief that what they were doing was righteous and they would be guaranteed eternal life through acts of violence… Sounds an awful lot like what Pope Urban II promised during The Crusades.
While religion may not be the primary cause of every war it is certainly present in all of them. I’m not religious myself but most of the people I served with were. There’s an old saying I learned in the Army that goes “There are no atheists in foxholes.” Religion seems to embolden as well as comfort men and women in combat. The thought of a higher power watching over you can be a very welcome thought when you’re scared out of your mind. To quote a popular bible verse, Samuel 22:2-4, "The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer; My God, my rock, in whom I take refuge; My shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold and my refuge; My savior, Thou dost save me from violence. I call upon the Lord, who is worthy to be praised; And I am saved from my enemies." Words any soldier would find appealing.