Why Do Soldiers Fight?

Throughout American history, soldiers have taken up arms, some to protect their country and democracy, others for different reasons. Princeton University history professor James McPherson offers thoughts on why soldiers fight. He's the author of For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought In The Civil War.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

On this Memorial Day weekend, millions of Americans will remember loved ones who served their country in the armed forces. From the ragtag farmer soldiers of the American Revolution to the highly trained and equipped troops currently deployed, men and some women have come from widely divergent backgrounds to fight for the United States. Some enlisted; others were drafted. Some were motivated by love of country; others had different reasons for serving.

Princeton University history Professor James McPherson has written about the motivations of Civil War soldiers in his most recent book, "For Cause and Comrades," and he's with us to talk about why soldiers throughout American history have taken up arms.

Welcome back to the program, Professor McPherson.

Professor JAMES McPHERSON (History Professor, Princeton University): Well, thanks for having me again.

HANSEN: Let's start with the Civil War. At the beginning, in 1861, President Lincoln declared the North was fighting to preserve the Union. The Confederate president, Jefferson Davis, said the South was fighting to establish their right to secede from the Union and govern themselves without Northern interference. Is this what the regular men in the field were fighting for?

Prof. McPHERSON: Pretty much, yes. I think so. And that was the meaning of the word `Cause' in my book "For Cause and Comrades." Northern soldiers enlisted to defend the United States from the attempt to break it up. They also rushed to enlist to defend the flag, which had been fired on by the Confederate forces at Ft. Sumter. So they were fighting for flag and country. And I think the same thing would be true of the Confederate soldiers because once the Confederacy was a going concern, the Southern soldiers who enlisted to fight in its defense were fighting for their country and for their flag, as well.

HANSEN: How do you know that?

Prof. McPHERSON: I know that from the letters of the soldiers that I read, thousands of letters from hundreds of soldiers over the entire four years of the war. And they're filled with patriotic affirmations, and in some cases highly ideological motivation, especially in the case of Northern soldiers. In the case of the Confederate soldiers, as the war went on, there was another very powerful motive added: And that was to defend their nation, their country, their state, their home and hearth from invasion by enemy troops, because most of the war was fought in the South.

HANSEN: Did motivations change after the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863?

Prof. McPHERSON: Well, they did change, although that change was coming from almost the beginning of the war. They were convinced--most Northerners were convinced that while they were fighting to defend the Union and not necessarily to abolish slavery, the initial reason for the secession of the Southern states and the creation of the Confederate States of America was to defend slavery from the anticipated threat to the survival of that institution by Lincoln's election.

HANSEN: What about other wars of the 19th and 20th century. Are there times when soldiers seem to be fighting for something other than what their leadership said they were fighting for?

Prof. McPHERSON: Well, I think that once soldiers are in the Army and are facing combat, there's another kind of motive that becomes added onto whatever ideological or patriotic motives brought them into the Army in the first place, and that is indicated by second word in the title of my book, `Comrades.' There's a kind of bonding that takes place within military units, especially that when they face a common danger, that motivates soldiers to fight so--because they don't want to let their buddies down, and they don't want to lose face in the eyes of their buddies. If they run away, if they abandon their buddies, if they prove themselves to be a coward, they will never be able to hold up their heads again. So that there's kind of a bonding and unity within the unit that is a powerful factor I think for soldiers in all wars.

HANSEN: Are historians now looking at the current conflict in Iraq and doing that same sort of study on motivation?

Prof. McPHERSON: Well, I think it's probably too soon for historians to be looking at that, but certainly the Army itself is concerned about this. Army psychologists, Army officers are intensely concerned about soldier motivation in a war like Iraq, especially since that's being fought several thousand miles away from American shores for reasons that may not be clear to many of the soldiers, so there's a real problem.

There was a problem in Vietnam. And that really caused an intense re-examination of soldier motivation. Of course, most of the men who fought in Vietnam were draftees. They didn't want to be there. They didn't understand, in many cases, why they were there. The normal term was a year, and then replacements would come in individually, and they wouldn't have this kind of bonding with the rest of the men in the unit because they didn't even know the rest of the men in the unit. And so Army officers and Army psychologists are intensely concerned about this. I think it'll take a few years' perspective for historians, who might then have access to some of the letters or e-mails. I'm not sure how you're going to study when people don't write letters so much, but make telephone calls and send e-mails.

HANSEN: James McPherson is a professor of history at Princeton University and the author of many books, including "For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War." Thanks a lot for joining us.

Prof. McPHERSON: You're welcome. Thank you.

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