The recent controversy over Confederate Civil War memorials in the United States has led to a great deal of heated discussion on social media and elsewhere. Inevitably, such discussions eventually turn to the war’s causes. This is natural. The American Civil War remains even now after a century and a half of human “progress” in the technology of weaponry, the bloodiest war ever fought in the western hemisphere. People want to come to grips with the causes of such horror, and the appeal to the human psyche of a simple, single, black-and-white cause is undeniable. One of the common themes found in these discussions is that slavery in the South, was not a major cause of the war, but that the South entered the war to assert the rights of the sovereign states which make up our union, and that northern politicians only made the war about slavery to incite northerners to fight who weren’t willing to contest the issue of states’ rights. Whether or not that’s true, one of the assertions that always seems to come up is that most of the soldiers in the Confederate Armies were not slave holders, and therefore the reason the South entered the war was not to defend slavery. On that point – being a veteran, and having been associated with the US military for my entire life – I take exception.
I would contend that most soldiers in most wars since the dawn of time were largely unconcerned with the geopolitical issues which led to the war they were fighting. Ask anyone who has been in combat, and most of them will tell you that the reason they fought was simple survival. A fair proportion of them will also answer that they were fighting for the survival of their immediate comrades in arms, or for the success of their unit’s assigned mission on any given day. Very few soldiers in the heat of combat are even thinking about the larger issues over which the war is being fought. Few of them even know the overall strategic situation in the theater of war in which they find themselves. It must also be said, that occasionally one can find a soldier who fights for the pure exhilaration of combat, and the perceived glory of victory. And yes. Now and again, one can find a soldier who is fighting for “the cause.”
“All of that may very well be true in the heat of combat, but what about the soldiers’ motivations for going to war in the first place?” you might ask. I would have to answer that all depends on the war and on the individual soldier. Relatively few of the American soldiers in the Viet Nam war went there out of devotion to the liberation of the South Vietnamese people from communist oppression – the ostensible reason America joined that fight. Certainly, though, most of the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese soldiers were there fighting to free their homeland from what they viewed as western imperialism. Of course, about a quarter of the Americans who fought in Viet Nam were, in fact, draftees who had been forced to go there by their government. Many of the “volunteers” were like me (although I never did get sent to Viet Nam) who joined another branch of the service (the Air Force in my case) in order to avoid being drafted into the Army and sent to Viet Nam as infantry soldiers. I must also, in all honesty, say that avoiding the draft was only one of my personal motivations – the other being that it provided a living at a time when I was unemployed and eminently unemployable during my profilgate youth.
But there are, I must admit, such things as so-called “just” wars. World War II, and yes, the American Civil War stand out as such cases in which a greater proportion of soldiers joined up in order to support what they considered a “noble cause.” I must admit that the defense of states’ rights was indeed one such popular cause in the South during the American Civil War, as was the abolition of slavery in the North. But I would contend that even in that case, most of those in the Confederate Armies who were motivated by the cause of defending states’ rights were also slave holding landowners in the officer corps. We must also not forget that in both the American Civil War, and in World War II, all combatant nations implemented conscription. So, far from being drawn to support the cause, the draftees were in the war simply because they were forced to be. Ironically, the same can be said of many of the crewmen aboard British Royal Navy, and merchant vessels involved in the African slave trade, having been forced into service by the infamous press gangs. Of course, many of the child soldiers in the German Army during the closing months of World War II had been pressed into service in much the same way. Conversely, many of the ISIS soldiers are true zealots willing to sacrifice their lives for what they see as a moral cause – world domination by Islam, while others have been pressed into service by threats to their families and homes.
In summary, the motivations for soldiers to go to combat are as varied as the individual soldiers, and the wars they fight. But I would have to say the vast majority of soldiers in most of our wars wouldn’t be there if they had a choice. It is the gray-bearded old men who send the young ones off to fight for causes of which most of them have very little awareness at all. That has been true since the dawn of what we are pleased to call civilization. That is perhaps the most ironic aspect of the character of war – the people who fight the wars are often totally ignorant of the issues that caused the war in the first place.