|Battle of Chippewa - H. Charles McBarron, Jr. (Source)|
Many civilians assume that soldiers fight for an ideal, a flag, their nation, their family, or any number of other concepts. While this might be why someone joins up to fight* it's not what sustains soldiers in combat.
Talk to just about any veteran and they'll tell you why they fought, it was for the guy next to them, their buddies in their unit. If they wax eloquent on God, country, motherhood, and apple pie, walk away, they're probably not a combat veteran.
Perhaps back in the mists of time things were different. Some tribal societies still practice warfare as a rite of passage, a means of proving their manhood (and in tribal societies it's all about the men), and sometimes it is in deadly earnest as one group tries to drive out another. Then it's fight or die.
As time went by, warfare went through many phases, but down at what I like to call the "grunt level," it's always about the guy next to you. From the Roman Legion down to the guys in the mountains of Afghanistan, you fight because you don't want to let your buddies down. (What keeps a person in the military falls outside the scope of this post. I'm only looking at those moments when the bullets are flying, people are dying, and Hell is coming to dinner.)
Being in combat is a pretty frightening thing, over the years lots of folks have looked at ways to keep the troops together and keep them fighting. Back in the days of the Legion fighting was shoulder to shoulder, your shield (always held on the left) protected you, and the guy to your left. If the guy to your right took off or went down and no one stepped up to take his place, the only thing protecting you then was your own sword.
In the Legions discipline and training held the men together. Of course, the penalty for desertion or cowardice in battle was pretty severe, crucifixion is a very painful way to die and was considered quite shameful. (Ordinary Roman citizens could not be crucified, join the Legions and that prohibition didn't hold.) Nevertheless, for most of Rome's history the morale of the Legions was very high and the desire of the individual soldier not to let down his fellow soldiers was a motivator.
With less motivated troops fear is a useful tool. In armies during the time of Frederick the Great, some sergeants and junior officers would march behind the advancing troops with swords drawn, the implication being, "if you advance the enemy might kill you, try to run, and we will kill you." (Which reminds me of the scene in Enemy At The Gates where poorly equipped and trained Russian troops are ordered to advance into German machine gun fire at Stalingrad. When they fall back, routed, their own side - mostly NKVD - open fire on the survivors. Advance or die!)
But driving frightened conscripts into battle is no way to win a war. A battle or two might be won, but the side with superior equipment, training, and morale will usually win out in the end.
So how do you get soldiers to stand and fight?
One way is through unit cohesion. Men who are recruited at the same time, go through training together, and are deployed together are much more likely to fight well than a unit made up of replacements. One lesson the US Army learned (or should have learned) post Vietnam was not to keep a unit in the line and refresh its ranks with replacements. The smart way to do things is to move entire units in and out of combat. It is always necessary to build depleted units back up, but doing it away from combat enhances unit cohesion. Gives the troops time to develop bonds, to build unit cohesion.
Of course, that can sometimes go too far. Witness the cockpit of the Junkers Ju-88 -
Well, that canopy is all glass and wide open. One burst from an enemy aircraft and the only guy who might survive is the ventral gunner (#7). Kind of makes you feel a bit exposed doesn't it?
An extreme example perhaps, after all, even most of the crew of a B-17 as clustered towards the nose with four gunners aft of the bomb bay: two waist gunners, ball turret (belly) gunner and the tail gunner. Those, last two were very, very lonely positions. You were very isolated from the rest of the crew.
Studies were done by S. L. A. Marshall of the U.S. Army during World War II of men in combat. He would interview men shortly after they had been in combat. His studies showed something which at first surprised me.
Most of the troops in line units (that is, non-elite) didn't even fire their weapons during combat. Especially the individual riflemen. If they did fire, it was unaimed fire, think "spray and pray." Why is that do you suppose? Take a look at the trooper in the next photo.
Now look at the next two guys. They share a hole and, more importantly, one of them has an automatic weapon. While the M279, Squad Automatic Weapon, or SAW, isn't exactly a crew served weapon, (one man can operate it very effectively) it's representative of earlier machine guns which were normally operated by a crew of at least two men.
Marshall found that during combat, the men operating crew served weapons, especially machine guns, were very good at laying fire upon the enemy. They fired effectively and throughout an engagement. Why? Well, machine guns are, for one, awesome. They are an awful lot of fun to fire and you really have a feeling of raw power when operating one. Two, well there's more than one guy. You can't really shirk your duties, the other guy will notice, and will probably let the sarge know that you were slacking off during the battle.
It's like Patton said, "An army is a team, it lives, eats, and fights as a team." Yup, individuality in combat is a bunch of nonsense. Hell, even snipers don't operate alone, you always have a sniper and a spotter.
It's all about the team.
Anyway, that's the way I understand it. The best outfits I was in during my Air Force career were teams, first, last, and always. We worked together, we partied together. The one thing I missed when I was assigned stateside was that last bit. We'd go our separate ways after work, we didn't spend much time together off duty. Maybe that's why I loved my overseas assignments.
When you're plunked down in some foreign land, you tend to stick together.
Russ knows, Shaun knows, Juvat knows, Tuna knows. If you're on a good team, you can do anything.
* Unless they were conscripted, then it's go to war or go to jail, or worse.