What troops fight for

#1
A thoughtful and timely commentary:

In the heat of battle, troops hope to live up to those who have gone before
Matthew Bogdanos, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON POST
Wednesday, August 19, 2009

'Any man in combat who lacks comrades who will die for him, or for whom he is willing to die," William Manchester wrote of his time as a Marine in World War II, "is not a man at all. He is truly damned." A century earlier, Robert E. Lee famously remarked that it was good that war "is so terrible. We should grow too fond of it."

Neither was glorifying war — both hated its carnage. They were, rather, paying homage to the unique bonds forged in war, especially the one that enables so many to risk their lives, not only for friends but also for those they might have just met or have nothing in common with back home.

This extraordinary feature of combat is depicted in movies in bold, heroic colors, without depth or explanation. Most leaders in the military, however, spend a lifetime trying to understand its complexity. Our pursuit usually starts at Thermopylae, a mountain pass in northern Greece where, in 480 B.C., 300 Spartans faced the entire Persian army. Leonidas, the Spartan king, had a choice: retreat, and live to fight another day, or stand. When the Persian king offered, "We do not want your lives, only your arms," Leonidas answered, "Molon labe" — come and get them. They held out for seven days, fighting until their weapons broke and then, Herodotus says, "with bare hands and teeth." Their spirit lives whenever wounded soldiers ask to return to their units rather than rotate home or sentries rest their chins on the point of a bayonet to stay awake so others sleep safely.

Before going into harm's way, we reflect on this remarkable aspect of combat. Using its history as a source of pride and inspiration, we make this bond part of our ethos. We are humbled to follow, yet hopeful to live up to, those who have gone before — as at Belleau Wood in 1918. When his men were being cut to pieces by German machine guns, Marine 1st Sgt. Dan Daly, already the recipient of two Medals of Honor, charged the guns shouting, "Come on, you sons-o'-bitches! Do you want to live forever?" More than just history, this retelling to each new generation becomes a pledge: Although some will die, those who follow will keep the faith by keeping our memory — a promise of immortality that asks, instead, "Don't you want to live forever?"

Post-deployment, we are also engaged, pausing to value what has occurred, trying to reconcile the horrors of combat with the bond created during those horrors. Perhaps it is the dimly perceived recognition that together we are better than any one of us had ever been before — better maybe than we ever would be again. Or the dawning awareness that if we store up enough memories, these might someday be a source of strength, comfort or even our salvation.

Take the simple act of goodbye, of wishing comrades in arms fair winds and following seas. Those who have seen action together are not morbid about it. Just serious. It is, after all, the nature of the profession of arms that goodbyes are frequent and often final. But there is also the recognition that each of us has our own life and family to go back to in the "world." And even if we do "keep in touch," it will never be as pure as it was when I had your "six" (your six o'clock, your back) and you had mine.

We examine as well the many contradictions of life in a combat zone. Our eyesight and hearing are sharp, our other senses keen. The water always quenches our thirst. The sky is bluer than we thought possible. And we're with the best friends we'll ever have. The good gets better, but the bad gets worse. We always have some minor eye or ear infection, our feet hurt all the time, and sleep is sporadic. The heat is sweltering, the cold bone-chilling. We're constantly tense to the breaking point. And lonelier than we ever imagined.

Once you've experienced it, the memory never leaves — even after those fair winds and following seas have taken you as far as they did Sen. Mike Mansfield. After serving two years in the Marines, he spent 34 years in Congress (the longest-serving majority leader ever) and 11 years as ambassador to Japan. He died in 2001 at 98. His tombstone in Arlington National Cemetery bears seven words: "Michael Joseph Mansfield, PVT, US Marine Corps."

Because of the business we are in, expected to fight and die without complaint, we also cultivate this bond to call on when needed. At times, it means being ruthlessly hard, as at Balaclava in 1854. When the "thin red line" of the 93rd Highlanders were all that stood between the Russian onslaught and the British camp, Sir Colin Campbell commanded the regiment he loved, "There is no retreat from here, men — you must die where you stand." At times, it means having compassion, as on Tulagi Island in the South Pacific in 1942. After an all-night attack, Marine Pfc. Edward "Johnny" Ahrens lay quietly in his foxhole. He'd been shot twice in the chest, and blood welled slowly from three deep bayonet wounds. Thirteen dead Japanese soldiers lay nearby; two others were draped over his legs. Legendarily tough Lewis Walt — later assistant commandant of the Marine Corps — gently gathered the dying man in his arms. Ahrens whispered, "Captain, they tried to come over me last night, but I don't think they made it." Choking back tears, Walt replied softly: "They didn't, Johnny. They didn't."

Being effectively ruthless and genuinely caring are each manifestations of courage. The ability to effect their integration and foster the bond between leader and led can spell the difference between defeat and victory, because wars — fought with weapons — are won by people. Your sons and daughters, sisters and brothers, fathers and mothers. We are honored to lead them.

Bogdanos, a colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves who has served tours in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Horn of Africa, is an assistant district attorney for New York City and the author of 'Thieves of Baghdad.'
 

Andy_S

LE
Book Reviewer
#2
Good piece - though what was the news story? An ode to the USMC - and tremendous anecdote about Sen. Mansfield's headstone.

I would add that William Manchester's "Goodbye Darkness" is one of the finest first person accounts of men at war I have read. Gruesome, but very thoughtful, honest and chilling - his meeting with the "Whore of War" is remarkable. It is also far deeper than most of the "Bravo Two Zero"-type material that lines the shelves today.

One possible caveat to the piece:
Whether Sir Colin "loved" his men I am not so sure, though he certainly loved the regiment...so much during the Indian Mutiny that he made sure it spearheaded all assaults. I am not quite sure what the soldiers in question would make of that kind of "love."
 
#3
Andy_S said:
One possible caveat to the piece:
Whether Sir Colin "loved" his men I am not so sure, though he certainly loved the regiment...so much during the Indian Mutiny that he made sure it spearheaded all assaults. I am not quite sure what the soldiers in question would make of that kind of "love."
I understand that. I'd put my best mate in harms way if he was the best man for the job. You use your best people for a task - that way you have a better chance of success and suffer less overall as a result.

I'm sure the same often holds true further up the COC. That said, I know there are exceptions such as sending a battalion on public duties down to the South Atlantic.
 
#4
For most soldiers the desire to walk in the valley of the shadow, is not due to bloodlust or suicidal tendancy,but the desire to practice those skills he has spent years learning and refining and to test their individule mettel
 
#5
I'm not quite sure what you are asking. If you are asking what do troops fight for, then the answer will be varied.

Although the article is interesting, most soldiers in battle are not fighting for the same reasons that the politicians say we are fighting for.

They may start out wanting to fight for Queen and Country or the US of A against the 'enemy', but once the fighting actually starts they are fighting to preserve their lives, and the lives of their comrades.

The reason for being there becomes blurred and unreal. Instead of fighting for an ideal, they'll fight to gain a hill, a strategic point, for the Regiment, for each other.

A classic case of this (although there are many) is the battle of hill 235 (renamed Gloster Hill) in the Korean War.

29 Bde (inc The Gloster Regiment) of the British Army were all that stood in the way of the Chinese Army and the UN forces that were protecting Seoul, and were still trying to reform after earlier attacks by the Chinese.

In what became known as the Battle of the Imjin River, 29 Bde delayed the 63rd Chinese Army. The Gloster Regiment were defending the strategically important Hill 235, their orders: "Hold on were you are".

And they did, for 2 days one Regiment under constant attack, and cut off from their own lines defended the hill, against overwhelming odds.

29 Bde held up the Chinese advance so successfully gving the UN forces chance to reform and reorg. The 63rd Chinese Army lost an estimated 10, 000 men, and was removed from the fighting lines.

The Chinese General was reported to have said (to British prisoners of war), "If this is how you defend a hill in the middle of nowhere that means nothing to you, then I pity the Army that try's to invade England..."

Further reading: Wiki
 
#6
Andy_S said:
Good piece - though what was the news story? An ode to the USMC - and tremendous anecdote about Sen. Mansfield's headstone.

I would add that William Manchester's "Goodbye Darkness" is one of the finest first person accounts of men at war I have read. Gruesome, but very thoughtful, honest and chilling - his meeting with the "Whore of War" is remarkable. It is also far deeper than most of the "Bravo Two Zero"-type material that lines the shelves today.

One possible caveat to the piece:
Whether Sir Colin "loved" his men I am not so sure, though he certainly loved the regiment...so much during the Indian Mutiny that he made sure it spearheaded all assaults. I am not quite sure what the soldiers in question would make of that kind of "love."
Excuse the mis-post if this belongs elsewhere. I also did not consciously post this as a paean to my Corps to the exclusion of other warriors. Given the current optempo and casualty rate I thought it timely in the sense of a reminder about the essence of being a warrior as we otherwise wax eloquent or otherwise on everything else. I also agree with your caveat, having served on occasion with other "leaders" of the same ilk.
 
#7
leprecon said:
I'm not quite sure what you are asking. If you are asking what do troops fight for, then the answer will be varied.

Although the article is interesting, most soldiers in battle are not fighting for the same reasons that the politicians say we are fighting for.
I was not asking about it but merely posting it for thought and comment for the very reason you cite--the disconnect between those who have and haven't experienced it as to what motivates people to do the sort of things our fine troops do every day.
 
#8
Soldiers fight because they are told to, but once in combat they fight for themselves and their comrades. Queen, country, politics and even family come a long way after.
 
#9
Balleh said:
Soldiers fight because they are told to, but once in combat they fight for themselves and their comrades. Queen, country, politics and even family come a long way after.
Spot on.
 
#10
jumpinjarhead said:
leprecon said:
I'm not quite sure what you are asking. If you are asking what do troops fight for, then the answer will be varied.

Although the article is interesting, most soldiers in battle are not fighting for the same reasons that the politicians say we are fighting for.
I was not asking about it but merely posting it for thought and comment for the very reason you cite--the disconnect between those who have and haven't experienced it as to what motivates people to do the sort of things our fine troops do every day.
But asking what troops fight for is an interesting question to compare to why they joined up in the first place.

As we all know young men and women will join the Armed Forces for a myriad of reasons.

Asking a recruit straight out of Basic training 'what are you fighting for?', will probably get you the standard Chain of Command, Political response.

However, once they're actually in the fight, their reasons for fighting will become less idealogical and more practical.

Your thoughts?
 
#11
leprecon said:
jumpinjarhead said:
leprecon said:
I'm not quite sure what you are asking. If you are asking what do troops fight for, then the answer will be varied.

Although the article is interesting, most soldiers in battle are not fighting for the same reasons that the politicians say we are fighting for.
I was not asking about it but merely posting it for thought and comment for the very reason you cite--the disconnect between those who have and haven't experienced it as to what motivates people to do the sort of things our fine troops do every day.
But asking what troops fight for is an interesting question to compare to why they joined up in the first place.

As we all know young men and women will join the Armed Forces for a myriad of reasons.

Asking a recruit straight out of Basic training 'what are you fighting for?', will probably get you the standard Chain of Command, Political response.

However, once they're actually in the fight, their reasons for fighting will become less idealogical and more practical.

Your thoughts?
That has been my experience. As the article suggests and as numerous authors and behavioral scientists have shown, the very personal motivations for a warrior are quite different from those that prompt someone to join a military force or even volunteer for combat. The same is also true for the perceptions of politicians and the public as to this motivation.

In recent years, I believe the services have tried to close this gap of understanding a bit in their recruiting and PR efforts by focusing on the incredible bond that develops between warriors. I believe, however, there is a limit to how well this can be done since it is such a profound and primal phenomenon that people cannot fully appreciate its occurrence, much less its power, without either intimate knowledge of those who have experienced it or through personal experience themselves.

For example, I can tell of my experience watching a 19 year old Marine decide (I could literally see this decision process occur on his face) in a split second to shout a warning to his mates while leaping onto an enemy grenade that then took his life. I can describe the event (it never dims in my memory) but it is extremely difficult for those who have not been in similar life or death situations to really understand the selfless and incredibly strong bond that is created among men in combat.

As a combat leader, I of course relied on other dynamics and factors to get intelligent human beings to leave places of relative safety and expose themselves to what at the time appeared to be imminent and near-certain violent death. Such things as youth (naivete' and a feeling or immortality), rigorous training, enforcement of discipline and pride of unit all contribute to this ethos, but at bottom I believe the catalyst that activates these lesser components that in turn prompt men to do the hard work of warriors is the unbelievably close and powerful bond of each for the other and the abhorrence of even the thought of letting the other down in the hard times.
 

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