What motivates soldiers to fight, asks Jon Elster – PRIO Blogs


Many commentators have claimed that Russian military leaders must have underestimated the resilience and fighting morale of the Ukrainians.

That’s probably correct, but would it even have been possible for Russian commanders to make a more accurate estimate? There is reason to doubt that they could have done it. The only way to gauge an enemy’s willingness to fight is to actually engage in combat.

Photo: Latvian Army / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

From the time of Aristotle to the present day, many people wonder what motivates soldiers to fight. There are four main answers:

  • fear to be punished by their superiors if they disobey orders;
  • shame to let down their fellow soldiers;
  • anger directed at an aggressor; and
  • enthusiasm for a cause that drives them to risk their lives.

Since neither anger nor enthusiasm will normally be summoned in combat on the aggressor’s side, those who wage defensive warfare will often have higher combat morale.

Subjective combat morale can be decisive when one side has greater objective strength, but loses nonetheless. In Mosul in June 2014, 1,500 IS troops defeated government forces that outnumbered them almost 15 times. Government forces collapsed. Other examples include the defeat of the Italian army by the Greeks in World War II and the defeat of the Taliban by Afghan government forces in August 2021.

How to measure combat morale?

As US Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War, Robert McNamara wanted to quantify the relative strength of the two sides, but wondered, “How do you measure morale? “.[1] David Halberstam wrote that “McNamara’s statistical calculations were useless, as they did not take into account the fact that although the ratio was 10:1 in favor of the South Vietnamese army, it made no sense because the one was ready to fight, while the 10 were unwilling.”[2] We do not know if the greater willingness of North Vietnamese soldiers to fight was due to brutal coercion (fear) or nationalism (enthusiasm).

In the 1670s, Louis XIV underestimated the combat morale of the countries he attacked. He assumed the Dutch would capitulate to his demands rather than open their dykes, but he was wrong.[3]

During the American Revolutionary War, King George III wrote that the English army would make life so difficult for Americans that they would have to surrender, but he was wrong.[4] In Vietnam, 200 years later, the Americans did not learn the lesson of this previous war and repeated the error of the English.

English generals in America and American generals in Vietnam shared the same problem: could they rely on the battle morale of local forces who had declared themselves loyalists?

In the 1770s, the English generals were well aware of the problem and decided to better understand the situation by means of a questionnaire and an “experiment”, by which they placed “loyalists” in a combat situation to see if they are fighting. The questionnaire proved to be unreliable and the experiment failed.[5] In Vietnam, it became clear that each time the United States increased its troops, the South Vietnamese reduced their troops by a corresponding amount, so their combined combat strength remained the same.

During the American Revolutionary War, enthusiasm was crucial to boosting morale in battle. The first skirmishes of 1775, during which the American militiamen beat professional English soldiers, aroused in the American colonies an enthusiasm which facilitated the recruitment of soldiers and the provisioning.[6] The enthusiasm was short-lived, but lasted long enough to secure a victory for the Americans in 1777. This victory was in turn decisive for the French decision to support the Americans (a decision aided by the fact that the Americans were fighting the sworn enemy of France, which had humiliated France during the Seven Years’ War).


Currently, research is being done on how combat morale could be predicted. In my opinion, it is doubtful that one can simulate intense and chaotic combat situations by watching if the soldiers are ready to “virtually throw themselves on a hand grenade to save their comrades“.

Combat morale is lowered when people have a bad year (uår), as shown in the Old Norse text Konungs skuggsjá (The mirror of the king). If the population from which the soldiers are recruited is weakened in “morals or intellect”, at best the soldiers can only be compelled to fight by draconian sanctions and Kadaverdiziplin (the discipline of a corpse). This may be the case in Russia today.

The author

Jon Elster is a professor of political science at Columbia University. From 2002 to 2012, he was a working group leader at PRIO’s Center for Civil War Studies.

The references

  1. Lloyd C. Gardner, Pay Any Price: Lyndon Johnson and the Vietnam Wars, Chicago: Elephant Paperbacks 1997, p. 281.
  2. David Halberstam, The best and the brightest, New York: Ballantine Books 1992, p. 464.
  3. Jon Elster, France before 1789, Princeton University Press 2020, p. 117.
  4. Jon Elster, American before 1787, forthcoming from Princeton University Press, Ch. 3.
  5. Same.
  6. Same., ch. 2.

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