The will to fight

The US prides itself on having the greatest warriors backed by the mightiest assembly of military power in history. So why do they keep losing the endless wars they have been involved in since WWII?

Scott Atran, emeritus director of research at the French National Centre for Scientific Research puts it down to misunderstanding the will to fight by its opponents.

The US has been at war for an estimated 225 years of the 243 years since 1776. From WWII they won the war in the Pacific; played a big role in Europe although arguably the Russians did most to win that one; were fought to a draw in Korea; lost in Vietnam; and, have been humiliated in Iraq and Afghanistan.

They did win in Grenada although their propaganda in that skirmish inflated a small group of Cuban engineers working on an airport into a fearsomely massive army.

In the meantime they have spent trillions of dollars which might have been better spent on their crumbling society and infrastructure while dragging in willing deputy sheriffs such as Australia.

Scott Atran argues in Science (3 September 2021) that: “As the Taliban rapidly crushed US-backed Afghan forces, many politicians, pundits, and military leaders expressed surprise at having overestimated an ally’s will to fight and underestimated the enemy’s.”

He was not surprised because he had been part of a large research team which produced the report The devoted actor’s will to fight and the spiritual dimension of human conflict (Nature Human Behaviour 4 September 2017).

 Atran points out that, in 2014, President Obama recognised that “predicting the will to fight…is an imponderable” after the Islamic State (ISIS) routed US-backed Iraqi troops. But the lesson has obviously not yet been learnt.

“That (Obama) attitude reflects political and military leaders’ continual discounting of research, supported and known by many of those leaders, on the importance of sacred values and spiritual strength to the will to fight. It may remain ‘imponderable’—and attendant security challenges seemingly intractable— so long as it continues to be viewed through a narrow lens of instrumental, utilitarian rationality,” he says.

Atran and fellow researchers have recognised a category of ‘Devoted Actors’ who can sustain conflicts due to religious or secular ‘sacred values’. Basically fighters willing to sacrifice themselves for their cause can often triumph over state forces with greater firepower and manpower dependent on pay and punishment.

He cites a joint project to understand preparedness to sacrifice in conflict involving Artis International, the University of Oxford’s Changing Character of War Centre, and Universidad de Educación a Distancia and Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona.

It’s been supported by the US National Science Foundation and the US Department of Defense’s Minerva Initiative and found that “willingness to fight and die among frontline combatants in Iraq from 2015 to 2016 was greatest for those who fought for sacred values and who perceived ‘spiritual strength’ (ruhi bi ghiyrat) as more important than material strength (manpower, firepower).

“From 2017 to 2018, young Sunni Arab men in Iraq’s Mosul region who professed belief in core ISIS values of strict Sharia and a Sunni Arab homeland expressed greater willingness to fight and die than did supporters of a democratic or unified Iraq.”

Worse, even if American fighters believe their own schtick about their superiority, they can’t just transfer and embed it in other forces and cultures. Indeed, it’s probable that their sense of superiority (and in many cases appalling racism and cultural ignorance) make situations worse.

In Vietnam, for instance, US forces reference to Vietnamese as ‘gooks’ endeared them to neither their allies nor enemies.

“By failing to recognize limits on the ability to impose on other cultures values that have taken many years to attain gradually in its own culture, the United States and its partners will continue the unsound habit of approaching problems by building up the wrong kinds of allies and armies—weakly modelled in America’s image but devoid of the spirit that can only arise from one’s own values and cultures,” Atran says in possibly the best brief explanation of the Iraqi, Afghan and Vietnamese failures.

The wonders of modern technology allowed the 2017 researchers to use both direct investigations with front line soldiers and online studies to gauge combatants’ willingness to fight and die. It’s the sacred and the spiritual rather than any cost-benefit analysis which inspires them – not some cost benefit analysis. From that the researchers formulated the ‘the devoted actor’ thesis where a fusion of sacred values and identity fusion within a group enables people to make costly sacrifices.

They also identified three crucial factors: identification with and commitment to non-negotiable sacred values and the tribal groups that live by them; readiness to sacrifice the interests of their families for those values; and the way that the consequent enhancement of fighting spirit can more than compensate for any limitations to relative material strength.

In contrast in Vietnam towards the end, for instance, many US troops were more concerned with getting home, the next R&R and the odd toke far from any enemy contact than winning the war.

Nick Jans, who served with the author in Vietnam and has written and researched extensively on military leadership (his book Leadership Secrets of the Australian Army summarises his findings), also cites another problem – the old adage that generals tend to prepare for yesterday’s war.

“In the case of Afghanistan, they were preparing for the warfare of the middle of last century, in which manoeuvre, firepower and air superiority were dominant factors in operational success”, he says.  Now these ‘conventional’ campaigns showed that “the associated tactics are of little actual effect against an enemy that is powered by spirit and belief in a cause.”

Jans’ suggests using firepower and air superiority may also have more benefit for public sentiment at home than effect on the supposed enemy as epitomised by his reminder of images of a smartly dressed pilot emerging from a plane that has just landed on an aircraft carrier to announce ‘Mission accomplished’.

John Spitzer drew the Atran research to the author’s attention.