Twentieth Century Theories on Combat Motivation and Breakdown

Citation:

Wessley, Simon. 2006. “Twentieth Century Theories on Combat Motivation and Breakdown.” Journal of Contemporary History 41 (2): 269-286. 

Author: Simon Wessley

Abstract:

All the combatant nations of the first world war struggled to deal with the problem of large-scale casualties that could not be ascribed to simple physical injury. After a brief flirtation with medical explanations (‘shell-shock’) these were soon realized to be psychological in nature, but not until the end of the war was there much consensus on whether these represented a psychological response to the stressors of industrial warfare, or alternatively a failure of motivation or even masculinity. Simultaneously combat motivation was seen within a moral framework that emphasized duty, patriotism, leadership and character. It was these latter virtues, or lack of them, that gradually came to explain combat breakdown, and not the psychological theories, even if modern narratives tend to overlook this. If a person had sufficient character, leadership and training, breakdown was unlikely even under the harshest conditions. By the end of the second world war, new thinking and research, mainly from the American forces, now downplayed the importance of ideological and personal factors, and instead concluded that the most powerful motivation for combat (as opposed to enlistment) came from the role of the small group — ‘men fight for their buddies’. Breakdown was still seen as the reserve side of combat motivation, most likely when the small group disintegrated, although ultimately even the most robust could succumb after prolonged combat exposure. However, provided that the individual was previously of normal personality, this would be short lived. Long-term illness was still almost entirely attributed to vulnerabilities acquired by inheritance or during childhood. Combat breakdown could also be made chronic by the influence of secondary gain, and so medical labels for combat breakdown were avoided, treatment was by reassurance and return to duty, and compensation was discouraged where possible. It was not until the aftermath of the Vietnam war that views on combat motivation and breakdown began to diverge. As a result of the efforts of American psychiatrists opposed to the Vietnam war a new medical label, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), was introduced in 1980. It was now believed that not just transient, but also chronic, mental disorders could be caused by combat, even in those previously of robust disposition, and that the necessity for a diagnosis and compensation overcame concerns about illness reinforcement and secondary gain. Social explanations for breakdown based on group psychology largely disappeared, to be replaced by a framework based almost entirely on individual responses to trauma, although the role of predisposition quickly needed to be rediscovered. In contrast, the military continue to insist on the importance of small group psychology in explaining motivation to fight, and are distrustful of either ideological or individual explanatory models.

Topics: Armed Conflict, Combatants, Male Combatants, Gender, Men, Masculinity/ies, Gendered Power Relations, Masculinism, Health, Mental Health, PTSD, Trauma, Military Forces & Armed Groups, Militaries, Post-Conflict

Year: 2006

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