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Why They Fight: Combat Motivation in the Iraq War

Why They Fight: Combat Motivation in the Iraq War - Cover

Authored by Dr. Leonard Wong, COL Thomas A. Kolditz, LTC Raymond A. Millen, COL Terrence M. Potter.

July 2003

38 Pages

Brief Synopsis

With the recent lightning swift combat successes of Operation IRAQI FREEDOM, there may be a tendency to view with awe the lethality of U.S. technology and training. The researchers, however, argue that the true strength of America's military might lies not in its hardware or high-tech equipment, but in its soldiers.

Dr. Leonard Wong and his colleagues traveled to Iraq to see what motivated soldiers to continue in battle, to face extreme danger, and to risk their lives in accomplishing the mission. As a means of comparison, they began by interviewing Iraqi Regular Army prisoners of war to examine their combat motivation and unit dynamics. The researchers then interviewed U.S. combat troops fresh from the fields of battle to examine their views.

What they found was that today's U.S. soldiers, much like soldiers of the past, fight for each other. Unit cohesion is alive and well in today's Army. Yet, Dr. Wong and his fellow researchers also found that soldiers cited ideological reasons such as liberation, freedom, and democracy as important factors in combat motivation. Today's soldiers trust each other, they trust their leaders, they trust the Army, and they also understand the moral dimensions of war.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the all-volunteer Army. This monograph is a celebration of the success of that radical idea and the transformation of the U.S. Army from a demoralized draft army, to a struggling all-volunteer force, to a truly professional Army.


Since World War II, studies have argued and conventional wisdom has claimed that soldiers fight for each other. Cohesion, or the bonds between soldiers, traditionally has been posited as the primary motivation for soldiers in combat. Recent studies, however, have questioned the effects of cohesion on unit performance. This monograph reviews the combat motivation literature and then analyzes findings from interviews conducted during the recent Iraq War.

By examining the perspectives of Iraqi Regular Army prisoners of war, U.S. troops, and embedded media, the monograph argues that unit cohesion is indeed a primary combat motivation. The report also notes that, contrary to previous studies of U.S. soldiers, notions of freedom, democracy, and liberty were also voiced by soldiers as key factors in combat motivation.

The monograph concludes that soldiers continue to fight for each other, but today’s soldiers are also sophisticated enough to grasp the moral concepts of war. The report suggests that this is a result of the transformation of the Army from a fledgling all-volunteer experiment to a truly professional force.

Access Full Report [PDF]: Why They Fight: Combat Motivation in the Iraq War

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