Enduring Battle: American Soldiers in Three Wars, 1776-1945


Throughout history, battlefields have placed a soldier's instinct for self-preservation in direct opposition to the army's insistence that he do his duty and put himself in harm's way. Enduring Battle looks beyond advances in weaponry to examine changes in warfare at the very personal level. Drawing on the combat experiences of American soldiers in three widely separated wars—the Revolution, the Civil War, and World War II—Christopher Hamner explores why soldiers fight in the face of terrifying lethal threats and...

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Throughout history, battlefields have placed a soldier's instinct for self-preservation in direct opposition to the army's insistence that he do his duty and put himself in harm's way. Enduring Battle looks beyond advances in weaponry to examine changes in warfare at the very personal level. Drawing on the combat experiences of American soldiers in three widely separated wars—the Revolution, the Civil War, and World War II—Christopher Hamner explores why soldiers fight in the face of terrifying lethal threats and how they manage to suppress their fears, stifle their instincts, and marshal the will to kill other humans.

Hamner contrasts the experience of infantry combat on the ground in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when soldiers marched shoulder-to-shoulder in linear formations, with the experiences of dispersed infantrymen of the mid-twentieth century. Earlier battlefields prized soldiers who could behave as stoic automatons; the modern dispersed battlefield required soldiers who could act autonomously. As the range and power of weapons removed enemies from view, combat became increasingly depersonalized, and soldiers became more isolated from their comrades and even imagined that the enemy was targeting them personally. What's more, battles lengthened so that exchanges of fire that lasted an hour during the Revolutionary War became round-the-clock by World War II.

The book's coverage of training and leadership explores the ways in which military systems have attempted to deal with the problem of soldiers' fear in battle and contrasts leadership in the linear and dispersed tactical systems. Chapters on weapons and comradeship then discuss soldiers' experiences in battle and the relationships that informed and shaped those experiences.

Hamner highlights the ways in which the "band of brothers" phenomenon functioned differently in the three wars and shows that training, conditioning, leadership, and other factors affect behavior much more than political ideology. He also shows how techniques to motivate soldiers evolved, from the linear system's penalties for not fighting to modern efforts to convince soldiers that participation in combat would actually maximize their own chances for survival.

Examining why soldiers continue to fight when their strong instinct is to flee, Enduring Battle challenges long-standing notions that high ideals and small unit bonds provide sufficient explanation for their behavior. Offering an innovative way to analyze the factors that enable soldiers to face the prospect of death or debilitating wounds, it expands our understanding of the evolving nature of warfare and its warriors.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Hammer, assistant professor of history at George Mason University, addresses changes and continuities in how American infantrymen have been motivated to face battle in the Revolution, the Civil War, and WWII, as technology changed the nature of combat. His major contributions are a discounting of ideology as a motivator, and a significant modification of the group cohesion, or "band of brothers" thesis. Hammer makes a convincing case that across two centuries, while group cohesion, coercion, and the example of a group leader may have induced men into battle, modern technological warfare, with its dispersion of soldiers, required that the irrational abandonment of the instinct of self-preservation be turned into a rational act. Soldiers were taught that despite the chaos and randomness of battle, there was "a series of rational choices that could be mastered to some degree," and those choices could save their lives. In a series of provocative, illuminating chapters, Hammer demonstrates how training, leadership, weaponry, and comradeship each contribute to that sense of agency, which in turn contributes to combat effectiveness. (Apr.)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780700617753
  • Publisher: University Press of Kansas
  • Publication date: 3/9/2011
  • Series: Modern War Studies Series
  • Pages: 294
  • Sales rank: 1,149,422
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Christopher H. Hamner is assistant professor of history at George Mason University.

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Read an Excerpt


American Soldiers in Three Wars, 1776–1945
By Christopher H. Hamner


Copyright © 2011 University Press of Kansas
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-7006-1775-3


Writing about his experiences in combat, Civil War veteran David Thompson gave a graphic description of the soldier's essential dilemma under fire. "The truth is," he wrote, "when bullets are whacking against tree trunks and solid shot are cracking skulls like egg shells, the consuming passion in the heart of the average man is to get out of the way." The gruesome violence of the battlefield placed the soldier's natural instincts for self-preservation in direct opposition to the army's equally real insistence that he do his duty. "Between the physical fear of going forward and the moral fear of turning back," Thompson concluded, "there is a predicament of exceptional awkwardness, from which a hidden hole in the ground would be a wonderfully welcome outlet."

That hidden hole, the magical exit from combat, never materialized for most soldiers. Yet despite powerful and often overwhelming reservations, they went forward into the maelstrom of battle. This book is about David Thompson and countless soldiers like him: American infantrymen who fought in the War of Independence, the Civil War, and the Second World War, exposing themselves to enemy fire and performing perilous and sometimes deadly duties amid the terror and trauma of the battlefield. The willingness to face the dangers of battle constitutes one of the most enduring puzzles of human behavior, in part because participation in combat demands behavior that violates so many powerful natural instincts for self-preservation. Army Air Forces psychiatrists Roy Grinker and John Spiegel summarized the problem aptly more than half a century ago in their work on World War II aircrews, Men under Stress: "What," they asked, "can possess a rational man to make him act so irrationally?"

Enduring Battle takes this mystery as a starting point. The following chapters search for changes and continuities in the way that soldiers were motivated to face battle from within and without by comparing the experiences of ground soldiers in three different wars. The first chapter explores some of the ways that technology reshaped the experience of infantry combat, beginning with the War of Independence and extending to the Civil War and Second World War, as warfare became progressively more industrialized and technically sophisticated. Subsequent chapters connect those changes to specific ways that soldiers' perceptions of battle and their reactions to it evolved over time.

The focus in this work is mainly on the individual soldier's experience of combat. This approach is something of a departure: to date, the bulk of the discourse on combat motivation has focused on battle primarily as a group phenomenon. The following pages return to a few central questions again and again: What makes soldiers fight? How do they manage to suppress their fears, stifle their instincts for self-preservation, and marshal the will to kill enemy soldiers amid the terror and confusion of the battlefield?

Such questions have bedeviled armies for centuries. Over time, a number of hypotheses have emerged to explain them. Most brutally straightforward is the contention that vast numbers of soldiers fought because they were forced to do so. Military systems furnished direct and uncompromising punishments that persuaded combatants to suppress their fears, at least temporarily, and go forward into enemy fire. Coercion drove soldiers in most eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European armies. Prussian general Frederick the Great believed that an effective infantryman must go into battle "more afraid of his officers than of the dangers to which he is exposed." The power of coercion as a motivator is easy to comprehend: officers and noncommissioned officers replaced the potential danger of enemy bullets with the more direct certainty of friendly ones. (An American Marine in the First World War overheard a terse description of this coercive mechanism: "Don't you turn yellow and try to run," his sergeant shouted at a comrade. "If you do and the Germans don't kill you, I will.") But coercion alone could not always suffice to compel soldiers to fight. In some cases, the practical realities of the battlefield made it difficult to apply punishments effectively and reliably; in other cases, social or cultural expectations prevented armies from motivating soldiers expressly with the lash. When a Northern nurse asked Abraham Lincoln why he did not order more executions in the Union armies given the prevalence of desertion in the ranks, he replied, "Because you cannot order men shot by dozens and twenties. People won't stand it, and they ought not stand it."

Recognition that coercion alone could not furnish a universal explanation for soldiers' willingness to fight gave rise to another hypothesis to explain behaviors observed even in the absence of direct and explicit threats. That explanation posited a class of pressures and inducements that were based not on the promise of physical punishment but instead on the desire for acceptance from some valued social group. Concern for reputation, friendship, mutual interdependence, and trust among members of a unit, according to this argument, could eclipse soldiers' own instincts for survival, if only for a time. Following the Second World War, a trio of influential studies distilled those factors into a single concept: primary group cohesion. Released between 1947 and 1949, S. L. A. Marshall's Men against Fire, Edmund Shils and Morris Janowitz's "Cohesion and Disintegration in the Wehrmacht in World War II," and Samuel Stouffer's The American Soldier all credited primary group cohesion with the ability to help soldiers endure the physical and mental stress that worked suddenly or over time to break them down and render them incapable of performing their duties. In infantry combat, the primary group usually constituted some small unit whose members knew each other intimately and had regular, face-to-face contact. The combination of affection, obligation, and concern for standing within the group coalesced to create loyalties that overshadowed the individual's concern for his own well-being, at least temporarily. Marshall defined the relationship plainly: "I hold it to be one of the simplest truths of war," he wrote, "that the thing which enables the infantry soldier to keep going ... is the presence or presumed presence of a comrade."

In the decades following the Second World War, primary group cohesion became the orthodox theory of combat motivation, employed by historians to explain soldiers' often inscrutable behaviors in a variety of eras and conflicts. The appeal of the group cohesion thesis is twofold: it is both consistent with the firsthand observations of countless generations of soldiers and intuitively satisfying. Scholars continue to assign the group cohesion thesis considerable explanatory power. The notion that soldiers fight primarily for one another has appeared repeatedly in the literature on battlefield experience and combat motivation to explain behavior in a wide variety of conflicts, eras, and cultures. Sociologist Nora Kinzer Stewart built her analysis of motivation in the 1982 Falklands Islands War, Mates and Muchachos, upon the idea. Civil War historian James McPherson stressed the importance of these bonds in his work on combat motivation among Union and Confederate soldiers, titling the book For Cause and Comrades. In Why the Vietcong Fought, political scientist William Darryl Henderson emphasized differences in levels of cohesion to explain the success of the North Vietnamese Army against the larger and better-equipped U.S. Army during the Vietnam conflict. Cohesion and morale, Henderson argued, "were high upon the initial commitment of U.S. units to Vietnam," especially in units that trained together, deployed to Vietnam together, and entered combat together, but they unraveled over time due to U.S. personnel policies; in contrast, the Vietcong were generally able to maintain a high level of cohesion among their fighting units even late in the war. In the introduction to his 1997 book on American GIs in the Second World War, Citizen Soldiers, Stephen Ambrose asserted that "unit cohesion, teamwork, the development of a sense of family in the squad and platoon" formed not just the basis of World War II veterans' explanations for their ability to face combat but the basis of his own scholarly work as well: "That is the theme of almost all my writing about the military, from Lewis and Clark to George Armstrong Custer to Eisenhower and D-Day." And in 2003, the Strategic Studies Institute at the U.S. Army's War College released Why They Fight: Combat Motivation in the Iraq War, which concluded that "cohesion, or the strong emotional bonds between soldiers, continues to be a critical factor in combat motivation." American soldiers deployed to Iraq, the authors argued, "continue to fight because of the bonds of trust between soldiers." The article provided numerous statements from American soldiers serving there, all interviewed by the authors shortly after their experience in battle, to support that argument. Many stressed the existence of strong emotional bonds among the members of their combat units. "I know that as far as myself," one said, "I take my squad mates' lives more important than my own"; another asserted that the squad was "just like a big family.... It is kind of comforting." A third reasoned that these bonds explained his and his comrades' willingness to fight: "It was just looking out for one another. We weren't fighting for anybody else but ourselves." In a statement that could have come directly from Marshall's Men against Fire fifty years earlier, the same soldier concluded, "we were just fighting for one another."

The persistence of the group cohesion thesis as the orthodox explanation of combat motivation reflects an assumption that some universal elements of combat (danger, chaos, the risk of death, and the necessity of killing) are so profound that they somehow transcend the influences of technology, tactics, and culture. The belief that combat is, at its core, a universal experience facilitates the belief that there is a single explanation for soldiers' behavior in all battle. As historian Richard H. Kohn has observed, "Many scholars have treated battle as a constant—have searched, with little regard for time and place, for the factors that explain why men fight." Among researchers, historians' acceptance of group cohesion as a blanket explanation to account for all motivation in combat is particularly puzzling because it is so fundamentally ahistorical: by definition, a one-size-fits-all explanation ignores the considerable ways that the experience of battle has changed over time. Certainly there has been no shortage of changes in ground combat over the past few centuries: the introduction of firearms, high-powered artillery, automatic weapons, smokeless powder, wireless communications technology, and air power are but a few of the most obvious. Given the easily observed ways in which military technology has changed the battlefield over the last three hundred years, it is surprising that so many scholars expect to find a universal theory to explain the ways that humans have responded to its varied and terrifying rigors. It is clear that battle demanded different things of soldiers in different centuries; scholars should expect to find variations and patterns in the mechanisms that motivated combatants in these different environments.

One other fact is clear: some factor or combination of factors has enabled soldiers to overcome their fears long enough to perform their duties in combat. The record of American troops over the past two-and-a-half centuries—from Saratoga to New Orleans, Antietam to the Wilderness, Belleau Wood to Omaha Beach, Chosin Reservoir to Khe Sanh to Fallujah—provides robust evidence that most American soldiers did indeed locate ways to master their anxieties sufficiently to participate in battle. In the main, there have been no mutinies, mass defections, or large-scale surrenders in American armies: the vast majority of troops have stayed and fought when called to. What motivated these soldiers to fight? How and why did their motivations change over time?

Despite its ubiquity, the orthodox explanation cannot explain all of these mysteries. Empirical evidence is often at odds with the hypothesis: in many historical examples, soldiers continued to fight even after battle eroded or destroyed their primary groups. In addition, as experimental psychologists and sociologists have demonstrated, tight primary group cohesion often works against organizational goals, emboldening group members to resist authority imposed from above—precisely the kind of opposition that is devastating in hierarchical organizations like military units. Finally, there is the very strength of the emotional bonds themselves: the group cohesion thesis holds that soldiers are willing to risk their own lives and fight because of the deep bonds of comradeship they feel with their fellow soldiers. But strong emotional ties among soldiers do not necessarily, or even logically, lead to a desire to fight: an infantryman who charges into battle primarily to support a comrade with whom he shares a strong bond of affection may find his attention shifted away from the unit's military objective if, for example, that friend suddenly suffers a combat wound. Enduring Battle takes up the mysteries of soldiers' behavior in battle with the expectation that some of their motivations to face enemy fire changed over time, linking the particular requirements of fighting in different eras with factors that helped combatants withstand those specific rigors.

American infantry armies provide an ideal arena for this study. The infantry does most of the fighting, if not most of the killing, and as a result takes most of the casualties in battle (historian Russell Weigley has estimated that the average World War II U.S. infantry regiment lost a hundred percent of its personnel to battlefield casualties in just three months of fighting). The demands placed upon infantry troops in combat are as high as those placed upon any soldiers: historically, infantry armies have faced the danger of battle at both the sharpest and most vulnerable point. Infantry combat in each of these three wars involved the kind of individual and small-group dynamics found in few other types of combat (members of a tank or bomber crew, for example, are bound together in concrete ways and lack the flexibility of decision making that infantrymen usually possess). For a variety of reasons, American forces have used physical coercion to a much lesser extent than most other armies. And much of the best and most expansive work on combat motivation in history and social science focuses upon American armies: the United States has been unusually willing to examine its soldiers' behaviors openly and critically.

Enduring Battle explores both the changes and continuities in infantrymen's combat experience over time. Important commonalities connected the experiences of soldiers on the battlefields of these wars: the smothering presence of danger, the potency of fear in battle, and the constant proximity of death represented the most profound and nearly unchanging elements of the soldier's lot in battle. Scholars who stress the universal nature of combat point to precisely these factors to substantiate their case. But these continuities, though intense, represent only a part of the story: the particulars of infantry combat changed over time, often dramatically. A reader who skims accounts of infantry combat from different centuries is struck quickly by the differences in the details of the descriptions. Veteran infantry soldiers recall some elements of the experience that are similar regardless of time and place (the fear of death and injury, and the overpowering chaos and confusion of the battlefield, surface in nearly every account of infantry combat, no matter its origins), but even a casual overview of accounts from different periods reveals important contrasts as well. Some of those differences are in the trappings of battle, but others are more substantive. A reader confronted with a young GI's account of being strafed by German aircraft during the 1942 North African campaign would not easily mistake that description for a Confederate rifleman's portrayal of charging the enemy line at the 1862 battle of Antietam, even though both narratives revolve around the presence of danger and death. What those soldiers saw and did, and the way they registered their experiences, varied in important ways.


Excerpted from ENDURING BATTLE by Christopher H. Hamner Copyright © 2011 by University Press of Kansas. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY PRESS OF KANSAS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents



1. The Evolving Character of Infantry Combat

2. Fear in Combat

3. Training

4. Leadership

5. Weaponry

6. Comradeship





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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 17, 2011

    Very Highly Recommended - you must check it out!!

    I enjoyed this book. I am not a scholar, but it was bery good at comparing the different types of battle in the different wars. It showed the way in which the science has advanced in it's way it thinks about the soldiers motivation and actions in the three wars. It someone wants to learn about this idea; this is an excellant book to have.

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