Even when defeated and annihilated, the heroism and martyrdom of those with the will to fight often become the stuff of legend. Consider the Judeans under Eleazar at Masada, the Alamo defenders under Travis, Bowie and Crockett (note: that these men supported slavery or other unacceptable positions is irrelevant to the point here), or the Group of Personal Friends who fought to the end, defending the Chilean president Salvador Allende against Pinochet’s putschists. Or take the last holdouts at the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol in what might well become a centrepiece of Ukraine’s national creation myth, along with its president Volodymyr Zelensky’s celebrated reply to a US offer of evacuation: ‘I need ammunition, not a ride.’
Such legends continue to endure and inspire in political circles, at military colleges and among the public. And the outcomes of recent and current conflicts continue to demonstrate that non-material factors, such as value-driven commitment and collective resolve, can help mobilise forces and yield greater effectiveness on the battlefield.
Yet, with few exceptions, little scientific attention is ever paid to understanding why this is so or what to do about it. To help fill the void, my team has turned its attention to this issue, with studies of combatants in Afghanistan, Iraq and, most recently, Ukraine – where a heroic will to fight has taken much of the world by surprise.
In testimony before Congress this March, Lieutenant General Scott Berrier, director of the US Defense Intelligence Agency, acknowledged misjudging Ukraine’s ability to resist Russia: ‘I questioned their will to fight. That was a bad assessment …’ It’s notable that, at a subsequent hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee in May, Berrier claimed that, overall, ‘the intelligence community did a great job’. The US senator Angus King interrupted: ‘General, how can you possibly say that when we were told explicitly that Kyiv would fall in three days and Ukraine would fall in two weeks?’ Fortunately, this near-fatal mistake in judging Ukraine’s chances, and the then-apparent futility of significant Western support, was offset by Russia’s equally ignorant appraisal of Ukraine’s will to fight. [Continue reading…]