Twentieth-Century Theories on Combat Motivation and Breakdown

TitleTwentieth-Century Theories on Combat Motivation and Breakdown
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2006
AuthorsWessely, Simon
JournalJournal of Contemporary History
Date Published04/2006

This article traces the development of mainstream theories about combat motivation and breakdown through the twentieth century, from the First World War to the Vietnam War. 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. 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’. 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. 

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