The Will to Fight for a Cause

Throughout history, the most effective one’s have powered to victory on commitment to core values and collective resolve

Scott Atran in Aeon: Leonidas, King of Sparta, arrived at Thermopylae with a small advance guard to hold off a massive Persian assault in 480 BCE. The invading Persian army was thousands-strong, and the Greek states had yet to mobilize a response. Plutarch records that Xerxes, Persia’s ‘King of Kings’, made a written offer he thought Leonidas could hardly refuse: ‘It is possible for you … by ranging yourself on my side, to be the sole ruler of Greece.’ Leonidas allegedly answered: ‘If you had any knowledge of the noble things of life, you would refrain from coveting others’ possessions; but for me to die for Greece is better than to be the sole ruler.’

Then Xerxes wrote again: ‘Hand over your arms.’

Leonidas famously retorted ‘Come and take them’ (μολὼν λαϐέ/molṑn labé). Leonidas and his ‘300 immortals’ who refused offers to save themselves were eventually slaughtered, but an inspired Greece would win the war. Or so goes the legend that became part of Western civilization’s creation myth.

Throughout history, the most effective combatants, revolutionaries and insurgents have been ‘devoted actors’ fused together by dedication to non-negotiable ‘sacred values’ such as God, country or liberty. Military incursions nearly always plan for maximum force at the beginning to ensure victory. But if defenders resist, or are allowed to recoup, then the advantage often shifts to those with the will to fight as they increasingly harness resources against their attackers who are maxed-out in terms of what they are able, or willing, to commit: consider Napoleon and then Hitler and their onslaught against Russia, or the United States’ invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. Throughout history, those willing to sacrifice for cause and comrades, and for their leaders, have often prevailed against more powerful forces that mainly rely on material incentives such as pay and punishment.

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 centerpiece 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 mobilize forces and yield greater effectiveness on the battlefield.

An extract from here.