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 mobilise 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 civilisation’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 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.
Misjudging the will to fight has become routine, with often disastrous results for the planners and their publics
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.
Misjudging both allies’ and adversaries’ will to fight has become routine among military and political decision-makers, with often disastrous results for the planners and their publics. Addressing Congress in September 2021, General Mark Milley, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, blamed ‘strategic failure’ in Afghanistan on neglecting the ‘intangible’ factor in war: ‘We can count the trucks and the guns and the units and all that. But we can’t measure a human heart from a machine.’ As the US president Joe Biden put it in August 2021: ‘We gave [Afghan forces] every tool they could need … What we could not provide them was the will to fight …’
When government agencies discuss the will to fight, the little data they mention involves public opinion polls (where, in fact, some polls monitored by the US State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence Research did indicate that Ukrainians would strongly resist). Although pollsters often claim to use ‘scientific methodology’, there is little science in the techniques most of them use. And seldom do the polls assess levels of intensity and behaviour related to the opinions proffered.
Of course, survey questionnaires can provide scientific insight if structured in ways that allow hypothesis testing, including the relationship between responses and actual patterns of behaviour – an approach embraced by academia but usually absent from standard ‘assessment tools’ used by the US departments of State and of Defense, as well as UK and EU government agencies, in evaluating foreign populations. In fact, recent scholarship shows that the ‘will to fight’, at least in part, can be discretely measured and used to predict behaviour. Findings are clear, but uptake by the many officials and agencies who solicit briefings from my research team is constrained by fear of expending lives and money in vain over relatively short time horizons: that is, everything the sacred and spiritual are not.
To see how this plays out, it’s worth looking at the theatre of Iraq. For several years now, the Minerva Research Initiative of the US Department of Defense and the National Science Foundation have worked to understand value-driven sacrifice and a willingness to fight through a research partnership between Artis International (my team), the Changing Character of War Centre at the University of Oxford, and the National University of Distance Education and the Autonomous University of Barcelona in Spain. Our findings on frontline combatants, including the Iraqi Army, ISIS and Kurdish PKK, among others, are clear. In 2015, when the ISIS frontline was relatively stable, and again in 2016, when the offensive to retake Mosul began, psychological measures in field surveys indicated that willingness to fight and die is greatest for those who fight for sacred values; these groups see ‘spiritual strength’ (ruhi bi ghiyrat, in both Arabic and Kurdish) as more important than material strength (manpower and firepower), and they are often right. As measured by casualties, time at the front and more, only the Marxist-inspired Kurdish PKK fighters matched the religious ISIS fighters for commitment to their beliefs and willingness to sacrifice for a cause.
During 2017, we followed young Sunni Arab men emerging from ISIS rule in the Mosul region. Most people we interviewed initially embraced ISIS as ‘the revolution’ (al-Thawra) against perceived oppression by the US-backed regime. Although many came to reject ISIS’s brutality, a series of psychological measures revealed that ISIS had imbued about half of our sample with its two most sacred values, for which they expressed willingness to self-sacrifice: strict belief in Sharia and in a Sunni Arab homeland. Those believing in these values expressed greater willingness to fight and die than did supporters of a democratic or unified Iraq. Whereas ISIS had lost territorial control, it had not necessarily lost the allegiance of young Sunni Arabs to its core values.
Sanctions against Iran’s nuclear energy programme only increased support for it as a sacred mission
Further studies zeroed in on brain activity through neuroimaging. There, we looked at supporters of Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistani associate of Al-Qaeda, and Moroccan immigrants in Spain who professed support for armed jihad and strict application of Sharia. Brain studies can be important for at least two reasons: they sometimes reveal neural connections between phenomena never before linked, and they rule out posturing – because neural responses to experimental stimuli are generally beyond conscious control or manipulation.
We identified participants’ sacred values and then probed their willingness to sacrifice for them. Based on brain scans of neural activity, participants showed significantly greater willingness to sacrifice for sacred values (for example, opposing caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed) than for non-sacred values (for example, opposing women refusing the veil). Indeed, whenever sacred values were involved, we found evidence that brain activity was inhibited in regions involved with deliberative reasoning and cost-benefit analysis but activity was heightened in areas associated with subjective value and rule-bound judgments (‘just do it because it’s right’, whatever the costs or consequences).
We also found that, among the radical immigrant group, perception of social exclusion resulted in heightened embrace of and readiness to sacrifice for hitherto important but non-sacred values. This somewhat parallels our findings in Iran. There, international sanctions (a form of political exclusion) imposed against the country’s nuclear energy programme only increased support for that programme as a sacred mission. Further brain and behavioural studies indicate that far-Right extremists are also more likely to elevate misinformation to the ‘sacred sphere’ in communicating specious arguments that immigrants threaten their cultural purity. When these buttons are pushed, brain activity heightens in areas that support social cognition and identity processes.
Our latest research not only confirmed how empowering spiritual motivation could be in Iraq, Palestine, Morocco, Lebanon and Spain – it also found the same influence among US Air Force cadets. Spiritual formidability is a primary determinant of the will to fight across cultures, forging loyal bonds of trust and propelling not just combatants but also citizens to charge ahead at great risk to themselves.
History shows that, however strong the esprit de corps of one country’s fighting units, no amount of arms or training ensures its transference to foreign forces.
Just look at what happened in Afghanistan.
In the 19th century, the country became a buffer state between British India and Czarist Russia’s ambitions in Central Asia. The British gave up trying to occupy and rule Afghanistan after the first Anglo-Afghan War, which ended in 1842 when tribal forces slaughtered 16,500 soldiers and 12,000 dependents of a mixed British-Indian garrison, leaving a lone survivor on a stumbling pony to carry back the news.
Still, the British remained determined to control Afghanistan’s relations with outside powers. In 1879, they deposed the Afghan emir following his reception of a Russian mission at Kabul. But the Afghans wanted to recover full independence over foreign affairs, which they did following the Third Anglo-Afghan War in 1919. The British army missionary T L Pennell described the situation more than a century ago in his book Among the Wild Tribes of the Afghan Frontier (1908):
Waziristan [the country of the Waziri, the Mahsud and the Haqqani, whose descendants are current leaders of the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban] is … never at peace except when … at war! … For when some enemy from without threatens their independence … they fight shoulder to shoulder, [although] even when they are all desirous of joining in some jihad, they remain suspicious of each other … Mullahs sometimes … rouse the tribes to concerted warfare against the infidels … The more fanatical of these Mullahs do not hesitate to incite their pupils [taliban] to acts of religious fanaticism, or ghaza … The ghazi is a man who has taken an oath to kill some non-Muhammadan, preferably a European … but, failing that, a Hindu or a Sikh.
In short, the British realised that any attempt at permanent occupation or pacification of the warring tribes would only unite them, and that it would be nearly impossible to defeat their combined forces without much greater military and financial means than Britain could afford.
‘They say it’s been so calm since that a man has no opportunity to become a man’
Fast-forward about 50 years. Pulling my Volkswagen van to a stop in Landi Kotal at the top of the Khyber Pass in July 1976, I met two elderly men drinking tea. One was an Afridi tribesman, and the other a Waziri. They had once been tribal enemies, but no longer. As we were talking, four young boys managed to unhinge the engine block from the back of my van and were struggling to lift it away. A soldier – a tall green-eyed Pashtun sweating in a Russian wool uniform in the very hot summer sun – stopped the boys with a stern word, shooed them away, and with a smile that showed pleasure at his command of English, threw up his hands and said: ‘Boys will be boys.’
‘Tat, tat, tat, tat, tat, bad position, bad position,’ the old Afridi tribesman sputtered as he pointed an invisible rifle at the rugged and barren hills of the Khyber Pass.
‘Why bad position?’ I asked the army man. He explained that, here, the luckless English soldiers had passed through in 1919 on their way to losing their third and last war in Afghanistan.
‘Ah, but good position [for] Nadir Khan in Kabul, tat, tat, tat, tat, tat, good position,’ gleefully sputtered the man’s equally ancient tea partner, the Waziri tribesman. When I probed further, I was told that Amanullah Khan, Afghanistan’s first emir and king, once lionised for forcing the British from Afghanistan, was then deposed by an alliance of Pashtun tribes spearheaded by Nadir Khan, in good part for education policies that valued science over religion, and included girls.
The Afridi lowered his head: ‘No good position now… Bad position.’
‘Why bad position now?’ I asked.
The soldier queried the two white-bearded gentlemen and came back with a laugh: ‘They say it’s been so calm since that a man has no opportunity to become a man.’
That soon changed. Afghanistan remained independent until 1979, when the Russians (by then Soviets) returned for another go at control, followed in 2001 by the US-led invasion (with Britain as the junior partner) to bring Afghanistan into the Western camp after its brief spell of independence under Taliban control.
On 12 September 2001, Lieutenant-General Mahmood Ahmed, chief of the Pakistani intelligence agency ISI, tried to explain the historical context of the Taliban to the US deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage. Armitage stopped him: ‘for you and for us history starts today.’ This echoed the Jacobins’ declaration that history began in Year 1 with the French Revolution, a notion repeated in our previous century by Messianic leaders such as Stalin and Mussolini. It’s a pronouncement that leads to a political version of insanity: doing the same thing over and over, and expecting a different result. But, for the US, the method behind the madness is rooted in a consistent material rationale: with virtually limitless material assets, almost anything that is concretely conceivable is achievable, including immediate and profound sociopolitical change. This instrumental and utilitarian view helped the US and its allies defeat and then democratise Germany and Japan. But in the past half-century, it has led to political and military fiascos in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, trillions of tax dollars spent in vain, and unfathomable injury and loss of life.
This is because the most committed ISIS fighters and others we see as fanatics do not differ significantly from those we consider the most ardent freedom-fighters of the West: all are willing to sacrifice and fight for comrade and cause. This may be an unsettling proposition to many of us who prefer to defend our own view of good over evil. But without understanding the depth of dedication felt by others, it’s almost impossible to plan effective campaigns. Treating terrorists as criminals or nihilists can obscure the depth of their moral outrage, which helps them take a stand against any physical threat. Often in history, the critical distinction between a terrorist movement and a revolution that aims to destroy or replace entrenched power with a new or very different moral order is whether or not it wins and retains control.
The surer way forward is advancing Western democratic values through financial, media and moral alliances
When, in September 2014, the Islamic State was at the height of power after routing US-backed Iraqi government forces, despite vastly inferior manpower and no air force or heavy arms, the then US president Barack Obama endorsed the judgment of his Director of National Intelligence: ‘We underestimated the Viet Cong … we underestimated ISIL and overestimated the fighting capability of the Iraqi army … It boils down to predicting the will to fight, which is an imponderable.’ Seven years later, after US-backed Afghan government forces were crushed by the Taliban – with no air force, heavy arms or billions spent on training – there was much the same refrain.
By failing to recognise the limits of our ability to impose values that we’ve attained only after a long history of our own, the US and its partners will continue the past half-century’s habit of building up the wrong kind of allies and armies – weakly modelled in America’s image but devoid of spirit arising from their own values and cultures, as in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. The surer way forward is advancing Western democratic values by example, through financial, media and moral alliances, and using force only to defend our allies and ourselves.
Myopia regarding allies’ and adversaries’ will to fight is arguably rooted in two, somewhat interdependent, filters on reality: a utilitarian view of human behaviour as geared primarily – or at least ideally – to a rational assessment of actions aimed at minimising material costs and maximising material benefits; and a belief that maximising material benefit and human beneficence (kindness, generosity, and cooperation between individuals or groups) depends on adherence to Enlightenment values of freedom.
For instance, Western, and particularly US, national security strategies are almost exclusively based on rational deterrence through what policymakers term cost imposition. Thus, US military strategy in Afghanistan and Iraq in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the US of 11 September 2001 was based on minimising costs in terms of lives and treasure, while imposing unsustainable costs on its adversaries. Yet the 9/11 suicide attackers held no regard for the costs of their actions, which included the sacrifice of their lives and the potential harm to their families.
Righteous belief in our own values sometimes closes us off to reality
There is also a deep-seated faith that the US can infuse other cultures with our values. Thus, after 9/11 and as a prelude to the invasion of Iraq, George W Bush introduced the 2002 National Security Strategy stating that there is but one
single sustainable model for national success: freedom, democracy, and free enterprise … These values of freedom are right and true for every person, in every society – and the duty of protecting these values against their enemies is the common calling of freedom-loving people across the globe and across the ages.
The sentiment is as vainglorious as that of Iran’s then president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: ‘[Muslim] religious democracy is the only path toward human prosperity and it is the most advanced type of government that humans can ever have.’
Righteous belief in our own values sometimes closes us off to reality. Our politicians and the mainstream press continually intone that Russia’s attack on Ukraine was ‘unprovoked’ but there was nary a word about the US attack on Iraq as being ‘unprovoked’ – although both Russia and the US justified their respective ‘interventions’ as ‘defensive’ operations, with similar fictions about their enemies in league with ‘terrorists’ (Nazis, Al-Qaeda) and imminent attainment and use of weapons of mass destruction.
These beliefs can cause us to underestimate others. No doubt rational utility and expansions of freedom of thought and action have been important to the US as the pre-eminent world power, to the international order it dominates, and to an increased standard of living, including expansion of the world’s middle class. But for many individuals and cultures, the forced gamble of ‘creative destruction’ of traditional ways of life via winner-take-all competition is too many degrees of freedom to accept. They find defeat of this view worth fighting for.
In fact, the values of freedom we cherish are intellectual creations of the 18th-century European and colonial American Enlightenment, and far from ‘self-evident’ in the preceding 300,000 years or so of our species’ existence (where cannibalism, slavery, infanticide, oppression or extermination of minorities, and so on, were more common fare than freedoms). Moreover, as the Taliban leader Mullah Omar reminded the veteran journalist Arnaud de Borchgrave in June 2001, regarding equality between the sexes: ‘You forget that America and the rest of the world are centuries ahead of us. If you introduced your manners and mores suddenly in Afghanistan, society would implode and anarchy would ensue.’ In sum, successive US administrations have repeatedly overestimated the fighting spirit of foreign forces to defend our freedoms while underestimating the power of alien values to motivate willingness to fight and die, no matter the cost.
During Operation Barbarossa, Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, the Wehrmacht general Günther Blumentritt wrote in his diary:
Many of our leaders grossly underestimated this adversary … Even when surrounded, exhausted, and deprived of a chance to fight, the Russians never back down.
Although the surprise German attack initially advanced rapidly against Soviet forces, the unyielding resistance of Russia’s soldiers and people slowed the advance enough to allow the Red Army to eventually recover and ultimately triumph. Participating in the Red Army’s victory were 4 to 7 million Ukrainian fighters, including Zelensky’s grandfather (his three great-uncles perished during the Holocaust, and his grandparents burned to death in a German massacre).
Speaking this May at a military parade commemorating the 1945 Soviet Victory over Nazi Germany, Russia’s president Vladimir Putin sought to tie Russia’s old fight against Nazi Germany with the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.
Believing, or compelled to believe, such rhetoric, Russia’s political and military leadership continues to assess Ukraine’s will to fight, and its inspiration in shoring up the Western alliance, as a combination of ‘Nazi’ bluster and bullying, rather than ever-strengthening resolve. Ironically, Ukraine’s current tactics strongly resemble Russia’s approach at Stalingrad. Thus, whereas Russia now, like the Germans before, preferred to pummel cities with long-range artillery and aerial bombing, followed by lightning tank advances with infantry across open spaces, Ukraine’s defenders have profitably adopted the Soviet Second World War tactic of closely ‘hugging’ the enemy with small independent units operating in urban ruins to ambush and snipe at every turn. Russia’s present generals are beginning to learn the Wehrmacht’s lessons in the face of Ukraine’s resistance, which seems closer in spirit to Russia’s sacrifice in the Great Patriotic War.
Yet Russia’s initial assessment of Ukraine’s will to fight, and of Western support and steadfastness, was little different from that of the Western allies themselves. For the most part, they believed a rapid Russian victory was virtually assured, and that any serious Western military support for Ukraine or economic action against Moscow would only further fragment what the French president Emmanuel Macron, echoing the then US president Donald Trump’s claim that NATO was ‘obsolete’, considered in 2019 a nearly ‘brain dead’ NATO. Although Ukraine may ultimately cede territory to overwhelming Russian force, NATO – reinforced by Ukraine’s valiant effort – may well diminish Russia’s national security, economy (decoupled from Europe) and power.
Now we find readiness to sacrifice in Western Europeans even for a foreign country
Since shortly before Russia’s invasion, my team has conducted rolling surveys of Ukrainians and Western Europeans, and their willingness to sacrifice for Ukraine. (Note: complete results and corresponding statistical analyses have yet to be fully peer reviewed.) We used what’s known as ‘mediation analysis’, a statistical method for determining cause and effect between a number of interrelated variables. After surveys of more than 1,000 Ukrainians before and after the Russian invasion, we found that the most powerful predictor of willingness to sacrifice (suffer economic hardship, imprisonment, fighting, family loss, and dying) is how strongly individuals ‘fuse’ their personal identity with Ukraine. The will to fight comes from viscerally feeling at one with their country and expecting it to prevail because of its spiritual authority, including heartfelt inner conviction, bravery and courage.
That fusion was strong before the invasion and remains strong now. The West’s strategists would have known that, had they thought to enquire.
Douglas Stone, a retired major general in the US Marine Forces Reserve who actively served in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, has been working with our Artis research group and medical team in Iraq and now in Ukraine, where he reports: ‘I have NEVER seen a more complete will to fight than in the Ukrainians civil or mil[itary].’
The one major post-invasion change concerns eastern Ukraine (21 per cent of sample, including Donbas). There, fusion with Russia diminished significantly, while fusion with Ukraine and the European Union increased – although both remain stronger in the rest of Ukraine, as does readiness to sacrifice for freedom. Across Ukraine, fusion with freedom also strongly predicts sacrifice for Ukraine when tied to fusion with democracy.
We found a similar pattern in Spain, where more than 2,000 participants answered our questions over seven successive weeks. The best predictor of Spaniards’ willingness to sacrifice for Ukraine is identity fusion with Ukraine, causally tied to perception of the strong spiritual formidability of Ukraine and of Zelensky, and trust in both.
In Spain, willingness to sacrifice for Ukraine also results from identity fusion with freedom, which Zelensky calls the paramount ‘human value’ at stake, and is tied to trust in democracy as well. In the past, we found relatively few Western Europeans expressing willingness to sacrifice for freedom and democracy, but now we find readiness to sacrifice even for a foreign country’s freedom. What changed is that values underpinning Europe’s open society, which mostly had been taken for granted, were suddenly imperilled, made salient, and made seemingly sacred again.
Addressing the US Congress, Zelensky stressed freedom as key to a worthy life in pursuit of happiness. This echoed what Thomas Jefferson, in his initial draft of the US Declaration of Independence in 1776, deemed humankind’s ‘sacred and undeniable’ rights, absolute and non-negotiable, and for which its adherents pledged ‘our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honour’ in battle whatever the odds. That commitment is in sharp contrast to political and military decision-makers who ignore their own country’s founding lessons by emphasising material over moral might in executing national security and intelligence strategy.
As with the US National Defense Strategy, the UK’s integrated review of defence and foreign policy seeks ways to augment or offset hard power by building alliances through what Harvard’s Joseph Nye has termed ‘soft power’ – persuading others through cultural influences, economic relationships and diplomatic tact. Will to fight is not about persuading others, however, but rather about harnessing inner conviction that one’s cause is right and deeply shared by those who fight together. Of course, the spiritual formidability associated with the will to fight eventually may diminish in the face of persistent overwhelming force, as we found in our subsequent studies of ISIS supporters following its defeats in Iraq and Syria; however, it also can be readily rekindled once embedded in collective memory.
The current focus of US and NATO security strategy draws lessons from the Ukraine-Russia War. Our research recommends doing that analysis before, not after, a war begins. First assess which populations have the strongest spiritual and moral force, then channel hard power to them. For Ukraine, that analysis could have yielded a greater initial material edge to accompany spiritual and psychological strength. That same approach would stop us from disastrously funnelling resources to groups lacking spiritual and moral force (for example, Vietnamese, Iraqi and Afghan armies) compared with their adversaries (Viet Cong, ISIL, Taliban).
In sum, without rigorous attention to non-material sensibilities, cultural mores and core values of peoples in conflict, winning or attenuating conflict can seem intractable or only resolvable with massive force. Yet a nearly exclusive focus on material factors remains dominant in the West. This optic tends to disregard what Charles Darwin, in The Descent of Man (1871), deemed ‘highly esteemed, or even held sacred’ spiritual and moral virtues that ‘give an immense advantage’ to one group over another when possessed by devoted actors who by their ‘example excite … in a high degree the spirit’ in others to sacrifice for cause and comrades, for ill or good. We have a chance to leverage this lesson, by honouring and supporting peoples with the will to fight in defence of the democratic freedoms that we, too, hold dear.