To the bitter end: Why do some armies fight while others collapse?

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In the ideological zeal and tenacity of ISIS, the U.S hasn’t seen such a determined enemy since Hitler’s Germany or Imperial Japan, says a national security policy expert at Texas A&M University. Assistant Professor Jasen Castillo examines this growing terrorist threat, as well as other potential dangers from the Middle East and countries such as Russia and North Korea, through the lens of his “cohesion theory,” a framework he developed in hopes of helping analysts and strategists gauge the staying power of military forces.

“Before the U.S. goes to war, we should know what motivates an adversary and how hard it will fight,” explains Castillo, an assistant professor at the Bush School of Government and Public Service who uses the theories and methods of social science to address problems in national security. “What we don’t want to do is assume every opponent we face will disintegrate like the Iraqi Army in 2003.”And, he adds, the U.S. should also avoid extreme optimism about the ability of technology to trump the tenacity of potential opponents, especially the use of airpower.

In examining the staying power of military forces, Castillo asks, “Why do some country’s militaries fight hard when facing defeat, while others collapse?” The cohesion theory proposes to answer this question using two factors: the degree of control a regime holds over its citizens and the amount of autonomy the armed forces possess to focus on training for war.

“To create resilient militaries, governments face several choices: they can exert a high degree of control over the country (the former Soviet Union), they can allow military organizations the autonomy to train (the United States), they can do both (Imperial Japan), or they can fail to do either (South Vietnam),” Castillo explains.

“With a high degree of regime control, governments instill and enforce norms of unconditional loyalty throughout the population. A hard-core group of regime supporters inside the military will fight no matter the strategic circumstances and coerce others to do the same. High regime control explains why Hitler’s Germany fought to the bitter end but the Kaiser’s Germany did not.”

In looking at troublesome areas globally, Castillo applies the theory, finding some military forces may prove harder to defeat than others. “Cohesion theory would suggest ethnic and sectarian division would undermine the staying power of the Iraqi Army,” he notes. “These are problems that also undermine the professionalism of the Afghan National Army the U.S. is trying to build.”

He finds a fight against the rising Islamic State may be a hard-fought victory, and “fighting for their lives, the Assad Regime in Syria will also fight very hard. While in Eastern Europe, the Ukrainian Army does well when it fights rebels but not when it comes up against regular Russian forces. When this happens, its units of poorly trained conscripts break and run.”

He examines the performance of various militaries from the First and Second World Wars as well as the Vietnam War and contends that traditional arguments on military staying power fail to address key issues. “One view argues the key to creating militaries with strong cohesion is through small-unit training,” he explains. “Armies made up of ‘bands of brothers’ fight the hardest. This view, however, ignores instances where militaries fought hard even though state terror, poor training practices, or terribly high casualties undermined small-unit bonds. The brave performance of the Soviet Red Army during World War II comes to mind.

“A second view argues a country’s ideology motivates a nation’s armed forces, especially nationalism. Although ideologies sometime rally a country’s armed forces, at other times they fall on deaf ears, as with French military in 1940 and in Mussolini’s Italy in World War II.

“And a third view claims democracies produce the militaries with the greatest staying power. The historical record, however, suggests non-democracies − like North Vietnam, Communist China, and the Soviet Union − fight with equal if not more determination on the battlefield.”

Castillo contends the U.S. should be wary of militaries with a high degree of organizational autonomy. These types of armed forces “can cultivate norms of unconditional loyalty and trust among their personnel. These norms will motivate most units — even reserve units — to fight with determination and flexibility on the battlefield.”