27th May 2022


Why are some people willing to die for a cause - and some not?

  • Some people are devoted actors who want to sacrifice their life for what they see as sacred values - be it God or country (Photo: Eric Maurice)
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As the Taliban rapidly crushed US-backed Afghan forces, many politicians, pundits, and military leaders expressed surprise at having overestimated an ally's will to fight - and underestimated the enemy's.

Similarly in 2014, after the Islamic State (ISIS) routed US-backed Iraqi forces, president Barack Obama endorsed the intelligence assessment that "predicting the will to fight…is an imponderable."

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That attitude reflects political and military leaders' continual discounting of research, supported and known by many of those leaders, on the importance of sacred values and spiritual strength to the will to fight.

It may remain "imponderable"—and attendant security challenges seemingly intractable—so long as it continues to be viewed through a narrow lens of instrumental, utilitarian rationality.

Throughout history, revolutionaries willing to sustain extreme conflict have been 'devoted actors' fused together by faith in defending or advancing non-negotiable 'sacred values', whether religious or secular, like God or country.

Insurgents willing to sacrifice for their cause have often prevailed with far less firepower and manpower than opposing state forces that mainly relied on material incentives such as pay and punishment.

One ongoing effort to understand willingness to sacrifice in contexts of conflict is a partnership between Artis International, the University of Oxford's Changing Character of War Centre, and Spain's Universidad de Educación a Distancia and Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona.

Supported by the US National Science Foundation and the US Department of Defense's Minerva Initiative, this research has shown that willingness to fight and die among frontline combatants in Iraq from 2015 to 2016 was greatest for those who fought for sacred values and who perceived 'spiritual strength' (ruhi bi ghiyrat) as more important than material strength (manpower, firepower).

From 2017 to 2018, young Sunni Arab men in Iraq's Mosul region who professed belief in core ISIS values of strict Sharia and a Sunni Arab homeland expressed greater willingness to fight and die than did supporters of a democratic or unified Iraq.

In Europe, neuro-imaging of supporters of armed jihad revealed that willingness to sacrifice for sacred values corresponds to inhibiting brain activity in areas associated with deliberative, cost-benefit reasoning while activating areas involved in rapid, rule-bound moral judgments.

Research indicates that the Taliban and their supporters believe it's worth dying for establishment of an Islamic Emirate—not global jihad—involving territorial sovereignty under Sharia law. Motivation and strength can be found on both sides of conflict.

Research found that US Air Force Academy cadets' perception of spiritual strength, tied to group loyalty, was more strongly associated with willingness to fight than was physical formidability.

Yet, however strong the esprit du corps of American fighters, no amount of arms or training could ensure its transference to other forces and cultures.

Imposing democracy

The findings are clear, but uptake by decision-makers is constrained by fear of sunken costs (lives and treasure spent in vain) and reliance on programmes with tangible costs, fungible options, and short time horizons—everything the sacred and spiritual are not.

Adversaries' and allies' core values must be faced as they are, not as some might wish them to be (and generally not be denigrated, which tends only to backfire).

Only then might commonalities and conflicts across cultures, values, and interests be effectively navigated.

For example, few outside Afghanistan's urban minority value democracy and women's rights—however worthy of foreign support—and most Afghans oppose the imposing of such values by foreign forces.

But most Afghans also consider their homeland sacrosanct and oppose foreign jihadis using Afghanistan to attack other countries.

Taliban leadership never consented to Al-Qaeda's 9/11 attack, so the United States might realise a security goal if the Taliban abide by their long-standing offer to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a base of operations against the West.

By failing to recognise limits on the ability to impose on other cultures values that have taken many years to attain gradually in its own culture, the United States and its partners will continue the unsound habit of approaching problems by building up the wrong kinds of allies and armies - weakly-modelled in America's image but devoid of the spirit that can only arise from one's own values and cultures.

To honour Western democratic values by example, advancing them through financial, media, and moral alliances, and using force only to defend rather than dispense, is a surer way forward.

Author bio

Scott Atran is an anthropologist and founding fellow of the Centre for the Resolution of Intractable Conflict at the University of Oxford. This article was first published in the 3 September 2021 issue of SCIENCE, Vol. 373, reprinted with permission from AAAS.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.


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