Recent investigations into alleged war crimes committed by Australian and UK special forces in Afghanistan have raised urgent questions about the conduct of people serving in the military.
As militaries rethink their structures and the complex role they play in society, they must also examine what types of people they should recruit. Who are modern soldiers, and why did they choose to serve?
Some of these answers can be found in current research conducted by the defense forces over the past half century. With the end of conscription in many Western countries, volunteer militaries began conducting studies that looked at why people enlisted. The results are intended to make recruitment campaigns more effective.
We recently conducted a research project funded by the Australian Defense Force that examined these studies through the new lens of behavioral science.
The purpose of this study goes beyond increasing recruitment numbers, however. Understanding people’s motivations for enlisting can also reveal a lot about the recruits’ suitability for the military, given the new demands they face in these roles.
We’ve found that contrary to the conventional portrayal of military recruits as Hollywood-inspired, hyper-masculine mercenary types, many people enlist because of the duty to care for others and the value they place on military service.
Recruitment for a new military model
The role of the military has changed in recent years. Today’s threats are generally not active conflicts between countries, but rather ethnic conflicts within countries, terrorism and cyber warfare. Peacekeeping and humanitarian missions have also become more common than conventional warfare, with military forces often involved in disaster relief and recovery efforts.
The lines around the purpose of a military today are increasingly blurred. As a result, public sentiment and the battle for hearts and minds have become increasingly important, especially as technology and social media allow home audiences to better understand what is happening on the field.
The now deceased sociologist Charles Moskos called it “postmodern military.” It is stronger and more professional than the armed forces of the past, which were tasked with new types of missions, often without widespread public support.
New model armies need new model recruits. So, what motivates someone to want to volunteer?
We found that the bulk of the evidence can be neatly drawn along two distinct dimensions:
- intrinsic versus extrinsic motivations
- and pro-social versus self-serving motivations.
Serving for thrills and adventures
Intrinsically motivated people do things for themselves. For example, they may want to travel for the journey itself, rather than to reach a destination.
Regardless of the results, some recruits are motivated to serve in the military by the idea of service itself. This may include having an innate interest in the military, learning how to use high-tech machinery and a sense of adventure.
Melbourne University researcher Sara Meger found that many foreign fighters are drawn to international flashpoints like Ukraine because of the thrill.
Some people also enlist for the military because of a personal psychological need for stimulation. A military study showed that volunteer soldiers had a greater tolerance for risk-taking than non-volunteers.
Serve as a means to an end
At the other end of this spectrum are those driven by external motives. It means doing something in pursuit of a different goal, such as financial compensation, or recognition obtained through medals.
In Meger’s interviews with foreign fighters on both sides of the conflict in Ukraine, he found that they were often driven by ideology. Serving is a way to support desired political outcomes, such as self-determination in Ukraine.
Some British and American fighters are driven by the goal of protecting Ukraine—and the Western world in general—from what they see as a threat to the freedom of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
These people consider themselves freedom fighters, like Che Guevara, and accept extraordinary risks and difficulties. They often have military backgrounds, too.
Service for others versus self
Some soldiers were fired for a pro-social reason, such as their service for others. These people may be motivated by altruistic reasons, such as protecting one’s country and loved ones at great risk and cost to themselves. Some serve as a means of providing better support to their families.
At the other end of the scale are those who have self-interested motivations for service. This may include personal development, income, training and career opportunities. Escapism is another common motive found—many serve to cope with relationship or financial breakdowns or family stress.
Extrinsic motivation and self-interest are not the same. Freedom fighters, for example, fight for an extrinsic outcome (winning a war), but may do so out of consideration for others (those who win their freedom).
And intrinsic motivations are not always pro-social. Adventure seekers care about fighting rather than winning, for selfish reasons.
Together, these motivations reveal four archetypes of service: the volunteer, the freedom fighter, the professional and the mercenary. But research suggests that most people have different motivations and lie somewhere between the extremes.
So, who is the ideal soldier?
How can these insights help the military? Defense forces have much to gain from recruiting volunteers with the right mix of intrinsic and pro-social motivations.
Psychological evidence suggests that people with intrinsic motivations lead to better service quality. They are motivated by discipline, technical skills and professionalism, which means they are more likely to act according to what society expects of them.
But evidence also suggests that these motivations can be “overloaded” when excessive rewards are offered. This means that providing an extrinsic incentive for something reduces the intrinsic motivation for it.
For example, British social policy pioneer Richard Titmuss has widely considered that paying people for blood donations takes away their chance to show public enthusiasm. This was later confirmed by empirical studies.
On the other spectrum, pro-socially oriented people are well suited for humanitarian missions or interactions with civilians caught up in conflict.
Multinational companies and organizations are already using this type of scientific research to find the best candidates for their workforce. As the military rethinks its mission to keep up with the times, they can learn a lot from the mulitnationals on this front.
In the postmodern military, recruiting isn’t just about filling the ranks, it’s about finding the right fit for an increasingly challenging profession.
Provided by The Conversation
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