Real Combatants

Sunday, May 18th, 2014

Under what conditions are real combatants obtained? Colonel Ardant Du Picq offers this answer:

Absolute bravery, which does not refuse battle even on unequal terms, trusting only to God or to destiny, is not natural in man; it is the result of moral culture. It is infinitely rare, because in the face of danger the animal sense of self-preservation always gains the upper hand. Man calculates his chances, with what errors we are about to see.

Now, man has a horror of death. In the bravest, a great sense of duty, which they alone are capable of understanding and living up to, is paramount. But the mass always cowers at sight of the phantom, death. Discipline is for the purpose of dominating that horror by a still greater horror, that of punishment or disgrace. But there always comes an instant when natural horror gets an upper hand over discipline, and the fighter flees. “Stop, stop, hold out a few minutes, an instant more, and you are victor! You are not even wounded yet,—if you turn your back you are dead!” He does not hear, he cannot hear any more. He is full of fear. How many armies have sworn to conquer or perish? How many have kept their oaths? An oath of sheep to stand up against wolves. History shows, not armies, but firm souls who have fought unto death, and the devotion of Thermopylae is therefore justly immortal.

Here we are again brought to the consideration of essential truths, enunciated by many men, now forgotten or unknown.

To insure success in the rude test of conflict, it is not sufficient to have a mass composed of valiant men like the Gauls or the Germans.

The mass needs, and we give it, leaders who have the firmness and decision of command proceeding from habit and an entire faith in their unquestionable right to command as established by tradition, law and society.

We add good arms. We add methods of fighting suitable to these arms and those of the enemy and which do not overtax the physical and moral forces of man. We add also a rational decentralization that permits the direction and employment of the efforts of all even to the last man.

We animate with passion, a violent desire for independence, a religious fanaticism, national pride, a love of glory, a madness for possession. An iron discipline, which permits no one to escape action, secures the greatest unity from top to bottom, between all the elements, between the commanding officers, between the commanding officers and men, between the soldiers.

Have we then a solid army? Not yet. Unity, that first and supreme force of armies, is sought by enacting severe laws of discipline supported by powerful passions. But to order discipline is not enough. A vigilance from which no one may escape in combat should assure the maintenance of discipline. Discipline itself depends on moral pressure which actuates men to advance from sentiments of fear or pride. But it depends also on surveillance, the mutual supervision of groups of men who know each other well.

A wise organization insures that the personnel of combat groups changes as little as possible, so that comrades in peace time maneuvers shall be comrades in war. From living together, and obeying the same chiefs, from commanding the same men, from sharing fatigue and rest, from coöperation among men who quickly understand each other in the execution of warlike movements, may be bred brotherhood, professional knowledge, sentiment, above all unity. The duty of obedience, the right of imposing discipline and the impossibility of escaping from it, would naturally follow.

And now confidence appears.

It is not that enthusiastic and thoughtless confidence of tumultous or unprepared armies which goes up to the danger point and vanishes rapidly, giving way to a contrary sentiment, which sees treason everywhere. It is that intimate confidence, firm and conscious, which does not forget itself in the heat of action and which alone makes true combatants.

Then we have an army; and it is no longer difficult to explain how men carried away by passions, even men who know how to die without flinching, without turning pale, really strong in the presence of death, but without discipline, without solid organization, are vanquished by others individually less valiant, but firmly, jointly and severally combined.

One loves to picture an armed mob upsetting all obstacles and carried away by a blast of passion.

There is more imagination than truth in that picture. If the struggle depended on individuals, the courageous, impassioned men, composing the mob would have more chance of victory. But in any body of troops, in front of the enemy, every one understands that the task is not the work of one alone, that to complete it requires team work. With his comrades in danger brought together under unknown leaders, he feels the lack of union, and asks himself if he can count on them. A thought of mistrust leads to hesitation. A moment of it will kill the offensive spirit.

Unity and confidence cannot be improvised. They alone can create that mutual trust, that feeling of force which gives courage and daring. Courage, that is the temporary domination of will over instinct, brings about victory.

Unity alone then produces fighters.

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