Posture, Submit, Flight, or Fight

Monday, December 22nd, 2014

When two animals of the same species fight, it’s rarely to the death, David Grossman (On Killing) notes:

Rattlesnakes use their poisonous fangs on other creatures, but they wrestle each other; piranha fish bite anything that moves, but fight each other with flicks of their tails; and animals with antlers and horns attempt to puncture and gore other species with these natural weapons, but meet their own species in relatively harmless head-to-head clashes. Against one’s own species the options of choice in nature are to “posture” before and during mock battle, to “submit” by making oneself harmless or exposing oneself to a killing blow, or to take “flight” from the aggressor. The “fight” option is almost never used, thus ensuring the survival of the species.

Most soldiers don’t fight so much as they posture:

The anthropologist Irenaus Eibl-Eibesfeldt tells us that “One threatens [postures] by making oneself bigger — whether by raising one’s hackles, wearing combs in one’s hair or putting on a bearskin….” Such plumage saw its height in modern history during the Napoleonic era, when soldiers wore high, uncomfortable shako hats that served no purpose other than to make the wearer look and feel like a taller, more dangerous creature. In the same manner, the roars of two posturing beasts are exhibited by men in battle. For centuries the war cries of soldiers have made their opponents’ blood run cold. Whether it be the battle cry of a Greek phalanx, the “Hurrah!” of the Russian infantry, the wail of Scottish bagpipes, or the rebel yell of our own Civil War, soldiers have always instinctively sought to daunt the enemy through nonviolent means prior to physical conflict, while encouraging one another and impressing themselves with their own ferocity, and simultaneously providing a very effective means of drowning the disagreeable yell of the enemy.

With the advent of gunpowder, the soldier has been provided with one of the finest possible means of posturing. Paddy Griffith (Battle Tactics of the Civil War) points out that soldiers in battle have a desperate urge to fire their weapons:

Time and again we read of regiments blazing away uncontrollably, once started, and continuing until all ammunition was gone or all enthusiasm spent. Firing was such a positive act, and gave the men such a physical release for their emotions, that instincts easily took over from training and from the exhortations of officers.

Ardant du Picq became one of the first to document the common tendency of soldiers to fire harmlessly into the air simply for the sake of firing. Du Picq made one of the first thorough investigations into the nature of combat with a questionnaire distributed to French officers in the 1860s. One officer’s response to du Picq stated quite frankly that “a good many soldiers fired into the air at long distances,” while another observed that “a certain number of our soldiers fired almost in the air, without aiming, seeming to want to stun themselves, to become drunk on rifle fire during this gripping crisis.”

I’ve mentioned Grossman’s thoughts on posturing before.


  1. Alrenous says:

    It’s obviously more effective to simply kill the other guy, but clearly the instincts are too powerful to just ignore. The troops need the morale as much as anything. This explanation was good enough to alter my conclusion, though.

    Big loud platoons should do their thing, grabbing the enemy’s attention, meanwhile the actual soldiers should sneak up or flank with silenced guns and do the real work.

    The noisemakers should be given rounds that are optimized for decibels per dollar. Large muzzle flashes too. Perhaps not actual blanks, as that’s too blatant, but close enough.

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