Motivation in War Cover

Motivation in War

The Experience of Common Soldiers in Old-Regime Europe

Ilya Berkovich

Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 2017, 292 pages

Book Review published on: August 17, 2018

In a typical military history survey, the warfare of the eighteenth century serves as the setup from the dramatic changes that follow. Thus, where the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars seem an explosion of energy and violence pushing the combatants toward some early version of total war, we hear the conflicts in the age of Louis XIV and Frederick the Great were, by contrast, limited. We are told they were limited by the political objectives of the dynasts involved. Seize a fortress here, steal a province there. We are advised that they were limited by logistics, as armies were tethered to wagon trains and magazines. We read they were limited by battlefield technology that led to the linear tactics and bloody but inconclusive battlefield outcomes. And, finally, we are told that the armies were limited by the available human material. The eighteenth-century soldier was an ignorant brute dragooned into service out of the dregs of society. Once in uniform, ferocious discipline coerced him into mindless obedience. Such a man would show no allegiance to any cause and would desert at the first opportunity. No wonder Frederick the Great famously suggested that his troops should fear their officers more than the enemy.

If our received view on the last point has gone for years unaltered, it is largely because we have assumed that the ignorant and illiterate soldiers of the period were unlikely to leave a written record that justified any change to our understanding. No more. In his new book, Motivation in War, young Israeli historian Ilya Berkovich has risen to the challenge. By searching the archives and of Europe and North America, he has identified some 250 memoirs, letter collections, and diaries left by common soldiers of the eighteenth century. Taken together, these records enable Berkovich to revise our understanding of the motivation and outlook of the soldiers of the “old regime.”

The author’s research for Motivation in War leads to some surprising conclusions. For example, he finds that if desertion was common among eighteenth-century soldiers, it had as much to do with the low probability of being caught as it did with the unbearable conditions of military service. If some soldiers were pressed into service, many other joined for money, patriotism, or merely the desire to escape the dreary routine of civilian life. If discipline in old regime armies was sometimes severe, the officers usually found that coercion was not enough to keep a unit together on campaign. Appeals to honor, esprit, and camaraderie, along with traditional leadership, were essential. Berkovich argues that it was “the primacy of normative compliance that prompted the majority of men to fight when ordered.” In other words, like the soldiers of a later era, they fought because the men to their right and left fought.

Berkovich’s service as a private soldier in the Israeli Defense Forces shaped his approach. In reaching the conclusions found in the book, the author—to use jargon favored by historians—seeks to give the soldier of the eighteenth-century “agency” and a “voice.” If, on one hand, he asks us to take it on faith that his collection of 250 literate soldiers are representative of the hundreds of thousands of common soldiers who served in the eighteenth century, his case nevertheless seems strong and compelling. In the process of making it, Berkovich convinces us that the soldiers of the Old Regime were not that different from the Roman legionnaires of antiquity or the GIs of more recent times. This book is recommended.

Book Review written by: Scott Stephenson, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas