The Psychology of Battle
Another aspect of the history of battle is the literature which has developed around the psychology of pre-modern battle. Numerous people have noted the ‘foreign-ness’ of early modern combat, especially the stereotypical version of the 18C linear battlefield. Rather than heading for the nearest foxhole when the shooting starts, you stand tall in rows and ranks, shoulder-to-shoulder with your compatriots, while incoming cannon shot and musketballs whizz around your head and tear up clods of dirt in front of you. After a preparatory bombardment, your officers order a march forward at a steady pace, “opposing [your] naked Breasts to the Showrs of the Murthering Shot.” As American history students well know, you are ordered to hold your fire till you see the “whites of their eyes.” If your advance is successful, you might finish it off with a bayonet charge, although I think most historians would agree that by the time of the bayonet charge, the defenders would usually have thrown down their arms or fled. Various movie-makers have tried their hand at envisioning such a perplexing scene, including Stanley Kubrick in Barry Lyndon and Mel Gibson in The Patriot. John Lynn has termed this odd-seeming behavior as the “battle culture of forebearance,” and many historians have described the drill and maneuvers required to train thousands of men to just stand there, to march in step, to slowly (and then increasingly-quickly) advance toward the enemy. Trying to imagine such behaviors, and comparing it with their experience from more recent wars, it’s no surprise that military historians study the psychology of battle.
Ardant du Picq’s Battle Studies provided an early emphasis on how the primitive instinct for self-preservation had to be overcome through motivation, discipline, leadership and tactics. In the 20C, John Keegan reinvigorated the subject by asking academic military historians to put themselves in the boots of the soldier on the battlefield, to imagine what it would have felt like to fight with black-powder muskets. Many have obliged, as mentioned in a previous post. In the 1990s a veteran/therapist Dave Grossman wrote a book setting out a universalist, late 20C psychological understanding of the experience of combat, drawing on modern psychological concepts such as the ‘well of courage,’ and of course relying on the by-now-well-established concept of primary (i.e. peer) group cohesion. Duffy’s Military Experience in the Age of Reason also has a long chapter that goes through the mechanics of battle, including how soldiers likely responded.
French military historians in particular have embraced this psychological approach to battle, not surprising given their deep interest in War and Society topics. Perhaps most surprising is André Corvisier, the doyen of institutional French military history, who turned his hand to writing about the panic and enthusiasm expressed by French soldiers at Malplaquet in 1709, a topic taken up in more detail by Malfoy-Noël.
More recently, Yuval Harari has taken a broad synthetic approach to the subject of the experience of battle, arguing that the idea of combat as revelation was a development of the Enlightenment, with early moderns interpreting the battlefield experience as a matter of mind over body.
This topic necessarily crosses disciplinary boundaries, raising philosophical and psychological questions that a lil’ ol’ military historian like me isn’t qualified to weigh in on. So, that leaves it up to you…
Questions to discuss:
- What are the best depictions of early modern battle in the movies? How do you judge the realism of early modern battle scenes?
- How would describe the historiography of the psychology of battle?
- What kinds of sources would shed light on the psychology of battle participants? Which sources have you found particularly striking for their discussion of the psychology of early modern battle?
- To what extent can we talk of a “universal soldier,” vs. participants who thought and acted differently from us (the Other)?
- Du Picq, Col. Ardant. Battle Studies: Ancient and Modern Battle. New York: Macmillan, 1921.
- Keegan, John. The Face of Battle.
- Corvisier, André. “Le moral des combattants, panique et enthousiasme: Malplaquet.” Revue historique des armées 12 (1977): 7-32.
- Grossman, Lt. Col. Dave. On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society. Little, Brown & Co., 1995.
- Malfoy-Noël, Dorothée. L’épreuve de la Bataille (1700-1714). Montpellier: Presses Universitaires de la Méditerranée, 2007.
- Harari, Yuval. The Ultimate Experience: Battlefield Revelations and the Making of Modern War Culture, 1450-2000. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.