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What Motivates Men to Fight? Lessons for Agniveers

The debate on Agnipath the freshly minted recruitment scheme that has been designed to induct young men of seventeen and a half to twenty one (23 for the first two years) has been focused on making the Indian military more youthful, tech savvy and infusion of spirit of nationalism in the Agnveers - .

The underlying belief is that an exposure to military culture will make the youth more nationalistic as they were once willing to fight and give their lives for the nation.

Yet studies carried out over the years have revealed that men under fire not necessarily are willing to give their lives for the nation per se but more for their military comrades or what in the Indian infantry is known as the “regiment.”

To take the route of morale and motivation in battle further down a man is more than willing to give his life for the “Paltan ki Izzat,” or the honour of the battalion.

Men also stick to their comrades in the platoon and section more than the general melee of the military

This bonding is built over the years and not just the four years of service that the Agniveers are to render.

One version even goes on to state that 25 % of the Agniveers who are retained after four years may be inducted into fresh units rather than those in which they were recruited further diluting the level of bonding.

While this is seen as wisdom that has been built up over the years, there is increasingly scientific evidence to prove that camaraderie drives motivation more than the larger ideal of nationalism.

Studies on Morale and Motivation to Fight

Jon Elster, Professor, Columbia University analysing the case of Russian underestimation of fighting potential of the Ukrainians in 2022 identifies four main motivations to fight which he says has been a truism since the time of Aristotle, nationalism is last in the list, though the author does not place this in an order of priority but is presumed.

The four as per Elster-

(1) fear of being punished by their superiors if they disobey orders; (2) shame of letting down their fellow soldiers; (3) anger directed towards an attacker; and (4)enthusiasm for a cause which can be interpreted as nationalism.

The Economist quotes a study by Artis International, an Arizona think-tank supported by America’s defence department on motivation.

The most important factor for, “those who declared themselves willing to sacrifice the most were the ones who also seemed least interested in material comfort and economic prospects”.

This is also essentially the Indian soldier who is so far drawn from the rural background. Now the Agniveers are expected to be technologically savvy to lead in the modern battlefield may not be so.

Will they be also willing to undergo the privations on the front line for instance on the high altitudes of Eastern Ladakh and Siachen – the highest battlefield in the World remains to be seen?

Another important finding of the Artis study as indicated by the Economist was a fusion of identity with the comrades in arms – or the camaraderie built through rigorous training which in the case of the Indian infantry is in sections, platoons and the, “Paltan”.

This denotes that those selected for permanent absorption from the Agniveers need to continue in the same units rather than shuffling them around.

An important study on experience, sex, age and so on as it impacts effectiveness of fighters is being carried out by the Warfighter Effectiveness Research Centre or WERC, in Colorado as indicated by the Economist.

The results of this study are yet to be revealed but would also provide a perspective on the bonding and effectiveness between the young Agniveers and the older permanent soldiers and whether youth alone can improve battlefield performance.

Lt Gen H S Panag (retd) combines his decades old experience in the military with a study of literature on the subject of military motivation to state in an article in the Print on 16 May 2019 how Indian Army promotes “individual, unit and mission cohesion,” through the regimental system in the combat arms.

In other arms and services the corps spirit or ethos drives motivation which is also followed by the Air Force and the Navy.

Panag quotes a study by US sociologists Edward A. Shils and Morris Janowitz on German Army soldiers in ‘Cohesion and Disintegration in the Wehrmacht in World War II’ to state that unit solidarity was more important than the common belief of, “Nazi nationalism.”


On the face of it, Agnipath scheme is not designed to create the level of camaraderie at the unit level. Now that the government is determined to see the recruitment scheme through unless major tweaking is undertaken there will be a challenge for ensuring motivation of soldiers to fight.


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