Centre for International and Defence Policy

Centre for International and Defence Policy
Centre for International and Defence Policy

Combat Motivation - Past, Present and Future

The Canadian Context

1-2 November 2016

Korea Hall, Fort Frontenac, Kingston, ON

Draft Agenda for Workshop | August 2016

Combat motivation became the subject of rigorous scholarly inquiry only after the end of the Second World War. Since that time a substantial body of literature has evolved across many disciplines. The general consensus in this literature has been that the most effective fighting units, especially those engaged in land warfare, were those that were highly motivated to fight because they were cohesive, homogeneous, and had trained and fought together for a relatively long period of time. This consensus has been transmitted to most Western militaries through their professional military education (PME) systems and through university-level courses taken by serving members. Since the mid-1980s, however, there has been a growing literature that has challenged the conventional consensus, based on a close audit of previous research and observation of effective “temporary” military units that did not meet the traditional criteria for combat effectiveness based on high motivation due to cohesion developed through long-term social interaction. Israeli Defence Force researchers used the term “swift trust,” [JM1] already current in literature on effective temporary civilian groups, to describe how ad hoc units composed of heterogeneous groups who had never had any previous contact could quickly operate effectively.  Other work challenges the long-established idea that homogeneity of military units – whether in terms of race, religious belief, gender, or sexual orientation – is a foundation of cohesion and motivation. New findings from historians, political scientists and other scholars have demonstrated that heterogeneous and diverse groups can and do operate highly effectively.

There has been relatively little Canadian scholarship on the topic of combat motivation and the Canadian military has tended to use the work of others in this field for its PME and training. This is beginning to change. In his new book on combat motivation in the Canadian Army 1943-45 (Strangers in Arms: Combat Motivation in the Canadian Army, 1943-1945, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2016, http://www.mqup.ca/strangers-in-arms-products-9780773547254.php), Robert Engen coins the phrase “strangers-in-arms” to describe units that were highly motivated and were extremely effective in combat even when composed of soldiers who had few or no existing relationships. In fact this situation was common for the Canadian Army in the Second World War because of high casualty rates, sometimes as high as 150% of unit strength, and because of personnel policies.

This workshop will build upon the latest research and last year’s CIDP workshops “Lost in Translation? The Impact of Military Culture on Alliance and Coalition Politics” and “Gender Mainstreaming in the Canadian Armed Forces: Benchmarking with NATO Allies and Partners” by focusing on how culture and diversity can influence motivation in combat. It aims to explore various dimensions of the relationship among combat motivation, unit cohesion, and operational effectiveness from a Canadian perspective, based on the most recent scholarship. The workshop will examine combat situations faced by the Canadian military from 1943 to the present day to see how traditional concepts of combat motivation based on unit cohesion and new concepts such as swift trust and diversity will impact on Canadian combat operations in the future.​

The workshop is co-sponsored by:


Department of Political Science
Royal Military College of Canada


Defence Engagement Program