Published online by Cambridge University Press: 21 October 2015
Say what you'd like, but I've thought for a long time that being a soldier in today's regular Army is a very odd occupation. This is because the soldier is willing to risk life itself to kill a stranger for absolutely nothing. Moreover, you have as much of a chance of being killed as of killing someone else.
Human society created the soldier a long time ago, but soldiers in various societies constituted a caste in the sense that they were born into a lineage of soldiers, for example, the knights in medieval Europe or the samurai during the Edo period in Japan. These people enjoyed many special economic, social, and political privileges and were also feared and respected by the population at large.
Soldiers were willing to risk their lives in battle in order to protect their privileges, or they fought duels to defend their own honour and dignity and to instil fear and respect in others. They did all this entirely for their personal benefit, which is little different from the hired gunman nowadays who is willing to kill for a fee.
But soldiers in the regular armies of today gain nothing by risking their lives in that way. They are required to go into battle if ordered to do so by their superiors with the full understanding that they may face the most terrifying dangers. In the midst of a hail of bullets from enemy machine-gun fire causing their mates in battle to be cut down before their very eyes, or shrapnel from artillery fire all the time blasting people into pieces, and so on and so forth, their commanding officers order them to move forward to attack the enemy. In those extremely dangerous conditions there is a real person in uniform who might react according to ordinary human instinct by looking for a way to escape from the danger and return home to his wife and family.
Thus the enormous challenge that all modern armies have to confront: how are they going to retain soldiers in such conditions of extreme danger and keep them from deserting and returning to civilian life? If this cannot be managed, they cannot possibly engage the enemy in battle even for an instant.