Heroes and Cowards

heroes-and-cowardsMatt Kahn and Dora Costa have just recently published Heroes and Cowards : The Social Face of War. I haven’t read the book, but I have read the terrific underlying articles that formed the genesis of this book.

One of them was a fascinating look at why more soldiers didn’t desert their companies in the Civil War than the 200,000 who did — after all there was almost a 50% chance that they would die or be seriously wounded if they stayed with their troop and a negligible chance they would be caught and punished if they deserted.

See this excerpt from Chapter 1:

James Monroe Rich left his wife and his trade for the low and irregular pay of a Union army soldier in the Civil War. He marched through heat and dust, through torrential thunderstorms and deep mud. He marched with gear weighing 45 to 50 pounds—guns, cartridges and cartridges boxes, woolen and rubber blankets, two shirts and two pairs of drawers, canteens full of water, rations, and trinkets from home. He marched with his comrades even when they “were falling on every side” in a failed frontal assault where “the lead and iron filled the air as the snowflakes in an angry driving storm. James was lucky. He survived the war. Over one-quarter of the men in his company did not.

Unlike James, George Farrell was well paid to enlist and take the place of another man who had been called up. He joined a company that had been re-formed with new men and saw no comrades die. Unlike James, he deserted twice, the second time successfully. Why did James stand up for his comrades while George did not?

While their story is told through the eyes of 9 men serving in the Civil War, Costa and Kahn do extensive statistical analyses and controls to verify their conclusions.  Digitally tracking the involvement of 41,000 soldiers from 1861-1865, Costa and Kahn found that “social capital” (the degree of connections they had with others in their troop — e.g., profession, age, hometown, extended blood ties) that predicted troop cohesion. For example, Union soldiers who served alongside men from the same occupations deserted at one-third the rate of counterparts in more diverse companies (where 1 in 10 deserted).

Costa and Kahn quote military strategist Ardant du Picq: “Four brave men who do not know each other will not dare to attack a lion. Four less brave, but knowing each other well, sure of their reliability and consequently of mutual aid, will attack resolutely.”

They also found that survival rates in Andersonville — a despicable Confederate war camp where nearly 40%  of captured soldiers died– was significantly higher if one had close ethnic ties to other prisoners.  Survival rates for Union soldiers born in Ireland, increased dramatically from 60% to 90% if there were 15 other Irish immigrant prisoners but only edged up to 64% if there were 15 other comrades from their original company.  Kahn hypothesizes that “[Y]our comrades would help you get healthy if you got sick and share their food rations… “So in P.O.W. camps, diversity actually turned out to be a bad thing. It hindered survival rates.”

But Costa & Kahn found long-term benefits from diversity of African-Americans in Civil War companies: increased literacy; increased changing of their slave name after service; and increased moving away from their hometown after the War.  Companies with both African American former slaves and freemen had higher desertion rates than units that didn’t mix these groups, but over 30% of former slaves learned to write in these mixed groups versus only 16% in former slave-only units.  Kahn calls them quasi-job-training programs. “[F]or every 10 percentage-point increase in comrades who hailed from a particular state different than the home state of an illiterate solider, the likelihood of that illiterate soldier ultimately relocating to that state jumped by more than 30 percent. ”  Kahn calls this “the Zagat Guide effect…So if we’re in the same company, and I’m from New Jersey, you are more likely to move to New Jersey after the war. We believe that I taught you about the benefits of New Jersey. Serving in a diverse unit helped open horizons for men who had previously enjoyed no mobility whatsoever.”

We’ve long preached about the importance of social capital, but Costa & Kahn show how these social ties help not only in a daily “business as usual” climate but in times of greatest adversity where our lives are on the line. They show where notions of altruism, group identity, and willingness to sacrifice come from, and how they are informed by those around us.  And how we act on our loyalty toward others, even when it holds great cost to us, by increasing the chance that we “go down with the ship.”

To see a WSJ review of Heroes and Cowards, see “Why Soldiers Fight“.

Read Chapter 1 of Heroes and Cowards here.

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