Panick & Bloodust in Warfare: Why do humans act so irrational in groups?

I read the recent Military Historyarticle about the battle of Marathon

In that article the story is that the extremely well trained hoplites on the greek flanks, after being back the light Persian infantry, were able to avoid breaking ranks in pursuit and instead close and trap the remaining Persian center, where the heavily armed Persians were.

The battle also had ‘panicked’ flights by the Persians.

Most of the older battles I’ve read about always seem to have conflicts that are won based on either the winning side going crazy with bloodlust, losing their cohesian and training to raid the ever present baggage/camp of the enemy, (and then getting routed since they are out of order), or a panic which causes the panicked troops to flee (and usually throw down their weapons), whereupon the panicked troops are slaughtered.

Ok, so I give up: Let me flatter myself, I have great self control and cant imagine panicking or wanting to raid baggage. So what is with this human behavior? Are humans really pathetic herd animals motivated by these irrational passions? Why is it so rare to have disciplined troops like the hoplites? Is it that much against human nature to be disciplined? Why do humans act so irrational in groups? Not a man in that army would ever admit, or even think of panicking, yet they seem to do so.

I suspect its not really irrational. If your the first guy to break and run, your chances of being killed are probably less then if your the last guy to do so. So while running away screws over the larger army, as an individual decision it might not be as crazy as it seems.

Ditto for looting the baggage train, it doesn’t do your side much good, but you get free loot.

No one (or few people at least) “imagine” panicking in a given situation. Indeed most people I have met have an over idealized version of their courage in their head. “If I were there I woulda stayed and saved everyone and then kicked the bad guy’s ass!”

I think the reality is you have no clue what you will do in a life-or-death situation till it happens no matter how convinced of your own courage you are.

Training helps mitigate panic. A well trained force is less likely to panic then a not trained force. An experienced force of veterans is less likely to break than a bunch of noobs (been there, done that kind of thing).

Bottom line though is anyone is susceptible to it and it is contagious (after a fashion).

There are stories galore of valor on the battlefield from unlikely heroes. On the other hand some swaggering tough guys totally lose their shit.

Point is I am not sure you can spot the heroes from the wimps ahead of time (unless they have a track record).

Now we have a continuum here. From wimp to hero. I imagine it would be a bell curve if we could graph it for most cases. But no knowing…might have a platoon of wimps or a platoon of heroes. Going with the more likely bell curve you will have some guys break pretty easily. Then on up the ladder you march. I presume once you hit some breaking point everyone runs. Even if you are on the hero end of the spectrum if your army is running away and you are the last guy there you are just stupid.

You’ve probably never faced hundreds of nasty men coming to carve you up into pieces with swords, though. Or seen the people around you being carved up into pieces by those men.

As far as raiding baggage goes; well, are you a rapist, mugger or robber? If not, then it isn’t surprising you wouldn’t raid a baggage train either since that’s pretty much the modern equivalent. People fighting for loot tend to, well, loot when they get the chance.

With regards to not panicking, with all due respect, you are simply deluding yourself. I’m sure you’re reasonably self controlled at driving down the freeway or not eating too much at Chick-Fil-A, but put you in front of a thousand men with spears chanting about how they’re going to kill you, and unless you’re backed up by an equally large number of armed men and you’re confident they can fight as well as the guys arrayed against you, you will cry, run, and quite possibly shit your pants. It is not natural for a human being to offer himself up for slaughter, and without a huge amount of confidence instilled by training, esprit de corps and the confidence than can be instilled by good command, you would run like a scared little rabbit.

It’s also worth noting that running when things went badly was the way those armies usually avoided total annihilation. Complete wipeouts were very rare; in most battles the guys who ran away mostly lived again to fight another day. Men in phalanx formation cannot catch fleeing men. In such battles, once the matter was tactically decided there wasn’t any point in sticking around and dying for no reason.

With regards to raiding baggage trains, that was very much the POINT of ancient and classical warfare. War in those days could be a very profitable exercise for the winning side, and soldiers expected to be able to loot as part of the reward for defeating an enemy. Not allowing them to loot would have been seen in many such armies as being equivalent to a modern soldier not being paid.

It’s expensive and time consuming to train men to be soldiers, and most nations and kingdoms in history could not afford to train a substantial number of professional soldiers.

It’s been my understanding that changed with the advent of cavalry. Guys on foot have trouble catching other guys who are not only driven by panic but have lightened themselves by throwing away their weapons, but horsemen can do it easily.

Not to be rude, but this is the source of your confusion. Have you ever been shot at? Mortared? Shelled? Found yourself in the middle of thousands of men hacking each other to bloody pieces? If you can only imagine yourself acting with great self control under these circumstances, the only person you’re fooling is yourself.

Disciplined troops aren’t inhuman robots acting without fear or panic; they are just keeping it under control. They aren’t immune from such human passions either; even the most disciplined of soldiers can and will break. The idea that not a man would admit to panic in combat is entirely false. This table of reported symptoms of fear from post-battle questionnaires of US soldiers in WW2 is from The Sharp End by John Ellis:

[li]Symptom (% reporting) Division A B C D[/li][li]Violent pounding of the heart 84 78 74 68[/li][li]Sinking feeling in the stomach 69 66 60 57[/li][li]Shaking or trembling all over 61 54 53 39[/li][li]Feeling sick at the stomach 55 50 46 39[/li][li]Cold sweat 56 45 43 39[/li][li]Feeling weak or faint 49 46 36 34[/li][li]Feeling stiff 45 44 43 31 [/li][li]Vomiting 27 21 18 8[/li][li]Losing control of bowels 21 12 9 4[/li][li]Urinating in pants 10 9 6 3[/li][/ul]Ellis notes that

Well, what the hell are you doing here, Captain America? Your country needs men of steely nerves like you. Go to Afghanistan now, brave hero. Don’t even reply to these posts just go! and…and God bless you.

ETA: hey, it’s my 7000th post. Yay me.

If someone is shooting at you … isn’t it irrational to stay!!!

Morale is one reason so many military leaders have emphasized the offensive - it’s harder to run away when you’re running forward, if only because of momentum.

Yes and no.

I mean, if all it took was one guy firing a shot to make the other army run that’d be pretty silly too.

War would be a lot less bloody which is a good thing but then it comes down to who can pull a trigger first.

As others have said, you are only guessing that you wouldn’t run away or pause to loot. I’m assuming that if you had some sort of combat experience you would not have felt the need to ask the question. Other people have brought up how terrifying it must be to have explosives raining down around you or to see some big metal encased bastard cut off your friend’s head then make a beeline towards you, so I’m going to address the pillaging part a bit.

Do you only own one set of clothes? Did one of your children ever die from malnutrition? Hell, ever been homeless? If any of those things had ever happened to you, you might rethink your steadfast decision not to pause and pry that gold ring off that dead guy’s finger. Ever had to march for 5 weeks straight, with nothing to eat but stale bread, and not even as much of that as you’d like? Maybe you would take a twenty minute detour to load up your bag with some apples and beef jerky from the enemies supply wagon. Those camps that always get raided in ancient battles generally contained the treasury that was used to pay the enemy army. Stealing that money could not only transform a soldier from an indebted pauper to a rich man, it also made a moderate amount of strategic sense. As other dopers have pointed out, the sole purpose of lots of ancient campaigns was to loot and steal stuff.

It may seem odd to read that half the army decided to run away or stop fighting to loot, but also keep in mind that communication was more limited back then. They didn’t have radios or binoculars. The soldiers on the left flank might have no idea what was happening on the right flank. Retreating soldiers might not know that their allies on the opposite side of the battlefield were enjoying success. Soldiers who have just captured the enemy’s camp and are stripping it of it’s valuables might not know that their comrades on the other side of the hill are being pushed back.

It’s also worth noting that large amounts of soldiers throughout history have been conscripts or mercenaries. Some conscripts were essentially treated as slaves (and some soldiers literally were slaves). If you’re a mercenary, you may lose some job opportunities if you run away, but you definitely can’t get paid if you’re dead.

bring. It. On!!!

“It makes me mad when people say I turned and ran like a scared rabbit. Maybe it was like an angry rabbit, who was going to fight in another fight, away from the first fight.” --Jack Handy

In addition to this, there’s another reason why looting the enemy camp was so profitable. If you’re a businessman going on a trip today, you leave most of your wealth at home when you go. But if you’re a general in ancient Persia (or ancient wherever) you take your wealth with you when you go on a campaign. Why would you do this? Because your wealth wouldn’t be secure if you left it at home. You had no guarantee of protection for your personal property. The Emperor (or King, Pharoah, Caliph, Tyrant, etc…) would probably just help himself to all your gold if you left it at home. So you’d take your gold with you when you went off to fight a war, and you’d keep it in the baggage train.

Are you now just kidding around?

What’s your personal record in armed combat?

I know that you, personally, are a stone-cold robot who is untouched by the emotions we hu-mons call “fear”. However, when everyone else starts to run away, what do you do then? You can stand and fight and be killed, or run away and try to save yourself.

This is why “panic” is contagious, because every one of your comrades who runs away makes it more likely that your side will lose and will all be killed, and if you’re all going to be killed there’s no point in continuing to fight. So when your buddies start to run away, you run away too, because there’s safety in numbers.

Ok then why do so many of the ‘cowards’, that is, the first people to flee, start running away? What about all the macho posturing I see in daily life “No fear” and “death before dishonor” USMC tatoos? Is it all B.S.?

All battle plans are complete and accurate until first contact with the enemy.

You never know how you are going to react when your platoon-mate gets his head blown off and parts of his brain land on your face. You can’t train for that completely, people aren’t robots. Sometimes the macho posturing is an effort to steel themselves for the perceived danger, some is because they are afraid, some is because they really believe that is the way they are.

What kind of answer are you looking for? Several have been presented already in this thread.

It is partial BS. You see, military leaders are well aware of the phenomenon of soldiers being scared of getting cut into pieces by angry strangers. And so, a large portion of military training goes into attempting to mitigate this phenomenon.

So early soldiers were taught to fight standing close to their buddies. When you’re with your buddies you feel safer. And if your buddies aren’t scared, and aren’t running away, you won’t run away either, because you don’t want to look like a coward in front of your buddies, you don’t want to be separated from your buddies because they’ll help protect you, and you want to help your buddies because they’re your buddies. Fighting close together also puts you under the watchful eye of your officers, who will severely punish anyone who attempts to run away, at least until the officers are running away themselves.

There’s also a good deal of social engineering, both from an early age as part of the general society, and in the military itself. You teach the kids that running away is shameful, and tell them tales of bravery, and so when they face battle they’ll be ashamed to run away. And you amp that up in the military itself with all sorts of “death before dishonor” talk. And you train and train the soldiers to obey orders without asking themselves “why”, so that when the moment comes, the soldiers will march forward or stand fast when ordered, simply out of habit. Until fear overcomes habit and social pressure, and they break.

And this is because, if one side looks at things rationally, and decides to run away from danger, while the other guys, heads swollen with tales of courage and honor marches bravely but stupidly into battle, the brave side wins and the rational side loses. And what happens next, is the brave side doesn’t just win the battle, they march on toward the losing side’s village, and they rape, rob, loot, and burn. And so the side that runs away comes back to their homes and find blackened ruins, their animals and crops and treasure stolen, and their women and children carried off into slavery.

And so the rational side wasn’t so rational after all. The societies that fostered a warrior ethic dominated those that didn’t, and so the rational response is to be irrationally brave. Of course, if everybody else on your side is irrationally brave, and you cheat and run away, your side will win anyway and you won’t be exposed to danger, and it’s win-win. But if everyone thinks like you, then it’s lose-lose, as the fleeing troops get run down and slaughtered by pursuing cavalry, and their homes and families destroyed.

So even cowards have an incentive to pretend to be brave, and to convince everyone else to be brave, and pay lip service to the ideals of bravery. And many cowards find themselves in extremely dangerous circumstances where they are forced to pretend to be brave and do many apparently brave things, all the while cursing and wishing they could be home and in bed.