There didn’t seem to be much sense to getting killed. The war went on at its own slow, deliberate pace, and if he got himself killed it would make no difference one way or another to anyone but himself, and to his family, perhaps. Whether he was dead or not, at exactly the same moment of the twentieth century the armies would move, the machines in which the real fighting finally took place would destroy each other, the surrender would be signed . . . Survive, he remembered desperately from the lumber file, survive, survive . . .
This is from Irwin Shaw, The Young Lions, 1948.
A few months ago, I saw the movie version by the same name on TV and liked it a lot. I realized that I hadn’t seen it since it had first come out and I was eight years old. One thing our family did well together was go to movies and our parents trusted me, the youngest, to understand what was going on. I did, by and large.
My wife, noticing how much I enjoyed the movie, gave me the novel for Father’s Day. It’s thick, it starts slowly, and it’s different from the movie in important ways. (Duh.) So it took me about 100 pages to get into it and I did.
Reading the above passage, it occurred to me that soldiers in most wars are the equivalent of price takers in a competitive market: their actions matter in the aggregate, but for the vast majority of soldiers, their actions individually don’t have a discernible effect on the overall outcome.
So what really makes sense for the vast majority is simply to stay alive.
If you don’t like the price taker analogy, try Mancur Olson’s collective action framework. They’re pretty much the same.