What makes a soldier, a soldier?

22 March 2022

by Associate Professor Jane Terpstra Tong and Sharon Cheah
Department of Management
School of Business

Is it possible for civilians and volunteers to defend a country, against professionally trained and better-equipped soldiers? Well, if you are a Ukrainian, then your answer would fervently be “Yes”. Since the recent invasion by Russia, men and women from all walks of life are keeping their day jobs and training for combat at other times, picking up weapons and learning how to make Molotov cocktails. But is everyone cut out to take on the role of a soldier? And what makes a soldier, a soldier?

The stereotypical characteristics of a soldier that fit with society’s image is a warrior, filled with images of masculinity. This soldier is typically skilled in military tactics and knows how to use force by possessing great physical and mental strength. In fact, a sign of weakness indicates that one is not suited to be a warrior. Risking one’s life, following superior’s orders without question, and being extremely disciplined exemplify a soldier.

However, a recent study published in 2020 suggests that the typology of a soldier is changing as society changes, offering an insight into the motivations of civilians and volunteers in Ukraine. Besides the warrior type that has been described, there are three other typologies that shed light on these individuals: the nation-defender, the humanitarian and the ideological type.

For the nation-defender type, these people want to protect the sovereignty of their country and are motivated to remove enemies from home territory. They will safeguard their homeland, and only consider it a victory when the nation’s sovereignty has been re-established. They will willingly take orders as long as it is aligned with their motive of protecting their country, not hesitating to turn to resistance if the country surrenders.

Placing great value on human lives and seeking to reduce human suffering is what makes up a humanitarian type. These people wish to protect mankind by delivering aid such as medicine and food, and champion human rights. For a humanitarian soldier, defending people can occur with or without weapons, as long as they are able to preserve human lives.

Lastly, is the ideological soldier, one who holds onto a belief or ideology. The idea or value is what compels the person and drives the person forward. This type of soldier does not follow orders, and is only guided by his or her strongly held beliefs, seeking to influence others into adopting those similar views. For this kind of persons, the ends justify the means and actions taken are acceptable so long they support the achievement of the belief.

These profiles offer insights into the motivations and behaviours of individuals so that they can understand and perform their role better, even if the role is a temporary one. By doing so, the risk of role strain can be reduced, leading to greater chances for operational success. In the case of the Ukrainian civilians and volunteers, it may just give them the edge they need to turn the tide in their favour.

We salute all three types of soldiers -- the nation-defenders, the humanitarian protectors and the idealists. We know you are there to promote peace and protect your home land. You are all heroes!