Why do men throughout history, in all cultures, fight to the end?

| December 28, 2020

You don’t remember the Alamo?

Poe sends in this PJ Media piece that provides some insight.

Going back to antiquity there are countless stories of warriors fighting to the last man against overwhelming odds. What is it in our nature that leads us to do this? PJ Media takes a look at Michael Walsh‘s survey of historical Last Stands: Why Men Fight When All Is Lost. They say it’s “not about dying, as the title might suggest, but about why people chose to live out their last moments in a certain way. The book covers famous episodes from antiquity to the early Cold War.”

Some of the famous last stands the book explores are;

  • The Battle of Thermopylae (480 B.C.)
  • Cannae (216 B.C.) and the Teutoburg Forest (9 A.D.)
  • Masada (73/74 A.D.) and Warsaw (1943)
  • The Battle of Roncevaux Pass and La Chanson de Roland (778/1115)
  • The Battle of Hastings (1066)
  • The Last Stand of the Swiss Guard (1527)
  • The Siege of Szigetvár (1566)
  • The Alamo (1836) and Camarón (1863)
  • Grant at Shiloh (1862)
  • Custer at the Little Bighorn (1876)
  • Rorke’s Drift (1879) and Khartoum (1885)
  • The Battle of Pavlov’s House: Stalingrad, 1942
  • The Chosin Reservoir, 1950

If Sergeant Major Dan Daly’s “Come on, you sons of bitches, do you want to live forever?” doesn’t rate its own chapter, I don’t know what else will. I’m sure Chesty’s description of the situation at Chosin, “We’ve been looking for the enemy for some time now. We’ve finally found him. We’re surrounded. That simplifies things.” is featured in that segment of the book. What motivated them to continue to do what they did? Both of those men had long already distinguished themselves (Daly had two Medals of Honor around his neck before setting foot in France and Puller had already earned four Navy Crosses).

I’ve featured some valiant last stands in my Valor Friday posts. Adolph Metzger and Ben Salomon immediately come to mind, but there are many others. I’ve even talked about one of the men at Custer’s Last Stand, Custer’s brother Thomas Custer (who also had received two Medals of Honor before his final battle).

Thanks to Poe and PJ Media, I might have to pick up this book.

Category: Guest Link, Historical, Valor

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Slow Joe

A very interesting article, especially the last few paragraphs.

Go to the link and read it.

I disagree with most of it, though.

The author forgets that those men that died in last stands did not do so because they wanted to, but because they believed in a cause greater than themselves.

The author tries to portrait last stands as a personal decision. It is not.

Also, most of the dudes at Rorke’s Drift survived, just as in some of the other examples used by the author.


His position reminds me of Grossman and his book On Killing.

State a theory and then shape the evidence to support it. Gloss over facts/data that doesn’t support your position.

I would venture to say many of those involved in the evolutions mentioned didn’t have some fierce philosophical debate amongst themselves. They just did what needed to be done and did their best for the man to their left/right. Simple as that.


“I got nothing better to do…”


I’ll echo Slow Joe with “because they believed in a cause greater than themselves”. I’ll add in that they fought to the last man because there was no other option than to go out fighting. Like the guy said in repo man, better to die on your feet than live on your knees.


FWIW: the phrase “It is better to die on your feet than live on your knees” is believed to have been coined by Zapata, SFC D.


I knew that, but I first heard it in that classic movie.


I’d wager similar words expressing that same defiant sentiment to steel their troops’ courage and resolve have been used by NCO’s and officers in many languages around the world for as long as war has existed.


Certainly – if for no other reason than to remind their soldiers of (1) their duty to behave honorably and (2) the consequences of surviving and losing. Per Plutarch, Spartan mothers admonished their sons going to war by telling them: “Come back with your shield, or on it.”

In ancient times, the consequence of losing a battle was virtually always quite severe. The losing soldiers who survived were routinely hunted down by the victors whenever possible and either slaughtered or enslaved. Honorable surrender with reasonable treatment afterwards wasn’t generally an option.


When it is obvious that today is the day you die, what are the options? Seems like they are limited to only make it easier for the enemy or take as many of the enemy as possible with you.

Even when there appears to be little to no hope of surviving the battle, if you give up and make it easy for the adversary to kill you, there is NO chance to survive the encounter.

Just Lurkin

As others have noted some of these cannot be categorized as “last stands”. Shiloh in particular is a terrible example: Grant’s resolve is admirable, but he knew that the Army of the Ohio was close at hand and he had a strong position by the end of the first day. One factor to consider is that in only two examples, Stalingrad and Chosin, was there an element of air cover. Once troops could see support from outside their own unit, in the form of air support, they could either be heartened to continue the fight or believe that they might be evacuated by air. Great morale and unit cohesion can play a part in standing and fighting with one’s comrades, and there are examples of this in the examples above, but in many cases the didn’t have much choice, as others have pointed out.


Another factor to consider is that historically speaking either death or life as a slave was routinely the outcome for those on the losing side who were captured, even if they surrendered, until fairly recently. That was certainly a factor at many of the battles listed, including the Alamo (Santa Anna had announced no quarter would be given if I recall correctly) and Little Big Horn.


There is also the fact that surrendering is always a risky proposition, even to the “good guys”. To quote another Clint Eastwood character, “Do you feel lucky?”.


I believe I said virtually exactly that above. But you’re correct: even today among states that adhere rather strictly to the Geneva Conventions, one surrendering today does risk being offed by someone who decides to take revenge vice prisoners. Every Army has such individuals, and sometimes leadership can’t prevent them from taking revenge (or is complicit in their doing so).

President Elect Toxic Deplorable Racist SAH B Woodman

“Stay calm and take six with you”

Jeff LPH 3, 63-66

I like the above pic of the Alamo with the words: You don’t remember the Alamo and last week I mentioned in a comment that my memory was bad and that I forgot the Alamo. REMEMBER THE ALAMO (battle cry).

Veritas Omnia Vincit

In addition to the notion of something larger than oneself there is a simple reality of time and place.

In truth when we consider what we “own” on this earth we own nothing that is truly ours except our death. Everything else we leave behind for others to take from us after our passing. It is only our death that we own, how we die when given a choice is something personal we all have to determine. Those who die from unexpected stroke or heart attack have no say, they just die.

Given the choice in how we face our death most of us have some notion that lying in our urine or feces while we choke the last bits of our time on this earth out of a frail body has very little appeal.

Couple that with the idea if we die today fighting for that which we believe in, even if what we believe in is nothing more than the man (or woman) next to us, we at least leave this world on our own terms in our own way.

These last stands are unique in that regard as history is also full of those who ran and died as cowards trying to escape the clutches of those advancing upon them. It’s clear the idea of fighting to the end for a cause one believes in is not a universal component of human beings.

Makes for an interesting contemplation on our own mortality.


Well said…

Jeff LPH 3, 63-66

Welcome Back VOV. Hope Everything worked out during these trying times.

Sgt K

“When your time comes to die, be not like those whose hearts are filled with fear of death, so that when their time comes they weep and pray for a little more time to live their lives over again in a different way. Sing your death song, and die like a hero going home.”


Only Army Mom

Great article and even better commentary. To me, the answer includes measures of two of the most admirable qualities of being human, perfect altruism and the innate drive for freedom. The former is something we aspire to, the latter is as deeply evolutionarily requisite as opposable thumbs.