It’s no surprise for anyone to find that soldiers fighting together on the front-line are tied together by a special relationship. They have to be. Soldiers need to know they can wholeheartedly depend on each other, put faith in the other’s ability. It’s not just about survival. It’s about comfort; knowing there’s someone close to you that can perfectly relate to the hell you’re going through. You’ll often hear warring bands of brothers speak of their unit as a “family”, but how deep or intense is this link? A study made by researchers who joined front-line warriors during the Lybian 2011 revolution suggests that the bonds soldiers formed in times of great adversity were as strong as those they had with their own kin, literally.

A band of brothers

Libyan fighters chants slogans as they take control of Moammar Gadhafi loyalists' villages in the desert some 750 km south of Tripoli, at Gohta, north of the southern city of Sahba on Sunday. Credit: Francois Mori  /  AP

Libyan fighters chants slogans as they take control of Moammar Gadhafi loyalists’ villages in the desert some 750 km south of Tripoli, at Gohta, north of the southern city of Sahba on Sunday. Credit: Francois Mori / AP

Scientists have always been puzzled by soldiery bonds. What makes most fighters from the same side ready themselves to make the ultimate sacrifice for a person with which they do not share close genetic makeup. Family members will do anything for one another, but their actions are supported by evolutionary considerations: they need to maximize their chances of preserving and passing on their characteristic genetic makeup.

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One of the researchers part of the “Ritual, Community, and Conflict” project – an initiative made up of anthropologists, psychologists, historians, archaeologists and evolutionary theorists working together to try to understand the forces that bind and drive human groups –  joined a humanitarian relief convoy travelling to Misrata, in the north-west of Libya. The researcher, Brian McQuinn, followed front-line soldiers in the heat of battle, only four months into the conflict. He saw first hand how groups of three to five fighters swelled in numbers until they developed into large revolutionary groups, whose members would all pray, sleep and fight side by side.

Libyan rebel fighters gesture at the former female military base in Tripoli, Libya. (AP)

Libyan rebel fighters gesture at the former female military base in Tripoli, Libya. Credit: AP

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Mcquinn was joined by Harvey Whitehouse from Oxford University as the conflict resolved to an end. The two received permission to survey 79 civilians from four different battalions registered with the Misrata Military Council. Very important for their study was that the participants came in two groups: fighters and non-fighters, which include civilians that support front line efforts like drivers, doctors, engineers and so on.

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The surveys were designed to measure the participants’ identity fusion or how much they identified with their group. Each Lybian was asked to choose from a series of pictures that represented different degrees of overlap between themselves and three groups: their families, their battalions and other battalions. The results for the front-line soldiers show that 99% of them believed they were “fused” with their own families, but amazingly 97% indicated fusion with their own battalions, and 96% with fighters in other battalions.


Credit: Anti Compass

When they were asked which of the groups they were most connected with, nearly half (45%) of front-line fighters chose their own battalion rather than their family. By contrast, only 28% of non-fighters chose battalion over family. Interestingly, hardly anyone surveyed (only 1%) were fused with ordinary Libyans who supported the revolution but did not join the battalions.

Whitehouse wrote in a recent piece for the Conversation:

“One interpretation of this study is that sharing life-shaping, intense experiences, such as bearing the brunt of enemy fire, is what bonded Libya’s revolutionaries so strongly; an alternative explanation might be that those who were predisposed to bond with the battalion at the outset are most likely to end up on the front line with each other.

The fact that fighters experienced such low levels of fusion with ordinary Libyans was quite surprising. In our discussions with fighters, they suggested that non-combatants were incapable of understanding what the fighters had experienced during the revolution. In the minds of the revolutionary fighters, this distinction may have sowed the seeds of distrust between fighters and non-combatants after the war.

There are already a number of studies that look at how cohesion in the military affects group performance, but very little research has looked at how intense bonds like these are formed – how bonding with the group can lead individuals to place themselves in harm’s way and sacrifice their lives for other group members.”

The paper, published in PNAS, is a formidable documentation of human bond and kinship, yet it doesn’t explain how these bonds arise. Personally, I feel Richard Dawkin’s gene-line selection offers a valid explanation. In short, while family members might sacrifice themselves to promote the survival of the kin because they’re likely to share genes, to a lesser extent  members of an in-group are likely to share genes and be invested in the survival of copies of these genes. As such, while people living in the same in-group are less likely to risk their lives as they would for their children, there’s still a bond that makes them take a chance. Also, on the psychological side, soldiers can be months, even years away from their real families and in time they may feel the urge to develop the same family ties with those closest to them. Nevertheless, I thought this story was amazing. Special consideration must be awarded to the researchers who joined the front-lines and risked their lives… for science.