Theory and Society

, Volume 47, Issue 3, pp 293–326 | Cite as

Why combatants fight: the Irish Republican Army and the Bosnian Serb Army compared

  • Siniša Malešević
  • Niall Ó Dochartaigh


This article investigates what motivates combatants to fight in non-conventional armed organizations. Drawing on interviews with ex-combatants from the Army of the Serbian Republic in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Provisional Irish Republican Army, the article compares the role of nationalist ideology, coercive organizational structures, and small group solidarity in these two organizations. Our analysis indicates that coercion played a limited role in both armed forces: in the VRS coercion was relevant mostly in the recruitment phase, while in the IRA its direct impact was only discernible during armed operations. We also find that although both organizations are seen as being highly motivated by nationalist ideas, the picture is much more complex and nationalism is less present than expected. The study demonstrates that nationalism played a relatively marginal role in combatants’ motivation to fight. Instead our research indicates that individualist motivations, small group solidarity, and local networks dominate.


Military Military sociology Nationalism Sociology of war Soldiers War 



We would like to thank our interviewees for sharing their experiences with us. We would also like to thank Katy Hayward, John A Hall and the four anonymous Theory and Society reviewers for their comments on earlier versions of this article.


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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V., part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of SociologyUniversity College DublinDublin 4Ireland
  2. 2.School of Political Science and SociologyNational University of Ireland GalwayGalwayIreland

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