Unity #2: Unit Cohesion

Sebastian Marshall
Feb 9, 2018 · 23 min read

EVERY MARINE A RIFLEMAN

The night of 28 November, 1950
Chosin Reservoir, North Korea

At negative 35 degrees Celsius, frostbite sets in after 10 minutes of exposure to the cold. Death can come as soon as an hour after exposure.

The gunfire had stopped.

A muffled voice rang out from the road.

The man listened harder.

“Medic!”

The Marine Corps Medic pushed through the snow to the convoy truck, and he heard another voice ring out calling for him.

The Medic saw a couple soldiers gesturing towards the bed of a truck, a young Marine breathing heavily and writing under heavy winter clothing.

The Medic couldn’t cut open the clothing to treat the wound or the man would freeze to death. The Medic got a vial of morphine out of his supplies — it was frozen solid. He popped it into his mouth to de-thaw it when he heard a loud chorus of small arms fire starting again, pop pop pop from somewhere outside his line of sight in the snow.

Then a rise of shouts —

“Incoming!”

He didn’t hear the distinctive thud, the Medic didn’t hear anything when he was suddenly lifted off his feet before landing on the frozen ground.

What strange beauty is this? Am I in Heaven?

The snowy night landscape was suddenly lit as bright as midday.

Confused, his ears ringing, he stood in a slow daze and stared.

It had been the truck carrying the wounded — it was now melting wreckage as the white phosphorous grenade burned slowly.

The young man, the truck driver… they were no more. The Medic stared off into space. Time seemed to stand still.

Pop pop pop… noises…

Someone was talking to him.

Pop pop pop… is that gunfire?

“Hey! You hit?”

The Medic snapped to suddenly, adrenalin clearing the confusion.

“I’m okay, sergeant!”

“Get your rifle and get to the Sherman! There’s hundreds of them incoming!”

The Medic stared a minute. The Marine Sergeant gestured down the road to the front of the convoy.

The Medic snapped to.

“Yes sir!”

The Sergeant turned to head off, but turned back —

“Hey, if you die, make sure you get at least five of ’em before you die, you got that?”

He processed it and nodded slowly.

“Yes sir! Every Marine a rifleman, sir!”

The Sergeant patted him on the shoulder before turning and disappearing into the snow.

***

THE FORGOTTEN WAR

The Korean War is sometimes called the “Forgotten War” in the United States — it was a much more nuanced and strange conflict than World War II, all sides of the war arguably made significant mistakes, and it ended indecisively.

In this issue, we’re not looking at the larger scope of the war — the American doctrine of containment, the debate over the appropriateness of nuclear weapons that raged in 1950, the diplomatic and coalition-building aspects of the war, the negotiations between Stalin and Mao and Kim, or General Douglas MacArthur’s conflict with President Truman and subsequent dismissal as United Nations Commander.

No, as fruitful as all those items are for analysis and debate and discussion, we’re interested particularly in one of the nastiest battles in history — the fighting retreat from the Chosin Reservoir, 27 November to 13 December 1950.

In some of the most unfavorable conditions that soldiers have ever fought in, it was largely the heroic efforts of United States Marines that stopped the Allies from being totally routed and destroyed while surprised and outnumbered 4-to-1 by Communist forces.

***

TSR’S SERIES ON UNITY, ISSUE #2: UNIT COHESION

We’re exploring how Unity is developed — last issue, we looked at the that can shape an entire culture and era of history on the grandest scale.

This issue, we’re interested in the most fundamental building block of unity — Unit Cohesion, the ability for men to enter into the type of exceptional cooperation that enables doing seemingly impossible things.

It took nearly unimaginable amounts of individual and group fortitude for the Allied forces in North Korea to keep fighting and remain a functional army despite incredibly averse conditions.

Unit cohesion is a very well-understood concept in modern militaries, and an equivalent concept is understood and developed among the best professional sports teams, but it’s just as applicable to the everyday life of anyone that wants to build and be part of exceptional teams.

***

FRICTION

“Portrayed as a clash between two opposing wills, war appears a simple enterprise. In practice, the conduct of war becomes extremely difficult because of the countless factors that impinge on it. These factors collectively have been called friction, which Clausewitz described as “the force that makes the apparently easy so difficult.” Friction is the force that resists all action and saps energy. It makes the simple difficult and the difficult seemingly impossible.

The very essence of war as a clash between opposed wills creates friction. In this dynamic environment of interacting forces, friction abounds.

Friction may be mental, as in indecision over a course of action. It may be physical, as in effective enemy fire or a terrain obstacle that must be overcome. Friction may be external, imposed by enemy action, the terrain, weather, or mere chance. Friction may be self-induced, caused by such factors as lack of a clearly defined goal, lack of coordination, unclear or complicated plans, complex task organizations or command relationships, or complicated technologies. Whatever form it takes, because war is a human enterprise, friction will always have a psychological as well as a physical impact.

While we should attempt to minimize self-induced friction, the greater requirement is to fight effectively despite the existence of friction. One essential means to overcome friction is the will; we prevail over friction through persistent strength of mind and spirit. While striving ourselves to overcome the effects of friction, we must attempt at the same time to raise our enemy’s friction to a level that weakens his ability to fight.

We can readily identify countless examples of friction, but until we have experienced it ourselves, we cannot hope to appreciate it fully. Only through experience can we come to appreciate the force of will necessary to overcome friction and to develop a realistic appreciation for what is possible in war and what is not. While training should attempt to approximate the conditions of war, we must realize it can never fully duplicate the level of friction of real combat.”

, 1997

From time to time, I point out that all U.S. government and military manuals that aren’t classified are in the public domain — you can find many of them online, and they’re insightful reading. Certainly, every leader should read the Marine Corps manual sooner or later — it’s a short read and there’s priceless insights in the document.

Warfighting summaries and synthesizes a number of military theorists throughout history, and explains how those insights apply to modern warfare. It draws heavily from Carl von Clausewitz’s seminal Vom KriegeOn War — which was written in the aftermath of Napoleon’s stunning victories, to explain and understand what Napoleon had been able to do and why the armies facing him so often disintegrated.

Perhaps the most important concept from both Clausewitz and Warfighting is friction

“Friction is the force that resists all action and saps energy. It makes the simple difficult and the difficult seemingly impossible.”

When we want to develop Unity, we should always acknowledge and remember what we’re up against.

Friction is part of the human condition — it makes simple things more difficult than it seems like they ought to be, and it makes difficult things seemingly impossible.

Many plans and cooperative endeavors have straightforward enough goals and objectives, but even the simplest plans can run into friction that takes a mental and physical toll on the people looking to execute those plans. Noting this and being ready for it is essential to make endeavors succeed.

***

FRICTION AT CHOSIN RESERVOIR

“The battle was fought over some of the roughest terrain during some of the harshest winter weather conditions of the Korean War. The road was created by cutting through the hilly terrain of Korea, with steep climbs and drops. Dominant peaks, such as the Funchilin Pass and the Toktong Pass, overlook the entire length of the road. The road’s quality was poor, and in some places it was reduced to a one lane gravel trail. On 14 November 1950, a cold front from Siberia descended over the Chosin Reservoir, and the temperature plunged to as low as −35 °F (−37 °C). The cold weather was accompanied by frozen ground, creating considerable danger of frostbite casualties, icy roads, and weapon malfunctions. Medical supplies froze; morphine syrettes had to be defrosted in a medic’s mouth before they could be injected; frozen blood plasma was useless on the battlefield. Even cutting off clothing to deal with a wound risked gangrene and frostbite. Batteries used for the Jeeps and radios did not function properly in the temperature and quickly ran down. The lubrication in the guns gelled and rendered them useless in battle. Likewise, the springs on the firing pins would not strike hard enough to fire the round, or would jam.”

— Wikipedia:

Note all the environmentally-generated friction in North Korea in 1950 — before even getting into what the Communist forces were doing. The temperatures were such that a man without very heavy clothing would be frostbitten in 10 minutes outside, the terrain was mountainous with lots of high climbs and drops, the road network was poor, and the 1950 industrial technology — batteries, vehicles, weapons, medicine — wasn’t functioning properly in the intense frozen conditions.

The majority of us will thankfully never be in a situation as intense and hostile to life as the 1950 winter in North Korea, but the general points are ones we can all learn from.

Much of friction comes from being human and interacting with the environment. It’s very hard for people to function at their best when conditions around us are hostile to life, to greater or lesser extent; it’s even harder to get groups to remain cohesive, productive, and supporting each other as situations grow more dire.

The environmental conditions in North Korea, again, were more hostile than the majority of us will ever experience, but there is a general lesson here that applies to all sorts of hardships and problems —

“While we should attempt to minimize self-induced friction, the greater requirement is to fight effectively despite the existence of friction. One essential means to overcome friction is the will; we prevail over friction through persistent strength of mind and spirit.”

***

BACKGROUND TO THE WAR

Korea had been conquered by Imperial Japan. In 1945, in the aftermath of World War II, it was divided into two occupation zones by the Soviet Union and United States — similarly to West and East Germany. The plan was for Soviet and American forces to exit the country by 1950 and for elections to be held.

Next door to Korea, in the Chinese Civil War, the Communists had basically defeated the Nationalists by 1949, and had finished major operations by May 1950.

Soviet and American forces withdrew from Korea in 1948 and 1949 respectively, and in the aftermath of the Chinese Civil War, Kim il-Sung proposed to Stalin and Mao that it was possible to overrun and conquer South Korea. The belief among the Communists was that the United States would not intervene.

On 25 June 1950, North Korean forces attacked all along the 38th parallel — the dividing line between North and South Korea.

That same day, the United Nations Security Council unanimously condemned the invasion — the Soviet Union had veto power, but had been boycotting the UN. The Chinese Security Council seat still belonged to the Nationalist Chinese.

On 27 June, there was a United Nations resolution to provide military aid to South Korea, and on 7 July, a unified United Nations Command was formed, to be led by the United States.

Meanwhile, North Korean forces were overrunning the whole Korean Peninsula. Seoul had fallen to the North Korean forces in the initial days of the war. By September 1950, North Korea held 90% of the Korean Peninsula, with the South Koreans and Allied forces constantly fighting retreating actions and losing ground.

On 15 September 1950, the American-led United Nations Command landed a surprise amphibious invasion at Incheon, South Korea, just 17 miles from Seoul. Similar to the Normandy Landings — albeit less well-defended — it caught the North Korean forces by surprise. By the end of September, North Korean forces were pushed out South Korea — and, fatefully, the UNC forces pursued and crossed the line into North Korea.

***

THE CHINESE INTERVENTION

Most Americans do not realize that Chinese and American soldiers were fighting each other in 1950 — from my time in China, it seems like most Chinese are aware of this, but the majority of Americans I meet do not know it. It might be fair to say that Americans are more fervent than the Chinese at any given moment, but we have shorter memories.

By Autumn 1950, it looked like all of Korea would be conquered by the UN Command and placed under the South Korean government. This was unacceptable to Mao and Zhou Enlai, and with Soviet backing in materials, they committed a huge amount of forces to ensure that a Western-allied Korea would not be on their doorstep in the Korean Peninsula.

The Chinese soldiers to spearhead the invasion were battle-hardened veterans of the war against Japan and Chinese Civil War. In late October 1950, over 100,000 Chinese soldiers began to very carefully infiltrate North Korea with exceptional discipline about only marching at night and employing camouflage and navigating difficult terrain to not have the large force spotted by aerial reconnaissance.

On 27 November 1950, in the freezing cold at -35 Celsius, 120,000 Chinese and North Korean soldiers gained the element of surprise on the forward deployments of 30,000 American, South Korean, and Allied soldiers around the Chosin Reservoir.

***

COHESION

“We’ve been looking for the enemy for some time now. We’ve finally found him. We’re surrounded. That simplifies things.”

— then-Colonel Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller, U.S. Marine Corps

If you study military history, a strange pattern emerges — most casualties in battle do not happen during intense fighting when both sides are fully engaged in the battle.

Rather, it’s often the case that casualties are low while both sides are still fighting, but the majority of casualties and fatalities happen after one side breaks ranks and dissolves into panic, retreating erratically.

Chosin Reservoir was one of the worst situations a soldier could ever find himself in — caught by surprise brutal terrain and weather conditions, cut off from supply lines and reinforcements, and outnumbered and surrounded.

Yet in the 17 days from 27 November to 13 December, the forces isolated at Chosin Reservoir did not break down — just the opposite.

Despite being outnumbered 4-to-1 and caught by surprise, they inflicted between 48,000 and 60,000 casualties on the incoming Communist forces while only sustaining between 13,000 and 18,000 casualties themselves.

In a situation that would have overwhelmed and destroyed the majority of armies in history, instead the soldiers and Marines in North Korea were able to successfully retreat the majority of their forces alive while inflicting more casualties than they took — at the end of the day, this turned a potential catastrophe into something of a victory. Had the soldiers and Marines at Chosin broken into panic and been completely destroyed without the huge amount of fighting resistance they put forwards, it’s likely that South Korea would have been overwhelmed instead of holding, and the Kim family would now be ruling all of the Korean Peninsula — and all the beautiful and majestic accomplishments of the South Koreans over the last three generations would not have happened.

How was this possible?

***

EVERY MARINE A RIFLEMAN

The U.S. Marines have an expression, “Every Marine a rifleman.” In 2012,

“It’s a famous axiom: “Every Marine a rifleman”. And it’s part of what makes the Marine Corps so deadly.

Every single enlisted Marine learns, both at bootcamp and at the School of Infantry (SOI), the basics of how to be an infantryman.

At bootcamp new Marines get training in marksmanship and combat marksmanship. They learn hand to hand fighting and bayonet techniques. They learn how to operate as a fire team and as a squad (a fire team is the smallest component of a Marine fighting unit[…] At the end of bootcamp, every Marine recruit goes through “the Crucible”, which is 52 straight hours of combat simulation, where the recruit will have to put all of his new-found knowledge to use. Severe sleep deprivation, food deprivation, long hikes with heavy loads, simulated gas attacks, etc… all add up to test the new Marines on their combat proficiency.

After graduating from boot camp, those new privates then immediately go on to the SOI. Marines who will NOT be infantrymen go through the Marine Combat Training course, which is a 4 week-long seminar on learning even more about the role of Marine infantrymen. Here they learn to shoot such varied weapons as the M249 machine gun, the M203 grenade launcher, the AT4 rocket, 60mm mortar tubes, 155mm Howitzer artillery and more. They also learn basic skills like how to spot an IED, how to patrol, how to properly navigate, urban combat, anti-tank warfare, how to use smoke, fragmentation, and pyrotechnical grenades. Only after completing the month-long course do these Marines then go on to their MOS schools, where they will learn the skills they will actually need to know for their real jobs in the military.

Those Marines that WILL be deployed in the regular infantry enter the Infantry Training Battalion for an 8 week course on everything they will need to know for a successful combat deployment. They do everything described above, but more in depth and to a more advanced degree, so that they will be experts by the time they hit the fleet or deploy.

This bears repeating again: all Marines, regardless of whether they will be on the frontlines in Afghanistan or repairing Cobra helicopters at Camp Lejeune, go through at least 4 weeks of advanced infantry training, in addition to what they learned in boot camp.

This costs the Marine Corps a lot of money. It costs Marines time spent away from learning skills they need for their MOS. The Army, Navy and Air Force doesn’t do this. So, why does the Marine Corps do it? There are 2 primary reasons.

1. Everything in the Marine Corps revolves around helping the infantryman accomplish his mission, whether that be killing Taliban or helping earthquake refugees in Haiti. Pilots fly missions to resupply the infantry or to bomb the enemy so that the infantry can assault them. Artillery is there for the same reason. Guys whose job it is to deliver food and fuel do it so that the infantrymen are properly supplied and so that those supporting the infantry are supplied as well. You get the idea. We are a military organization, and so our meat and potatoes is that Marine infantryman on the ground pulling his trigger at the enemy.

Sending everyone to infantry training helps that Marine understand and experience the unique needs that the infantry has. Marines in a supporting role can tailor how they go about their jobs to better suit the infantry precisely because they have experienced it themselves first-hand.

2. Warfare is a dangerous business. Casualties are taken, units get depleted and lose manpower. The fact that every Marine has a good knowledge of the workings of infantry (the fact that every Marine is indeed A RIFLEMAN) means that in dire cases, you can slot any Marine into a combat unit and not lose a step. If a commander needs someone to quickly neutralize an enemy mortar team, for example, but he only has a communications platoon on hand, he can send that platoon knowing that they are capable of accomplishing the mission almost as well as a regular infantry platoon would be.

During the Korean War, during the withdrawal of the Chosin Reservoir, there were numerous cases of cooks, repairmen, transportation Marines, etc. picking up weapons and defending their positions against enemy forces and repelling numerically stronger forces, saving their fellow Marines’ lives in the process.

So, in a roundabout way, I hope I’ve answered your question. Today, in Afghanistan, as in other combat zones, the fighting is mostly done by infantrymen, even though “every Marine is a rifleman”. But, since every Marine has basic combat skills and has achieved a certain threshold of combat marksmanship (unlike Army soldiers), any Marine can in theory step into a combat role and do the job.

This means that there are few “soft spots” for the enemy to attack since everyone can defend themselves, and it gives a commander greater flexibility in accomplishing a mission since anyone is capable of doing it.

Bonus answer:

Every Marine is a rifleman. Another (less catchy) axiom we have is, “Every Marine officer is a provisional rifle platoon commander.” This means that every Marine officer (even lawyers and pilots), regardless of what their job will be, upon commissioning, goes to The Basic School and over the course of 6 months learns everything they need to know about leading an infantry platoon into combat and beating the enemy. 6 months of learning how to shoot every weapon under the sun, how to properly navigate a platoon through hostile and unknown terrain, how to come up with a tactically sound plan and deliver the mission order to his/her subordinates.

What’s the difference between a Navy JAG and a Marine JAG? The Marine has been through 6 months of hell learning how to kill the enemy and how to lead a platoon to victory.

That’s what makes every Marine a rifleman, and that is how it plays out on the battlefield.”

***

NO SOFT SPOTS

Throughout all of history, armies have required a variety of non-combat roles — transportation and logistics, cooks, mechanics, medical personnel, etc. Throughout almost all of history, it would become a confused massacre when enemy forces flanked or got inside friendly lines and were able to attack these non-combat personnel.

There were no such weak points in the U.S. Marines fighting in North Korea — every cook, medic, and mechanic was also a rifleman. When things got desperate at Chosin Reservoir, medics and truck drivers and cooks took up their rifles to repel the Communist attack.

We can see right away how that can be useful in war, but there are lessons here that apply to all sorts of endeavors in civilian life.

Notably, we see these factors promoting unit cohesion — diligent and intense training leading to competence and teamwork, clear setting of objectives and mission and clear communication of that mission to everyone participating, and shared trust between all people involved.

***

FOR UNITY — TRAINING

From

“The purpose of all training is to develop forces that can win in combat. Training is the key to combat effectiveness and therefore is the main effort of a peacetime military. However, training should not stop with the commencement of war; training must continue during war to adapt to the lessons of combat.

All officers and enlisted Marines undergo similar entry-level training which is, in effect, a socialization process. This training provides all Marines a common experience, a proud heritage, a set of values, and a common bond of comradeship. It is the essential first step in the making of a Marine.

Basic individual skills are an essential foundation for combat effectiveness and must receive heavy emphasis. All Marines, regardless of occupational specialty, will be trained in basic combat skills. At the same time, unit skills are extremely important. They are not simply an accumulation of individual skills; adequacy in individual skills does not automatically mean unit skills are satisfactory.

Commanders at each echelon must allot subordinates sufficient time and freedom to conduct the training necessary to achieve proficiency at their levels. They must ensure that higher-level demands do not deny subordinates adequate opportunities for autonomous unit training.”

I think it’s true that unit cohesion, and unity in general, is not possible without training.

Again, — it’s worth reading and goes into more nuances on the role of training, what makes effective and ineffective training, etc.

But for our purposes, we can note that (1) training is essential to unity, and (2) most organizations and individuals do not undergo enough training to be effective as individuals and teams.

In both Christopher Charles’s description of the ethos behind “every Marine a rifleman” and in the USMC Warfighting manual, you can see hints of why training typically doesn’t happen — it’s expensive, and there’s always other things to do.

Charles —

“This bears repeating again: all Marines, regardless of whether they will be on the frontlines in Afghanistan or repairing Cobra helicopters at Camp Lejeune, go through at least 4 weeks of advanced infantry training, in addition to what they learned in boot camp.

This costs the Marine Corps a lot of money. It costs Marines time spent away from learning skills they need for their MOS [military occupation specialty — one’s job; i.e., medic, mechanic, intelligence, pilot, etc].”

Warfighting —

“[Marine Commanders] must ensure that higher-level demands do not deny subordinates adequate opportunities for autonomous unit training.”

Life is full of “higher-level demands” — training always has a cost involved, and there’s almost always other more immediately pressing things to do. But the most effective teams almost universally include both individual training for competence, and group training so that individuals can coordinate effectively as a team.

***

FOR UNITY — MISSION

We’ll discuss mission more later in this series, but let’s touch briefly on it.

The general concept of friction is something that plagues all of human affairs.

As friction gets worse and worse, a sense of mission is increasingly important to be able to push through one’s negative emotions, fears, doubts, etc, in order to be able to perform one’s role.

Niccolo Machiavelli famously recommended against the use of mercenaries in The Prince — because they would take a prince’s money when times were good, but wouldn’t sacrifice during hard and dangerous times; the money wasn’t worth dying for.

You can imagine how a mercenary force would have fared at Chosin Reservoir — it would have been a rout and a massacre. Instead, the Marines had their tradition and undertook incredible sacrifices and faced incredible hardship for their fellow Marines and for the mission they were on.

The Marine Corps motto is “Semper Fidelis” — Latin for “Always faithful.” It’s embedded deep within the culture of the Marine Corps.

This is worth reflecting on for any organization you’re a member of — whether it be a company, a civic organization, a local government, or even something as simple as a book club or study group.

The majority of groups and teams do not have a motto and an animated spirit of “Semper Fidelis,” nor anything close to it. In fact, it might not be possible at all at some industries — I can’t imagine casino employees, for instance, could possibly reach anything like the levels of emphasis on mission and willingness to sacrifice for the team that the Marines have. For some organizations, it might be simply impossible to achieve.

Nevertheless, it’s worth thinking about — there’s nothing that predestined that Google, for instance, intrinsically had to have a motto of “Don’t be evil” and the official mission “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” — certainly, Google’s early years showed a level of unity far beyond that which happens at most tech companies.

Likewise, you can see much greater longevity at the top levels of performance from professional sports teams that operate in a truly team-oriented sense. The New England Patriots, in American professional football, talk about the “Patriot Way” and have “Do Your Job” emblazoned on posters and guidance all over their training facilities. Teams that operate in a more mercenary fashion with everyone looking out for their individual personality, celebrity, endorsements, the highest possible short-term pay, etc etc, don’t endure and build dynasties in the professional sports world, despite often having athletes who are equally talented on an individual level.

Many civic and student organizations are often run for leisure and a sense of fun alone — but those organizations rarely have the unity that more intense and devoted organizations have.

This is often a hard concept to fully get the pulse of — it can so easily devolve into useless buzzwords — but a shared animating spirit among team members is a powerful psychological buffer against friction.

***

FOR UNITY — TRUST

Trust — potentially another useless buzzword.

And yet, essential to unity.

Trust isn’t possible without competence.

You can talk about “trust-building” all you want — it’s en vogue in the business world right now — but at the end of the day, it’s very hard to perform at the highest individual level if you don’t believe in the fundamental competence of your teammates and others in your organization.

As it says in the Warfighting manual,

“Basic individual skills are an essential foundation for combat effectiveness and must receive heavy emphasis.”

We’ll discuss Selection Processes later in Unity, in determining who is fit to join an organization — but once members have joined, it’s imperative on leadership to ensure there’s training to bring everyone to a standard of competence, and it’s imperative on individuals to become competent in all of their core skills. Trust is not possible without competence.

After that, I believe that it’s theoretically possible but much harder for people to reach trust without shared experience. Christopher Charles did a very good job of explaining how this works in the Marine Corps —

“Sending everyone to infantry training helps that Marine understand and experience the unique needs that the infantry has. Marines in a supporting role can tailor how they go about their jobs to better suit the infantry precisely because they have experienced it themselves first-hand.”

This isn’t always possible, but you often see the finest-run organizations have every team member participate in rote “front-line” duties even if they’re a skilled specialist.

At the American company Costco, they pay much higher wages and benefits than standard for their industry, consistently have excellent company performance, and their customers are very satisfied. They’re a very well-admired organization.

At Costco, every employee starts at the bottom — pushing trolleys and engaging in basic retail operations. By the time anyone reaches a managerial or senior executive position, they have a very good understanding and shared experience of what employees are doing on a day to day basis.

You’ll often the best-performing tech companies require programmers to do customer service for either a period of time on starting, or doing a rotation of it periodically. While on paper this might look inefficient — programmers are paid much higher than customer service staff — it means that their tech teams have a shared experience with others in the organization, and fundamentally understand how customers are engaging with the tech more than organizations where programmers are aloof from those front-line concerns.

Finally, shared hardship creates trust.

I personally think this is an understated and underemphasized reason why large organizations tend to underperform and innovate less than startups — startups, almost by definition, include a significant amount of hardship. The early team members at a startup that succeeds de facto wind up building trust in each other, because they see how each other perform under stress and pressure.

The Marines go out of their way to create shared hardship in peacetime. Charles described it —

“At the end of bootcamp, every Marine recruit goes through “the Crucible”, which is 52 straight hours of combat simulation, where the recruit will have to put all of his new-found knowledge to use. Severe sleep deprivation, food deprivation, long hikes with heavy loads, simulated gas attacks, etc… all add up to test the new Marines on their combat proficiency.”

Of course, the Marines are a military organization, and they’re preparing for the intense hardship that comes in war.

It’s hard to lay out exact guidelines on how shared hardship might be created in an intelligent and sane way for a non-military organization, and yet, the most successful organizations often wind up doing it accidentally or intentionally. It’s worth thinking through.

***

AFTERMATH

I’ve visited Seoul, South Korea perhaps a half-dozen times. It’s a beautiful, thriving city. The South Koreans have built an amazing and wonderful civilization, and their industries make some of the finest things that are exported around the world.

Meanwhile, you know the story of North Korea — with its slave labor camps, repressions, famines, and massacres.

Certainly, the young men fighting at Chosin Reservoir didn’t have a crystal ball — they didn’t that 50 million South Koreans would be alive and flourishing in the Republic of Korea 80 years after that fateful battle.

But the cooks and medics taking up arms and fighting until their last breath in North Korea fought hard enough to cover the retreat of their friends and comrades, and did enough damage to the Communist forces to stop them from overrunning the South.

Almost any group of men, at almost any point in history, would have disintegrated when surprised, surrounded, and outnumbered 4-to-1 on the frozen battlefield at the Chosin Reservoir. The Marines and soldiers there not only did not disintegrate, but fought on in one of the most surprising and epic feats of arms in history.

We all face friction in everything we do — making the simple seem difficult, and the difficult seem impossible.

But Unity can lead to seemingly magical things, as we push past perceived limits, relying on our competence and the trust we have in fellow team members.

As I said in , I believe that more than 90% of people never reach the immense thriving that comes from the highest levels of Unity — but that it’s so beautiful and joyful and productive that it’s worth striving for.

Many things go into Unit Cohesion — both individually and on an organizational level.

You need training to a high level of competence — and you probably aren’t training enough.

You need a genuinely elevating shared mission — and most organizations and individuals do not have such a mission.

And you need genuine trust — which requires competence, and usually requires shared experience and shared hardship that most people never go through.

It’s expensive and time-consuming and taxing to build all of these elements into your life and any organizations you lead — and there’s always expedient reasons not to do so.

But when all these elements come together into Unity, it’s a beautiful and joyful thing — and the seemingly impossible gets done.

Visit Seoul someday if you can — and if you do, reflect for a moment on all those who gave their lives in the Korean War so that a beautiful civilization can flourish.

Until next time, yours,
Sebastian Marshall
Editor,

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