The military always has to straddle a line between tough training and physical abuse in its ranks. Sometimes it crosses that line such as when drill instructors abused recruits, but the debate between how to train for war without abuse still continues. War is horrible and dangerous, which justifies most behavior, but there is another argument that mistreating soldiers in peace time will make soldiers less effective in combat.
In the Essays of Leadership the editors reprinted a World War I manual on leadership that summarizes the problem very well and comes to a surprising conclusion:
“But too often there are those placed in authority who so far miss the true situation as to treat their subordinates somewhat as though they were dogs. By word, tone, manner, they wantonly insult their manliness and thus sacrifice loyalty and cheerful subordination… Let them remember that military courtesy goes as much from the superior to the inferior as from the inferior to the superior. You want to command a team of men, not of dogs. And you will never get discipline or loyal service from men by outraging their manliness…
“He who can make his men jump with a low firm tone of voice has an enviable force of character. The man who has to raise his voice, scream and roar and curse in order to get action is pathetic. He will be an even sorrier figure when trying to lead in an emergency. He probably missed the first essential, self control, and is too likely conscious of his own inherent weakness or inability.”
World War I contained the horrors of trench and chemical warfare and yet the advice was to use soft-spoken but firm orders to inspire the best from their men. In contrast to the arguments of many on the be-more-tough side of the debate, treating the men under you with respect and concern for their welfare doesn’t mean they will melt in combat. The soft-spoken respect actually increases unit moral and cohesion. In fact, even classical Chinese theory supported this view where the leaders were advised to love the people not punish them like dogs, scare, or terrify them into action:
“Profit them, do not harm them. Help them to succeed, do not defeat them. Give them life, do not slay them. Grant, do not take away. Give them pleasure; do not cause them to suffer. Make them happy; do not cause them to be angry… When people lose their fundamental occupations, you harm them. When the farmers lose their agricultural seasons, you defeat them. When they are innocent but you punish them, you kill them. When you impose heavy taxes you take from them… When [rulers] see their hunger and cold, they are troubled for them. When they see their labors and suffering, they grieve for them… Taxes should be imposed as if taking from yourself. This is the way to love the people.” (Six Secret Teachings of Tai Kong, 43-44)
I can imagine the veterans reading the post and wondering what kind of namby-pamby coddling I am suggesting. I’m not advocating for the removal of military discipline, and of course training for war is tough. But there is a difference between training for war and treating them like dogs. There are differences between loving the people under your command, and treating them like dogs. I hope we can better see the difference and as leaders inspire the best from those around us.