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Leaders of Friends

Updated: Sep 21, 2022

Come, my friends.

‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.

Push off, and sitting well in order smite

The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds

To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths

Of all the western stars, until I die.

It may be that the gulfs will wash us down;

It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,

And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’

We are not now that strength which in old days

Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are,-

One equal temper of heroic hearts,

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

-Tennyson “Ulysses”

Perhaps a consideration of friendship seems irrelevant to a discussion concerning leadership, but I’d like to propose that far from irrelevant, friendship is in fact a key to the success of American military leadership. Aristotle’s reflections on friendship in particular apply directly to us as brothers in arms and as leaders. It seems clear that friendship is not just a byproduct of working together for an extended period of time. Certainly friendship often happens in the context of workplace cooperation, but I think we risk underestimating its capabilities by underestimating its source. Through several of the books in his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle meditates on the nature of friendship and I’ll take the liberty of summarizing his description of the highest form of friendship as a free association of people mutually striving for goodness and virtue.

There are two key aspects of friendship that make it so important to our battlefield success. The first is that our cultural heritage and national character dispose American service members toward a military environment in which friendship thrives; and the second is that friendship among military members is a force multiplier. It is helpful in understanding the first point to remember the inherent cooperation between citizens that a democratic nation presupposes. Aristotle describes democracy as the political system in which friendship is best able to thrive—a system that necessarily places a high value on cooperation, dialogue, and free association. If we recall Aristotle’s description of friendship we will begin to recognize some of its ingredients in the democratic system. These ingredients are what come naturally to Americans who, upon entering the military, have to learn military discipline which often chafes against our native character. The historian Victor Davis Hanson writes of Americans in World War II: “The strength of the GI was his adaptability, independence, and initiative; but to allow those attributes to come into play on the battlefield, the American soldier must, if for a brief time only, come to accept a level of discipline wholly out of his national character.” As Hanson explains, discipline is a must, but it can be equally dangerous to ignore the cultural fabric out of which our service members are cut. Friendship comes naturally to a free people.

Hanson records the unique characteristic of Western militaries from antiquity, not based on a slave and master model, as in many of their competitor militaries, but on a more democratic, friendship driven model. He shows that there is a military advantage gained when the warriors are friends: “a sense of personal freedom, superior discipline, egalitarian camaraderie, individual initiative, constant tactical adaptation” are the products of Democratic militaries which like ours are composed of friends. He points to Xenephon’s Persian expedition as an example of a democratically driven army, not only surviving but thriving in pursuit of a common goal, and in service of common ideals. We are reminded of Aristotle’s description of free men in mutual pursuit of the good. The three hundred at the Hot Gates were not driven there like slaves, but came as free men, and friends. Consider also Sadaam’s regime propped up by terror, defeated by American volunteers.

But what about leaders? Can American military leaders tolerate, or even cultivate, friendships within their command? Of leaders and subordinates Aristotle writes, “where ruler and ruled have nothing in common, they have no friendship, since they have no justice either….insofar as the [one] is a slave, then, there is no friendship with him. But there is friendship with him insofar as he is a human being.” The distinction Aristotle makes here is crucial to military friendship. The rank structure has to exist and be respected entirely in order for the necessary discipline to exist; but because leaders and subordinates are human beings, friendship can and should thrive. MCDP 1 is very clear that in war, the human dimension rules the day. Friendship in leadership is that aspect of military life that capitalizes on the potentials of the human dimension.

The point is, that as leaders it matters what kind of command climate we create. If we ignore the power of friendship and use our authority like a slave driver, we risk losing the power and ingenuity of free people who are friends. Remember how Aristotle describes friendship. It’s not necessarily about hanging out and drinking beers—it’s not what we would consider fraternization. Friendship is a voluntary mutual striving for goodness and virtue. That’s true friendship, and Aristotle says it thrives most in a just community—in the military, the leaders are responsible for maintaining the climate of the community.

I think it’s relevant to remember that all our Marines are volunteers who committed themselves to pursuing military and moral virtue. That makes them friends in arms. However, so often the climate is cut-throat and antagonistic among Marines and between leaders and subordinates. There is nothing wrong with competition, but as a leader it is wrong to stifle that true friendship in arms that is our privilege to cultivate. When we promote that mutual striving for virtue and excellence, the intangibles like unit cohesion, trust, and spirit will make their presence felt. Our key strength is not, and never will be, financial or technological—see MCDP 1—our key strength is our humanity, the human dimension.

In many training commands you probably feel as though you cover too much to take in; you move from topic to topic leaving pieces of knowledge behind along the way. Our subordinate Marines are the experts on those pieces we leave behind, but we the leaders have to be the experts on them, on the human dimension. From MCDP 1, “Human will, instilled through leadership, is the driving force of all action in war.” The Marine Corps is a constant school in human nature, which makes sense for an organization that sees the human dimension as its key strength. So how do we cultivate and capitalize on that key strength?

Our Marines are searching for a friendship in arms with you and with each other. Don’t stifle those free American spirits with a falsely rigorous discipline, or an antagonistic command climate. Cultivate the hunger for friendship and excellence that we are all born with, and the intangibles like unit cohesion and individual initiative will follow. We emphasize an inherent American strength when we lead with friendship in arms, and trusting Aristotle, we’ll find there is very little stronger than friendship.

This essay first appeared in the Marine Corps Gazette


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