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Insubordinate Survival Techniques

It seems that, when leaders are pressing hard to achieve their goals, people in the trenches will develop ways of ignoring all but the most direct of orders. And for good reason.

In the trenches in World War I, the Germans and the English were not continually fighting. Instead, they developed a complicated system of co-operation that meant neither side sustained heavy losses unless the Staff Officers had ordered a charge.

One British Staff Officer, on a tour of the trenches reported that he was

"astonished to observe German soldiers walking about within rifle range behind their own line. Our men appeared to take no notice These people evidently did not know there was a war on. Both sides apparently believed in the policy of live and let live."
G. Dugdale, Langemarck and Cambrai, Wilding & Son, 1932, p.94
This etiquette was finely honed over the course of the war. Both sides knew that if one side lost a man during dinnertime, then the other side would lose three when they were having their meal the next day. Similarly, flags on both sides marked places that the enemy snipers should consider out of bounds. This unlikely alliance was so deeply felt that apologies were made if it seemed to have been broken. A junior British Officer recalled one such apology being made while he was dug out, facing a Saxon unit of the German army.
"I was having tea with A Company when we heard a lot of shouting and went out to investigate. We found our men and the Germans standing on their respective parapets. Suddenly a salvo arrived but did no damage. Naturally both sides got down and our men started swearing at the Germans, when all at once a brave German got on to his parapet and shouted out, 'We are very sorry about that; we hope no one was hurt. It is not our fault, it is that damned Prussian artillery.'"
O. Rutter, ed., The History of the Seventh (Service) Battalion - The Royal Sussex Regiment 1914-1919, Times Publishing Co.,1934, p.29.
Last night, I was reminded of this while chatting with an old friend over a curry. And on my way home, I thought about how in any two-sided affair, the bosses, heads, CEO's or presidential candidates - call them what you will - might have more of themselves tied up in an "them-and-us" approach than the rest of us.

And I thought about how the above example gives you a slightly more human spin on things like Valdis Kreb's social network analysis of political bestsellers. While the SNA showed a clearly "two-sided" set of buying habits (people either bought Republican or Democrat), and a very empty No Man's Land (very few bought both), I thought how in behavioural terms most of us are the equivalent of those Saxons and English troops, with some of us Prussians, and a few officers. The sides (or books we might buy) are ways of identifying us, and I suppose ways of us identifying ourselves. But what can you draw from that? That we are tribal, yes, but to be honest, big deal. That we are tribal but actually shout across No Man's Land all the time? I can't see that from the SNA, but I wish I could.

(By the way, Robert Axelrod mentioned the above example in his wonderful book The Evolution of Co-operation[Amazon link].)

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Piers Young has been doing a little history reading and came across an interesting cultural observation. Insubordinate Survival Techniques It seems that, when leaders are pressing hard to achieve their goals, people in the trenches will develop ways of... [Read More]

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See also this entry at Uncontrolled Vocabularies

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