The British Army has a culture of cracking on. Roughly translated into civilian speak, this means soldiers take a perverse pride in persevering in spite of overly ambitious operations and insufficient resources.
Cracking on is absolutely vital at the tactical level; along with black humour it drives the Army on operations. But at the strategic level, cracking on does no one any favours. As Hew Strachan writes:
The army was paying for its ‘can do’ mentality, its reluctance to challenge political direction which contradicted strategic sense, and its institutional fear that if it were not used it would be cut. Between 2006 and 2008 it fought two campaigns without being able to resource either of them properly … These were limited wars but they required masses of troops, and Britain did not have them.
This is particularly poignant today. The Army has arguably been defeated in two wars, and is probably facing a budgetary apocalypse. Consider these quotes from James Meeks’s recent article in the London Review of Books:
- “In a way it was worse than a defeat, because to be defeated, an army and its masters must understand the nature of the conflict they are fighting.”
- “It’s also clear that institutionally [the British Army] has been riding its luck for generations.”
- “The beginning of Britain’s deployment in Helmand coincided with the belated realisation by British high command that their American patrons considered them to have been beaten in Iraq. Their much vaunted light-touch counter-insurgency skills had failed and the US was going to have to bail them out.”
- “[T]he result was that the British military establishment put the preservation of its long-term budget ahead of the preservation of its soldiers in the field.”
- “[B]y 2008, the UK was not just the junior coalition partner to the US, but the junior intellectual partner as well.”
- “[The] article is typical of the barely restrained bitterness of mid-level generals towards an army damaged less by budget cuts than by institutional denial of the need to adapt.”
Things are not good.
[T]he test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise. F Scott Fitzgerald
The way we do things is no longer good enough. The traditional model is for a commander to get his leadership team together, and have a good debate—possibly in the form of a structured planning process like an estimate. After everyone has said their piece, the commander makes a decision and all debate stops. The unit then moves into ruthless execution mode.
There is clearly a big problem with this, even at the best of times. It’s hard to make predictions about the future in any circumstance, but combat is particularly—perhaps uniquely—dynamic (Clausewitz’s fog, friction, chance, interactivity and uncertainty). Separating debate and execution creates a huge risk of anchoring. This applies just as much at the strategic level as at the tactical level: as John Boyd said, on day one it’s doctrine; every day thereafter it’s dogma, and its adherents are dinosaurs.
But these are not the best of times. Many of our military leaders are simply not good enough, and many of our civilian leaders are even worse.
There are obviously very good reasons why the military limits debate, but a high-performing organisation must be able to challenge itself and innovate. It also needs genuine iconoclasts. The Army needs David Stirlings, T E Lawrences and David Hackworths by design, not by fluke.
F Scott Fitzgerald said that the test of first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. There could be no greater example of this than being on operations, in ruthless execution mode, and transmitting absolute confidence to your soldiers, yet at the same time fighting off the anchoring bias by continually, actively attacking the theory in use (the mental model that actually drives decisions).
The British Army must cultivate the Aristotelian golden mean between loyalty and adherence on the one hand and disobedience on the other. Given the limitations of the officer selection process this almost certainly involves changing the culture rather than changing the inputs (although clearly changing the inputs would be better). Culture change is not easy, but it starts with recognising a new ideal, and both setting the example and celebrating others that do as well.
Riffing on the first-rate mind theme is another critical (but rarely mentioned) characteristic of good leaders:
The ability to master this tension, to project both strength and warmth at once, is rare — so rare, in fact, that we celebrate, elevate, and envy those people who manage it. We even have special names for this ability. The ancient Greeks called it “the divine gift”, from which we get the word “charisma.” Neffinger, John and Kohut, Matthew: Compelling People: The Hidden Qualities That Make Us Influential.
Photo published under Open Government Licence.