A Hollow Force – The Least Worse Option?

It seems apparent that the institutions of Britain are fraying, and the military is not alone in this. While the RAF may have termed the last twelve months its ‘annus horriblis’ it is the Army that appears to be bearing the brunt from service accommodation to hollow divisions. How did we get here?

Julian Lindley-French is as trenchant as ever on his blog: “Government is always about hard choices, but it is precisely because successive British governments have either failed to make such choices, or on the few occasions when they have it has invariably been the wrong choice driven by short-term politics rather than national strategy. The High Establishment even have a metaphor for kicking the British can down the global road – managing decline. They are not particularly good at even doing that.

A slightly less trenchant perspective, but no less cutting, is afforded by Professors Uttley and Dorman of King’s College London in their written evidence to the Lords’ International Relations and Defence Committee for its recently published report titled ‘Defence Concepts and capabilities: from aspiration to reality’ that was recently covered by WavellRoom. The report is well worth reading, as is the supporting material. I wish to highlight the following from Professors Uttley and Dorman as being salient to where we are now.

  • “the MoD is currently making short-term year-on-year decisions to balance its in-year budget. The result has been a series of short-term capability reductions.” (p.3)
  • “There is ample evidence that HMT and MoD relationships have historically been antagonistic. Part of this is structural: HMT seeks to control expenditure and government departments seek to maximise their budgets. In other words, the MoD is no different from any other large spending department. But it should also be remembered that HMT has, at times, been very supportive of defence as was the case during rearmament in the 1930s.”(p. 5)
  • “As a large spending area, the MoD has historically been a primary area for budget raiding because of its expenditure programme is one of the largest across government. Moreover, given the high level of capital investment it is an area where substantial savings can be made relatively quickly should a major programme be cancelled.” (p.5)
  • “As Robert Self has suggested, HMT has required close supervision of the MoD because of its consistent inability to live within its budget and demonstrate rules of financial discipline, leading to inquisitorial dealings with the MoD. In effect, the MoD has been viewed by HMT as a ‘recidivist over-spender’.” (p.5) (5 Robert Self, Making British Defence Policy, (Routledge: Abingdon), 2022, Ch. 8.)
  • “The UK’s national strategy as a post-WWII residual great power has been based on minimising strategic shrinkage and balancing between a range of sub-strategies. This includes balancing the Britain’s maritime and European continental commitments, as well as investment choices between conventional and nuclear investment, and the maintenance of the special relationship with the US via NATO verses closer integration with mainland European attempts to create security architectures.” (p. 6)

It seems to me that this captures nicely the context of MoD decision making, in both micro and macro over the past few decades. It covers the ‘what’ very nicely, without necessarily going in to the detail of the ‘why’. For this I turn to Sir Peter Ricketts who was the British Government’s first National Security Adviser and, from 2006 until 2010, the Permanent Under Secretary at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Head of H.M. Diplomatic Service. In the excellent RUSI podcast Talking Strategy Sir Ricketts expounds at length on strategic decision making as he experienced it.

  • “My experience of democratic politicians are that they are hopeless at strategy making. There is nothing in the training, development required to be a senior political leader that prepares them to think or act strategically.” (2.25)
  • “. . . an overarching national strategy which is what I understand by the term ‘Grand Strategy’ I found from my experience to be pretty much impossible in the rough and tumble of politics which is all about the short term. My experience has been that politicians tend to run a mile when the word strategy is mentioned.” (2:56)
  • “In the Civil Service the word strategy is bandied about for any document that tries to take a rounded view of any problem. So in the Foreign Office we had strategies for every single country in the world and every single issue we were following, a human rights strategy, a climate change strategy, a conflict prevention strategy and so on. What we tried to do in the National Security Council when I set that up for David Cameron in 2010, is to take a step back and look at all the risks and threats which were on the government’s list relevant to the UK, I think it was a list of about 80 of them, and to try and make a choice thereof what we thought were the most likely risks to occur and if they did those that would have the most impact … and then we sat down and with that long list of risks and we produced a matrix of likelihood and impact if the risk happens. And we made choices, we chose twenty risks, we prioritised them between top tier, second tier and third tier risks, and to me that is the essence of strategy making at the top level of government. It’s not about listing every single ambition or aspiration that you have and reassuring citizens that you are doing something about it. It’s making choices, it’s setting priorities, and that’s a thing that I found politicians are very leery of doing. Because when you make choices you leave somebody in the Cabinet disappointed. When you set priorities you can be almost sure that there will be some disruptive event come along (sic) and then you will be criticized for having set the wrong priorities.” (3:56)

Taking all this in to consideration, I was struck by a comment made at an informal dinner recently by some very senior officers. Those of us in the trenches may despair at Army HQ and the MoD, but they are staffed by bright people doing their best, and by and large our leadership are capable and effective too. So what are we to make of their decision making? In talking about the current crop of Service leaders, the point was made that “of course, decision making at that level is all about making the least worst decision”.

So perhaps we are where we are because that was the least worst option available to us? And if so, what needs to change so that the best option available is not simply the least worst option?

The Culture & Leadership Conference: Building on Sand?

A Polemic

My interest was piqued recently an open invitation to the Centre for Army Leadership (CAL) Winter Conference titled ‘Culture and Leadership’. The premise of the conference is:

The success of any organisation depends upon its culture – the values, beliefs, attitudes and ethos that shapes it’s collective identity. Culture, in turn, informs our behaviours and directly influences the ‘lived experience’ of our people.

The Centre for Army Leadership (CAL) Winter Conference seeks to better understand the symbiotic relationship between culture and leadership. It also seeks to ask the difficult questions. What is culture? Why is it important? Is our culture fit for purpose? What are our strengths? Where are our shortfalls, gaps and failures and what is being done to address these? Most importantly, what role do we as leaders played in shaping a better culture?

These are all laudable aims, and I looked with interest at both the speakers and the topics. If you are not planning on going, in person or via Zoom, then I would recommend that you give it serious consideration; the programme is excellent.

And yet.

Despite explicit acknowledgement of an “ever evolving social, political and economic landscape” and the “symbiotic relationship between culture and leadership” the conference fails to address the evolving culture of the society from which we draw. The topics are clearly focused internally, and yet our Army culture cannot be divorced from the culture of the society we inhabit; there is a symbiotic relationship between the army and society.

There are three aspects in particular that I would have considered worthy for consideration. Two are foundational to the type of society that we are and aspire to be, the third, a Pandora’s Box, is not yet foundational but is ubiquitous.

1. We live in a post-modern society.

2. An evolving moral framework. This post-modern society is post-Christian, yet our moral fabric, exemplified in our legal framework and in large elements of our moral outlook, is based on our Judeo-Christian heritage.

3. The Information Ecosystem. We inhabit a society with a failing information eco-system characterised by information disorder.

Looking at each in turn.

1. The implications of of post-modern society. ‘Post-modern ‘ is a used here in its philosophical sense. Post-modernism is a critical movement, largely sceptical of the idea of constant progress by society. It is acutely sensitive to the idea and danger of universal truths, for if universal truths are claimed, then inevitably there follows the the universal police to ensure compliance. There are four pillars to post-modernism (according to Walter Truett Anderson, a US political scientist)

  • Pillar 1. The social construction of the concept of self. There is no such thing as a real or substantive human nature. A good example of this in modern societal discourse is seen in the concept of transgenderism.
  • Pillar 2. The relativism of moral and political discourse. The primacy of the individual expressing her or his will to power. Good examples of this is the current focus on the rights and feelings of the individual as opposed to the responsibilities to and sensibilities of the many, and the increasing tendency to create our own moralities.
  • Pillar 3. Deconstruction in art and culture. Things are not as they seem, truth is constructed not created, and so a dialect of deconstruction leads to truth. This can be seen in the critical approach taken to historical narratives and art, and in part, in the so called ‘cancel culture’.
  • Pillar 4. Globalisation. Borders are seen as a purely social construct; relegated in use and importance.

So what are the implications for the Army and our leadership? How do we lead an organisation where corporate values and standards are seen as at best anachronistic? How do we lead individuals where realities are self-defined social constructs, moral codes ambiguous and cohering narratives belong not to the institution or the nation state but to other entities or ideas? One only has to look at how the Covid19 vaccine mandate is playing out in the US armed forces to see this being manifest in the here and now.

2. An evolving moral framework. The increasingly relativist  framework of modern morality has been touched on already. One senior officer has already pointed out the need for PME to focus more on how to think and not what to think, including on ethics. We are a society in flux. Our personal moral frameworks are evolving quickly, yet our institutions of state and society are still founded on Judeo-Christian morality. Most do not give much consideration to ethics, and it is not taught at schools. But how can we lead by example in a complex fast paced and increasingly morally ambiguous world if we do not know what is right or wrong and why? We want critical thinkers, but are we prepared for when they challenge us on ethical grounds? In our modern diverse army the fact that Generation X has a fundamentally different moral framework to Generation Z appears to have passed most people by.  We ask our people to act with integrity and do the right thing – what happens when individual moral integrity runs foul of lawful orders? What does it mean to have personal integrity mean when everyone’s is different yet valid? How can our leaders extol us to ‘do the right thing’ when that ‘right thing’ is different for different people? Does the Army need to develop an ethical framework to buttress Values and Standards? 

3. The Information Ecosystem. In a world of ideas where the individual and not the state is supreme, where reality, truth and morality are relative, cohesion is challenged. We are in a crisis of trust and truth. This crisis is brought about in part by the ideas we build on, but also by the information ecosystem that sustains us. An ecosystem that is decaying. We are living in a time, a crisis of information disorder. Information disorder, denotes the broad societal challenges associated with misinfor- mation, disinformation, and malinformation (“The Commission on Information Disorder, Final Report.” page 9, The Aspen Institute, Nov. 2021. CC BY-NC. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/ by-nc/4.0/ )

As the Aspen Institute’s  excellent report makes clear, there are no quick fixes or easy answers to address information disorder, or repair the crisis of trust that strains our civil fabric. The core problems and challenges of this era are deeply rooted and indicative of larger issues our society is struggling with across modern life (page 14), and misinformation and disinformation expose society’s failures to overcome systemic problems, such as income inequality, racism, and corruption, which can be exploited to promote false information online (page 15). Information disorder exposes systemic issues within society, yet in a manner that exploits systemic weaknesses in our information ecosystem to deliver corrosive effect. A systemic problem requires a systemic solution, more than the military could or should deliver. However our leadership and culture must acknowledge the environment within which it operates, the symbiotic relationship between information, culture and leadership. I wonder if we understand this fully, let alone comprehend the implications for 21st century organisational leadership culture and praxis.

The CAL leadership conference looks excellent, but we need to cover the societal fundamentals first. This polemic is aimed at starting the conversation.



The Genius of Aircraftsman Shaw

Aircraftsman Shaw – otherwise known as the inimitable TE Lawrence CB DSO

There was a period of time when the RAF was derided as “utterly utterly useless”. At the time I thought this comment, written by a personal acquaintance of mine, was grossly unfair, and nothing has happened to make me change my mind since.

There is a degree of healthy inter-service rivalry, but fair degree that is unhealthy too. We always used to joke in Northern Ireland that one could gauge one’s chances (and service affiliation) of a helicopter lift by the clouds in the sky. Clear blue skies and sunshine would see the RAF, overcast with drizzle would see the light blue call off but the Army would still get through. But come rain or shine, hail or snow, day or night the Navy would be there. We loved to Fly Navy.

Joking aside, my dealings with the RAF, have always been a professional delight. My first serious engagement with the light blue was at the then HQ British Forces Falklands Islands, which I still rate as my most rewarding tour by way of professional development and leeway to learn. At staff college I was impressed by the RAF’s ability to work smart as opposed to nugatorily hard (the army way) and I have always been impressed by their performance both as individuals and as an organisation on operations. That goes for air power as a whole, something that the army tends not to understand particularly well. My most recent deployments have been to the Middle East and the role of air power in the counter ISIL campaign has yet to be fully understood or appreciated.

We in the Army would do well to gain a greater understanding of the other domains in light of the Integrated Operating Concept. That may well also hold true to the other components, but I can only talk from my cheap seats in the Land domain. Not that lack of understanding, inter-service rivalry and misunderstanding are anything new, as this excellent biography of Air Marshal ‘Bomber’ Harris makes clear. There is much to commend in this book, not least in the bibliography which lead me to several equally commendable finds and this little gem on Aircraftman Shaw.

“One of the notorious figures at Cranwell at this time was Aircraftsman Shaw (the legendary Col T. E. Lawrence – Lawrence of Arabia) whose mind-bending task daily was to sit outside “C” hangar and record the cadets’ flying times. He was, of course, revered by all and sundry in the hutted West Camp, Cranwell. He was a form of Guru to the airmen who frequently took their problems to him, rather like the simple Arab in the desert who treated him as some form of God. Many tales are told of his judgements that hovered between those of Solomon and Sanders of the River. On one occasion the old crone who managed the NAAFI decided that she would have to charge an extra penny for a cup of tea. Now in the early thirties this was too much for the troops to take, so they took their problem to Shaw who then went to the NAAFI and brought all the cups for a penny. When the NAAFI ran out of cups, the old dear was at her wits end and sent for the orderly corporal, who in turn sent for the orderly sergeant. He also realised that this was a situation far beyond his métier and summoned the duty staff officer who arrived resplendent in full ceremonials, pantaloons, highly polished knee-length riding boots, and regulation yellow walking stick, and visited Shaw in his billet and confronted him in a corner, where he held court. After a short and unequal debate, Shaw conceded the surrender of the cups, provided the NAAFI no longer charged a penny deposit on a penny cup of tea, and West Camp, Cranwell, returned to its normal tranquillity.

The other story I recall to mind about this time is that Cranwell in those days must have been the coldest spot south of the Arctic Circle and the ration of coal to fire the single stove in a billet of 22 erks took little account of the temporary hutment. Some genius had laid down that the ration of coal would be 1lb of coal every other day as sufficient to ward of armies of brass monkeys that descended on Cranwell in winter. In even the mildest winter, the situation was desperate enough for those in the workshops to make a form of briquette from any form of rubbish bound by rags – and sometimes wired flex – that would give the slightest measure of heat.

Now the ration per airman, meagre as it may have been, was four times for an officer – ie 4lb every other day. The coal compounds were side by side, and whilst the officers’ compound was generally well filled, I can recall sweeping dust from the airmens’ compound floor to get a wee bit extra for the billet. The Shaw solution to the inequality of the coal ration system was simple: just change the signs on the compounds. A perfect balance system was introduced and there was no complain from the officers’ batmen – well they would not would they?” 

‘Hamish’ The Memoirs of Group Captain TG Mahaddie DSO, DFC, AFC, CZMC, CENG, FRAeS, Ian Allan Ltd, London, 1989.

These two vignettes did more to bring to life Lawrence’s approach to problem solving than any number of books and biographies and I look forward to re-reading the ‘Seven Pillars’ with a renewed appreciation of the man.

The moral of this blog, if there is any, is read widely and think critically. That and Fly Navy!

Hard Reading

This year I had the opportunity to visit Bruly-de-Pesche in Belgium, close to the French border. In my time I have visited many battlefields and related sites, but this one felt different. Bruly-de-Pesche was where Hitler’s forward headquarters for the 1940 France campaign was situated and where he dictated the terms of the French surrender. Hitler spent some three weeks here, and the village has changed little since then – disconcertingly so. One can walk, recognisably so, in Hitler’s footsteps both in the village and in the woods. In the woods Organisation Todt landscaped a woodland walk for Hitler’s relaxation which still stands. To see pictures of a jocular Hitler with his staff there, or to quietly sit on a landscaped wall where quite likely Hitler sat, is to understand how banal evil is.

In the footsteps of evil: Hitler, Goering and staff at Bruly-de-Peche Church

Evil often only seems black and white in hindsight. We are all guilty of moral compromise, and we all like to think that we would not compromise in the important things. That there are red lines we would not cross. The truth is rather more prosaic. Our society is characterised by moral relativism and significant moral fissures over such issues as abortion, transgenderism and immigration. Moral relativism is inherently susceptible to manipulation and extant moral fissures can be exploited and compromise can lead to complicity. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. White turns grey and grey turns black gradually over time, and the urge to conform is strong.

This can all too clearly be seen in Christopher Browning’s excellent book ‘Ordinary Men‘, the story of Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland.

Ordinary Men by Christopher Browning

Browning’s work clearly shows how ordinary men can do unspeakable things.

At Józefów a mere dozen men out of nearly 500 had responded instinctively to Major Trapp’s offer to step forward and excuse themselves from the impending mass murder.

As important as the lack of time for reflection was the pressure for conformity – the basic identification of men in uniform with their comrades and the strong urge not to separate themselves from the group by stepping out.” (page 71)

The battalion had orders to kill Jews, but each individual did not. Yet 80 to 90 percent of the men proceeded to kill, though almost all of them – at least initially – were horrified and disgusted by what they were doing. To break ranks and step out, to adopt overtly nonconformist behaviour, was simply beyond most of the men. It was easier for them to shoot.” (page 184)

Photograph 47433, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Michael O'Hara
Men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 celebrate Christmas

Mostly Brown’s book is short on the details of the killing work. But for their work, and for others like them, there were witnesses and helpers, some willing and some ‘requisitioned’. Two of the most harrowing books that I have read on the Holocaust provide eyewitness accounts to these so called actions, in Eastern Europe (Ukraine, Belarus and Russia). These killings were carried out largely by shooting, and largely in public, absent the euphemisms of deportations and work camps. It is important to read these accounts because they lay bare the lie that few knew of the killings. It is also important to read these to realise how low ordinary people can stoop when violence is legitimised by both law and prevailing social standards. They are hard reading indeed.

The Holocaust by Bullets

These peasants also spoke to me of the pits as if they were alive. How was I to understand what they meant? How was I to accept the witnesses’ repeated assertion that the pits “breathed” for three days afterward? I attributed it, without yet having explained it, to the deterioration process of the bodies. And then, on a different day in another village, someone who had been requisitioned as a child to dig that pit told us that a hand coming out of the ground had grabbed hold of his spade. I understood then that all the witnesses who had told us about the pits moving, accompanying their words by an up and down movement of their hand, had signified in fact that a pit took three days to quiet down because many of the victims had been buried alive. After understanding that, I accepted as the true meaning of these words: “The pit took three days to die…” “The well shouted for three days.” Some victims were only wounded or had even been thrown alive into the pits.” (page 65)

Dora was a little girl who lived in Simferopol in Crimea. She was Krymchak. Dora died at the age of four and a half, assassinated.

Dora was taken off with two other members of her family. Those who had escaped the raid begged two neighbours to go to the extermination site to try and negotiate with the Germans for her not to be killed. When the neighbours arrived at “Kilometer Eleven,” they found that the Germans had put up a road block. Traffic was stopped during the shootings. Only the trucks willed with Jews were authorised to pass. On the other side of the barricade, they caught sight of little Dora. She was naked. In the icy cold, she was begging the Germans to give her back her coat: “Give me my jacket, I’ll give you my shoes in exchange!” But the Germans listened to no one’s requests. Dora was shot.” (pages 211-212)

In Broad Daylight

[From the deposition of soldier Josef F. soldier in the Wehrmacht who was invited to witness the events by an acquaintance in the SS to witness “the shooting of the Jews“]

Then I noticed a very handsome couple with two small children. The husband and wife were very well dressed. You could see right away that they were fine people … This couple was in one of the groups that a Russian civilian was bringing toward the firing squad. The woman had a child of about one in her arms, and the couple was leading another child of three or four by the hand. Once they were facing the firing squad I saw the man ask for something. He had probably asked for permission to hold his family in his arms one last time, because I saw him embrace his wife and the child she was holding. But at the same time the shots were fired and everyone fell to the ground. I watched those people all the way to the firing squad because they were such a handsome couple and they had two children.

Most of the time, the children knocked over by their falling mothers sat on the ground or on their mothers’ bodies without really understanding what had just happened. I saw how they climbed on their mothers among the dead women. They looked around and definitely did not understand what was going on. I still have the image very clearly before my eyes: they looked up with their big eyes and scared expressions at the shooters. They were too terrified to cry. Twice I saw an SS go down in the ditch with a rifle and kill the children, who were sitting on the dead or on their own mothers, with a shot to the nape of the neck. As I’ve said, they weren’t crying, but looking around in shock . . . The children I saw struggling to move here and there ranged from babies to children of two or three years.

While I was watching the massacre, a young girl came up to me suddenly, grabbed my hand, and said: ‘Please, please, they have to let me live a little longer, I’m so young. My parents have already fallen. We don’t have any radio at the house, and we didn’t have newspapers either. The rich Jews left a long time ago with cars and planes. Why are they shooting the poor Jews? We have never insulted the Germans. Tell them that they have to leave me alive a little longer. I’m so young!’ The girl had her hands in front of her face , as though praying, and she was looking me straight in the eyes. From what I remember, she was still a schoolgirl or student. She spoke German fluently, without an accent. One of the shooters with an automatic pistol saw us and called out to me ‘Bring her!’ I answered that I would not do it. The girl, who had heard, begged me, terrified: ‘Please, please, don’t do it!’ Since I was making no move to bring the girl to the firing squad, I saw the SS coming toward me. He had his automatic pistol ready at his hip. At this point all I could think was: ‘Let’s hope that the girl doesn’t turn around, that she keeps looking me in the eye and that she does not see her killer approaching and have to face death.’ I kept comforting her over and over, even though I could see the shooter approaching her back. The girl was still begging me and surely didn’t hear the shooter coming. Once he right behind the girl, he pulled the trigger. He shot her behind the ears and she fell to the ground in front of me, without a sound. I think that she even fell on my feet. I will never in my life forget this image of the girl lying at my feet. Her right eye had been torn out. It was still held by the optic nerve and lay on the ground ten to fifteen centimetres from her head. The eye was still whole. The shot had just ripped it from her head. I can still that white glove today. Her head wound barely bled.” (pages 164-170)

Holocaust reading is hard. The necessary things in life often are. We would do well to do more hard reading, recognising that we too are ordinary men and women, with all that entails.

The Virtues of Virtue Signalling

Tilting at windmills

The British Military is engaged in Virtue Signaling. That seems to come as a surprise to some; it shouldn’t. What would be surprising if an organisation that has, throughout its existence, engaged in virtue signalling decided to stop.

It started with this

The @BritishArmy sent a tweet, which as some tweets are wont to do, generated froth in the teacup. In itself the tweet was innocuous but clearly some took exception to this and there then followed what can only be termed a fairly robust exchange of views. So far so good.

This tweet and exchange of views generated some attention from British #MilTwitter which is where I, with customary Colonel Blimp tact and diplomacy dived in with two left feet.

with two left feet

I have to say that I was not expecting the volume of response that I received (I have a small but much appreciated band of 25 followers at going to press) but the type of response was everything that a dialectical junkie such as myself could have wished for.

Before we go any further, a definition is in order. It became very clear very quickly that ‘virtue signalling‘ meant different things to pretty much everyone. To me, virtue signalling is the “open signalling of values to show acceptance of and encouragement for said values“. Mine may not be the most widely held definition of the term, but you are reading (and thank you very much for doing so) the words of someone who possesses neither Facebook nor television – you can make of that what you will.

There’s a reason we send these messages. We are demonstrating our adherence to the values of the society we serve. This is important for a number of reasons, not least where it may be held in doubt. Plus, despite our core values, upheld by the vast majority, and despite the fact that we are the most meritocratic of organisations (at least in my experience), we still struggle to reach out to some of the communities we come from and serve – we can seem exclusionary. A targeted message to such a community and that exemplifies our core values makes sense.

My tweet spanned a number of points, the four main points being:

  • The original tweet had gained traction;
  • I agreed with the original tweet;
  • The British Army was virtue signalling;
  • Are we virtuous (or appropriately weighted) in our virtue signalling?

The first two points were largely glossed over entirely in the ensuing froth, not altogether unsurprising considering the medium. The latter two points generated considerable heat though. This is a good thing. It’s a good thing as it demonstrated people engaging positively and constructively in a public forum in support of core values. Mission command in practice or simply doing the right thing? Either way it’s a good thing.

Many took exception to my use of the phrase ‘virtue signalling’, impugning a pejorative slant to the term. Not my intent, but understandable enough. I still stand by my contention that the British Army is virtue signaling. We send these messages to demonstrate that we believe in and abide by our core values: Courage, Discipline, Respect for Others, Integrity, Loyalty and Selfless Commitment. In this case we were clearly signaling ‘Respect for Others’.

But we live in uneasy times. Our values are not necessarily all of society’s values, our beliefs as a society are not homogenous. There is a tension between diversity and tolerance and good order and discipline both within the military and within society. There is therefore a need to stake our ground and fight for it. The original tweet did just that, and as both @thepagey and @TheMaverickSgt pointed out, British MilTwitter rose to the occasion, although (and I am guilty of this myself), more supporting fires would always have been appreciated. To me the exchange exemplified what we should be allowing our soldiers to do on social media: engage robustly in line with clearly defined guidelines (in this case Army Values). yes it will get messy, yes sometimes there could be blowback – sounds a lot like combat. That is why I was so pleased that so many jumped on my tweet as it showed both a willingness to engage and a firm stance for core values.

My last point “will we see the same for the end of Lent next year” generated as much heat as ‘virtue signalling’, although not unfairly this time. I will admit that there was a degree of twitter fed dialectical devilry at work in using the phrase, but with a serious point. We live in unsettled times. Arguably we live in a post-religious and relativist society. The old certainties have gone and new challenges have arisen. Uncertainty is stressful, stress breeds fear and fear can be exploited. Our culture is neither homogenous nor settled, it is in fact contested ground. Our societal faultiness are stressed every single day with an aim to exploitation. It therefore seems to me that in our messaging reassurance is as important as assurance. Have we got the balance right in this – or am I tilting at windmills?

Lessons From the Staff

Some weeks ago I had a series of interviews by RAND about my recent operational deployments. I used to joke while deployed that I looked forward to testifying to Congress, so I suppose I should have expected a follow up of some kind.

The interviews were focused on two areas: fact finding on what we had done, and identifying lessons learnt with the idea of producing a protocol for next time. It was immediately apparent from the questions, that we had failed dismally in operational record keeping. Despite trips to Theatre and to the units concerned, there was no coherent record of the first 18 months of the campaign. This was a blow as in my deployments I had put in place a system of record keeping and had maintained a War Diary. The War Diary kept a record of key events, decisions and rationales and was designed to give coherence to what otherwise would be a confusing morass of PowerPoint presentations and email chains. I had devoted considerable effort to this particular project, partly because it answered 90% of the queries we received from Higher on a daily and weekly basis, but also because several historian friends had pleaded with me to do so, recognising the difficulties that the sheer amount of data being dumped into digital archives was going to give future historians. If we found it difficult enough to understand the enterprise we were undertaking (and we did), what hope for the future? It was therefore disappointing to see that it had disappeared into some digital burn pit.

The interviews did however give me a chance to go through my notebook archive, glass of beer in hand and wise in hindsight. There was one fundamental problem that we managed, but never reconciled fully, and one question that stopped me in my tracks. Then there some interview notes as well.

  • Timeline Synchronisation. My biggest problem during the campaign where my HQ operated at the operational level, was acting as the flex between the Pol/Mil strategic level and the tactical level. My particular problem set was synchronizing operational timelines with political and logistic timelines, complex at the best of times, but more so when working by, with and through. we never did manage to solve that particular problem, although we sufficed in a way in which I supect all military camapigns have ‘sufficed’. The constant was never the same, but logistic timelines lengthened as the campaign progressed, as did planning and force generation timelines.
  • Why Not More? At the conclusion of the last interview, the interviewer asked a question that gave me pause for thought. “Why didn’t the UK do more?” The context of the question was very specific, and focused on logistic support. My answer highlighted two factors:
    • As we have seen recently with the COVID-19 pandemic and supplies of PPE, industrial capacity and stockpiles matter in war, no less than in pandemics.
    • Systemically, the UK was not comparable in any way to the US in this particular regard. We were divided by more than just a common language, and US thinking that we were simply a smaller version of themselves was far off the mark.

Going through my notebooks brought to light the briefing notes that I used for new arrivals in my team. They were developed over a number of months as I realised that most new arrivals were struggling to orientating themselves to both the complexities of the campaign and the complexities of the headquarters. Most had never served in a large joint headquarters, let alone a multinational one. Neither had most worked at the operational level before. Of the two, cognitive dissonance was by far the greatest in regards to the latter. My initial interview aimed to try and minimise the ‘shock of capture’ most experienced on arrival.

  • The HQ works on a network of generals. They are informed by very efficient vertical staff stovepipes. The General Officer (GO) network acts as the centrifugal centre of the HQ, it spins fast and works efficiently. Understand that you are unlikely to have greater situational awareness than the GO, but you may have more depth of knowledge on a particular facet. Understand too, that the GO lateral network is usually more efficient that the staff lateral network.
  • As staff we serve two bosses. We support our subordinate HQs, and we feed our chain of command. The two roles are not in competition, it is not a zero-sum game.
  • Be comfortable speaking truth to power. Never let anyone leave a room or a meeting with a misleading impression of an issue, especially generals.
  • We deal with large complex operational problems. There may be a simple and elegant solution, but often it is simply a case of eating the elephant one bite at a time. Don’t think you will win the war overnight. The work you do now will make a difference in 12-18 months.
  • Large complex operational problems are difficult to visualise. Think of how you are going to present the facts. Focus on effective communication.
  • It’s a large headquarters, often staffing seems to happen through a process of attrition. Don’t let yourself become part of the friction, and don’t let yourself be ground down by it.
  • There are those who can and there are those who will. Develop a network of both. It is not what you know, but who you know that often matters most. Network laterally.
  • You are three clicks from National Command Authority. Think about that every time you put a briefing slide together. This closeness also means that you will be buffeted by the winds of passing politics. Pay attention to the headlines – they matter.
  • At this level it is all about Authorities and Permissions. Understand both, use both to advantage, don’t be shy about highlighting constraints and restraints – both can be changed if needs be.

Of Plagues and Pestilence

Plague in the streets Picture via Medievalists.net

“There was a great and mighty plague in the whole world in the days of the Emperor Justinian,”

Over corpses which split open and rotted in the streets with nobody to bury [them];
• Over houses large and small, beautiful and desirable which suddenly became tombs….;
• Over ships in the midst of the sea whose sailors were suddenly attacked…and became tombs…and they continued adrift in the waves;
• Over bridal chambers where the brides were adorned but all of a sudden there were just lifeless and fearsome corpses…;
• Over highways which became deserted

Pseudo-Dionysius of Tel-Marhe: Chronicle, Known Also as the Chronicle of Zuqnin,
Part 3, translated Witold Witakowski (1996), pp74-75

“Then came Justinian’s plague, a world-historical event that killed a large part of the population, necessarily wrecking every imperial institution including the army and navy.

The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire, Edward N Luttwak,
The Belknap Press of Harvard University press,
Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, England 2009, Kindle loc 4092.

Interesting Times.

We live in interesting times. In many ways it feels like the Spring of 1939 and not Spring 2020. It is unlikely to presage the end of the world, but it does remind me of being in Iraq in the summer of 2008, watching the global financial crisis unfold, and thinking to myself that I was witnessing the end of an era.

My two takeaways from what we have seen so far are neither new nor earth shattering. We are going to see much more attention focused on security as a whole, encompassing resilience and by necessity (in the future) societal cohesion, and less attention to defence in the singular; and that the pandemic will accelerate already extant fissures, faultiness and by extension conflicts and instability.

Security versus Defence.

One thing that the pandemic has highlighted above all else except our inherent human frailty, is the importance of resilience. I suspect many have been unpleasantly surprised by the lack of resilience capacity. A perceived lack of Intensive Care Unit capacity, panic buying of toilet paper and a comprehensive shortage of medical PPE came as an unpleasant surprise to many. It should not have.

I attended a number of resilience conferences and workshops over the course of 2018 and 2019 and the themes of which were clear.

  • Our globalised system could deal with a regionalised issue, but no-one could envisage a globalised shock.
  • The complexity of the modern globalised system meant that resilience was assumed in and vulnerability assumed out because no-one could map the vulnerabilities effectively (the system was too complex).
  • National supply chain integrity could not be assured.
  • Most countries had outsourced critical components of the manufacturing base (or entire sectors) overseas. In some areas manufacturing had become highly centralised both geographically and corporately.
  • There was no spare (Role 3 or national civilian) medical capacity within Europe.
  • In some cases resilience capacity had been designed out – how many modern houses and flats have a pantry where you can store one to two weeks’ worth of food?
  • A less robust resilience capacity. Resilience costs, there are reasons why we have outsourced manufacturing overseas (it is cheaper) and stockpiles have largely been minimised or reduced all together (they cost to build up, maintain, and depreciate over time (hands up who can remember the impact of resource Account Budgeting on MOD stocks…).

I suspect therefore that resilience on its broadest sense will come to the fore. RUSI has been ahead of the curve here (full disclosure – I am a RUSI member) and in particular Elisabeth Braw (@elisabethbraw ) and RUSI’s Modern Deterrence programme.

The first function of government is not the defence of its people but, I would suggest, the security of its people, encompassing the ability to provide for their basic food, clothing and shelter requirements, maintaining public order and then defending from external hostile threats. As resilience costs, I suspect we may see a knock on to defence budgets.

The COVID-19 Accelerant.

The pandemic has stressed both national and international systems. At the national level governments are walking the tight-rope of preventing health systems from being over-whelmed through a strategy of containment, versus the economic and social impacts of a massive contraction in the economy caused by containment. Societal cohesion is being threatened. This is not new, but COVID-19 is exacerbating the extant fissures and inequalities. In the UK, as in the USA and India many families live pay cheque to pay cheque. India has put in place a lockdown, but does not have a robust system to provide food to its poor. In the USA the demand for foodbanks is growing exponentially. In San Antonio (Texas) – not a place normally noted for urban squalor and deprivation the San Antonio food bank fed 10,000 families last Thursday.
Governments are struggling to meet the immediate demands, recognising that meeting the immediate demands now will place stresses downstream.

One striking aspect of the pandemic is also the immediate reliance placed on those frontline workers who are (financially) often rewarded minimally: supermarket shop assistants, delivery drivers, care home staff and health care professionals. It would be foolish to think that this will not drive social and political appetite to address the wealth inequality the increasingly underpins modern societies and which has already been recognised as a growing issue of concern. If it is not an issue, the fact that this pandemic is also the world’s first infodemic where public health messaging has been delivered into a contested and sometime hostile information environment should also give us cause for concern about the impacts of this pandemic on cohesion and security.

Lastly the pandemic is likely to act as an accelerant on already extant international fissures. All international politics subordinate themselves to domestic considerations, and the pandemic has seen a perceived increase in unilateralism at the expense of multilateralism. The USA has arguably abdicated its role as world leader, the EU has confirmed its north south split, and the idea that the pandemic will hasten the roll back of globalization is not far-fetched.

We live in interesting times; I wish that we didn’t, but we do. Times of stress and crisis are also however, times of challenge and opportunity. Professionally we would do well to think on how to maintain an edge when means are limited. Certainly strategic and institutional agility will be a highly desirable commodity in the future.  The role that information and disinformation has played in this first infodemic of the 21st century should also give us pause for strategic and institutional consideration, not just on information, but the blurring lines between defence, security and the role of the military today. On a broader basis the pandemic should also challenge us to think of the why and wherefore of what we do as a society, I for one have never subscribed to the opinion that the worth of a person is rested in their economic output.

So, interesting times, may we rise to them.

Further Reading:

RUSI Modern Deterrence

Piketty Capital and Ideology

Putin’s Problems in the East Are Our Problems From The East

(Corinne Seminoff/CBC)

“From the time of imposing sanctions against Russia, the US and most of EU (sic) member-states openly states openly state that the end goal of sanctions is to undermine the socioeconomic situation in the country to provoke social upheaval and overthrow Putin’s regime

Brychkov and Nikonov, ‘Color Revolutions in Russia: Possibility and Reality’.

There is a lot going on in Russia at the moment, and while we beat the drum of Russian dastardliness we need to understand the Russian perspective; a cornered bear is dangerous. The prospect of Russian regression and collapse may not be imminent, but the prospect of Putin’s regime collapsing is what drives the Kremlin’s calculations, and Putin has a problem.

It’s all about the economy, stupid, and Putin needs to grow his. Unfortunately as this perceptive piece from Bloomberg makes clear, Putin’s room for manoeuvre in his regard is strictly limited. The Russian economy is growing by an average of 0.5% a year according to the IMF, it should be growing at >1.5% (IMF) but even a 2% growth rate would not enable Russia to start catching up with its peers (IMF) and, as every Russian strategist from Svechin onwards knows:

“…the strategist must take into account the entire rear, both his own and the enemy’s, represented by the state with all its economic and political capabilities”

Svechin, Aleksandr, ‘Strategy’ p69.

Putin also needs to improve the economy as quite frankly, the people are hurting. One in four Russian children now live below the poverty line according to Russian statistics, and a recent poll by the Levada Center indicates that two thirds of Russian families had no savings to speak of.

The IMF and others have suggested various ways that Russia could reform in order to improve its economic prospects, but these reforms will either create social unrest or directly impact on the Russian state sector. Again, going back to the Bloomberg piece it is pretty clear that in a kleptocracy such as exists in Russia, Putin cannot afford significant reform to the public sector as that would prove an existential threat to him:

“The employees of various branches of government and state companies are Putin’s most reliable support base. Putin’s billionaire friends have gotten rich from state procurement, and now that many of them are under sanctions, it remains the only source of their continued prosperity.

Bershidsky Leonid, Bloomberg

Putin is the most powerful, but he is not all powerful. It is also clear that Putin is increasingly following the dictates of the Emperor Severus’ deathbed advice to his sons:

“…agree with each other, give money to the soldiers, and scorn all other men”

Cassius Dio, Book 77, Part 16.

So Putin is in a bit of a fix, a Catch 22. He needs to placate the masses while keeping his power base, the oligarchs and security forces, on side; it is a difficult balancing act. At the moment he is trying to position himself above the fray, using the plausible deniability of his adhocracy to apportion blame beneath him; he is the wise (albeit increasingly remote) Tsar. But the social contract is fraying, and as it frays so to are the numbers of protests increasing and participation broadening.

The protests, which show no sign of abating represent a general dissatisfaction with the status quo and broad unhappiness with the entrenched corruption of the Putin regime. Yet it is this selfsame corruption that sustains Putin’s power. This Meduza article represents the best analysis of the protests that I have seen to date; I imagine it is thorny reading inside the Kremlin.

So we should all be cheering in the West at the prospect of a triumphant liberalisation of Russia? Probably not, or at least not immediately, because if a transition was to happen, then like all transitions it would be a period of great uncertainty, great opportunity and great risk. Transitions need to be planned for, and the Russians have been planning for such a transition (or the threat thereof) for years; it’s all a Western plot don’t you know?

The opening quote was taken from an article written in the Russian ‘Journal of the Academy of Military Sciences’ in 2017. The entire article is well worth reading with it’s somewhat paranoid tones reminiscent of the ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion‘. Yet this strain of Russian strategic thinking has been apparent for some time. In Ben Macintyre’s riveting book ‘The Spy and the Traitor‘ it is quite clear that Yuri Andropov, the then Soviet premier, was convinced that the USA and NATO was preparing a first strike against the Soviet Union and ordered Operation Ryan to confirm this. Ofer Friedman’s excellent book Russian Hybrid Warfare also lays clear the origins of Russian thinking in hybrid warfare (gibridnaya voina) and makes it clear that the origination of this belief lies in the deep rooted belief that the Soviet Union was defeated by the West through the use of ‘methods and techniques based on political, economic, ideological and other non-military types of subversion‘ (page 97), with the continuing conviction that Russia remains targeted by such today.

So what does this mean for us? All politics are ultimately domestic, and as we look at Russian foreign policy we need to bear in mind two factors:

  • Regime survival;
  • Regime transition (2024)

Regime survival is the foremost consideration of all Russian (Putin) policy decisions, foreign and domestic; it trumps all other considerations. Regime transition, refers to the fact that Putin, under the current constitution, is due to leave office in 2024 and with no obvious successor, is the paradigm under which the broader regime (the oligarchic kleptocracy) is now operating. The strategic culture under which the Russian military operate is one in which the West represents the existential threat. We need to tread carefully, engage constructively, and carry a big stick.


Brychkov and Nikonov, ‘Color Revolutions in Russia: Possibility and Reality‘ in Russia’s Journal of the Academy of Military Science. Translation by Boris Vainer and accessed through FMSO.

Svechin Aleksandr, ‘Strategy‘ East View Publications, Minneapolis, 1999.

Cassius Dio, ‘Roman History, Volume IX, Books 71-80‘, Harvard University Press, Harvard, 1863.

Fridman Ofer, ‘Russian ‘Hybrid Warfare’: Resurgence and Politicisation’, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2018.

Recommended Websites:

Foreign Military Studies Office


Moscow Times

Carnegie Moscow Center

In Moscow’s Shadows

Russian Military Reform

When the Ordinary Seems Extraordinary

This week is mental health awareness week, and I am struggling.

I say this with both feeling and knowledge. Feeling because quite frankly I am emotional, knowledge because I have been here before, twice.  I know that having had two episodes my risks of more are significantly higher than if I had only suffered one. 

With the benefit of experience I can see too, that I am the steady, almost imperceptible, downward spiral to a further relapse.

But I am not there yet. And I want to write about my experiences to inform and encourage others, because I view this as a positive story.

To be clear from the outset, I don’t suffer from PTSD.  I have experienced stress and depression. To my somewhat frustration PTSD is seen as the SAS of the mental health landscape.  It is glossy, seemingly everyone wants to write about and yet the vast majority of us will, if we suffer from anything, will suffer from stress and depression. PTSD is seen as acceptable, the curse of the brave. Stress and depression, the unsung stalwarts who are the backbone of mental health statistics are not quite so empathetic. I am one of those.

I had my first episode in the mid ‘noughties’ after an intensive period of operations and far too little leave. I broke, suffering a catastrophic breakdown just before Christmas. The doc gave me some pills, the boss, sympathetic though he was, told me not to talk about it (“it will impact your career you know”) and after two weeks Christmas leave and three appointments with the shrink I carried on as normal.  To be honest I wanted to carry on as normal and career wise I was in a good place and enjoying my job.

But I was not better, and I wasn’t actually in a good place.  Over the next four years I inexorably drifted back to the same hole, only bigger and deeper this time.  This time the system was better. I had three months sick leave and then a graduated return to work over a period of nine months.  More importantly I had access to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and could start to undo some of the very bad habits I had picked up over the previous 10 years.

I had to relearn how to enjoy life, how to relax.  I had to diversify my interests and rediscover my hobbies. I learnt how to walk away from the desk.  I learnt that the ringing of the telephone was not a harbinger if doom, and I learnt to calibrate my responses by looking at those around me.

I promoted too, and deployed again, several times. Life does not finish when your mental health fails, you just learn to walk at a different pace.

So what have I learnt?

Firstly, that prevention is better than cure.  I am struggling once more, but I am not broken.  I have the tools to manage my mental resilience much better now.  I recognise the warning signs earlier and pace myself better.  The military’s mental health awareness campaign is excellent, but mental health issues are insidious, manifesting gradually over months and years. I need to look back to 12 months ago and compare then and now. I ask myself when was the last good day that I had, for not every day should be a grey day. I ask myself why does the ordinary every day, seem to take the most extraordinary effort today? And so I check; am I connected? Am I active? How is my prayer life? Am I still volunteering and am I still learning? We all need to be doing these things. The balance for each of us will be different, but the ingredients are the same. I can manage myself better now than in the noughties.

Now, compared to 6 months ago  I am less active, less communicative and my prayer life is superficial; but two weeks ago I was painting the walls in a women’s refuge and that gave me such a boost! So I am recalibrating and consciously changing my behaviour. That is hard, it takes effort and it is immensely draining; but it is possible. Changing patterns is possible, but like the incremental spiral down, so too is it an incremental spiral up.

I will talk to people too.  My padre knows, family and friends too. I have never been shy on my experiences, it is part of my initial patter when I report for duty. There remains a stigma over mental health issues, but there needn’t be.

So what can people do? 

Be supportive.  It sounds trite, but actually in my experience and struggles, having shoulders to lean on has been the best support.  Depression is often called ‘the curse of the strong’, and none of us want to be a burden, but we are not all strong all the time and sometimes we need support.

Be aware.  These changes manifest over time, think back, not now.  Worry about the person who is working harder to stand still, for these are the people for whom the ordinary is becoming extraordinary, and when the ordinary becomes extraordinary and life becomes grey – then you are at the tipping point.

Lastly for those who see a glimpse of themselves in where I am, take a knee, take that condor moment, and reach out.

Remember that stress and depression is what can happen to you, but it does not define who you are. We are all better than that.

For help try:

Big White Wall

I Enjoy A Good Bollocking, But Let’s Think Broader

         CGS Fires Both Barrels

 CGS bollocked us last week. As bollockings went it wasn’t too bad; I have had better –  (Graeme Lamb was a master at communicating rage through the medium of paper, albeit the paper often had puncture wounds), and I have had worse. I agreed entirely with the sentiments, but do wonder about the things unsaid.

On Twitter some have commented as to whether the it was addressed fairly or unfairly, while across at The Wavell Room, David Calder (@drjcalder81) in my opinion came closest to hitting the mark. But hitting the mark on what?

CGS’s 3.5 minutes of steely eyed ire was based on allegations of sexual assault carried out by soldiers on a soldier.  Clearly if proven this would be a significant breach of the Army’s Values and Standards, and in particular ‘Respect for Others’. 

CGS mentioned “Values and Standards”, an “honest sense of decency” and that a “higher level of behaviour” is expected of us.  But in considering the allegations I am struck by the fact that from the society we are drawn, and to society  we will return.

One of the contributing  factors in the background of many sexual assaults is exposure to pornography. Pornography with its objectification of people as a means (vehicle) to an end (sexual satisfaction) and not as an end in themselves, would seem to be the antithesis of the Army’s Values and standards. I have written before about pornography, and that a society that accepts pornography such as ours does, should not be surprised when members of society increasingly behave in a manner that has been socialised as acceptable through pornography. The fact that pornography is acceptable and that the yet the behaviour is unacceptable, is one of the many contradictions in our society. This contradiction of society is mirrored within the British Army, we preach respect for others and yet fail to condemn pornography.

Social cohesion and individual liberty, like religion and science, are in a state of conflict or uneasy compromise throughout the whole period.

I want to encourage us, the military, to think both broader and deeper. We spend much time and effort thinking about Hybrid Warfare and Information Confrontation;  we recognise too that the character of war is changing in composition and balance from the kinetic to the cognitive. We spill ink more freely than blood on the Somme, in talking about AI, PME and Mission Command. We discuss all these and recognise intuitively that the character of war reflects the character of the societies waging war, indeed war is a social mechanism.  Information confrontation too, seeks to exploit the fissures in our societies and we are faced with the strategic implications of this daily, and yet how much time and effort do we spend looking at ourselves? How much time do we spend considering the strategic implications of our evolving sociology? 

To understand an age or a nation, we must understand its philosophy, and to understand its philosophy we must ourselves be in some degree philosophers.  There is here a reciprocal causation:  the circumstances of men’s lives do much to determine their philosophy, but, conversely, their philosophy does much to determine their circumstances.

The quotes in bold were all taken from the introduction to Bertrand Russell’s seminal work ‘The History of Western Philosophy”.  Many may discount the relevance of philosophy to the profession of arms, but as we consider CGS’s exhortation to do better by ourselves, we should take a moment to consider what tools we have to see ourselves for what we are. Philosophy gives us many of these tools. Lastly, and with a nod at PME and Mission Command, consider this: 

To teach how to live without certainty, and yet without being paralysed by hesitation, is perhaps the chief thing that philosophy, in our age, can still do for those who study it.