There was a rather unseemly Twitter brawl towards the end of last week with regards to the issue of women in close combat. It was revealing both in what was said, what was unsaid and the manner of saying.
Now policy has been given to us, and the issue of women in close combat has been resolved in so far as all combat roles have been opened to women. I have reservations about this, not on the grounds that women could, but rather on the grounds as to whether women should. The debate that we have had has focused for the most part on the first part, and less so on the latter, with the exception that the military has made a good case as to why they need to make maximum use of all the nation’s human capital.
The assumption that has been made is that encouraging women into close combat roles is good for society as a whole. As any good strategist will tell you, assumptions need to recognised as assumptions (and not facts), and challenged. My reservations on the policy are based on a personal philosophy rooted in the philosophy of Aquinas, the concept of Natural Law and a believe that form reflects function. I do not challenge that women can, I merely have reservations about the assumption that because they can they should in the broader sociological sense. My reservations do not challenge policy, but they do (I believe) allow me to bring a different perspective to the debate, and it is this very difference of perspective that the military values in seeking diversity.
From the military’s point of view what should be worrying about the debate last week (and I caveat this, with the fact that it was on Twitter, with all the limitations of that medium) is the tenor of the debate. We in the military pride ourselves on our diversity, because we recognise that there is a strength in diversity. That strength lies in harnessing the power of different perspectives to bring about a constructive dialectic. If we are unable to engage constructively in debate, then debates will simply not happen.
I have seen great strides recently in the intellectual formation of the military, and the army in particular. We should not be complacent about the work still to be done.
Good science fiction is often a great window in the future. One of the best science fiction books I have recently read is Linda Nagata’s ‘The Red:First Light‘ which is set in the near future. The book concerns the exploits of a US ‘Linked Combat Squad’ and explores in part the fusion of exo-skeleton technology and advanced data communications on the battlefield. This technology is already in development and is expected to be fielded in the near future; the book is worth reading from this aspect alone.
However what I found most interesting in the novel (the first of a trilogy) is its look at the impact on society of the diffusion of information through social media, and with increased reliance on Artificial Information, just how far we can rely on what we are told:
“People are dividing into smaller and smaller groups, while the number of widely shared memes – ideas or facts known to just about everyone in a large, related group, like the population of the US – is in steep decline…”
“It’s about perspective. It’s not that what we know is necessarily wrong or incomplete. It’s that what we know and what we believe to be apparent to everyone, isn’t.”
I have previously blogged about the impact of social media on societal cohesion and its attendant impact on military operations; ‘First Light’ illustrates this dynamic beautifully. Also worth listening to are three podcasts from RAND on what they term “Truth Decay“. For those interested in the information environment in which we operate these are a must listen.
Lastly I have not done ‘First Red’ justice in this blog, it is an excellent read and I enjoyed it immensely – get the book!
A few weeks ago there was an excellent thread by Mr Leonardo Carella (@leonardocarella), an MPhil candidate at Oxford University, about the crisis of liberal democracy and the role of information technology (sic) as a major source of destabilization. His thesis is:
The internet allows:
the organisation of political fringes
the fragmentation of the public sphere
the globalisation of nationalisms
the globalisation of grievances
Mainstream parties have lost control of the public agenda;
Fringe political interests can now be organised and co-opted in coalitions that were unthinkable in spatially determined cleavage politics;
The public sphere is increasingly global:
populist forces support and learn from each other
political debate is constantly targeted by foreign forces
Counter-narratives can develop their own evidence, facts and belief systems shielded from scrutiny
Traditional parties’ advantages – territorial presence, local elite networks, penetration of civil society “mezzo” (sic) structures have become undone, making them increasingly unable to act as gatekeepers between local and national level interests.
Mr Carellas then goes on to say that from his perspective, changes in the internet and social media are not ancillary to changes in politics, but fundamental to it; yet not enough is being done to understand the changes and address the issues. I found Mr Carella’s thesis the most concise explanation of the issues facing us that I have seen for some time.
This changing political landscape holds challenges. At the strategic level if we take a Clausewitzean view and regard war as the continuation of politics by other means, then the fact that the (national) public sphere has fragmented while issues and identities have globalized presents a significantly different operating environment. If the Main Effort becomes remains national cohesion and will to fight, followed by coalition cohesion and will to fight, then we may have to focus more on crafting a positive narrative of what we fight for, rather than rely on focusing on a positive narrative of what we fight against. If we look at the recent campaign against ISIL, crafting a narrative of what we are fighting against was much easier than crafting a narrative to support what we are fighting for. This problem becomes more acute when we start to inhabit the gray zone of polite men bearing cats, or straightforward inter-state conflict where the issue is national interests and cannot clearly be portrayed in stark moral terms such as the fight against ISIS.
My takeaways from this are:
We need to be better at understanding our changing strategic information environment and its impacts on us. Our politics are changing, our political contextualisation of operations has not necessarily kept pace.
As a state we need to be much better at Strategic Communications, recognising the nature of the threat we face.
If we can identify opportunities to exploit (and there are many) in this new environment, we need to accept that our adversaries have already identified them and are exploiting them against us.
Internal Security is somewhat of a modern day anathema to the British Army. When we operate under the guise of Military Aid to the Civil Powers it is generally thought of as being primarily with niche capabilities.
It has not always been so and popular memories are short. Few remember much about Operation Banner in Northern Ireland, except the glib view that we mostly learnt the wrong lessons and misapplied even these to Iraq and Afghanistan. Stretching further back, prior to the establishment of a professional police force, the military was heavily involved in supporting the Civil Powers in the maintenance of order.
Much comment has been directed recently at the fragmentation of the public sphere. This is a trend which has been ongoing for some time, but which has been thrown into sharp relief by recent political events at home and overseas. One result of the fragmentation of the public sphere is that political polarisation and possibly extremism is not only more possible, but possibly likely, and with this comes the prospect of increasingly large scale public order issues and other threats to the public space. In any large scale breakdown of public order the issue of the appropriate use of military force becomes an issue, as it did in 2011.
When I consider both this fragmentation of the public sphere and what could be perceived as the militarisation of the police, in the absence of of British paramilitary police force such as the French Gendarmerie and CRS, I wonder what is the British perspective of the role of the military in Internal Security? What is the British perspective on the role of police in Internal Security? In many parts of the world the primary role of the police forces is internal security, not policing (law enforcement) as we might recognise from a British or other Western model. As the military looks to become more engaged in upstream capacity building and defence engagement, understanding the British perspective and approach towards the military role in internal security, and towards internal security generally, is going to become more important.
It Happened Here is a little known masterpiece of the British Cinema that looks at the aftermath of a German invasion of Britain in World War Two. Unsurprisingly we behave in much the same way as the Europeans did. Some support the Nazis, some fight them and most just want a quiet life. We are not that different from those around us.
In the United States there is a growing scandal over the posting online of sexually explicit materiel involving service members. I would be surprised if something of that sort has not happened in the UK as well; we are not that different from those around us.
The queenofthinair philosophy blog has an excellent post on the affair which looks at it from an ethical stance. Fundamentally I am in agreement with much of what she says, where I disagree (albeit tangentially) is where she states “The first suggestion is this is indicative of the state of the larger sexual culture in our society that we cannot expect our military members and veterans to be exempt from. I see this as a variation on Socrates’ argument about the lack of morals in the youth and the general moral decay of society; this is hardly a new argument. Sexual mores change yes. Does that explain this? It may be part of the picture, but it is not sufficient.” I would agree with her absolutely on this, but where I disagree is that to my mind without addressing the issue of pornography in society I fail to see how we can effectively deal with the issue of the treatment of women in the military.
Another US Military blog also covers this in some detail. Again this blog states “And while I agree that rape culture is a growing issue nation-wide, the problem with this argument is that it 1) somehow alleviates the military of responsibility for policing itself and 2) ignores the fundamental issue here: Marines see other Marines (or service members see other service members) as “not Marines”. In short, some Marine men do not think that women Marines are Marines.” There are some fundamental problems with his argument here. Firstly in no way does accepting that there is a wider issue in society absolve or alleviate the military from policing itself. Secondly there is a flawed assumption that on becoming Marines (or any servicemember) people become asexual, they don’t. One can be a Marine and a man, or a Marine and a woman, one does not become a Marine and neither. The implications of this are that militaries will continue to have to deal with sexual behaviour patterns and issues for the forseeable future. Where this blog absolutely nails it is that this is about “training your troops to treat each other with dignity and respect.”
My moral upbringing and education taught me that all pornography was morally wrong. Pornography objectifies the subject as a means (object) to an end (sexual gratification), it is inherently degrading. It does not matter whether the person is a willing participant in pornography or not, pornography reduces the subject to the role of an object, stripping them of their intrinsic dignity as a person in the process. Two generations ago this was the accepted moral majority position on pornography in Western society. Yet pornography now is largely regarded as amoral in Western society. Sexting is as acceptable as texting and in some quarters the argument is made that pornography is both empowering and progressive. If as a society we continue to condone pornography, then we have to accept that there are consequences of doing so (note, this is not the same as saying that we accept those consequences).
The military too objectifies people in the sense that we value our service personnel as a means to an end (military performance). We get round the degradation of an individual’s self-worth through objectification, by giving them inherent self-worth as a servicemember. We state that we will esteem all alike as members of the service community, recognising no other denominator save that you perform your duties effectively. This approach works well, and means that the military simply has to police those elements of behaviour which detract from military effectiveness.
In terms of behaviour the military has often maintained different standards from civilians, but the substantive difference has normally been one of standards, not of type. The military have largely been held to the same or higher standards of behaviour than their civilian counterparts, but not to different types of behaviour. The problem for the military will be if de facto standards in wider society continue to drift away from those required for the effective functioning of the military. If this happens then correcting such behaviour will take increasing amounts of institutional energy.
I think that we are beginning to see this already with the unfolding scandal in the US. The US military will now have to actively enforce a code of behaviour that the chain of command likely assumed was inherent within its people. This would have been a naive assumption, I know that my sexual ethics are not those of my junior soldiers. The situation is exacerbated by the nature of modern social media. The proliferation of social media forums means that different generations often inhabit parallel cyberspaces with little overlap; again to police this will require an active effort.
The solution is remarkably simple, but also remarkably difficult. One has to inculcate junior commanders with the necessary values and they need to know their troops and guide, mentor and police their behaviour. This is top down driven and bottom up implemented. The hardest part will be the first part, inculcating the necessary behaviours.
Three points to finish with:
1) Do not underestimate the severity of the crisis within the USMC. This scandal exposes a fundamental breach in core values and standards within a sizeable element of the Corps, and a similar gap between generations. The role played (or not) by junior leadership in this scandal is one that bears the most scrutiny, where were the squad and section commanders and what role did they play?
2) This scandal also presents a fundamental opportunity for the USMC to reform itself.
3) Without doubt there is similar behaviour within the British Armed Forces; It Happened Here.
I have spent years in Iraq working alongside the Iraqi Army or trying to reform the Iraqi Security Forces. Despite the popular perception we (the West) has not a bad track record in improving the combat effectiveness of our partnered militaries. Unfortunately our track record of reforming the systems within which they operate is appalling at best. If you cannot reform the system then any improvements to the institution are likely to be both unsupported and unsustainable. Turning out the best junior officers may give you a tactical edge in the short term, but unless you reform the middle and upper management they will still have to conform eventually to the very system that lead to failure in the first place.
The Karrada Bombing in Baghdad (pictured above) was a terrible tragedy that may well turn out to have had a strategic impact on the course of politics and the war in Iraq. It was enabled in part by a system that has corruption at its core and still retains use of the so called “magic wands” that were sold as bomb detectors, revealed as worthless and still remain in use. When a system is as corrupt and as ineffective as this, winning the fight is one thing, winning the war another entirely.
When I think of the debate over women in close combat, and especially dismounted close combat roles, I am mindful of Chief Vitalstatistix: the sky is not going to fall on our heads simply because we introduce women into close combat roles. I am also mindful that introducing women into these roles is not going to have the effect of Getafix’s magic potion either. The truth is that there are both risks and opportunities inherent in this change, as there are with most changes. Much will depend on the degree of change and how it is managed.
I am however frustrated by the character of the debate on women in close combat roles. It seems to me that this debate has been largely ill-informed and marked by mutual fear and hostility; in this sense it bears remarkable similarities to the ongoing US presidential election contest. This is not altogether surprising because the nature of this debate, like political debate gripping the US at the moment, is primarily a sociological debate, albeit this one is clothed in the emperor’s new (and entirely inappropriate) clothes of military effectiveness.
In one sense Colonel Laurens is quite right “it is so bloody obvious that we should do it”. That is because war is a social construct and the way war is fought always reflects the societies that wage it. Our society has changed and the ways and means that we fight will (and should) change with it. To me therefore it is a non sequitur to place the argument for or against women in close combat within the context of military effectiveness against which it is currently playing out. A society wages war in a manner that reflects its values; it reaps the benefits and pays the costs accordingly.