Monthly Archives: May 2020

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?

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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.
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