Down in the Doctrinal Weeds: 23 March 2010

The question of how the country is equipping its service personnel to operate in challenging environments has been focussed recently around the inadequate equipment (quality and quantity) being provided to them by the government and the penny-pinching misers in various competent departments. A few years ago – and mainly in America – the focus had been switched to improving the human capital of the fighting force via the Human Terrain Teams /System (HTS) to provide cultural awareness, locally relevant skills etc – a greater emphasis on empathy, and less on a dog-whistle recourse to kinetic solutions.

Now the HTS has come in for some serious flak from American anthropologists, led very ably by the seriously smart Hugh Gusterson, and from the defence establishment, which resulted in the programme being taken off the lead contractor and taken in-house by the Pentagon. As relayed via KoW, the Brits are now having their own go at a HTS-type programme. We will have to wait and see what happens.

One of the other tools – out the tool box of capabilities we provide our soldiers with – is good old fashioned military doctrine. The US publishes its doctrine online; so it’s very easily accessible to scholars, interested parties (and enemies) alike. The UK, unsurprisingly, keeps its doctrine wrapped up and under classified lock and key…. so we can’t look at that, unless it’s splatted over the wikileaks site, as it has been on several occasions over the last couple of years. That aside, the ‘real’ or ‘historic’ function of doctrine is quite clear. It was to provide lads from the villages in the early 20th century – with little or no formal education – a handbook on how to soldier at the tactical level, in given situations. A common framework, a national curriculum, if you will. And doctrine of that kind served a purpose in the conflicts of the first and second world war in bringing up to speed the ordinary ‘tommy’ in the ways of war fighting.

So, what utility does doctrine have now? Well, clearly a common and accepted set of assumptions and methods is important for a war-fighting unit to have to operate effectively – so it still has its original function. But modern doctrine tries to write for every scenario and every situation, branching off into areas that should be immune from doctrinal attention – and it renders itself obsolete in doing so. The flabby desk monkey writing it, cannot possibly understand the boots-on-the-ground situation. So, the task of military education must be to focus on the creation of one key skill (with lots of little skills that fall out of it), the blindingly obvious and devilishly difficult skill of making the right choices under pressure.

We might phrase it differently – the ability to learn and adapt, in real time.

And out of this solitary and complex skill, or way of thinking, falls out empathy, decision making, rapid critical reflection etc. And this is beyond the remit of the doctrine writer, who produces a static piece of text, often without the feedback of the ‘strategic corporal’. It is also beyond the scope of military education as it is currently delivered in this country. It calls for some good thinking about what skills military personnel need before they put their uniforms on, and how new types of pedagogy can be deployed to improve the ‘ability to learn and adapt, in real time’ of personnel at all levels. The enemy in Afghanistan is liberated from the institutional boundaries that constrain (and necessarily constrain) our service personnel, but what we need to do (in my view) is recreate the freedoms of the enemy within our military institutions, thus placing our frontline on a better footing to deal with the challenges of the adaptable enemy.

*Update* Since writing this post this morning, I’ve had emails and the comments here about the number of service personnel who write doctrine. In the post, above, I gave what I thought was an amusing pen-portrait of doctrine writer (and one that is partially representative of the situation here in the UK. I can think of academics and civil servants employed in these roles that fit my non-operational, aloof from the frontline pen-portrait), but it wasn’t meant to encompass my entire view of doctrine writers (groan). The main points I wished to convey were: * that doctrine has fundamentally changed, and has veered away from that original purpose. Chris and Patrick etc have brought this out well. * that there is too much ‘doctrine’ around, and that it is obscuring rather than illuminating and * that doctrine is one element, but a more fundamental revision of military education/training towards an ability to learn and adapt in real-time is necessary.

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