A Plea For Culture

Brigadier JP Riley DSO MA

Director Higher Command and Staff Course,
Joint Services Command & Staff College

This is not, as you might be forgiven for thinking, a hope that military training might embrace grand opera – so read on. My thesis is that we have spent a great deal of time and effort over the past fifteen years developing our own doctrine, and understanding that of our allies and opponents, perhaps to the extent that, as one commentator on Ex Saif Sareea suggested, that they are read only by those who write them; and we focus on our enemies’ and allies’ doctrine during the planning and conduct of operations, we take little heed for their, and our, culture. And it is here, perhaps, that the real asymmetries lie. Some signposts are about, however: Alice Hills has highlighted the importance of cultural intelligence in her work on urban operations; and Professor Wick Murray from the Institute of Defense Analysis in Washington has cited culture as “the most important enabler in military innovation.”

Lt-Gen Jonathon RileyFirst, we should always be aware of the cultural influences of our opponents, and consider them in the estimate process at the operational level at least. Yes, it is important to understand the enemy’s doctrine and capability. But these may not tell us how he will react in a given set of circumstances, or what his key vulnerabilities are. ADP Command remarks that “consideration of the local population must take into account ethnic, religious and cultural factors.” A bit of a throw-away line, you may say, and at best an implied task! Genforce is, in my view, a real problem here, precisely because it is generic. It has only doctrine and capability, it has no culture, and therefore we encourage our officers and soldiers to slap down the enemy template and think they have the solution. Wick Murray underlines this by remarking that historically, those who prepared to fight against a generic enemy often fared worst in combat. So the real world is otherwise than Genforce, and culture puts a spin on things which doctrine may miss (DGD&D tells me that he is re-examining Genforce for this very reason – Hurrah for that). The Japanese in the Second World War, for example, were fanatical fighters, had no concept of honourable surrender, and would fight to the death themselves rather than give in. This gave them enormous strength, but once they over-reached themselves, this fanaticism became a weakness which was used to trap and destroy them. And what about an enemy who has no doctrine – only dogma, religious or otherwise? Al Quaeda is as good an example as any of an enemy which has no consideration for loss of life – his own or any one else’s – and who will therefore approach us and our centres of gravity in a way which will defy doctrinal analysis. No point in reaching for the attack-off-the-line–of-march template there; we have to find some other way of understanding the threat and guarding against it – and indeed of attacking it. There are other examples: the RUF in Sierra Leone had neither doctrine nor dogma, no political, religious, moral or social motivation whatever - only a culture of greed. Understanding this led to a clear indication of where their centre of gravity really lay. I do not think I need to labour the point any further, it is obvious.

And what of our allies, or potential allies? We have enough trouble understanding the culture of our long-tern allies in NATO, and they ours, let alone the array of seemingly unlikely nations with whom we may be aligned. When Napoleon made his celebrated remark that “Armies are bodies which form up and try to frighten each other”, he probably had opposing forces in mind rather than allies – but ask anyone who served in the Gulf, or the early days of Bosnia, or Sierra Leone, or Afghanistan, and they may have a view on the matter. This is nothing new. To pursue the example of Burma, Giffard’s 11th Army Group included troops from Britain, China, East Africa, West Africa, and all the martial races of the Indian sub-continent: Gurkhas, Dogras, Mahrattas, Pathans, Afridis, Bengalis, Sikhs, Gawhalis to name but a few. All these troops required different rations, held different beliefs, followed different religious beliefs and practices. And yet they had to be welded into one fighting force. Only by understanding the strengths of a polyglot force and playing to them, and taking steps to compensate for vulnerabilities, could this be achieved. The shortest time reading Defeat into Victory leaves one breathless with admiration for this achievement.

Take this one step further, and consider the effect of the national Red Card on a coalition operational commander’s plan; or the aversion to combat, let alone casualties, which might be encountered among allies, and the need to understand this – and compensate for it (since we cannot avoid it) becomes obvious. Burden sharing begins to take on a whole new meaning. And this is without considering the effect of the private sector as a coalition partner – I leave further discussion of that until the FCO’s Green Paper results in a policy decision.

But why consider our own culture? Simply because while the military seeks to develop a particular ethos, that ethos is very different from what prevails in the society from which we recruit. I am all for publications like Soldiering, and the Values and Standards Paper, which tell the world what we stand for. But this gives us a problem when we are trying to recruit, and retain, our soldiers. Ask any parent what they think of the British Army: the answer will be along the lines of “Marvellous – disciplined – Gulf War – Bosnia – Sierra Leone – Northern Ireland” and so on – and the Army gets seriously high approval ratings in every poll. But then ask those same parents how they would feel about their sons or daughters joining up, and you get a rather different answer. Something like “Oh no – it’s dangerous – they are away from home for a long time – the papers are full of stories about bullying, and drugs, and racial discrimination.” So there is a big cultural problem there. It is compounded by the undeniable fact that, try as we may, we seem unable to overcome the cultural indifference of some ethnic groups in our country to military service; we have lost Crown immunity and are fair game for our litigious society; so-called Political Correctness is often at variance with the rather direct way in which the military does its business; Courts Martial are no longer what they were, thanks to the intervention of Europe; there is a culture of rights rather than responsibilities in our country which is in total opposition to the military way; and, of course, today’s youth is likely to start his military training at a much lower physical level of ability than he might have done twenty years ago.

And yet, and yet... when I look at the young soldiers and young officers of today, they are far better educated and trained than ever I or my contemporaries were – do not get the idea that I think less of the younger generation: quite the reverse. So where does all of that lead us? Can we do anything about it? Well not really – but at least we can understand the nature of the problem; realise that in selecting and training our people we may need a bit longer for the Regimental magic to work than perhaps used to be the case; agree with the thrust of our equal opportunities training, which is towards encouraging and maximising diversity rather than apologising for it; on the one hand, minority cultures are not necessarily inferior, and on the other, shared values should not mean accepting the lowest common denominator. We should also, accepting that the general level of education of our commanders is now above what it was twenty years ago, build on that in the continuing training and education of those future commanders in the wider cultural and legal aspects of the environment in which they operate (to be fair, the Staff College and other courses make a pretty fair stab at this now). Above all, however, we should stand by our people when they make honest mistakes as a result of the culture to which we expect them to subscribe.

Mentioning here the cultural challenges which jointery brings to our own culture may be a risky business, but jointery is increasingly the way of things. Differences in the way the Services operate have always been present – and indeed have been a rich vein of jokes at the others’ expense – but I do believe these differences are important in making us what we are, and so they should continue to be present. But more jointery does bring with it the effects of the law of unintended consequences. Just one example is the forthcoming shift in age of Army students on the Advanced Course here at the JSCSC to accord with their Naval and Air Force counterparts – who at present can expect to promote out of the course, while the Army student must expect to go through the mill for four years at SO2 level and in sub-unit command. Of course, this is partly (and quite rightly) bound up with the later age of entry into the Army, something which ROCC is seeking to address across the piece, but we the Army cannot compromise on the need to produce SO2s as the powerhouse for our headquarters – something the other services do in their warfare centres for a very specific audience – hence the need to create the ICSC(Land), but without re-creating Camberley! If we are, as the JSCSC end state has it, to work in harmony with the other services, we need to understand and appreciate cultural differences.

So let us have doctrine, and capability – but let us also understand culture. If we can do that then maybe, just maybe, we will be able to spot the next attack before it hits us.

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