Why Organizations Forget

Lieutenant-General Jonathon Riley CB DSO PhD MA FRHistS


History, it is said, is accelerating. Since the end of the Second World War, we have amassed around 100 times more information than in the rest of human history up to that time. We think of human knowledge as always increasing, “What is now proved”, said William Blake, “was once only imagin’d.” 1But is it like that? Consider human knowledge, if you will, as a freight train pulling a long line of carriages. Each carriage contains the knowledge of a generation. We like to think that every generation couples its carriage behind the engine and thus the train gets ever longer. But in fact, as one carriage is coupled up, two or three others are dropped off the end and shunted into a siding. How else can we account for the fact that we do not know for sure why agriculture started, or how the pyramids were built. “Progress, said George Santayana, “far from consisting of change, depends on retentiveness.” 2 

Human beings of course cannot inherit knowledge or experience through our genes, in the way that we can inherit physical characteristics. There is some evidence that character traits can be transmitted – these are, if you like, a form of biological memory – but this is not the same as knowledge. We therefore have to be told things. In times gone by this was done through oral history – story-telling. It was very much part of my childhood, and I remember clearly being told stories of the two World Wars by my father and grandfather, who had quite obviously had a wonderful time and wished for nothing better than to be back at the serious and enjoyable business of warfare. It was, too, a very important part of my early military life, particularly in remote stations like British Honduras, as the means by which the regimental folklore, history, traditions and ethos were transmitted from one generation to another. How this will survive the latest assault on our regimental system and the severe limitations on mess life imposed by contractorisation on one hand, and high operational tempo on the other, remains to be seen. I am not hopeful.

In military organizations we have the added problem – shared by many civilian institutions as well to a greater or lesser extent – that individuals rotate through appointments at quite short intervals. We are all therefore the prisoners of our hand-over brief. We also rely heavily on things like Standard Operating Instructions and Standing Orders as the collective memory of an organization – but are these always, as they should be, the starting point for solving any problem – or are they turned to when all else has failed? When planning an operation, or an exercise, do we turn first of all to the Post Operation Report, or the Post Exercise Report, to see what went right and what went wrong? And what we said we needed to do in future? Or do we rather start every time from first principles. George Santayana said that “Those who do not learn from the past are condemned to repeat it.” 3  On several occasions I have found myself being the memory of an organization. In the Balkans, for example, as Deputy Commander Multinational Division South West in 1998 – 1999, I was the only person who had been in the theatre throughout the Balkan War, at all seasons of the year. I knew why many things were as they were, how they had evolved, and what therefore would be likely to work or not work in a given set of circumstances. Among the British element in US Central Command, I was the only person who had been in the organization, and the theatre of operations, longer than six months. In my case, it had been four years in three different disguises. When I left, there was the danger of a great dump of knowledge even though I have been strict about preserving documents. When experience is not maintained, as in primitive societies where written records are not kept, infancy is perpetual and development impossible. 4

What this highlights in particular is that the habit among the military of changing key appointments every six months or so on operations is dangerous. Six month tours may be fine for units, but they are not fine for commanders and key staff officers in, especially, plans, intelligence or information operations. Actually we knew this – we had Continuity NCOs on two year tours in Northern Ireland to bridge the gaps between roulement units; but when we went to the Balkans, and Iraq, and Afghanistan - we forgot.

It is worth exploring this business of learning lessons a little more deeply. In the British Army, there is a whole industry based on this requirement. Returning commanders from operations are interviewed, and reports compiled. In theory these are used to inform the development of future doctrine, training, equipment procurement and so on. But are they not more often consigned to the shelves to gather dust? Brigadier Ian Johnstone has said that “a lesson is only learned when it results in a change of doctrine, practice or equipment. Until then it is only identified.” 5  How true. “What is the good of experience if you do not reflect”, Frederick the Great is reputed to have observed. 6  How many armies have structures that reflect this truth? Mine certainly does not. If it did, we would have a Director General Doctrine, Training and Force Development. Instead we have placed doctrinal development in one Joint organization (Joint Doctrine and Concepts Centre), equipment procurement in another (Deputy Chief of Defence Staff (Equipment Capability), and training in a third, single service, organization (Director General Training Support (Land). Let us hope that the planned changes in Land Command Headquarters will in part rectify this – although control of equipment procurement is likely to remain elusive.

Lieutenant General Sir John Kiszely’s article “Learning About Counterinsurgency” in the Military Review 7  contends that the British Army’s ability to learn has been inhibited by a resistance to external criticism, a climate of anti-intellectualism, conservatism in its approach to change, the tendency to confuse activity with progress, and the absence of what he refers to as a “seat of learning” – something akin, perhaps, to the National Defense University in the USA. This, and a supporting piece by Colonel Alex Alderson, 8  highlight the way that a well-established approach to a problem in warfare can be very easily forgotten among the conflicting demands of an education and training regime. Thus although the British Army might be said, as an institution, to be highly experienced in counterinsurgency from the late 19th Century onwards, the gap between the effective end of operations in Northern Ireland circa 1995, to the interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, meant that a military generation grew up that was more focused on Peace Support Operations on one hand, and major warfighting on the other. The complex interagency nature of the fight was institutionally forgotten in terms of training, preparation and equipping. As a result, it can be argued that the US Army has now greater expertise than we do. The necessity to learn the business of countering the improvised explosive device in Iraq and Afghanistan as a network rather than as a device, which was well understood during the campaign in Northern Ireland, is a case in point. Seven years of cease-fire in Northern Ireland led to a complete evaporation of knowledge techniques and procedures which had been second nature at every level.

Sometimes organizations forget things on purpose. History, and the historical legacy between states, continues to create tensions: Turkey and Armenia, Iran and Iraq, India and Pakistan, and the Balkans are just a few examples. When these disputes surface, they may be viewed by those not involved as rather trivial: It was all so long ago, why continue to scratch this itch? Sometimes deliberate efforts are made, therefore, to bury the past: France and Germany and the founding of the EU for example. This can be good up to a point, but there are risks. Risks in losing cultural identity; risks that in burying the past, the causes of conflict are misunderstood, and the potential for future conflict thereby increased; and risks that historical events may be manipulated through misinformation by extremists. Take the Crusades: everyone in the West is very wary of mentioning this long series of historical conflicts, because received wisdom, as portrayed by Islamists, is of Western Christian aggression. The reality was a Christian response to an attack by invading Islamic forces on Christian lands. This may be inconvenient to some, but it is none the less true. To an extent, therefore, history is not just a chronicle of past events, but an explanation for what is remembered and what is not – and why.

But care is needed here, given the current fashion for seeking apologies for historical events: the actions of Japanese imperialism between 1933 and 1945, the Nazis, the Inquisition, slavery and so on. Is this right? Perhaps not, for while we can express regret, and remain determined that these things shall not be repeated in our own time, we cannot apologise. People alive today cannot be held responsible, or accountable, for the actions of their parents, grandparents, or ancestors to the nth degree, any more than they can be held responsible for, or accountable, for what their descendents may do 100 years hence. Thomas Jefferson alluded to this when he wrote that it is as unjust for the dead to impose their laws on the living as it is for one country to impose its laws on another; and by implication, the converse is also true. 9  The philosopher John Locke noted that future generations can only be bound by earlier ones if they tacitly consent to be so bound. 10

Everyone, in his own time, is responsible for the consequences of his own actions, and that responsibility is not transferable. Moreover, although there is no denying that there are enduring absolutes of right and wrong – the Christian religion is founded on them - different times bring different mores. Much of what is acceptable now will doubtless be thought insane in 200 years time. So if responsibility is not transferable, and the social context of societies changes over time, how can we set ourselves up in judgement over those who lived centuries ago under very different local, economic, political, social and religious rules: “The past is another country - they do things differently there.” 11

Then again, organisations deliberately forget things that do not play to their advantage. When I commanded 1st Royal Welch Fusiliers in 1995, we spent six months under siege by the Serbs in the east Bosnian enclave of Goražde. For three months, re-supply was impossible and we lived chiefly on composite rations – 2/3 rations at that. Compo was developed from arctic sledging rations, on the basis of calorific content; its Vitamin C content is nil and it needs fresh supplements. We could have bought some fresh vegetables locally, but this would have inflated prices beyond the reach of the locals, who had little enough anyway – and we were there to look after them, not make life more difficult. The result was scurvy, a condition eradicated in the military in the 18th Century. I am minus quite a few teeth by the way! When the siege mitigated enough to get a party out for rest and recuperation, the reaction of the chain of command, and the military medics, was not “How do we prevent this happening again?” but “My God, the media must not see this lot!” Does Compo therefore carry vitamin pills in it today? Not on our life!

What of the business of commemoration? Surely that is proof that organizations can remember when they want to? The enduring appeal of the Armistice Commemoration must show this? Perhaps not. Perhaps by deliberately relegating dreadful events like the battles on the Western Front to a specific, formalized, occasion, we are really saying “this is too awful to contemplate for more than one day in 365” and so we push it out of everyday experience, and salve our collective conscience at the same time.

There are problems caused by the advance of technology. The advent of digitization seemed to indicate that everything written, filmed, photographed or recorded could be safely preserved; and there are a plethora of programmes concerned with translating earlier recordings in different media onto digital media in order to preserve them. Entire libraries, it seemed, could be fitted onto a memory stick, or a CD. But is this so? It appears to me that digital information is ephemeral and highly vulnerable. CDs disintegrate within 20 years, while vellum books written by monks in the Middle Ages will still be with us in another 500 years. 12  Few people write letters, but email is too often the victim of the delete button – and what of the text message? Advancing technology has already consigned to the scrap heap several forms of electronic storage: the laser disk, the 5.25-inch compact disk, the 3.5 inch floppy disk, the Amstrad word processor and its authoring language – my first PC by the way – are all gone. Even if organizations had bothered to archive their material, then had done so on these means, it would now have disappeared: why not more in the future? How, for example, will future biographers deal with their subjects from this period, when their entire correspondence has disappeared into the ether?

Many accounts of the war in Iraq are currently contained on weblogs – blogs – but the average life of a modern website is around 40 days: the same as the life cycle of most insects. Yet in my family are the diaries and letters of Polar Explorers, soldiers, sailors and scholars that are recorded permanently, on paper. I have added to these. Can we be sure that in the future, technology will not leave electronically recorded material marooned and unreadable? If we want to remember things, it seems to me that the only safe thing to do is write them down. 13


  1. William Blake The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (London, 1794) Plate 8, Line 33.
  2. George Santayana The Life of Reason, Vol I (1905).
  3. George Santayana The Life of Reason, Vol I (1905).
  4. George Santayana The Life of Reason, Vol I (1905).
  5. Brigadier IA Johnstone OBE. Late RS, When Commander British Army Collective Training Group, Combined Arms School, Warminster in 1995.
  6. Cited, amongst others, in David Fraser Frederick the Great (London, 2000)
  7. Lieutenant General Sir John Kiszely “Learning About Counterinsurgency”, Military Review, March-April 2007.
  8. Colonel Alex Alderson “Counterinsurgency: Learn and Adapt? Can We Do Better?” Warfare Development Group, Land Warfare Centre, 2007.
  9. Thomas Jefferson in a letter to James Madison.
  10. John Locke Second Treatise on Civil Government (1690).
  11. Thomas Jefferson in a letter to James Madison.
  12. The Domesday Book, written on vellum, and the woven Bayeux tapestry are both in excellent condition, for example.
  13. See the discussion on this subject by Ben Macintyre “History 1980 – 2000 has disappeared into the ether. Sorry.”
    The Times, 23rd March 2007, p 19.


Copyright © 2007 Jonathon Riley

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