Education is vital to the 21st century military, and likely to become more so. Whereas training aims at instilling, maintaining and improving skills, and, in the military, preparing personnel physically and psychologically for combat operations, professional education instills knowledge. Not just knowledge for its own sake, either — the aim is not just filling somebody’s brain with facts or figures, but to expand their understanding of the world, how it works and their place in it, with the hope — and often that is all there is — that this will influence the decisions they make when their training is applied in real life. This is why most professions have at least some ethical education as part of their induction process, to get people to think about why they do things beyond just how they do them, and how and why their actions might impact on others.
Samuel Huntington can be disputed on many things, but he is right in arguing that an important component of any profession is awareness that it is a profession, a group with specialist knowledge differentiating it from the rest of society, and that this specialism gives them a duty of service to society as a whole. It is the education they receive, the ‘why’ they are do things, which glues together the different bits of training professionals get into a coherent whole and informs them of their social role and duty.
Yet, a reading of these books shows many still trying to impose the old Maoist model of ‘revolutionary warfare’ on what the Taliban and ISIS are doing…
The military are professionals in applying deadly force, or the threat of deadly force, on behalf of their government in pursuit of that government’s policy aims. The more professional the military, the more seriously it takes this role, the more efficient it will be and the better the chances of achieving those policy aims, the most important of the ‘whys’ shaping the military and what it does from day to day. As Clausewitz, though often misquoted, said, all war is explicitly political, so anything done by any member of the armed forces on any military operation will have political intent and implications.
This is important on several levels but particularly in the ‘complex’ scenarios seen since 9/11 and interventions into genuinely multi-cultural, multi-tribal and multi-lingual societies of the sort found in the Middle East, Africa and across much of Asia or even Europe. A number of recent books on Afghanistan, particularly those by Emile Simpson and Mike Martin, present the idea of competing narratives, the notion that you have an accepted idea of what the war you are in is about, why it is happening, who the good guys are, the bad guys are and who is going to win, and how, but that other people in that same war may have radically different views on all these same things, and this may include your friends as well as your enemies.
Yet, a reading of these books shows many still trying to impose the old Maoist model of ‘revolutionary warfare’ on what the Taliban and ISIS are doing, seeing some kind of single, all pervasive ‘insurgency’ in which everyone who shot at Allied forces in Afghanistan, for instance, was ‘Taliban’. The reality is a complicated patchwork of tribal, family and criminal networks which may be fighting viciously one month, and working as allies the next, into which NATO arrived only a decade ago. Such networks are far more influential than state governments across large parts of Africa, the Middle East and Asia, yet Mike Martin and Frank Ledwidge in particular cite numerous examples of the kind of embarrassing and occasionally self-defeating things which happen when supposedly professional militaries did not appreciate this and the knowledge not passed on.
It is therefore essential that service personnel get a degree of historical, political and cultural education about the nature of the people they are working with and the world in general. If, at the very least, forces develop a good, accurate understanding of why the enemy sees the world the way he does — and he may, of course, see it far, far differently from the way that they do — then they are some way along the road to defeating or at least neutralising him. If they understand the culture and worldview of the people which they operate among, particularly during interventions and insurgencies, it will help immensely in gaining local confidence and cooperation and improve efficiency in things like intelligence gathering.
Doctrine acts as the bridge between theory and practice and is separate, yet interlinked with both…
Another important component of the ‘why’ is that each armed force goes about its business in the way it does. This, of course, is ‘doctrine’ — a word frequently translated as ‘teaching’ and so referring explicitly to education. The concept of ‘doctrine’ has been transferred from religion to politics and then the military and denotes any attempt to create a coherent, systematic way of doing things, usually taking the form of an officially endorsed set of recommended actions for any given situation.
Doctrine acts as the bridge between theory and practice and is separate, yet interlinked with both: theory explains doctrine, practice carries it out. Doctrine is the ‘why’ for most military people, more of the ‘glue’ which ties all professions’ training and acquisition together into a coherent whole which works better than the sum of its parts. Education is particularly important to the US and British militaries because of their attitude to doctrine, a general philosophy in both forces being that doctrine should not be too prescriptive, but rather a set of guidelines which can and must be adapted to whatever situation it comes up against.
US and British military doctrine hinges (in theory) on mission command: fundamentally, giving a commander an objective, a time to achieve it by, and then trusting him to get on with it without too much supervision, adapting to the situation as they see fit. Mission command requires all commanders to have a sufficient intellectual breadth to appreciate the overall mission of the entire force, how they fit into it and the impact, for better or worse of certain actions on the enemy. It is important, therefore, that commanders have some knowledge of the evolution of strategic theory and military history. Understanding strategic theory is important because it answers another set of ‘why’ questions — why are we, a particular arm of service, called upon by our political masters to do the particular jobs we do, and why do we go about them in the way we do? Might there be other ways of doing these things, and if so, are they viable? A really professional officer, of any service, should be asking these questions constantly in order to help his service adapt and evolve not only day to day on the ground, but decade to decade as history throws new shocks at it.
Military history is vital too. History is accumulated vicarious experience, allowing us today to learn from what others did before. Serious, instructive history is about the study of change and process over time, another way of explaining how and why things happen now in the way that they do. It also provides guidelines for what we might be doing now — history does not repeat itself, but it does, occasionally rhyme, and so while a good knowledge of military history probably will not teach explicit lessons for today’s armed forces, if understood properly, it will send important messages. There is also something more visceral about military history, perhaps one reason why the British Army places such great stock on recording regimental histories, the RAF on Squadron histories, and why the US Marine Corps makes a knowledge of Corps history a requirement for all its recruits and trainee officers. It reminds people they are part of something bigger and older than they are, in which those going before have set expected standards of conduct and behaviour which they are expected to keep up; it also shows people that there are few things which are completely unprecedented or insurmountable, that others have faced apparently impossible things in the past and overcome them. For any profession, including the military, history serves an inspirational purpose and perhaps teaches humility as well.
Education is vital to the 21st century military, and likely to become more so.
The final argument is more contemporary. 21st century Western military operations combine ‘joint’ with the ‘comprehensive approach’, requiring the three services to act in cooperation with each other and, of course, with the forces of allies, be they local or part of NATO; furthermore, with interventions and counterinsurgencies, civilian agencies may be involved as well. This is not without its controversies, but necessitates some understanding and appreciation of how other agencies work, and in many cases, how the armed forces of allies work. This does not just involve observing them now but also knowing something of their past, which might give insights into what they are capable of and prepared to do, so making planning a lot smoother, and cooperation on the ground a lot more effective. It will also, hopefully, reduce the chance of cultural clashes, particularly between the military and civilian agencies that might have widely divergent reasons for why something is happening and what they are going to do about it.
Western forces are facing a complicated and frankly sometimes rather awkward operational environment in the 21st century. All our servicemen, be they airmen, sailors, soldiers, or marines, are going to need the breadth of knowledge, vision, and understanding in order to do their jobs in this environment. Education is vital to the 21st century military, and likely to become more so.
Dr. Simon Anglim is a Teaching Fellow in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. He has authored over a dozen papers on insurgency and special and covert operations and the role of educators in the British Army on combat operations. His book, Orde Wingate: Unconventional Warrior was published in October 2014. He tweets regularly at @sjanglim.
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