“I love argument, I love debate. I don’t expect anyone just to sit there and agree with me, that’s not their job” – Margaret Thatcher
In the land environment, an Army’s soldiers and officers – its people – have always been viewed as the most important asset and at the very heart of the military capabilities it fields. Capabilities are comprised of multiple entities; from physical equipment to logistic systems, infrastructure to enable and doctrine to exploit. At the heart of each of these are the personnel to man, operate, maintain and manage them. Without suitably qualified and experienced personnel (SQEP), a capability cannot be brought to bear, let alone arrive at and remain in-service. Maintaining our people’s efficacy across a range of military capabilities, particularly those in more conceptual roles such as operational planning and intelligence, demands continuous professional development. The British Army is well aware of this and invests heavily in a wide range of professional education and training, with topics ranging from literacy to leadership. It aims to promote a culture where officers and soldiers are encouraged to learn from the experiences of others through reading and study. Postgraduate degrees and extended academic based education, including the Intermediate Command and Staff Course (Land) (ICSC(L)), the Advanced Command and Staff Course (ACSC) and in-service MAs, MScs and MPhils all serve to support the development of the intellectual capability of the British Army, although it is worth noting that this education is primarily aimed at the officer corps. The fact that this activity continues to be resourced in such financially constrained times, strongly support the thesis that there is more to professional development than simply reading books and reflective study.
Discussion and Debate
Critical discussion is a fundamental activity, which supports the progression from the lower levels of Bloom’s taxonomy (understanding and applying knowledge) to the higher ones (evaluating and creating concepts). Exposure to different professional and analytical perspectives is essential, so that all can benefit from their assumptions being challenged and outcomes learned by all. Through active debate, individuals are forced to refine and justify their arguments when they are challenged. This stimulates group discussion and can generate debate based on the breadth of experience of others. In turn it encourages individuals to think deeper about the logic behind their arguments adding rigour to the process of conceptual thought, whether they choose to defend or amend them. A subsequent effect is the enablement of group ownership to the challenges in debate, and in this context grasping and owning the many challenges facing Defence. The solutions to the British Army’s challenges will most likely come from its military professionals and thus the encouragement of engagement in open debate and discussion of such matters should be viewed as a substantive and authoritative opportunity. We need to be able to think faster, smarter and from a better informed footing, than our adversaries. Open debate and discussion is key to harnessing our people in this way and making them an asset. Professional military blogs and online platforms offering critical analysis of current and future challenges, such as Strategy Bridge, The Cove and Grounded Curiosity (and we hope in due course, The Wavell Room) are an ideal vehicle for furthering this.
Risk and Opportunity
Bringing this debate online may present risks to reputation, as divergent and critical analysis may contradict or even undermine the central and endorsed messages or policies. Yet there is equally a risk if debate does not occur. In the words of Sir Liddell Hart “whoever habitually suppresses the truth in the interests of tact will produce a deformity from the womb of his thought.” The opportunity to exploit debate not only serves the demands of continuous professional development, but also provides a vector for emergent and diverse thinking, which may influence future concepts, doctrine and approaches. These benefits far outweigh the risk at hand in an environment where rapid adaptation is a core requirement of the military in the contemporary operating environment. Establishing debates and discussion online opens up contribution from a wider, broader audience, with new perspectives and fresh ideas, some of which may emerge from non-military professionals. Online, people are also less fearful of entering the debate and there is greater opportunity to discuss topics across the levels of rank and experience.
The benefits of diversity
True debate can only exist when a diversity of opinion is accepted, allowing varied perspectives to be offered, evidenced and considered. Western militaries are increasingly diverse, which serves a broader sounding board, with different backgrounds and perceptions. In order to fully realise the benefits of diversity we, as professionals, must create inviting and accessible spaces which enable active debate and divergent thinking whilst avoiding the domination of traditional positivist thinking. By embracing diversity of thought, not only will the Army appear diverse, but its conceptual mass will increase in complexity allowing us as a profession to grow, adapt and improve in an increasingly complex world. If we are fearful of challenging ourselves, how will we be able to face down the real challenges of contemporary operations?
To maintain the world-leading quality of our soldiers and officers as professionals through continuous professional development, we should promote and provoke open debate, encourage diversity, divergence and independent critical thinking enabled by the honest and thoughtful perspectives that reflect the broad experience and intelligence of our key capability; our people.
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