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Whose Voice Matters? The British Army in 2018

“This is a first for the land warfare conference: a panel looking at the business of war from an historical perspective, all of whom have held a rifle in their hands. Does this make for better military history? Not necessarily – military history, like all other history, is first about establishing the facts. When it comes to making judgements, however, the man who’s carried a rifle ought to have an advantage – if not what’s the point of experience?”

This June saw the Royal United Services Institute host the 2018 iteration of the Land Warfare Conference [LWC]. An annual event held on behalf of the British Army’s Chief of the General Staff [CGS], this event aims to ‘reflect on the breath of challenges confronting today’s land forces in a global security environment characterised by constant competition and unpredictability.’ In short, the conference is an opportunity for the British Army and the armed forces at large to think about and debate the conceptual and operational challenges they face moving forwards.

On the opening day of this year’s conference, which focused on ‘Twenty First Century Manoeuvre’, the retired British Army officer, journalist, and novelist Allan Mallinson was invited to chair a panel on ‘The Evolution of Manoeuvre’. The session, which contained luminaries such as Dr Rob Johnson, Dr David Kilcullen, and General Sir Rupert Smith, aimed to consider how the concept of manoeuvre has evolved throughout history, and whether traditional approaches retain their relevance today.

In his introductory remarks, Mallinson sought to justify the important role that military professionals – both serving and retired – have in considering the relationship between historic and contemporary warfare. ‘Military History has been colonised by young academics with no experience of soldiering’, he opined. ‘This is great; they can establish the facts, but’, he continued, ‘the PhD and the P[assed] S[taff] C[ollege] are different qualifications’. In a subsequent exchange on Twitter, he embellished these points in slightly greater depth, explaining that ‘those with experience trying to discern lessons learned in order to think about the future also need to know how to dig into the facts to ask the supplementary questions.’

Perhaps it would be unfair to draw too much from an isolated series of remarks, reported via Twitter (although available in full here), or to lambast Mallinson too strongly for them. Nevertheless, his words do appear to convey a number of assumptions that deserve to be interrogated in greater depth. First, Mallinson seems to believe that ‘young academics with no experience of soldiering’ are less qualified to comment on contemporary defence issues than either their ‘senior’ professional counterparts, or more seasoned individuals with direct military experience. Second, this belief appears to stem from the fact that military experience is necessary in order to distil the ‘facts’ presented in academic scholarship and to make them relevant to approaching the challenges of today and of tomorrow.  Finally, there is a broader point here – that of whose voice and whose opinion UK Defence appears to value when it seeks to reach outside of its boundaries, ostensibly in search of critical challenge.

Languages of Exclusion and Unspoken Assumptions

Before addressing the essence of the points Mallinson made at the conference, it is worth pausing to examine the language he used to express them. The British Army of 2018 purports to embrace diversity and to view it as a key force multiplier. ‘The more diverse a team is, the greater the pool of skills available’, the recruiting information reads, ‘a climate of diversity welcomes all individuals to the team, regardless of their background’.

With these laudable aims in mind, accepting without comment the fact that a speaker with enduring links to the Army (Mallinson retired as a Brigadier in 2004 and has spoken at several LWC in the last five years) decided to open a prestigious conference convened on behalf of the CGS with the language of colonialism seems an unfortunate oversight. The British Army has a long and intimate association with imperial rule and the subjugation of indigenous peoples. This history is undoubtedly unattractive (to say the least) to many potential recruits with African, Asian, Irish, or Caribbean heritage, and to permit the language of colonisation to be used so freely does little to dispel the impression that the Army is a bastion of conservatism and ethnocentrism, with little genuine regard for changing its beliefs and ethos. This is extremely unfortunate, as genuine efforts are being made to make the armed forces more accessible and inclusive and considerable progress is being made in numerous respects. Sadly, those efforts have apparently yet to address the issue of diversifying who the Army views as a suitable or acceptable ‘expert’ (more on which anon) to invite to an event such as the LWC.

Mallinson’s unfortunate choice of words also appears to imply that a wave of ‘young’ military historians have somewhat displaced the ‘rightful’ incumbents of the field – presumably more experienced, male, ex-military personnel ‘who have held a rifle’ (that would certainly be the impression one got by consulting the gender balance and ethnicity of the programme of civilian speakers). This critique reflects some of the most unhelpful dynamics within the field of military history itself. In that sub-discipline, a significant minority hark back to an ill-defined golden age where students were free to study ‘pure’ military operations without the need to bother with such indulgences as gender, society, culture, empire, etc. These niche viewpoints, which do not reflect the academic study of warfare, serve to ostracise ‘military’ historians from the broader discipline of History, and occasionally to provoke spectacularly ill-informed accusations of methodological bankruptcy, conceptual myopia, and malign intentions.

Both of these perspectives ignore the vital importance of studying war in a holistic sense, and downplay the considerable contribution which cutting edge scholarship can make to debates about defence today – both in terms of military education and policy relevance. In his remarks Mallinson mentioned Sir Michael Howard, the figure most intimately associated with this shift towards a comprehensive approach to the study of war. However, he appears not to have read him all that closely – for Howard explicitly argued against what he called the ‘parochialism’ of history focused primarily upon the conduct of military operations at the expense of broader factors. He viewed this parochialism as ‘particularly marked in the case of British military history because of the peculiar introversion of the British Army itself’. The outpouring of diverse and innovative scholarship on the history of war has done much to address this self limiting focus on military operations, and to view it as antithetical to the needs of the modern armed forces is profoundly short sighted.

Scholarship and Soldiering

The relationship between academic study and military professionalism is so well-founded as to require no meaningful comment here. However, it is important to consider Mallinson’s claims about ‘lessons learned’, and the need for ‘those with experience’ to discern such pearls of wisdom from ‘facts’ provided by academics. What one authority has referred to as the ‘pathology’ of lessons learned is a vexed question which sits on the borderline between academia and the military. The ‘instrumentalisation’ of historical knowledge for military purposes is certainly fraught with conceptual pitfalls, and it seems that Mallinson has stumbled into several of these.

First and foremost, the role of historians or of academics in general is not to ‘establish facts’. Viewing scholarship in this way is reductive and misleading. Beyond insulting the complexity of academic research, such a viewpoint misses the much more important point about what it is that education can offer the military professional: the ability to grapple with complex problems and to deal with ambiguity and uncertainty. Today, when ‘uncertainty’ and ‘complexity’ are watchwords in virtually all projections of future threats, surely we ought to be encouraging future leaders to develop their ability to cope with such challenges? This certainly forms a core part of the curriculum at the Joint Services Command and Staff College, and it is disappointing not to see that fact reflected at such a flagship conference.

Leading on from this, Mallinson’s suggestion that ‘those with experience’ ought to ‘dig in’ to the detail of historical campaigns is most welcome. Such an excavation would doubtless prove fruitful and stimulate numerous debates within defence today. However, the notion that ‘lessons’ ought to be the province of a privileged few is deeply flawed. Any attempt to derive simplistic conclusions from history is foredoomed to fail in potentially misleading ways – as narratives about Britain’s capacity for counterinsurgency from the mid-2000s showed. Rather, ‘lessons’ are an opportunity to educate judgement. As Jonathan Bailey has argued, we must recognise ‘evidence as ephemeral and not the basis of dogma’. Soldiers, sailors, and air personnel of all ranks should thus be encouraged to engage in a dialectic exchange with the past in order to sharpen their thinking in the present. The activity ought not to be reserved for an ill-defined few, either in or out of uniform, or to those with either a PhD or PSC.

 Academics, Expertise, and Defence

Encouraging a breadth of contribution is not to diminish the value of expertise or of experience, however. When it comes to the former, academia (particularly the humanities and social sciences) provides a unique opportunity to address questions of ambiguity and complexity, and to engage in potentially uncomfortable discussions – issues of central importance to Professional Military Education and development. One such discussion is that of ‘whose voice matters’ – an issue which appears to remain something of a challenge in the context of Mallinson’s remarks. For by defining those able to contribute in terms of ‘the man who’s carried a rifle’, we risk obscuring the voices and experiences of minority groups within society, the academy, and the military itself.

Efforts to ‘decolonise’ – and diversify – curricula across the Higher Education sector require us to think about the implications of a more diverse society, to challenge the shared assumptions that we have about the world, as well as investigating the relationship between the writer and what they write about. Yet, this does not need to stop with academia. The British Army, too, realises that it needs to ‘improve’ its image. It wants to be seen as modern and a reflection of the society it represents, particularly with its ‘This is Belonging’ advertising campaign. ‘It’s vital that the Army is a true representation of the society it exists to defend’, reads the recruiting information. ‘The society we recruit from is increasingly diverse which enriches the contribution individuals can make throughout their Army Service’.

Yet, while recruitment is being overhauled to reflect more positively the changing demography of British society, this drive for diversity has not necessarily extended to the expertise privileged by the Army. Whose voices and, by extension, whose expertise does it appear to value? If we look back at previous LWCs, we see an overwhelming propensity to select white, male, serving or former generals. And this is to be expected to some extent, but for a military that is purporting to move with the times and appeal to a broader base of society then surely other voices beyond those of the ‘mainstream’ should be included. Indeed, what is particularly striking about LWC between 2013-2018 are the same names cropping up time and time again. The privileging of the same voices and the same experiences year after year. This has glaring implications for organisational creativity and internal critique.

If we look at the programmes from previous LWC, the gender disparity, in particular, is concerning. Both the 2013 and 2014 LWC had a sole female speaker. The 2016 iteration fared slightly better: with one female chair and two female speakers. The 2017 conference had one female chair and three female speakers. The current LWC 2018 had one female chair and six female speakers. This year’s event saw a welcome uplift in female voices, which is to be applauded. What is less easy to discern are the voices of peoples of colour [POC] who are markedly absent in respective LWC line ups. This forces us to ask some deeper and, arguably, more problematic questions: first, what spaces are women and POC allowed to occupy when it comes to debates about defence, and on what terms? When women and POC are invisible on the public stage, their stories, contributions, and experiences are erased from history. Secondly, what are the consequences of this (in)visibility? When you limit the range of perspectives then you limit the quality of conversation and potential outcome, as well as perpetuating the military, overwhelmingly male, echo chamber. There is a systemic problem here, too: the absence of women and POC perpetuates absence of women and POC. Fewer choose to speak and, therefore, fewer are chosen.

It’s 2018. A diverse and varied speaker line up should be the norm rather than the exception. Excuses that diversity means ‘lowering the bar’ do not stand up to scrutiny. Nor does the excuse that organisers do not ‘know’ people. Put simply, you have to want to find and engage with diverse experts and speakers. The rise of social media accounts such as @manelwatchUK and @manelwatchIRE suggests that time’s up on all male panels and, indeed, all male conferences. Yet, the ‘manel’ is still a common occurrence within the UK military. The Army’s First World War centenary commemoration activity, Op REFLECT, has seen staff rides undertaken to the Western Front battlefields in 2014, 2016, and 2018. The study day to support the 2016 staff ride, while engaging with academic experts, had one female speaker and no POC. The 2018 study day did not include a single POC or female speaker. There are diverse voices out there – one just needs to look beyond the comfort of one’s existing contact list to find them.

Critical Challenge?

A potential consequence of the lack of diversity at events like LWC is the risk of perpetuating an homogeneous echo chamber and the accompanying group think it can engender. The dangers of both phenomena are well documented. As humans, we have a tendency to engage with information and voices that align with our ideological preconceptions, which often leads to confirmation bias. By limiting the inclusion of different voices, experiences, and approaches, you are, at best, stifling creativity and, at worst, stunting the growth of the organisation itself. The findings of the Chilcot Report plainly show the dangers of group think when left unchecked and unchallenged. It is imperative, therefore, that the seductive comfort of group think does not cloud the minds of our current and future military leaders.

Diversity goes hand in hand with Chilcot’s call for ‘reasonable challenge’ – a policy that the Ministry of Defence has embraced. If we look at the government’s ‘The Good Operation’ handbook, published in the light of the Chilcot Report, we see just how important diversity, experiencing discomfort, and listening to dissenters is to a healthy decision-making process. The guide recognises that there is a need to build in ‘sufficient challenge, diversity of thought, and critical thinking’. Indeed, one of the key questions that officials (whether military or civilian) should be asking is: ‘are diverse viewpoints being brought into the discussion, and is the evidence constantly being challenged?’ The Ministry of Defence’s own ‘Reasonable Challenge: A Guide’ makes the point clear: for those receiving challenge, they should ‘seek real diversity of thought, not just shades of mainstream thinking’.

While engaging with academics and consultants does offer the Army external critical voices, critical challenge should also come from those within the organisation itself, particularly from those at junior levels. It is not just ‘young academics’ who should be included in this discussion, but also young officers and soldiers. We see efforts in this direction with the establishment of the Wavell Room, as well as the British Army’s Intrapreneur Network [BrAIN] and The Dragon Portal. But are those senior individuals at the top of the Army listening to the challenge and critique of its own people?

The Australian Defence Force, particularly the Australian Army, seems to be a leading light in this respect. The Cove, for example, ‘seeks to reduce a rank-focus, and instead lean towards the idea that we are all professionals on a journey towards mastery of our chosen profession’. Grounded Curiosity, a blog that emerged following discussions between serving Australian personnel in the Mess, but sits independent from the Army, sounds a clarion call for diversity of thought: ‘If you believe the future will be characterised by complexity and convergence then it is important to look, share, and discuss outward from our military’. The Australian branch of the Defence Entrepreneurs Forum [DEF AUS], which nests under Grounded Curiosity, runs a yearly event where serving personnel – of any rank, service, or specialisation – pitch ideas, with the support of a mentor, to senior leaders in Australian Defence. Why invest in this? Because, for DEF AUS, such an activity reinforces an innovative culture, networks innovative minds, and helps serving personnel transform their ideas to practical capability.

Whose Voice Matters?

The British armed forces of 2018 support and are engaged in a range of forward-thinking educational endeavours, ranging from their partnership with King’s College London at the Defence Academy to the Army’s Op REFLECT activities. They also harbour a wealth of reflective and creative personnel, many of whom welcome the opportunity to think creatively about their profession and to challenge themselves academically. It is high time that this was reflected at flagship events like the LWC, which offer a highly visible platform on which the Army can demonstrate its commitment to diversity, inclusion, and intellectual excellence. Doing so would not only make the forces more reflective of society and appealing to new recruits, but would be of benefit to their own conceptual development.

The analysis, views, and opinions expressed or implied in this post are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of King’s College London, the UK Ministry of Defence, or any other government agency.

Dr Aimee Fox and Dr David Morgan Owen

Dr Aimee Fox (@DRAEFox) and Dr David Morgan-Owen (@dmorganowen) are both lecturers in Defence Studies at Kings College London

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