CCLKOW: ‘Colonel Laurens’ on Padres

CCLKOW readers, we are pleased to introduce another British Army officer, this one we will be calling Colonel Laurens. First, to explain the moniker. ‘Laurens’ is for John Laurens, an officer of the Continental Army, a member of George Washington’s ‘family,’ the inner circle of officers who held his trust, and the son of Henry, a member of the Continental Congress and its President (1777-8) during the War for Independence. Throughout the war, until his death in 1782, John carried on a correspondence with his father to keep the latter informed of the military situation. In that correspondence, the son spared little in his responsible but frank forthrightness to explain the condition of the army to the father. I would reckon a similar characteristic of expression for our latest correspondent to Kings of War, and it will be to give an honest but thoughtful account of army experience on this blog that I anticipate as the strength of his contribution going forward. As for the inaugural piece, I think it lives up to this theme admirably. The institutional chaplaincy is an enduring part of the military experience, and yet it more often than not goes unconsidered or unexamined in the larger scheme of getting on with the work of an army, navy or air force. However, given the latitude and roles which chaplains can exercise, this may be a mistake. At the very least, nothing done within the military setting should be ignored, no matter how seemingly irrelevant it is to the main effort. Worse, lack of due consideration may either miss critical opportunities to use a capability better or avoid critical and damaging misuse. So, read the piece, ponder the place of the chaplain in your experience and organisation, and join the discussion on Twitter at the hashtag. (JSR – ed.)


This Easter Sunday I had a very brief moment of tranquillity at home.  The jobs were done, the children were quiet and still alive, and I had a good twenty minutes before the next major family admin serial had to begin.

As any parent, or indeed those of you getting pushed hard at Regimental Duty or on the staff will know, such moments are rare, and rarely free of concurrent activity.  I used my moment to complete something necessary for the day, but something which at least involved sitting down.

As I pondered the day ahead, I was struck by the fact that I hadn’t planned a trip to church.  Our family are occasional attendees at church, and Easter would be the sort of time of year that we would normally go.  My train of thought then leapt from church, to wondering if the Regiment had done a church parade for Easter, to a Padre who had recently been a source of some comfort to me during a particularly testing period.  Padre had been the only person I thought I could turn to as a personal event began to take its toll.  One day, as I could sense in myself that I was reaching a point where manning up was soon to lead to this man going down, I spoke with Padre.  That initial interaction lasted only two minutes.  He offered some words of advice, but I already either knew what he told me or had already considered and dismissed it.  However, I felt a little better for sharing the problem for the first time.

Having spent all twenty years of my career advising others to go to Padre with their problems, and ensuring that Padres got to hear about problems I knew existed, I had never gone to one myself.  I wasn’t too sure what to expect next.  But Padre played it perfectly.  I had feared what would come of my revelation; I had sent him a hasty text after our meeting assuring him this was not a cry for help but a requirement to chat with someone, but still I feared that he might share something I considered to be unrepeatable with higher (Army higher, not higher higher).  He didn’t.  Instead, judging me and the moments perfectly, we never spoke of it again, but over the next three months I received a couple of written notes and a couple of text messages of support.  That was all, and that was all that was needed.

Sat having my gentleman’s moment on Sunday, I resolved to write to him or text him, to thank him for helping to keep me sane during that period.  It had been about three months since I had heard from him and I was no longer serving at the same base.  Just then, a text message arrived on my phone.  It was from him, wishing me well.  It was an outstanding piece of timing.

I have always pondered the role of the Padre within the Army, and tried to fathom what differentiated between effective and ineffective holders of the position.  As I become more senior, and command more people, it has become of increasing importance to me and my style of leadership.  Easiest to describe are those I have seen that have failed:  the Padre who ‘borrowed’ some mess silver for his quarter (Commanding Officers do not like that) to try to fit in with his perceptions of the lifestyles of those he wanted as his peers in the Regiment; the Padre who came to every party and low level social event, getting drunk at every one, mistaking the soldiers’ and subalterns’ feeding of the habit (no pun intended) and joshing as acceptance when it was in fact done with distain; the Padre who sided with the despot of a Commanding Officer to further his own career rather than supporting those of us who were trying to explain the effects of the regime to that Commanding Officer.

It is harder to describe why those who have succeeded have done so.  But in general they have three traits in common.  First, they seek no peer group in the Regiment.  They float between Messes, between canteens and NAAFIs, not particularly at home in one more than the other, but comfortable enough in all for all members of the Regiment to feel a connection.  Secondly, they do not seek to impress through unbecoming traits, martial or otherwise.  Officers and soldiers want to know they can confide in and trust a Padre; nobody trusts a drunk and likewise whilst the Corporal or Lieutenant will be admired for running a fast race, shooting straight, tabbing for miles without concern or lying up in an OP for days in the worst of weathers, this is not what is expected of Padres.  A Padre should not compete with the soldiers.  He is from a different plane, has spiritual concerns, and serves a different purpose; he must be seen to act accordingly.   And finally, Padres do not press agendas that run contrary to good order and discipline of a military unit.  Nobody, including the most junior soldier, wants a Padre who raises issues above where they need to be raised, and similarly nobody wants a Padre who lacks the moral courage to raise them when they should be.  In my two years in Command, I had only ever once had an unexpected visit from one of the two (very good) Padres who served with me.  Rather than barging in to my office (like the Padre who sided with the despotic  Commanding Office) and flaunting his unfettered visitation privileges, this Padre queued up, waited his turn, and asked for an appointment from the Adjutant.  The Adjutant was wise, and showed him in immediately.  Padre spent 30 seconds in my office and got exactly what he wanted.  The effective Padre works behind the scenes to protect those he is looking out for; the tiresome one bellows loudly, draws attention to himself and his charges and therefore loses the faith of those who might be coming to him next.

And I think it is indisputable that the Padres are used, and are considered valuable by all ranks.  Whenever a Regiment lacks a Padre, it is noticeable; perhaps not on the surface, or particularly in terms of military outputs, but definitely in the undercurrents and moods of the body of men and women that encompass that unit.  I have never known a Padre’s leave period to pass without needing to get the covering Padre in for some reason or another.

These three traits, of universal connection, spiritual focus, and moral courage, seemed to me as both a squadron leader and Commanding Officer to be about faith rather than Christianity.   I thought that Padres were respected for believing in something, rather than what they believed in.  Certainly, that was how I looked at it.  The logical end to that particular flow of thought is that an Islamic Iman, a Jewish Kohen or a Sikh Guru should have been as effective as a Christian Padre in our Army.

I mooted this idea to my closest advisors – wouldn’t it have been cool, I thought, to show how progressive and enlightened we were by actively seeking a Padre from a different Religion.  My idea was met with opened mouthed horror by my subordinates, who on this occasion sadly had taken plenty of moral courage pills that morning.  Interestingly, the feeling was strongest amongst those who professed the least interest in faith in general.  I spoke, too, with my soldiers and officers who were from other faiths, all of whom universally explained that the feeling was mutual.  I asked them to consider themselves in the situation of a life or death accident and whether the arrival of a Christian Padre to tend their spiritual needs would suffice; they tended to see his potential presence as a practical one, with help carry the stretcher  being the limit of his use.   But it’s impossible to tell how officers and soldiers would react to a Padre from a different faith until you’ve actually done it.  I suspect that like most things in life the experience would be neither as bad as the doubters feared nor as successful as proponents hoped.

But I think that leaders are only leaders because they have followers.  And that’s why, sometimes, you’ve got to give the people what they want, be that turning a blind eye at the Christmas Lunch food fight or ensuring the boys and girls get the type of Padre they are comfortable with.  But it raises the issue of how the Army, or Defence, copes with attracting a wider section of our society to join us in this most wonderful, embracing, meritocratic organisation that we have.  Surely, as a soldier lies hurt in a foreign field, they should at least have the realistic hope that it’s going to be the correct version of Padre who turns up in his landrover, with the bloody headlights on, to give him or her their last jelly baby before they die.

Turning to the discussion, this week’s will be left open and broad. Instead of particular questions, I would simply open the floor for people to consider and reflect upon their personal experiences of the chaplaincy, how they have been effective or problematic, what other roles they might serve in contemporary and future conflicts, or any other views which people might have on the subject.  Post your comments on Twitter at #CCLKOW. 


#CCLKOW: The Officer’s Guide to Breaking Rules


Greetings CCLKOW readers. This week brings the return of the Fighting Sailor, with a thought provoking post on rules breaking within the necessary strict discipline of the armed forces. Examining the contending forces of trust and risk, the piece wraps with a model to assess when rules breaking should be pursued. Among the questions he poses at the end, the point on the calibration of the moral compass is most compelling to me. Disruption by means of rules breaking is an essential part of warfare – at key moments it can reduce the essential friction to the advantage of one’s forces. However, gone too far or into the wrong areas, rules breaking can enable a moral expediency which cannot be tolerated on the field of battle with any ease. Maintaining the discipline to apply rules breaking in one area but not others is again another iteration of the tension between control and chaos which is highlighted in the essay. Importantly, this theme exceeds the singular topic addressed here, but rather permeates everything about warfare and military affairs as controlling the reins on this tension at the behest of state and society is the necessary function of the armed forces. I would therefore add to the considerations posted at the end that a last question be where the balance should be placed under the current circumstances in training and operations. And with that, I will turn you over to the piece itself. Enjoy, and join the discussion of the questions on Twitter at #CCLKOW. — (JSR)


I always say that it’s about breaking the rules. But the secret of breaking rules in a way that works is understanding what the rules are in the first place.      — Rick Wakeman


As military officers we are surrounded by rules, regulations, policy, protocols, doctrine, instructions, orders (both standing and ephemeral) and, indeed, laws – all of which we are supposed to adhere to[1].  As part of a disciplined fighting Service it is incumbent upon each of us not only to know what all of these constraints on our behaviour are, but to apply them in the leadership of our teams.  They enable the complex organisations of the military to be managed (more or less) effectively.  They allow for, inter alia, the regimentation of affairs, legal compliance, fairness to our people, good order, coherence and consistency across (and between) our Armed Services, interoperability and the safe conduct of our business[2].  In short they prevent chaos. For some years now the Royal Navy has been running a recruitment campaign with the strapline “Life without Limits”.  Personally, I think this is very strange as it is difficult to think of a more regulated lifestyle than a sailor at sea, especially on operations.  And yet, as commanders and leaders we are required to deal with real situations and apply our judgement to each set of circumstances to do what is right to achieve our Commander’s intent.  In my experience, this often means that the rules need to be broken (or at least reinterpreted) in order to achieve the aim.  In such circumstances how to we as commanders decide on the best course of action?

When exhorting his officers to seize the initiative and deliver success in spite of the strictures of bureaucracy, the outgoing First Sea Lord[3] frequently used the phrase “Be bold. Take risk. Fear nothing.”  This is the Nelsonian way.  But how do we judge which rules we ought to break and when?  When should we turn a ‘Nelsonian Eye[4]’ to our orders?  When should we obey them and inform our superior commander that we are unable to comply with his or her instructions?  The answer, as alluded to by Admiral Zambellas, is to take risk.  But risk is something very specific.  It is not a cavalier gamble, that is simply negligence; rather it is a careful analysis of the likelihood and impact of an adverse situation manifesting itself.  Once these are understood, mitigations should be devised and implemented to reduce both the likelihood and the impact of an undesirable outcome.  This must then be weighed carefully against the likelihood and benefits of success.  A sensible, balanced and defensible decision can then be taken.  Where this course of action contravenes the rules you, as the decision maker, need to take responsibility and reassure your subordinates that you are doing so.

Warrant Officers and Senior Ratings[5] have (in general) spent their careers implementing the rules to manage the delivery of the functions for which they are responsible. Taking them into a situation where the hard and fast rules that they are used to working with become temporarily negotiable and ambiguous requires careful leadership and clarity of explanation.  They need to trust you, and you need to be worthy of that trust, because if it goes bad you need to have the moral courage to take responsibility. But good decisions can go bad, just as bad decisions can go well.  You need to make sure that the decision is defensible.  If it is not, then it probably isn’t the right decision in any case and you need to think again.  Asking yourself the question “how would I explain this at the Court Martial?” isn’t about covering your back, it’s about calibrating your moral compass in opaque circumstances.

When at sea as Head of the Weapon Engineering Department in one of the Royal Navy’s Anti-Submarine Warfare frigates I developed a helpful mental and linguistic model to aid me with this process.  By agreement, it also formed the basic structure of the conversations about such issues that I would have with the Commanding Officer (CO).  The CO hated being told that I couldn’t do something when he knew full well that I could but that the rules didn’t allow it.  So I agreed that we would discuss such things in the following terms: Could – Should – Would.  In the first instance I would explain what could be done, what was physically possible given the resources at our disposal, without any of the constraints of the rules.  I would then explain what should be done to be compliant with the rules, regulations, policy, etc.  Finally, we would have a conversation about what we would do, under what circumstances and when the operational imperative would justify setting aside certain rules in order to achieve the intent.  It worked.  I never told him something was impossible when it wasn’t, but we also (frequently) made defensible risk-based decisions to break the rules when the circumstances justified it. He’s a Rear Admiral now and I was promoted from that job too, so we must have been doing something right.  Maybe we were just lucky but experience suggests that taking a deliberate and structured approach to thinking about and taking risk around rules may have helped.



Discussion Questions:

  • What mental model do you use to assess and communicate operational risk?
  • How do you engender confidence in your team to follow you when you break the rules?
  • How much latitude do you give your subordinates to break the rules on their own initiative?
  • How do you calibrate your moral compass?




Recommended further reading:

Gardner, Dan. Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear. Virgin Books (London: 2009).

Taleb, Nassim Nicholas. Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets (2nd Ed). Penguin Books (London: 2007).



[1] I will group all of these under the term ‘rules’ for convenience in this article

[2] Or at least as safe as possible.  The enemy will try to do us harm, we really ought not to do it to ourselves.

[3] Admiral Sir George Zambellas, Head of the Royal Navy.

[4] At the battle of Copenhagen in 1801 Admiral Sir Hyde Parker sent a signal to the Fleet ordering them to withdraw. Nelson pressed his telescope to his blind eye and said “I really do not see the signal”. He pressed home his attack and secured victory for the British. – Forrester, C.S., Nelson. Chatham Publishing (London: 1929) and Hibbert, Christopher. Nelson A Personal History. (Basic Books: 1994).

[5] Enlisted sailors, Petty Officer and above.


CCLKOW: Major Jones Describes a Model of Domestic Discontent


Greetings CCLKOW readers. This week we are happy to bring another voice of the British armed forces to the fray. We will call him, for now, Major Jones, to reflect his Welsh origins. This thought piece arises from a presentation in which I found the conceptualisation of the dynamics of the political and security situation within South Africa to be compelling and worth further discussion. In this piece the Major describes how patterns of reaction to issues, rather than the issues themselves, may be the greater irritant to societal harmony than the underlying problem. This has significant implications for the improvement of that specific situation in South Africa. However, at a broader level, to identify the manner in which nearly invisible nuances alter the perception and appreciation of actions intended to improve the social, political, and economic landscape is critical to military affairs. These deep societal influences will matter as more activity in the defence and security realm revolves around either ‘upstream’ activities that prevent or minimise conflict or ‘peace-verbing’ campaigns to end the chaos. So, read the post, consider the questions, and join the discussion on Twitter at #CCLKOW. — JSR, ed


South Africa is suffering from a wide range of internal issues which are inhibiting social, political and economic progress.  The combination of these issues has led to a general sense of disappointment across its varied communities.  Disappointment and dissatisfaction are terms that appear regularly in commentary on the current situation.  This dissatisfaction emanates from the lack of social equality and economic success; progress promised in the years following their emergence from apartheid.  The lack of progress and current perceived economic downturn has led to civil unrest in the form of protests, strikes (which turn violent through group polarisation), and crime as the different groups seek to source their own solutions.  The civil unrest has subsequently led to conflict, mistrust and division between the communities as they revert to blaming each other (social sectarianism) for the ongoing difficulties.  This increased inter-group fracturing leads directly back to disappointment, as the social inequality/division is more evident, economic success is further hindered and so on, creating a Cycle of Disappointment (COD).

In this situation disappointment rather than the contributing issue has become the referent object inhibiting progress, where acknowledgment of the disappointment feeds the cycle.  Although exogenous factors are also present, they represent independent trigger events and are not continually required to feed the cycle.  The identification of cycles to explain unrest is nothing new; in ancient Athens a cycle of civil unrest, complicated by external frictions was identified and only broken by long term concentration on reconciliation.   Although the cycle initially continued once identified, by focussing on the end state and upholding and promoting their social values, eventually the cycle was broken.  More recently cycles such as Clidonamycs have also been proposed, which look at cycles to model conflict likelihood using broad social factors[1]  to predict cycles of unrest.  This concept remains academically unverified and when applied in isolation they can only predict broad trends, which is a limitation for this model as well.  What may be more useful is to look at where COD could apply within larger, better understood cycles & social movements.  The four stages of a social movement according to J Christiansen are emergence, coalescence, bureaucratisation, and decline (resolution).  Focusing on the decline (ending the movement), this can result from several different causes; repression, co-optation, success, failure, or becoming mainstream.[2]

If South Africa is caught in a COD it will be unable to break away from stage two (coalescence).  In order to transition to stage three/four, policies need to focus on breaking the COD and not tackling individual issues. This explains why the methods currently employed by the South African government to resolve issues seem only to ignite new movements and result in further disappointment. The disruption caused also leads to counter movements against that group (not the issue). Thus, the efforts intended to improve the situation in fact feed the COD, which is becomes self-perpetuating. Although applied here to South Africa, it could be easily applied globally where the recurrent failure to meet misguided promised progress creates a self-perpetuating negative impact larger than the failure itself.




Based on this analysis, the questions for discussion this week:

Dealing in security, broadly conceived, requires an appreciation of societal nuances and undercurrents which determine the effect of military action. To what extent do the armed forces appreciate this in advance in planning? The anthropologists have been drafted in service, and the historians already assist to inform, but what could be done better, or sooner, to incorporate this knowledge? Or, should such analysis be done outside the armed forces with the results dictated to them for the purposes of planning? 




[1] Population numbers, social structure, state strength and political instability.

[2] Christiansen J, Four Stages of Social Movements – 2009.


#CCLKOW So you say you want innovators and disruptive thinkers?

Greetings! This week’s piece pivots off of the Commandant of the Marine Corps’ comments regarding disruptive thinkers, which intersects nicely with an article I am wrapping up on Evans Carlson and his Raider concept in WWII. It is also influenced by the broader context which seems to favour and privilege innovation. And so, as the tide seems to be in favour, I thought I would just disrupt things a little. Enjoy the piece and join the discussion on Twitter at the hashtag, #CCLKOW.


In a call for support from the Corps’ hidden legions of disruptive thinkers, General Robert Neller initiated what amounted to a cultural revolution. Confronting what seems to be an increasingly complex world it is hoped that such individuals, as well as contenders from the rank and file whose experiences can light the path to real world solutions, will aid the agility and effectiveness of the Corps. This latest genuflection at the altar of the novel builds on the larger trend which values innovative thinking.

We are all quite certain this is a good thing, right?

But is it?

First, Neller is correct to note that the culture of the Marine Corps must adapt if this has the slightest chance to offer anything more than fits and starts of short-lived new ideas. For its many strengths, there is an historical resistance to figures whose ideas lie too far outside the standard. Evans Carlson, father of a wildly innovative warfighting unit and concept, did not succeed within the institution. Nor did William Corson, the Marine officer behind the first and very novel Combined Action Program in Vietnam. The successful Marines of the last 75 years have been those who have moderated change at the fringes but not fundamentally altered course. These are the cultural terms of success that will need to be countered. Of course, the problem is that institutional culture is a very difficult thing to change, and it is debatable whether that can be achieved under the tenure of a single commandant.

Second, this effort and others more generally assume that the best answers will come from within the armed forces and in direct response to issues. But important innovation is often found in odd spaces disconnected from the particular problem at hand. Much of the smart advances in air mobility between the two world wars came from the private sector or other public services. While I am not in favour of the thinking which posits that war and commerce as activities are similar, I am not so dogmatic that I cannot see the value of certain competencies crossing between the two areas. This is not to suggest that internal voices not be listened to or even heard, but only to caution that left and right of arc is limited if the box one need get outside of is only the military one.

Third, if everyone is disrupting and innovating, when do the armed forces develop competency? There is a point at which there will be diminishing marginal returns if this trend is pushed too far. Yes, at the extreme of every argument one finds foolishness, but in this case I suspect the frontier to that point is far closer than most people want to admit. And as we heap more praise and value upon innovation and disruption, I suspect the ability to admit that frontier will become more difficult. But at some point armed forces must train and do, neither of which are entirely amenable to constant flux. Alternatively, we can let loose the dogs of intellectual and other creativity and ingenuity because this is truly a period of existential peace. Arguing for both sides, the need to plan, prepare, and execute while simultaneously embarking upon revolutionary change seems only a recipe for disaster.

Fourth, are things really changing at such a rate that constant disruption and innovation are necessary? There are elements to the character of warfare which are shifting, but many stable elements remain, and certainly key principles remain immutable. I heard at the beginning of my career in military affairs that a Marine well-trained to his basic job could, on the basis of discipline and leadership, adapt to any situation. I heard the same thing today in class from a French officer. Despite the seeming revolutionary change of the last two decades of conflict, this basic approach remains a significant touchstone to many. Much like the liberal arts remain a valuable education for many different life and career choices despite every effort to drive novelty in university learning, perhaps the old way needed no superseding.

To close, I would point to the arena of military hardware. There is an unrelenting push to create, deploy, and destroy with the next cycle the technology of war. The F-35 has barely entered service and the next generation of aircraft is already a thing. And it will be a costly thing. Replicated across the armed forces, such a phenomenon acquires a heft that I doubt many can truly comprehend. And to what end? It is uncertain what military advantage is gained, but the costs are staggering. Whether these investments can be maintained indefinitely is entirely questionable. Even if possible, to impose this phenomenon across the armed forces, in thinking, software, and hardware, may not, in the end, achieve any greater marginal benefit than is currently seen with every new, expensive bit of major kit.

So, my questions for discussion are:

What is the innovation that American, British, or other armed forces need?

How do we drive the right innovation? How do we kill the bad?

At what point is disruption merely disruptive and not productive? 

Can the culture of armed forces really change? Or, historically, have the best innovations been the ones which accommodated themselves to the extant institutional culture?

What is the right admixture of innovators, disruptors, and status quo defenders for the armed forces?

Join the discussion on Twitter at #CCLKOW


#CCLKOW On Professional Military Education

Greetings dear CCLKOW readers and discussants. This week’s post differs from the norm in that it is not necessarily short term discussion based. Rather, like last’s week’s piece from Company Command, its aim is about the longer term conversational arc for the series. In this case the focus is specifically on the matter of professional military education. There are no particular questions posed, discussion in this case being driven by recommendations and interest. 


I have been interested in professional military education for as long as I have been in military history and defence affairs. Its content interests me in detail and for its expression of policy and intent. I have worked across various parts of it in the US and now here in the UK. My thesis research relied upon its 19th and 20th century emergence as a key piece in the development of the logistics of industrial warfare. I have also sat in as a student in much of a standard war college course. In sum, it is a critical  junction of scholarship, practice, and policy, as important to security and defence as it is to research.

For the purposes of this blog, when I speak of professional military education (PME) I mean the schoolhouses of the field grade ranks. The modern military school system which comes under this umbrella was borne of an era in which the operations of the line units exceeded the direct control of the army or campaign commander. War’s complexity increased first in the Napoleonic Wars as the nation in toto could be leveraged to increase manpower. This was followed by the complexity which the increasing mass that industrialisation enabled. To meet the widening spectrum of subject matter competencies which modern warfare required, PME evolved early to comprise a mix of academic and military subject matters. By the end of WWI, the educational scheme which an American or a British practitioner would generally recognize today had taken form, even as it continues to modify and reform itself according to changing needs.

If we are faced with an evolving character of warfare, it seems only fitting to examine the contours of the education which is meant to sustain the martial intellect. As such, it is my interest to bring more pieces on issues relevant to PME to CCLKOW and Kings of War. While I have some ideas in mind and plans in place, I would like to hear from a wider audience the PME topics and issues of concern. And so, this week’s discussion is a response to a that simple request.

Give a thought and add your views on Twitter at #CCLKOW.


CCLKOW: Part 2 – The Military Must Inevitably Take the International Lead In HADR

And this, dear CCLKOW readers, is the second instalment. In it, the necessity for the military response is argued. Take note, do-gooderism is not the driving force behind this argument. Rather, the linkages between these events and security drive the need for proper consideration, while the needed capabilities already held within the armed forces argue for their appropriateness. So, now that you have read both, it is for you all to consider which side of the argument you fall down on and join the conversation on Twitter at #CCLKOW.


While the spectre of global conflict is a daunting proposition to the human condition, the looming potential for disasters, both man-made and natural, to wreak similar havoc and impose like consequences upon humanity should equally concern societies. If the migrations of late from conflicts abroad are but the mildest preview of what might be faced in the aftermath of any significant humanitarian event, at the worst end is the magnitude of managing communicability on a global scale or contested salvation. The disaster flashpoints in the world centre around points of great population densities, and too often correspond with populations already on the brink. Taking the other side from my dear colleague, then, this piece will argue the inevitably necessary leading role for the armed forces in HADR. Although their efforts are important, and must continue, private and NGO capabilities will not be sufficient to the growing demands. As humanitarian crises are likely to be an increasing feature of the international security landscape, armed forces must plan and prepare robustly for the spectrum of contingencies it will confront.

The top end scenarios matter. Contrary to the dismissal in the first piece of the armed forces for their utility in the extreme circumstances only, it is exactly for contingency’s sake that these organisations must prepare for humanitarian operations. We do not, for example, put aside the armed forces role in conflict because war is an extreme iteration of organised violence. Furthermore, I would argue that HADR is the top end of emergency response. ‘Disaster’ is not your every day ‘sticky situation.’

The Faceless Bureaucrat is correct to note that many emergencies do not require a military response. However, as the capabilities, doctrines, and tactics are developed, it will certainly be useful for them to face live testing in lower echelon events. Exercising the skills, equipment, and approaches will make for improved performance in larger, more critical events.

I am ever mindful that the militarisation of activities is a slippery slope. However, the security ramifications of human suffering is not a new or extravagant concern. Wellington certainly understood that the humanitarian disaster of the strategy at the Lines of Torres Vedras would have to be mitigated. So too did the Western Allies connect humanitarianism with security after WWII. And the population upheavals wrought by natural and conflict disasters of late serve only to highlight this point. The matter is, and has been for at least two centuries, of geo-strategic concern. The armed forces are not the only response that must be readied, but it is the critical one.

The armed forces encompass the broad spectrum capabilities necessary. The armed forces maintain the far and away edge in contingency logistics that can endure. While civilian capabilities have their niche specialisms, across the breadth of demand it is the armed forces that are best placed to answer. And in disaster operations this will be wider than most contemplate – see for example, the panoply of marine demands required in the Haiti earthquake relief operations. (1)

It bears considering as well that at some point the need for security and force will be necessary. Most obviously, this will be a need in R2P HADR scenarios. Thinking more pragmatically, to maintain order against the worst circumstances, whether destruction or disease, will be a necessity. It is not a pretty thing to admit, but its distasteful nature does not absolve us of our requirement to prepare for such contingencies.

The security implications demand serious response.

HADR is neither optional nor altruism. At both ends, sceptics would like to dismiss the necessity for armed forces in these events. From the military there is often the sense that these are ‘nice to have’ operations that can be disregarded as necessary, whereas the civilians dismiss the effort for being self-serving. Both are wrong. The security risks of humanitarian disasters are already manifest and will only worsen. And it is for this reason that the debatable altruism of such actions is irrelevant: such a sentiment will no longer be necessary to save lives and rebuild.

In the 21st century, saving lives will no longer be the province of the do-gooder. Rather, this metric of effect is about to assume strategic proportions. The struggles of at least the near future will be decided by the lives saved, not taken, in conflicts averted not won. Looking only to the realm of natural disasters, both weather/environmental disasters and communicable disease scenarios demand the state take this planning on board with the armed forces. Dealing with these contingencies must become part of the domestic and international defence and political discussions. Not only must strategies and plans be in place and practised, but international agreement must be achieved. When considering that the use of forces might be necessary in some instances, international agreement on the standards must be agreed.

Delicate circumstances, robust response. The human condition in these circumstances is delicate. This does not mean that a robust answer is not the best response. One could easily blanch at the practices found in an emergency room. However, in such circumstances, delicacy is not necessarily helpful. So too in the first phases of a disaster. Squeamishness will not assist our response to the worst of human calamities.

This does not mean that the armed forces should not adopt and practice an approach for such circumstances that includes the recourse to gentility wherever practicable. And returning to the medical analogy, it will be in the recovery phases, once the trauma has been passed and the long path to recuperation is begun, that issues of ‘bedside manner,’ of the attention to the social, political, and cultural delicacies will come to the fore. It is at this point that the provision of care from the civilian sector will be most effective and useful.


Thus, given its demands and security implications, the armed forces are best suited to lead the delivery of capabilities in HADR. Accepting this reality and responsibility sooner will mean the international community is best suited to deal with this emerging and critical contingency.






1 “Haiti Earthquake Port Rehabilitation” from Think Defence.


CCLKOW: Part 1 – In HADR Humanitarian Principles Mean Civilians Must Lead

Greetings CCLKOW readers. This week we bring you something different. Rather than a single post on a theme, today we present two sides of an issue for your consideration. In this case, we are discussing HADR, and more specifically the proper lead for this growing contingency. Below, The Faceless Bureaucrat argues the case for the civilian and public sectors, largely short of the armed forces. Against the demands of the circumstances, both tangible and otherwise, these actors are the ideal lead. The second piece, from me, will argue the opposite. It will be for the Twitter discussion to consider both perspectives and debate the merits of each. So, enjoy this blog, and then move on to the next one! (JSR)


While many (mostly Western) military forces may consider themselves the best candidates for conducting Humanitarian Assistance/Disaster Relief missions around the world, I posit that, in circumstances short of Level 3 mega-disasters, they are not.  I base this argument on three main ideas:

1.  Military action is an extension of politics and is, therefore, at odds with humanitarian principles.

Humanitarianism is meant to address affected populations on the basis of need alone.  Military intervention is usually carried out to further a particular foreign policy goal, whether it be improving a country’s image on the world stage or winning the ‘hearts and minds’ of a particular society.  I am not saying military delivered or facilitated aid cannot do material good, but it cannot be seen as being purely altruistic, either.  The simple fact that international militaries respond to emergencies based on a set of strategic calculations means that they are not, by definition, humanitarian.

Furthermore, given that foreign militaries are political actors, sometimes their enormous technical capabilities are overshadowed by political considerations.  Following the Katmandu earthquake last year, for instance, USMC Osprey aircraft could not operate in many parts of the country, due to the sensitivities of Nepal’s neighbours. Hence, the humanitarian value of these aircraft was severely limited because of their political significance.

2.  The militarization of humanitarian aid has knock on ethical implications for the beneficiary population.

When a hungry or displaced population is ‘rescued’ by a military force, rather than by its own state apparatus (ideal) or another civilian entity (second-best), it perpetuates the notion that the military provides the best solution to difficult problems.  In most parts of the world, there is considerable effort  being made to de-militarise essential services (through DDR and SSR programmes, for instance) and to normalise the state’s ability to provide for its citizenry.  Much of this effort is erased if the cavalry (quite literally) comes over the horizon to save the day.

3.  There are alternate mechanisms that can and do work, most of the time.

While the military is capable of providing logistical services quickly and effectively at short notice and with global reach, the civilian humanitarian system (composed of host countries; the International Red Cross/Red Crescent system (ICRC, IFRC, and national societies); Agencies, Funds and Programmes of the UN system; and national and international NGOs) manages to provide a wide-range of humanitarian and disaster relief services to millions of people around the world without military assistance.  For instance, the World Food Programme (part of the UN family) is a world leader in humanitarian logistics, fielding an impressive Air Service with 70 cargo aircraft and operating a fleet of over 5000 trucks every day, in places like Somalia, Syria, and Central African Republic. The UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs provides the necessary ‘command and control’ (to use a not 100% apt military term) mechanisms–such as planning, liaison, information management–to help make the myriad actors work effectively to support the affected states and their populations.

In mega-emergencies, military assistance is required and very much welcomed, but it, too, must be coordinated and subordinated to the needs of the affected people.  It should be as humanitarian as possible (given the political realities) and disappear when it is no longer needed.  Commercial providers, such as DHL, are also starting to play major roles in logistics provision in HA/DR scenarios.  While they are also not entirely humanitarian actors (and may engage in HA/DR missions for PR reasons) they can offer services that were once only available from military sources.

Yes, the humanitarian system is imperfect: it needs more money and requires reform, especially in the area of involving the people who are most affected (reform will be the subject of the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul later this year), but these problems cannot be neglected in favour of having some militaries ‘step up’ and then taking over these delicate operations.


CCLKOW: Led by Donkeys, you say?

Greetings! In this week’s CCLKOW I intend to shake things up again, turning a common practice on its head. No one who has ever spent time around company and field grade officers does not know that general officers are among their fondest targets for criticism. And yet these same people are those who eventually become the general officers. There is, obviously, a disconnect. So, read the piece, ponder the questions, and join the discussion on Twitter at #CCLKOW.


A common, if incorrect, refrain regarding the British First World War military experience is that the army was ‘lions led by donkeys.’ A criticism of the senior ranks who prosecuted the war, this seeming truism has largely been dispelled. But while this description no longer stands up to deeper more nuanced scrutiny, the practice of criticising general officers is like a blood-sport right of passage across armed forces.

What I find very interesting about this phenomenon is that it is enduring. Each generation of officers thinks those at the very top are often the picture of incompetence. And every single one of those generations ultimately steps into those shoes to lead the next generation of malcontents.

I understand that inter-generational disdain is common. Whether disparaging the youth in our trail or those who lead us, it is very easy to believe there is something entirely lacking about those outside our own peer groups. However, even controlling for this more general influence, there remains a marked difference in the phenomenon in the armed forces.

So, what is happening?

Are the personnel systems, which drive the selection of officers to command billets and, correspondingly, higher rank, to blame? Do these systems drive out the best and the brightest and leave behind a middling, muddling sort?

Is there a fundamental disconnect between what a field or company grade officer understands about general officership in the armed forces and reality? Do these officers simply not understand the demands upon executive leadership, that the relative stability of tactical practice has given way to the far less firm domains of strategy and politics?

What could a general officer tell you about the role to clarify that what looks like a donkey is not?







CCLKOW: Why Warriors?

#CCLKOW readers, this week we bring you one of Kings of War’s own, The Faceless Bureaucrat, to revisit the matter of warrior self-identification in the armed forces, particularly those of the US. We have trod this ground before with our Colonel Panter-Downes (here). But the trend is pernicious, so today we offer another perspective in opposition. Written originally as a comment to a post at Carrying the Gun, it has been expanded for our use this week. Where the Colonel offered a review from within the military institution, the Faceless Bureaucrat takes a historical approach. And it’s good. So, give this piece a read, peruse the Colonel’s musings, check out Don Gomez’s writing, and then join the discussion on Twitter at the hashtag. — JSR


Over at Carrying The Gun @dongomez has posted an interesting essay on what he calls an ‘odd Valhalla obsession‘.   In it he says, “What I wonder is what the constant referencing of ancient warrior cultures says about our own military.”

Now Dear Readers, it may be a new year, but there was no way that I was not going to comment on his post.  I couldn’t help myself.  It was like birdseed left in the middle of the road by Wile E. Coyote.  In true Roadrunner fashion, I dived in, awaiting the inevitable car crash as a 10 tonne truck exited the phony tunnel mural that was plastered on the cliff-face behind me.  Instead, the comment grew and grew and attracted some attention, so I decided that I would turn it into post over here.  (Repeat after me: recycling is good.)  So, lightly edited, please find below my thoughts.

It won’t surprise you–given what I have written several times here at KoW (here and here, for example) about the whole Warrior trope–that I believe there is something unhealthy in the way that certain elements of armed forces in the West (particularly in, but not limited to, the U.S.) cleave to mythical Warrior identities. The Warrior is not a simple, straight-forward ‘good role model’; as individuals (idealised and actual) and as functional types, Warriors have always had a complicated relationship with collective violence. This is true across much of, inter alia, the Indo-Persian-Greco-European mythological imaginary. Homeric, Vedic, and Norse heroes are not worthy of blind emulation, partly due their inherently self-centred approach to combat.

As iconoclastic as it may be to say that (and I guess it must be, given the threats I have received from those who believe they are Warriors when they read my writing on this) the real mystery is to figure out what the allure is. Aesthetics is probably part of it, but why do serving, professional service people want to be associated with images of ill-disciplined, immature, selfish, greedy, individualistic, hedonistic, unaccountable committers of atrocities from centuries ago? Why not choose chivalric ideals, for example? Why not choose home-grown patriotic symbolism instead (from winning US armies, I mean)?

Part of the reason, I reckon, is so that members of contemporary armed forces can distance themselves from civilians–politicians, civilian strategists, diplomats, whizz-kids, bureaucrats, hedge fund managers. Could it be a version (an extended, extreme, perverse version) of Huntington’s ‘professionalisation as isolation’ movement espoused in his 1957 classic The Soldier and The State? “Anyone can get a grad degree; only Warriors go to Valhalla.” Taking this further, it is likely a move to ensure a degree of ontological security (an attempt to avoid the chaos that lurks in life without a comforting framework, as Giddens might have expressed it) for those who believe they are the heirs of Achilles or Beowulf.

This is problematic for several important reasons, but let me mention two here. The first is that Warriors don’t follow orders well: they don’t ‘fight and win the nation’s wars’, they fight their own (often deeply personal) wars, and this is dangerous for liberal democratic states. Modern war is an extension of politics (I read that somewhere), not a private quest for glory. Or revenge. Or a ‘bonding experience with yer mates’.

The second is that Warriors almost always have problematic relationships with female figures (as beneficiaries, bystanders, supporters, victims, and peers). Hyper-masculinity does not play well in a society made up of diverse, fluid, complex gender relations.  Choosing hyper-masculine (for the most part Warriors have been men) role models is not going to improve the situation.

Returning to Huntington’s conceptual landscape to conclude, Warriors wrongly believe they must focus solely on the military’s functional imperative, seeing no value in supporting its societal imperative. In primitive societies, role differentiation may have allowed for this (and certainly in our epics, this is often emphasized), but contemporary societies, contemporary politics, and contemporary wars demand that armed forces achieve a balance of functional and societal appropriateness.

Now is the time to leave fantasy role-playing behind and get on with the serious business of soldiering.*

(*I use the term soldiering regardless of the service to which one belongs.  I know everyone is different, just like every snowflake is different, but choosing the word warrior to act as a some universal term so that Marines, dragoons, grenadiers, sailors, aviators, etc. don’t get upset does not offset the negative aspects of the term as I have mentioned).

So with that said, a few questions to get the discussion started:


  1. Do you find that the Warrior identity is prevalent in your military experience?  In what ways is it introduced and reinforced?
  2. In what ways do you believe that a Warrior identity actually benefits the individual, the military (as an institution), and the state?
  3. How might those benefits be incorporated into an identity model that eschews the downsides mentioned in the post?




To Boost or Not to Boost: North Korea’s Nuclear Trajectory

And so it begins… again. Today’s North Korean nuclear test comes as no surprise. In April 2015 North Korean scientists indicated they were developing fusion technology, and last month Kim Jong-Un, the Stalinist regime’s leader, stated the country had a hydrogen weapon capability. While these claims may be an exaggeration, this most recent test still suggests technical advancements and has strategic implications. Nuclear weapons remain a crucial security tool for North Korea, and the West, particularly the United States, can meet this threat by maintaining and strengthening its own deterrent whilst promoting arms control- a delicate balance, to be sure.

This is North Korea’s fourth nuclear test and follows tests in 2006, 2009, and 2013. Information about the test is still trickling in, but the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) Organization’s International Monitoring Service, along with geological surveys and various governments, reported an ‘unusual seismic event’ at 1:30 UTC in the northeast region of North Korea, close to the Punggye-ri site of the previous nuclear tests. North Korea issued a press announcement that it had tested a ‘miniaturised hydrogen bomb’, developed as ‘self-defense against the U.S. having numerous and humongous nuclear weapons.’

Based on initial reports and seismic readings, the test measured at 5.1 on the Richter scale, meaning an explosive yield between 1 and 30 kilotons equivalent of TNT, and in all likelihood it was a single-stage atomic weapon potentially with boosting technology. Hydrogen weapons, also often referred to as thermonuclear weapons or fusion weapons, are more sophisticated than fission weapons and were only developed by the advanced nuclear states after years of testing. In as simple terms as possible, a ‘boosted’ device is one in which fusion technology increases the yield of an atomic weapon. The more advanced and challenging design is a multiple-stage thermonuclear weapon, with a fission primary that triggers a secondary fusion detonation. This can be further expanded upon in a three-stage weapon, such as the Tsar Bomba, the Soviet Union’s largest nuclear weapon ever exploded that produced a yield of 50 megatons. The yield of today’s nuclear test is much smaller than what would be expected of thermonuclear weapon, and therefore was likely a boosted weapon.

Monitoring of nuclear testing includes various techniques which eventually may be able to confirm whether or not the test was a hydrogen device, but North Korea has a track record of exaggerating its nuclear test performance. Its 2006 test was likely a ‘fizzle’, whereby the explosion inefficiently used the nuclear material by burning through it faster than it could produce a self-sustaining chain reaction. Pyongyang claimed its 2013 test was a miniaturized device, which requires technological advances well beyond its previous tests, but there was no evidence to support this claim. With regards to today’s test, as one North Korea expert posited, ‘North Korea may be claiming a successful hydrogen bomb test because it’s not grabbing much attention with atomic bombs.’ This test may prove to be underwhelming for the North Koreans, but still sets off at least three alarm bells.

First, it is a technological achievement because regardless of the success of the fusion technology, whether boosted or two-stage, North Korea will benefit from the new data generated by the test. The next test might not be a failure and North Korea is producing enough fissile material to ‘waste’ it on testing rather than saving it for nuclear weapons in its arsenal. Second, the test demonstrates Pyongyang remains willing to be an international pariah despite international pressure and waning support from China. Previously, North Korea relied heavily on Chinese financial and political support, but that may no longer be the case as Beijing has already condemned the test, as it did in 2013, and summoned the North Korean ambassador to lodge a protest. The big question is whether or not China has the leverage to reign in Pyongyang.

And finally, North Korea continues to rely on nuclear weapons for regime security and as a symbol of the Kim dynasty’s longevity and status on par with other nuclear powers. North Korea is not alone in its reliance on nuclear weapons. Over the past two years Russia has participated in nuclear ‘sabre-rattling’ and continued to emphasize the role of nuclear weapons in its military doctrine. Other states, such as Pakistan, remain reliant on nuclear weapons for security, as well, in the face of a conventionally superior adversary.

Nuclear disarmament advocates will likely point to today’s test as evidence of the need for a nuclear weapons ban and for nuclear possessors to further reduce reliance on nuclear weapons. Conversely, more hawkish analysts are likely to call for more nuclear capabilities, more missile defence, and more reliance on nuclear weapons to meet this growing threat. Nuance is in short supply in most contemporary nuclear debates.

But deterrence and arms control are not mutually exclusive, and North Korea’s nuclear posturing offers an opportunity for the West to practice this principle. It can ensure the norm against nuclear testing is upheld by speaking out against the North Korean test, levying further sanctions against the Kim regime, and cooperating with the CTBT Organization.

In light of the Russian and North Korean tandem nuclear threats, the United States can strengthen its deterrent by increasing investment in the nuclear infrastructure and proceeding with renewal and modernization of existing nuclear capabilities, reassuring allies of extended nuclear deterrence guarantees, and continuing to engage in activities such as joint exercises, rather than standing down in the face of North Korean aggression. More must be done to strengthen deterrence both to reassure allies, but also to reassure adversaries that any nuclear aggression will be met with retaliation.

Due to Russian aggression, 2015 was a dismal year for nuclear weapons policy, and North Korea has started 2016 on a similarly sour note. But 2015 was also the year of a major arms control breakthrough with the Iran nuclear agreement that brought together the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany in a unique and powerful multilateral effort to target nuclear transgressions. The goal for 2016 should be similarly ambitious. One possible step would be for the United States and China, jointly, to revisit ratification of the CTBT. They are two of the eight remaining states, including North Korea, that inhibit the treaty’s entry into force. Partisanship along with damning reports about the status of the U.S. nuclear infrastructure will not make this easy. But if done in parallel with Chinese ratification this would further stigmatize North Korea, demonstrate multilateral cooperation on denuclearization, and be a tangible contribution to nuclear disarmament. And if done in parallel with steps to strengthen deterrence, 2016 could have potential for striking that delicate balance necessary for security and stability.