It is perhaps natural that most civilians gain what understanding they have of contemporary war, its conduct, and the role that soldiers play in it, from media images–whether as news or entertainment. What is alarming, at least according to one senior officer, is that these same images have a powerful–and detrimental–effect on soldiers, too. What is wrong? Soldiers are spoiled individuals, following bad examples picked up from Hollywood. What are the problems? Craven leadership, a misunderstanding of mission command, and loss of perspective on the role of the Army. What is needed? A return to good–yes, old-fashioned–disciplined leadership even–nay, especially–when the chips are down. In short, if we are going to choose our role-models from films, what the world needs now is a little more Colour Sergeant Bourne.
An excerpt from one Australian officer’s end of tour report as the CO of a Mentoring Task Force in Afghanistan laments what he sees as a pitiful level of ill-discipline amongst soldiers, their NCOs, and junior officers. The document, of course, is based on one person’s observations and opinions, but it is revealing nevertheless. And while it focuses on the current state of Australian soldiery, it would not be too far off the mark in describing the behaviour and mindset from other ABCA nations. Allow me to share some of its observations with you:
Contemporary soldiers have a distorted and fanciful perception of wartime soldiering….Almost all soldiers, including many sergeants, came to the operation with a distorted image of how a soldier ought to behave, how he should appear, and how his superiors ought to treat him when at war. Contemporary soldiers expect that deployment on an operation entitles them to grow out their hair, go unshaven, question orders and wear their uniform as they please (or not at all). Soldiers seemed to think that standards…are normally relaxed during war.
Soldier’s perceptions about appearance, fieldcraft and field discipline seemed to be a function of stereotypical images of Special Forces soldiers, and characters from films and computer games.
To what, exactly, is the colonel referring?
soldiers sunbathing in tactical positions, manning single-man piquets as a matter of routine, sitting in chairs and facing inwards in enemy areas, listening to music in tactical positions, hitting golf balls from overwatch positions into the green zone, kicking footballs in tactical positions, doing physical training in enemy areas, standing around bonfires in proximity to the green zone by night, and greeting helicopters at landing zones in thongs and t‐shirts. [Ed: one supposes–and dearly hopes–that the thongs to which the colonel is referring are worn on one’s feet.]
This may seem a bit, at first blush, like the rantings of some curmudgeonly colonel who just ‘doesn’t get it’. But, I would wager, it suggests a more worrying development. Soldiers on operations in Afghanistan and Iraq have come to believe that are entitled, by dint of their experiences, to break–indeed, make–their own rules. The CO, breaking with the current politically correct trend to ‘support the troops’, states it very well indeed:
The hyperbole surrounding the contribution of Australian soldiers in Afghanistan makes the soldiers feel entitled to be treated almost as Roman gladiators. They give the impression that they expect everyone, including their superiors, to lavish them with attention and unregulated time when between tasks.
The colonel, anticipating his audience’s objections to his pre-occupation with dress and deportment, justifies his focus thus:
Uniformity and the suppression of individuality on duty serve a very important function. They reinforce humility indeed. Suppression of overt individuality reinforces the idea that the self is subordinate to the greater good and subject to the authority of the Army. They reinforce the notion that personal wants and desires are subordinate to the mission and the group.
That this justification even needs be repeated within a military document is telling in and of itself. It seems that Hegel’s ideal, where, “In duty the individual finds his liberation” is not quite upon us still.
The colonel is not content just to list the faults he has observed. He bravely offers what he sees as the root causes. He offers 3 main reasons for the current slovenly state of affairs.
Reason Number 1: Craven Leadership
I conjecture that a trend of over‐familiarity is the primary cause of the current loose and surly attitudes of soldiers. Contemporary officers, warrant officers and senior noncommissioned officers tend to encourage relatively high levels of familiarity…It seems that junior leaders feel a strong pressure to please their men. Performance seems to count for less than how the individual is perceived.
Here the colonel hits at a reality of leadership that is present in much of the writing of previous wars. While there may be comaradie amongst peers, the truth is, it is often lonely at the top. Making decisions, often about life or death, is not a popularity contest. (As one of Colour Sergeant Bourne’s officers, Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead, tells us: “Well, when you take command, old boy, you’re on your own. One of the first things that the general – my grandfather – ever taught me.”) The burden of responsibility is not often a mantle that is lightly borne.
The necessary separateness of being a commander seems to terrify the current generation of junior leaders. Therefore, they over‐identify with their men’s wants and reinforce their men’s often self‐indulgent emotions.
This deference to popularity, it seems, exists at many levels:
The current attitude of soldiers is also a function of the Australian Defence Force’s nasty tendency to attend to the comforts and protection of its troops almost at the expense of achieving the mission for which the soldiers were committed to war. The message from such a tendency is that the soldier is right to expect comforts and luxuries in war, even if such expectations compromise the purpose for which he is fighting. In Australia’s recent operations enormous resources and money, coupled with prohibitive regulations, are applied for the purpose of preventing soldiers being killed or wounded. The sentiment is right in isolation. However, when such measures constrain action to the point that the mission becomes very difficult to achieve, reason has lost out to short‐sighted expedience.
A landmark, and controversial, Canadian study conducted in 2001 of over 800 officers returning from operational duties (largely peacekeeping and peace support operations) discovered that the traditional military value priority of ‘mission, men, self’ was changing to one of ‘men, mission, self’. This substitution of top priorities has been seen and commented on elsewhere since then. (A most vivid, extended treatment of how force protection came at the expense of mission accomplishment can be found here).
No one is suggesting that soldiers’ lives be spent needlessly. However, there appears less a feeling of concern underpinning these attempts than a feeling of fear–a fear of upsetting or ‘crossing’ the troops. As the colonel adroitly points out, that fear cannot justified:
Underwriting the trend is unnecessary oversensitivity to soldiers’ complaints to the media and the Minister for Defence about poor conditions, as though the digger is always right. He is not and it is important that he understands this fact.
Pandering is not supporting. Furthermore, constant pandering leads to nothing less than further demands for pandering.
Reason Number Two: Misunderstanding Mission Command
Mission command has become a dogma…There is a fairly dogmatic view that mission command is as simple as telling the subordinate what effect to achieve, resourcing him and then letting him do it however he chooses. Of course, this simplistic view is not entirely wrong. Somewhere along the line though, many junior leaders never picked up the broader and important subtleties of the idea. The point of “however they choose” is taken almost as the authority to do anything they choose, even things unrelated to the particulars of the given mission… There is almost a sense among many junior leaders that the decisions, actions and advice provided by the “man on the ground” are sacrosanct and beyond question by superiors.
Here the colonel makes a connection between this second reason and his first:
Alarmingly, “the man on the ground” excuse tended to be used to either avoid enforcing an unpopular order by superiors or to acquiesce to the petty demands of soldiers in order to continue to please them.
So, again, the buck stops at the trench of the poor leader.
Reason Number 3: Loss of Perspective on the Role of the Army
The colonel’s final reason for the slovenly state of affairs is that people seem to have forgotten what armies are for. Here he offers a lucid and succinct explanation, worthy of a brass plaque at every staff college in the land:
The purpose of an Army is to defeat those enemies that stand in the way of [the country’s] policy aims. In essence, the Army uses violence against those that would use violence to resist these policy aims. This process is war.
Instead of this understanding, the colonel believes, there exists a different idea:
Too many contemporary pundits suggest that armies exist to protect and secure populations (or deliver humanitarian aid) rather than to defeat enemies; confusing particular policy ends with military means.
One may quibble that there is a sizable logical leap between ‘people are no longer clear about war’ and ‘that is why soldiers no longer shave’. And that quibbling would be entirely accurate, in my view. Nonetheless, the colonel’s main point remains valid, regardless of the purpose to which an Army is put:
I assert that more ought to be done to imbue soldiers with the character (emotional intelligence in other words) to be able to delay personal gratification through self‐denial, to develop a sense of humility, to deal with deprivations of certain luxuries, to remain vigilant through long periods of inactivity, to put others before self and to accept personal responsibility for ones [sic] own actions.
My two-bits: Soldiers over Warriors
Dress and deportment are not, obviously, ends in and of themselves. But they are both indicators of, and contributing factors to, more serious disciplinary problems. This is faith (based, without doubt, on earlier socialisation); I cannot back it up with ’cause and effect’ evidence. However, I would wager a good cup of coffee that the kind of ill-discipline and lack of supervision observed by the colonel was also present in units where atrocities and other screw-ups occur. (Before you howl for my blood, carefully examine the formulation of that last sentence, please.)
As I have posted on KOW before, approaching contemporary war as something that Warriors do is a dangerous business. The contemporary wars of the liberal democracies of the Western world are fought by soldiers (disciplined elements of cohesive teams, fighting as instruments of the state) not by Warriors (self-centred individuals fighting on their own terms for their own satisfaction).
War is not a first-person shooter game. It is a collective enterprise. It is the job of NCOs and officers to ensure that civilians are honed into professional soldiers, and not ‘raised by their peers’ (real and virtual) to emulate amateur Rambo-wannabees.