chapter  1
15 Pages

Engaging contemporary military culture

Why are some military organisations more successful than others and, for that matter, why are some more influential in establishing new approaches for the application of force in international relations? These questions have great pertinence to the armed forces of the United States (US) and the United Kingdom (UK) as we head towards the closing stages of the Global War on Terror. Together they represent the most powerful trend-setting military institutions in the West, and their performance in recent years reveals a great deal about likely future directions in warfare. Nevertheless, notwithstanding almost continuous military activity in Afghanistan and Iraq in the first decade of the twenty-first century, and the accompanying media exposure, the inner workings of these organisations remain somewhat enigmatic to the general public. The reasons for this are manifold. First and foremost, only a small minority of people in the US and the UK serve in the armed forces. The age of mass participation in military affairs as experienced in World War II, the last war of national survival in contemporary memory, is long over. Today, wars of choice are fought by compact, all-volunteer regular and reservist professional forces that represent a fraction of the size of the populations they fight for. Second, military institutions jealously protect their public image and reputations, and rigorously guard the checkpoints and borders with wider society. Consequently, the information that the public consumes about the military is carefully edited. Finally, it is easy to be seduced by the material aspects of modern military organisations in the West. Precision weaponry, incredible firepower and powerful vehicles of war reinforce popular conceptions of instrumentalism: that warfare is a technologydriven, push-button-to-kill environment, or an unfair space in which the enemy is destroyed in a one-sided contest, not unlike a video game. This depiction is not wholly inaccurate and captures well the flavour of numerous modern engagements, but it downplays the essential source of effectiveness on the field of battle in the contemporary age: the human dimension or agency inside the military organisations conducting the fighting. Warfare, after all, in its crudest sense is violent social action won and lost by interacting groups of people using technology. In recent years, the human dimension of the armed forces, more commonly known as military culture, has received considerable attention from scholars and

policymakers alike, who have recognised its importance in shaping successful or unsuccessful outcomes in wars.1 The term ‘military culture’ is on first inspection quite nebulous. Its complexity and potential vastness of scope – encompassing people, practices, customs, technology and behaviour in battle, to name a few variables – push it into the higher-order category of intellectual study. It is very much a modern conception; it is not a term that will be found in the classic works of military strategy in the field, even though much of their focus of research encompasses its parameters. For example, the father of modern strategic theory, Carl Von Clausewitz, wrote that ‘soldiers will think of themselves as members of a kind of guild, in whose regulations, laws, and customs the spirit of war is given pride of place’.2 In essence, the great Prussian soldier captures the core elements of military culture in the words ‘guild’, or in modern parlance ‘society’, and ‘customs’, such as traditions and practices, but he does not use the term itself. The groundbreaking academic work on the social dimension of military organisations occurred in the late 1950s and early 1960s with the publication of two major works: Samuel Huntingdon’s The Soldier and the State3 and Morris Janowitz’s The Professional Soldier.4 This wave of scholarship was predominantly North American in origin, growing out of the social sciences, especially sociology, and drawing on path-breaking studies of the German Army in the late 1940s.5 Another vector of academic inquiry that has informed contemporary debates about military culture concerned ‘ways of war’. The trend emerged in the field of military history in the 1970s and is typified by Russell Weigley’s The American Way of War,6 which echoes an approach taken by the British strategist Basil Liddell Hart in the 1930s.7 However, it was really only in the last decade of the twentieth century that a number of major studies, largely in the field of international relations and political science within North American institutions, used the term ‘culture’ in discussing research related to the armed forces.8 Pioneers such as Elizabeth Kier in the 1990s were actively exploring the effects of military culture on behaviour and planning towards war.9 In the twenty-first century, military culture has well and truly emerged as a major area of academic study, spanning the fields of sociology, international relations, military history, political science and strategic studies. Defining military culture is no easy task; in the wider field, a variety of definitions are employed that are usually complementary, but vary slightly in their emphasis and approaches to specific aspects of military culture. The subtly different interpretations can be crudely grouped as those taking a grounded, applied approach to studying military culture, and those applying esoteric organisational and social theories to it. The pragmatists10 often hail from military service education circles or have served in the armed forces, and draw upon the work of James Burk, a student of Morris Janowitz, who suggests that ‘the four essential elements of military culture are discipline, professional ethos, ceremony and etiquette, and cohesion and esprit de corps’.11 Burk places an emphasis on the sociological make-up of such organisations and stresses that ‘military culture is an elaborate social construction’.12 In contrast, the theorists13 are largely from

academic backgrounds in international relations and political science. Their approach is perhaps typified by Elizabeth Kier, who frames military institutions as organisational cultures that she defines as ‘the set of basic assumptions, values, norms, beliefs, and formal knowledge that shape collective understandings’.14