A few weeks ago, I wrote a post on this Blog entitled The Ghost of Christmas Past, which advocated enhanced formal professional military education (PME) for Other Ranks (ORs). The post was generally well received and I was really flattered by some of your support. Inevitably, the feedback was not universally positive, the key criticism being that improving OR PME was both expensive and operationally irrelevant. Yes, enhancing formal PME for ORs would be more expensive, and is perhaps unlikely at a time when PME as a whole may be seen as a painless pruning, but the payback could be enormous and not just in the reduction in the cost of junior staff officers!
In a recent article on War on the Rocks, Master Sergeant Matthew Reed, a student at the U.S Army Sergeants Major Academy, highlighted the experience of Major General Anthony Cucolo who, as Commanding General of U.S Division-North in Iraq, had felt that the operational effectiveness of his formation was compromised by his Non-Commissioned Officers’ (NCOs) inability to understand the operation and its context at an appropriate conceptual level. The article goes on to advocate better and more rigorous formal PME for ORs to fill the gap and hence improve military effect. To use the analogy of the contents of a toolbox: we currently have dozens of tools each specifically designed to tackle a set task, with enhanced PME we could have multi-tools and a lighter toolbox.
The formal route is, however, not the be-all-and-end-all of PME. Across the Anglosphere, informal initiatives are being used to fill the gaps between formal courses. Formerly, these pauses would have been filled at unit level by ad hoc education programmes, but these have largely disappeared, a curiosity of a bygone era, replaced by individual PME accessed from the internet. Indeed, it was heartening to read an excellent short article by Daniel Cowan, an Australian NCO, this week in The Cove, the Australian Army’s One-Stop Shop for PME, which gave details of the opportunities available on the Net and elsewhere to address the PME lacuna. This inspired me to think about how a British NCO might begin to fill the gaps between CLM courses.
Analogue learning retains a place in informal PME and I would encourage anyone who can to get along to the Talks provided by the Centre for Historical Analysis and Conflict Research (CHACR) and the Centre for Army Leadership (CAL) at Sandhurst to go. Both organisations also provide excellent associated publications including the British Army Review (BAR). There are numerous other non-military initiatives which provide talks and debates on military subjects across the country, these are either private initiatives like the War Talks or run alongside university programmes notably at King’s College, London, Birmingham, and Wolverhampton. These universities, and several others besides, run postgraduate courses in military studies, all of which can be financed with the help of Enhanced Learning Credits (ELCs). But we are putting the cart somewhat before the horse, lets turn to reading.
Reading is for many of us a real pleasure, for others it is not that but a chore and in some cases a real cause of anxiety. I cannot pretend to have an exhaustive knowledge of books on military subjects, but I would strongly recommend the following as giving an accessible, sound foundation on which to build an understanding of war: As an entry level book, perhaps the finest is John Keegan’s The Face of Battle, although if this proves a bit much for first contact, try John Master’s The Road Past Mandalay or Ernst Junger’s Storm of Steel. If you are anxious to move up a level and get an understanding of modern war, I’d give Understanding Modern Warfare a read in conjunction with the latest version of ADP Land Operations, or whatever piece of doctrine is appropriate to your service. If you’re interested in future war, give Colin S. Gray’s Another Bloody Century a go, and if you like your future as fiction Ghost Fleet is pretty compelling.
Reading doesn’t have to be in books, there is some excellent journalism out there, both in print and online. Personally, I like the writing of Lucy Fisher in the Times, Jonathan Beale on the BBC, and Henry Jones online; a word of caution though, not all journalists are as balanced as they might appear, avoid the sensationalism is my watch word. In addition to journalism, there is output from Think Tanks like RUSI, IISS, and Chatham House, much of that is behind a paywall, although you can access the RUSI Journal through the Army Libraries and Information Service (ALIS) both through Defence Net and the Defence Portal. The main source of informal PME is, however, the internet.
The best way of gleaning the best from the internet is to utilise the excellent resource that is Grounded Curiosity, an Australian PME site that gives links to the best work being done in military affairs. On there you will find links to War on the Rocks, the Wavell Room, The Cove, Strategy Bridge, Small Wars Journal the Modern War Institute and dozens of blogs and podcasts looking at military matters such as Think Defence and the Dead Prussian Podcast The real home of online PME is, of course, Twitter. The number of commentators on defence affairs on Twitter is quite staggering and although sometimes plagued by trolls and the uninformed, the platform allows the erstwhile polemologists to speak to real expertise in an area and enter into wide-ranging debates with academics, serving personnel, and industry experts to really hone your knowledge. I purposefully haven’t named any of the Defence Twitterati as I’d hate to exclude anyone, but if you are up for a challenge take a look!
In closing, Id like to say that its vital that ORs engage with PME be that by attending talks, reading books and newspapers, accessing the blogs and articles through the internet, or arguing the toss on Twitter. Formal PME gives you enough information to do your job, informal PME gives you all you need to question what you are being told. In 1991 when the Wall came down, defence expenditure was cut as part of the Peace Dividend, Western governments encouraged society, in a biblical reference, to turn swords into ploughshares; with Defence budgets so tight and manpower so scarce, perhaps the time has come to use PME to turn swords into multi-tools.
All the very best,