Last Autumn I attended a Firepower Demonstration on Salisbury Plain. In addition to the entertaining pyrotechnics and impressive armoured equipment on display, there was also a static display manned by personnel from the First Battalion, The Royal Welsh Regiment. It was this less showy production, and the majestic regimental mascot, which left the most enduring impression. The message they had to impart, gleaned from their experience of exercising on the Albertan prairie, was that the doctrine needed revision. Having spent the Summer of 2002 taking part in similar exercises on the same Canadian plains, I was surprised/amused to find that the lessons they had identified were precisely the same lessons the First Battalion, The King’s Own Scottish Borderers had identified fourteen years earlier (less the sheep).
The premise of John Nagl’s book, ‘Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife‘, is that the British Army was successful in Malaya because it was a learning organisation, whereas the Americans lost in Vietnam because they were inflexible. David French, in his superb examination of the British way in counter-insurgency, counteracts this narrative by suggesting that the British Army learns over and over again. Rather than being a Learning Organisation, the British Army is a Forgetting Organisation. Many writers have observed that the British Army is anti-intellectual, in my experience this is undoubtedly true. Soldiers’ military education is incredibly low-level, delivered by young officers with little more, in the main, than Batchelor’s degrees and the results of their training from the RMA Sandhurst. The education that tends to be encouraged is technical and based around giving soldiers transferable skills for civilian life; for all the rhetoric, the soldier-scholar is a rarer breed than the Royal Welsh’s sheep!
The subject of the Army’s cultural aversion to study and learning has been talked about regularly on Twitter over the last few weeks, it seems academia and practitioners are in agreement that something needs to be done, and I don’t mean vanity projects attempting to capture ‘lessons learned’. My decision to start a talk series at the Prince Consort’s Library in Aldershot stems directly from the military’s lacuna (a word a soldier should not know, as it is not really a word within his trade) to educate it’s personnel to identify the lessons training identifies. I won’t pretend its a panacea for the Army’s cultural ills, nor that it’s easy to organise, nor even that it will definitely bear fruit, but if we soldier-scholars (?) don’t grasp the nettle, who will?
As you all probably know by now the Talk Series commences on Tuesday, 4th July 2017 with a talk by the irrepressible Dr Matthew Ford. If you are interested in tickets please drop me a line at email@example.com and I’ll book you in to what promises to be a superb evening. The series will continue to bring superb speakers to Prince Consort’s Library all year round, I hope you will find the talks inspirational and surprising, sheep not included!!
All the best,