Speaking Truth to Power.

A recurring theme in many of the talks in the ‘War Talks at the PCL’ Talk Series this year has been the link between military failure and an inability to speak truth to power.  Dr Matthew Ford made a case that the effective procurement of small arms by the British Armed forces in the post-war era was a triumph of fashion over efficacy, despite the misgivings of experienced and informed, yet relatively junior, military personnel.  Lt Gen (Ret’d) Sir John Kiszely spoke about the Anglo-French campaign in Norway, 1940; in that case, a charismatic and powerful First Lord of the Admiralty forced through an invasion of northern Norway when senior Officers had very private, but with hindsight accurate misgivings.  Thankfully for Great Britain, Churchill would be largely tamed by Alan Brooke later in the War; even then, truth spoken to power was not always heard.

In my short few years in the British Army, I have been briefed often on change programmes: in 2002, I attended a briefing in Catterick Garrison regarding what was then called JPASS, now JPA; an audience of administrative professionals pointed out several flaws with the programme long before it was complete, but the programme rolled out in 2005 with those flaws intact.  In 2015, I attended a briefing at RAF Brize Norton regarding the MoDNet system, again an audience of information management professionals pointed out that a lack of training, information maturity, and other factors would compromise the System; in 2017 the rollout of the system stalled due, in large part, to the flaws pointed out two years previously.  Finally, last week I attended a briefing on the Future Accommodation Model, it seems the problems identified on the previous briefings remain unreformed, I pray that the coalface experts’ opinions do not come to fruition, but I won’t hold my breath.  The FAM pilot begins in December 2018.

Earlier this month, it was announced that CGS was to become CDS in June 2018.  This news, it was hoped, would ensure Gen Carter’s continued insistence on greater debate and openness in Defence.  Would the rhetoric, however, be matched by action?  My recent research into the Reichsheer of Col Gen Hans von Seeckt, identified the ability of subordinates to critique policy and doctrine as an important enabler of adaptability, moreover, it pointed to listening being key.  Policy could change if backed by evidence and often did.  Unfortunately, in recent weeks several serving bloggers and tweeters with whom I speak have told me that they have had ‘that conversation’ and would either be closing or curtailing their activities at least on current policy.  Over the weekend, perhaps the best of the British defence bloggers, Think Defence, announced his retirement; this and the closure and curtailment of the serving accounts removes much of the informed debate on defence matters on social media.

So why should we be bothered?  What is the loss to Defence? Well without the debate, without the willingness of senior and responsible commanders to listen to the shop floor, we are condemned to make the same mistakes as before, to allow fashion and charisma to guide defence policy rather than experience and knowledge, would be unforgiveable.  Von Seeckt was able to use intellectual openness as an ethos to create an effective Army, other Army’s have similarly benefitted, if we close down debate on policy and doctrine simply because it is uncomfortable for those heavily invested in those policies and doctrines we are lesser for it.  Farewell TD, we may not see your like again!

All the Best,




2 thoughts on “Speaking Truth to Power.

  1. Cheers Barney, if I can, I would add FRES to your comments about fashion and charisma, another example, would that debacle have happened if there was an active online debate?


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