Turning Swords into Multi-Tools

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,





The Best Things in Life Are Free.

Thirty years ago last Summer, I left school.  Looking back, the young Barney headed into the world with a superfluity of arrogance, a fistful of A Levels, and an almost complete lack of common sense; the truth is, if I met him I’m not sure I’d like him much.  At school, I was a dreadfully conservative teenager, more at home in the 1950s than the 1980s, in love with books, Rugby, and several of my lovely classmates!  This conservatism manifested itself, in academic terms at least, as an enthusiasm for coaching rather than learning.  I saw success in the wider world as a process of collecting, and the things I most like to collect were qualifications.  In collecting certificates, I preferred to be shown how to pass an exam rather than understanding the subject I was studying.  It was only when I began my Masters that I realised that while coaching could extract a decent pass, learning and understanding were essential for excellence.

A couple of days ago, I was privileged to meet Dr Peter Johnston, the Head of Collections, Research, and Academic Access at the National Army Museum, and whilst there enjoyed a tour of that fantastic institution.  Before the tour, we discussed some of the learning opportunities the Museum is scoping for serving personnel, and the service the Museum currently provides to the British Army, Regular and Reserve.  Chief among the opportunities, I think, is the offer to units of free consultation, tailored tours, and study facilities for Study Days.  Units that visit the Museum don’t simply get to wander around a museum studying a chronology of Army history, they are guided thematically and, if they use the museum’s free services, can be guided to look at how the Army dealt with the problems of the past, many of which rhyme with the problems of today.  An example which Peter pointed out was cultural awareness; the British Army has a rich history of learning to understand other cultures in pursuit of its mission and the Museum can demonstrate our predecessors solutions through artefacts and explain the importance of cultural understanding.  There is no exam, no certificate, this is a learning opportunity and it is free.

In today’s Army we are perhaps programmed to expect certification, to be spoon-fed learning, and to believe that learning experiences are costly.  Last Summer, I helped to plan and deliver a Battlefield Study for Educational and Training Services (South) delivered at virtually no cost in Hampshire and Berkshire.  The cost to attendees was nothing but their time and in return they got to extract lessons for today from the Battle of Cheriton and the Second Battle of Newbury.  The point of this? Quality professional military education need not be either expensive, overseas, or bottle-fed.  The attendees did much of the learning for themselves and my role was merely to explain concepts and orientate the group in the 1644 landscape. No one was being coached for exam success, everyone was learning.  This is also the key strength of the War Talks programme, it is broad-based, does not aim to deliver certification, and is completely free.  In the last two years we have delivered almost thirty talks, all have which have been free, on subjects as wide-ranging as leadership, encountering children in twenty-first century warfare, and the threat represented by Putin’s Russia to name but few.

The benefit of these sorts of informal professional military education would have been lost on the young Barney; there was no exam, no qualification, and no medal.  The NAM offer, the battlefield study, the War Talks programme, and the increasing number of other PME opportunities offer learning, not coaching to pass an exam.  If you want to encourage excellence in learning and understanding in your unit, don’t worry about the cost or the lack of a certificate, think about doing it for free.  The best things in life are free.

All the very best,

Old(er) Barney.

P.S Get your Units to the National Army Museum, and tell Peter I said Hello!!


The Ghost of Christmas Past

On Monday morning, I return to work after what has been a wonderful Christmas break.  The giving and receiving of presents is always a particular highlight and thankfully, I am easy to shop for, an item of British First World War militaria or a military history book is always welcome.  This year, I was extremely fortunate to receive some wonderful gifts, albeit those who don’t understand my proclivities might easily believe my presents had come from either a car boot sale or a second-hand shop!  My favourite gift is an original First World War Verners Mark VII marching compass in full working order in its issued leather case.  The individual to whom it was originally handed had scratched their details into the leather of the case, unfortunately try as I might I cannot read the lettering.

As I opened the ancient case and examined the compass, I was transfixed by the instrument, its heavy brass construction designed to last, the aluminium parts painted to avoid a flash of shine, and the Mother-of-Pearl dial, beautifully detailed to allow easier reading of the compass on a moonlit night.  I held in my hands a cutting edge piece of early-20th century instrumentation; designed only twenty years before the War, it would have represented real precision on the battlefields of the Great War.  I thought about the fact that most major attacks during the War were conducted in daylight and, thinking about my own experiences navigating in France and Belgium at night, understood the complexity of navigation for our very recent ancestors.  Today navigation is as simple as turning on a smart phone and following triangulated GPS signals, very much easier than for our forgotten navigator of the Great War.  For all its beauty and practicality, my 1915 compass is, although usable, almost obsolete, its utility beaten by my the march of time.

A little before Christmas, I found myself embroiled in an annoying Twitter spat with several Militweeters regarding the utility of allowing Other Ranks to access Professional Military Education (PME).  Their argument was that, at a time of austerity, spending money on granting soldiers access to the sort of PME currently reserved for Officers was wasteful and unwarranted.  They argued that soldiers already received sufficient PME informally or through the Command, Leadership and Management courses required for promotion and that to add further knowledge would be pointless.  Soldiers knew what they needed to know for their role.  This, and the Defence Academy’s ‘Other Rankless’ PME Conference before Christmas, display an incredible level of paternalism and a real failure to understand that the educational requirements of the battlespace have changed.  Current Army PME, while still delivering an effect, has become, like my exquisite Christmas present, obsolete.

The battlespace has changed fundamentally since the current concept of soldier education was formulated.  In those days, the Army was a mass instrument, and soldier education was concerned with ensuring Non-Commissioned Officers could read and write to an adequate level and have an understanding of current affairs.  In general, it was expected that his or her officer would be substantially better educated and be there to guide them in barracks and in the field, soldiers’ intellectual efforts should be confined to the techniques of the trade in which he was employed. The soldier was there to do not to think.  This sort of Army; hierarchical, paternalistic, and functional, lost its efficacy at the end of the Cold War.  As the character of warfare has changed, so have the educational requirements of NCOs; the battlefield is far more precise and lethal than it was, sensing and targeting enforce dispersion, and as a result the soldier must use their initiative to a far greater degree.  Initiative is not latent, it is learned through education and training.

In an article for War on the Rocks in November 2018, the author, Matthew Reed quoted from an interview with a former U.S divisional commander and Army War College commandant, Major General Anthony Cucolo, in which the General had stated:

When I was commanding U.S Division-North in Iraq, I needed my command sergeant major to operate at that level with me as much as my two one-stars and as much as my chief of staff…Every member of the command group needs to be operating at the same level… You need things like understanding grand strategy, how strategy turns into policy, the economics of warfare, and oral and written communications so you can go toe-to-toe intellectually when you get put in those positions.’

This insight is as prescient at every layer of command; the relevant SNCO or Warrant Officer should be as educated as the officer to whom he answers, indeed all NCOs should have sufficient education to perform the duties of their superiors.  This was certainly the aspiration in the German Reichsheer in the 1920s, and was proven effective when the force underwent rapid expansion in the 1930s.  Some have accused me of wanting to give  soldiers a ‘liberal arts education’, this is categorically not my objective, rather it is to encourage PME at all ranks to enable better decision-making on a lethal and dispersed battlefield whether they want it or not!  In conclusion, I, and I’m sure many reading this post, have been in situations in training and on operations where better PME for soldiers could have created a far better outcome, I’d like to see those who come after me better educated to deal with the battlefield of today, and learn from the mistakes of the past.  It is January, what better time to look back on the past and set your compass to the future!

PME – its not an Officer sport.

All the very best in 2019,