Many of you will be familiar with the ‘War Talks’ series which I founded a little over two years ago. On Thursday night, our 45th speaker, Professor Patrick Porter of the University of Birmingham, spoke on the subject of the British campaign in Iraq 2003-11. The Talks are always insightful, but Pat’s was packed with pithy observations about the nature of British government, strategy, and democracy. An unreformed realist, it was Pat’s observation on the nature of democracy which resonated most with me. There was, at the commencement of the Millennium, a belief on both sides of the Atlantic that democracy was an inherently pacific force, the mere application of which could transform even the most undeveloped nations into paragons of liberal virtue. The truth, proven by the failure of military adventures in the Middle East, Central Asia, and North Africa, was that the creation of ‘Switzerland in the Sand’ was a dangerous fallacy.
Democracy is not a peaceful force, we need look no further than Eugene Delacroix’s painting, ‘Liberty Leading the People’, to realise that Marianne, the bare-breasted symbol of French political freedom, is a violent, populist fighter of a nature far removed from modern, mature democracy. When tyranny is removed, the resultant effect is unlikely to be benign selfies with dogs at a peaceful polling stations, rather history has shown that the flowering of democracy is often accompanied by violence, anarchy, and confusion. Whilst this observation is in no way a criticism of democracy, it is a warning that the forces released by liberalisation are powerful, destructive and potentially revolutionary. Populism and the transfer of power, whether in classical Greece, eighteenth century France, or in an organisation like the modern British Army, can unleash forces which cannot be easily predicted or controlled.
Recently, a trend has developed in the British Army devolving power to the shop floor. Ordinarily such liberalisation would be seen as a positive development, particularly when devolution allows for greater operational adaptability, but the latest incarnation has witnessed the growth of ’empowerment’, a somewhat naïve experiment releasing populist forces into military decision-making and allowing the inexperienced and the ignorant to turn raw opinion into putative ‘truth’. In a post-truth world, even the Army, it seems, has become allergic to expertise. Of course, expertise does not give a monopoly on good ideas, but opinion must be, at the very least, informed. Failure to understand that an organisation is made up of a complex interconnected network of processes and culture, risks swapping the tyranny of the ‘ancien regime’ for the tyranny of populism.
Of course, the recent liberalisation has the backing of those in High Command and has as much to do with the Army’s recruiting and retention woes as a taste for enlightened management. It is notable, for example, that many of the solutions identified in empowerment exercises are answers to relatively simple questions, which have been understood and in the gift of the chain of command for many years. It is also notable that the solutions have been widely advertised both internally and externally. The message is clear: the Army is both listening and enlightened, a great place to work. While that is of course true, unleashing the power of democracy is a dangerous game, once the box is open it will prove difficult to replace the lid. The Army may have been successful in diverting, concentrating, and corralling the restless intellectual power of soldiers in the relatively safe pseudo-science of leadership, but this latest endeavour is powered by forces beyond control.
Empowerment is not the problem, it is, as already mentioned both here and in earlier blogs, an important part of adaptability, but it must be preceded by education, experience, and understanding if it is to be effective. Von Seeckt’s Reichswehr is a good example in this respect: a long period of non-commissioned service was required before commissioning, but once this was achieved debate, conceptual diversity and disagreement was encouraged. This should be the basis of our empowerment: an educated and experienced professional organisation, experimenting and engaging with the support of those in command in military matters. Affecting internal and domestic change is a matter for those in command, not for the commanded. We should empower for military success, not to create an illusion of accountability and democracy.
In short, there is a role for ’empowerment’ and we should perhaps suspend the cynicism built-up over many years of service in its support; but it would perhaps be better expressed through a fresh flowering of ‘auftragstaktik’ leading to conceptual development, than in the pursuit of improved retention and external optics. We need an empowered army; one that is adaptable, agile, and flexible, not one which spends its time in introspection and faux debate.
Thank you for listening, please join the debate, this article has been deliberately polemical to encourage discussion.
All the best,