Jargon and dogma: what reading list reveals about military

Apr 23, 2013
Robert Fox

Future wars will be fought by British commanders well versed in the rhetoric of management schools

THE publication of a reading list for candidates to the UK Defence Academy reveals just how much modern strategic thinking has fallen prey to the jargon and dogma of management.

The list, compiled by Britain's most senior officer, General Sir David Richards, mentions 90 titles. One of them is by the general himself: Victory Among the People: Lessons from Countering Insurgency and Stabilising Fragile States.

Waterloo may have been won on the playing fields of Eton, according to Wellington, but this reading list suggests that any future Waterloos will be fought by commanders who resemble graduates of Harvard Business School. Most of the works are secondary – very few original sources are mentioned – and I have found many of them secondhand in their thinking.

The list is very Anglo-American – with very few works from Europe, none from China and Russia. Only five books are by women.

The buzzy volumes that have caught the headlines are the biography of Apple founder Steve Jobs and Blink – The Power of Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell. The list also includes The Black Swan - Nicholas Taleb's repetitive thesis about chaos and improbability – and Win! by the English rugby tsar Clive Woodward.

Sadly there is almost nothing by the sharpest witnesses of the Arab Spring, Afghanistan or Iraq – those who have seen what they have seen and continued to ask awkward questions about it. None of Ahmed Rashid's books on the Taliban, Afghanistan and central Asia are mentioned; and there's nothing on jihadism.

The reading list reflects the new British military fad - following the lead of America - for 'doctrine.' Everything in the UK military needs a doctrine nowadays, from hygiene to handling the media. It all has to have a rule, a rubric, a dogma. As my Croatian interpreter in Bosnia used to say – "it was easier under the communists because every question 'why?' had the answer 'because' and no one gave a damn whether it was true or false.' Dogma, a military pal used to warn me, is for the instruction of fools and the guidance of the wise.

The aim of such a list surely is to encourage reading that will lead to original and courageous thinking, and expression. Many of these books are glosses on much greater work. For example, Jonathan Powell's The New Machiavelli: How to Wield Power in the Modern World – which spectacularly fails to match Machiavelli's The Prince for originality, power of thought and brevity.

While the story of Steve Jobs and Woodward's Win! have their quotient of inspiration, they cannot match the spirit and exuberance of such eccentric gems as James Fergusson's Kandahar Cockney, A Million Bullets, or Patrick Hennessy's Junior Officer's Reading Club – the only piece to have sprung from the latest British escapades in Iraq and Afghanistan with a claim to being English literature.

Insight and understanding need a bit of inspiration to make them digestible. Perhaps, after all, the adventures of Captain Marvel and the works of G. A. Henty - the king of Victorian derring-do - deserve space on General Richards's bookshelf.

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They'd learn more tactics, history, and original thinking from reading the Flashman books...

...this serves to illustrate your point exactly, Crispin - Britain has been swept along in the slipstream of American foreign policy - we are willing and unquestioning supplicants of everything American (even down to whether or not we should remain within the EU) - now we find ourselves mindlessly aping American military doctrine.

Our Armed Forces are already riddled with Political Correctness - not always to the benefit of our effectiveness (eg the embarrassing episode, subsequent to the second Iraq War, of the Royal Naval rigid inflatable crew, captured by the Republican Guard with no resistance, seemingly.

Subsequent to their capture they seemed to have shown no spine or resistance of thought; then we have the vexed question of females on board Royal Naval ships - quick to lodge complaints of "harassment" and "inappropriate touching" etc. This PC disease has been carried across the Atlantic by our American "cousins".

Now, despite the priceless and hard won experience of our servicemen in Afghanistan (and that includes our service WOMEN!) it seems that we ignore those experiences and their salcrifices made, in order to observe some fashionable principle or other.

Immediately after the Falklands conflict much thought and soul-searching analysis was devoted to learning lessons and absorbing those lessons and experiences into military strategic and tactical doctrines of the day - it seems that we now ignore the "ground level" experiences of our soldiers, preferring to adopt fashionable attitudes which might have very little relevance to actual hot combat.

The Americans should be asking the British for military advice, methinks rather than contaminating our military philosophies.

"Alamein to Zem Zem" by Keith Douglas.

I'm sure a traditional Drill Sergeant could think of a suitable punishment for the introduction of management speak into a workplace where confusion can have deadly consequences. Outside the Armed Forces, it's a crime that would justify the return of the stocks. Matbe that's just me thinking outside the box...