I served in Afghanistan in the hot and bloody summer of 2008 and left the place convinced that what we were doing was (a) right and (b) working.
I then worked for 3 years in the British Army’s Lessons Exploitation Centre (LXC), helping the Army try to learn from the Afghanistan operation. Indeed, it was at the LXC that I learnt about Knowledge Management (KM) and Organisational Learning (OL). Much of what the Army has done in these difficult areas is to its credit and it is rightly considered something of a world-leader in its efforts to learn and share the knowledge that its learning generates.
I have written at length about these efforts elsewhere and a detailed account how the Army tries to learn is available here.
However, my 3 years at the LXC led me to question why such considerable efforts led to so little achievement. Why did so many varied and costly inputs produce so few valuable outputs?
My conclusion was that the British Army lacks a learning culture and should try to develop one.
The British Army lacks a learning culture because it does not permit dissent, constructive or otherwise.
The British Army lacks a learning culture because senior officers sing their own praises and those of their soldiers but shy away from self-criticism, thereby most definitely ‘leading by example’ and demonstrating that such frankness and honesty is not the way to get ahead.
The British Army lacks a learning culture because of the ‘can do’ attitude that leads all combat arm officers worth their salt to agree to missions for which they have not been sufficiently well prepared, trained or equipped.
The British Army lacks a learning culture because the current difficult operation quickly loses its appeal and the next one will finally be the chance to do things right.
The British Army lacks a learning culture because every venture has to be successful – we always win…we can’t be seen to make mistakes…we can’t lose face.
In his searing account of the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns, 'Losing Small Wars', Frank Ledwidge quoted one high-flying officer’s analysis of the outcome of the British Army’s efforts in Basra thus, “We were defeated, pure and simple.” And yet the public narrative at the time was one of ‘work well done’, ‘worthwhile sacrifices’ and soldiers, sailors and airmen and women of whom ‘we can all be rightly proud’.
To do otherwise, to question (let alone criticize) such efforts is seen as ‘doing a disservice’ to the fallen, or being ‘disloyal’ to one’s former colleagues, or basically contorted in any way possible to deflect from the very real possibility that it was one massive mistake.
And so it is today. With the final troops now leaving Camp Bastion, the message being pushed is that we did a good job, that we can be proud and that we have displayed the utmost professionalism etc etc. For example, listen to this interview from BBC Radio 4’s ‘The World at One’, between Martha Kearney and Major General Richard Nugee, the current Deputy Commander of ISAF’s Kabul HQ.
Brooking no criticism, permitting no honest enquiry into performance and enabling no consideration of courses of action beyond the safe and self-protecting is no way to learn.
As I have done before, I have to conclude once more with these words, from (formerly) Major Giles Harris DSO, quoted in Toby Harnden’s book, ‘Dead Men Risen’,
“The British are very good at whipping ourselves into a sense of achievement….we almost have to, to make it bearable. You can’t do something like this and analyse it all the way through and think: “Actually we got that wrong.” You just can’t. It takes so much emotional investment. I’m not saying we lie to ourselves but there’s an element of telling yourself that it’s all right and it’s going well, just to keep going.”
Such honesty. We need more of it.