The Doctrine of ‘Understanding’ and the Illusion of Control


In an era of supposedly unparalleled challenge and complexity (ignoring for one moment the fact that it isn’t in any way unparalleled), ‘Understanding’ appears to be the current doctrinal plat du jour for Britain’s armed forces. Particularly so for the Army, that service which by and large interacts most closely and personally with the kinds of political, social and cultural aspects of conflict that demand comprehension. The notion of ‘Understanding’ in this context then, as represented by 2010’s Joint Doctrine Publication (JDP) 04, is instrumental. It is the ability to effectively leverage varieties of information and knowledge open to those individuals and organisations (military and non-military) concerned with planning and prosecuting military operations at a number of levels, in such ways as to afford commanders (and thus their political leadership) the greatest chance of achieving their desired end state. ‘Understanding’ should reach across government, ‘so as to ensure the effective application of all elements of national power in support of UK national security policy’.

So far so good. But, ignoring for the moment the most elementary epistemological challenges regarding the nature of knowledge and understanding – as well as the fairly worrying implication that people have to be reminded by doctrine to understand things – it is obvious that in doctrine, as well as life in general, you don’t always get what you wish for, for a variety of reasons. And when you do then sometimes you realise you should have wished for something else. And while the doctrine of understanding espouses the sort of call-to-intellectual-arms that can only be applauded, the fact remains that any effective drive for such a valuable if intangible commodity is potentially flawed at all levels of war, as well as being open to some serious abuses.

‘Understanding’ and strategic level actors

The intersection between ‘understanding’ and strategic level decision making is always a fragile one for a variety of reasons. Firstly there is the common problem of ‘understanding’ becoming hostage to contrary ideological pressures or psychological defects on the part of strategic level decision makers. Those decisions can take place in a sort of intellectual/information vacuum, and those involved don’t like being told that their ideas are idiotic or unfeasible. Secondly there is the problem of strategic level actors applying developed and reasoned understanding to a chosen course of policy but still cocking it up because that understanding leads to the wrong conclusion and a subsequent chain of mistaken actions. Thirdly there is the problem of correctly understanding matters at all levels, and being right in choosing one’s course of action, but still being unable to engineer a satisfactory resolution.

The first point is well illustrated by interventions in Iraq 2003 and Libya 2011. In both cases these were prompted by powerful yet broad ideological considerations (and humanitarian in the case of Libya) that brooked no interference from those with a more nuanced understanding of conditions at ground level and the potentially even more serious negative effects of intervention, which are now playing out in both instances. In these cases, and numerous others before them, the only ‘understanding’ that political leaders wished to hear was that which reinforced their own chosen course of action. But even if political leaders appear to know exactly what they are doing, ‘understanding’ remains a pretty fragile commodity. Anthony Eden was the foremost Arabist of his time in Government. But his experience of the rise of fascism in the 1930’s, combined with his belief in his own inherent understanding of the Arab psyche, shaped his understanding of the threat posed by Nasser in such a way that he overreacted and made an unholy mess of the ‘56 Suez crisis. The understanding was there but it was mishandled, with disastrous results. And ultimately, even if everyone from top to bottom has got their ducks in a row, the potential for mayhem still exists. On British India’s NW Frontier during the 19th and early-mid 20th Century, political officers with decades of experience and remarkable language skills were distributed among the tribes. From there they delivered the kind of tactical and operational level ‘understanding’ that strategic level actors crave. The result, however, was decades of constant and unending violence. The understanding was there, but it fell foul of the wider strategic perspective held by policymakers which dictated that considerations in relation to the tribal areas mattered to some extent but were far less important than what might be happening elsewhere in India or the Empire as a whole. The correct decision of course, but one that was of no comfort to British forces on the frontier, locked as they were in an endless round of inconclusive, costly and reputationally damaging military escapades and which it appeared no amount of ‘understanding the human terrain’ could ever counter.

‘Operationalising’ understanding: The problem with doctrine

JDP 0-4 is an intelligent piece of work but it falls foul of the basic problem with doctrine, which is that once elevated above the level where it essentially comprises a set of relatively basic instructions, it tends to become inherently reductive in the sense that it seeks to reduce matters of great complexity and nuance to a series of seductively simple principles, observations and recommendations. The problem of course is that simple doesn’t mean easy, or even feasible. It’s simple enough in principle to define the concept of a cross-governmental approach, for example. It’s simple enough to recommend that one goes about seeking to conjoin and coordinate multiple and simultaneous lines of political, economic, military and diplomatic activity in theatre that seek to deliver the same ends. Whether you are actually able do any of that is, however, a matter of blind fortune. Indeed, this problem could be said to apply to large parts of JDP-04, dealing as it does with obscure matters of culture, anthropology, ethos and philosophy. And consider too the fact that the multiple facets of modern conflict theoretically require additional multiple doctrines to be read, considered, and digested. Indeed, the authors of JDP 0-4 recommend that it be consulted in conjunction with JDP 2-00 (Understanding and Intelligence in Support of Joint Operations), NATO’s AJP-2 (Joint Intelligence, Counter Intelligence and Security Doctrine), JDPs 01 (Campaigning), 3-00 (Campaign Execution), and 5-00 (Campaign Planning), JDP 6-00 (Communications and Information Systems Support to Joint Operations) and JDP 3-40 (Security and Stabilisation: the Military Contribution). Presumably AFM Vol 1 Part 10 (Counter Insurgency) should be in the mix somewhere too. That’s a total of some 1800 pages of doctrine. It’s just not going to happen, is it?

‘Operationalising’ Understanding: The problem with (British?) military culture.

The lack of attention to doctrine is partly practical one (it’s dull, and no-one has the time to read it) and partly a cultural one. The oft quoted remark by Rommel that the British write the best doctrine in the world and then fail to read it has more than a grain of truth, still. Many outside the military prefer to scoff at the lack of intellectual sophistication of those within. That snobbery is badly misplaced. But whether the plentiful and powerful intellectual resources that exist within the services are ever able to be properly utilised in the never-ending quest for ‘understanding’ is another matter entirely. The military inculcates in its people certain behaviours and preferences; boldness, decisiveness, action, speed of decision making, (so as to better get inside the enemy’s own decision making cycle) and a broad understanding of the deeply complex phenomenon that is war. And ultimately there is a focus upon common conceptual processes to aid these designs. What there is not is a culture of patient thought, of intellectual cross-fertilization, and of deep reflection. There remains a mistrust and lack of respect for the proper intellectualisation of subject matter. This anti-intellectualism is a consequence of the military’s peculiar role rather than any lack of intellectual competence but the highly varied and unpredictable nature of operations, the crippling time-pressures therein and a general culture of ‘add water for instant expertise’ quite naturally promote superficial levels of knowledge and militate against a culture of deep study, contemplation and consideration. And if the required knowledge or expertise is instead to be bought in from outside when required, as JDP 0-4 recommends, then the military ought to be prepared for the fact that certain sectors of the academic community for example might not be willing to lend their expertise, and that those that do may well offer completely contrary or potentially useless advice, further clouding the issue.

The utility of pre-knowledge

The problem with military operations is that they are generally transformative in nature. The application of military force in the context of expeditionary operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, for example, shattered existing political structures, completely re-ordered certain social hierarchies, and delivered highly unpredictable criminal and political elements into the equation, elements whose dynamics were and are often subject to constant change. Any existing pre-knowledge becomes incredibly precarious, perhaps even completely redundant, requiring the time consuming accumulation of new insights that may well not be delivered in the appropriate timescale. ‘Understanding’ in this context becomes less a matter of judgement and more a matter of just crossing one’s fingers and trying one’s best, as the experience of British forces in post-Baathist Basra 2003-5 illustrated. ‘Understanding’ what was going on at a political level was difficult enough. Understanding what to do about it simply wasn’t an option at that point in time. And then when you do understand, negative consequences can follow (see below).


Linked to this last point is the fact the fundamental point that the acquiring of ‘understanding’ may well deliver perverse results. After a rather rocky start 2003-2006 Coalition forces in Iraq began to properly comprehend the social and political complexities of their surroundings. This led to two distinct approaches by US and British forces respectively. The former, with its cabal of PhD educated senior leadership, engineered a relationship with the powerful Sunni tribes of Anbar Province in order to defeat AQI, while the latter pragmatically manoeuvred their way through the byzantine politics of Shi’te Basra and eventually withdrew from the city in order to aid the delivery of a lasting political settlement among the various competing interests there. In both cases their understanding was sophisticated and nuanced and in both cases albeit in different ways the results have been negative. For the Americans the tribal focus simply reinforced sectarian divides, contributed to the inability of Iraq to function as a unitary state, and encouraged Obama to believe that the country could function effectively without a continued US presence, all of which have contributed to the deeply unpleasant consequences we see unfolding now. For the British, the correct decision to withdraw from Basra city and thus allow the Shia militias to focus on combating a menacing Iranian influence was simply portrayed as weakness, leading onward to a powerful impression of defeat on the part of friends and enemies alike and resulting in a hangover that still casts a dark shadow over the Army. In other words, ‘understanding’ led on the one hand to a narrative of victory that was nothing of the sort, and on the other an unjustified narrative of defeat that has overshadowed British foreign policy ever since.


The American academic (and former US Army officer) Andrew Bacevich stated that once a statesman chooses war, they are in effect simply rolling the dice; their ability to control and direct subsequent events to their liking becomes extremely precarious. The same principle applies to our requirement for understanding. The doctrine reminds us how important it is, and even aims to show us how to achieve it but the most important people in the equation, those at the very top, will continue to roll the dice regardless. And often, as a consequence, those charged with acquiring and providing ‘understanding’ will remain hostages to fortune.

Image: Photo by Staff Sgt. Jeffrey Duran, U.S. Army ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.


  1. I agree with the premise of the thesis within the submission. More often than not forces rush into a furious state of action and engagement, without taking time to pause and reflect. In a similar vein, stabilisation doctrine falls foul of exactly the same issues posited in this article. Dr Stuart Griffin’s work on the fallacy of stabilisation doctrine is well documented, but, it would seem that yet again the defence has yet to learn the lessons that it identifies. Why have we ignored our own lessons? Why have we raised understanding into the framework of the framework for operations? Understand, shaping, decisive, protecting and sustaining are the manner in which we are being taught to describe our operational output. This is a fallacy, as Dr Tripodi points out – to understand may take years of self reflection and immersion in order to set a baseline that is not affected by bisases or heuristics or indeed cultural experience. Some better men that I espouse the requirement to understand, but, I am not sure if British Defence understands what understand means. A rushed response. MW.


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