Paul Barnes is a British Army Warrant Officer and the current Army Visiting Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute. His research focuses on adaptability and the diffusion of innovation in contact. He has seen operational service in the Balkans, Northern Ireland, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and holds an MA in Military History from the University of Birmingham. You can follow him on Twitter at @Barney065
Most New Year’s Resolutions founder in the middle of January; the month is too long, the return to work too harrowing, and the promises too easily broken to support life-changing commitments. One of the battery of pledges I made at the turn of the year was to lose weight and improve my physical fitness; to date it is progressing well, although I have yet to visit the gym. To the uninitiated, the gym is a menacing place, filled with dreadful, Lycra-clad enthusiasts speaking an alien and impenetrable language and casting intimidating glances at flabby newcomers. Informal professional military education (PME) is similarly exclusive; entering a lecture theatre filled with seasoned polemologists can disturb even the stoutest of hearts. Imagine this feeling of trepidation amplified, and we begin to understand the reticence of young soldiers to sally forth into the study of the profession of arms.
An examination of topical writing on websites such as War on the Rocks and The Wavell Room throws up a plethora of articles on PME, perhaps provoked by General Mattis’ statement that PME is a war-winning component and that, in the U.S Army, it requires re-invigoration. In the main, however, these writings deal with gaps in Officer PME, few debate the need to professionally educate Non-Commissioned Officers and Warrant Officers (NCO and WO). A recent notable exception is Matthew Reed’s recent War on the Rockspiece which champions a change in formal PME for soldiers filling the professional lacuna identified by Major General Anthony Cucolo, a former commander of the U.S Division North in Iraq. Cucolo, also a former commandant of the Army War College, believes that NCOs must be able to collaborate with their commanders intellectually as well as physically to be truly effective in the battlespace. Reed argues that formal NCO and WO education must become far more rigorous, supporting both Mattis and Cucolo’s theses, but made no mention of the value of informal PME in delivering improvements.
Whilst soldier PME in the form of Command, Leadership, and Management (CLM) training has imperfections, a deeper deficiency lies in filling the gaps between periods of formal education. Formal soldier education rightly concentrates on basic skills in literacy and numeracy and the three periods of CLM delivered on promotion to Corporal, Sergeant, and Warrant Officer Class Two. Given that the median length of service for a soldier is roughly seven years, the mean soldier can optimistically expect around twenty days of CLM education, much of which concentrates on man-management, not the conceptual component. Of course, they will receive considerably more technical training, but in terms of education in the profession of arms, soldiers can expect only a few brief hours of PME annually. Theoretically, soldiers may also receive informal PME within their Units, usually delivered in the form of battlefield studies, guest speakers, or study days. This sort of PME is entirely arbitrary, highly dependent on the unit, and often tied to the enthusiasm of the unit’s commander. Indeed, even in the most fertile environments battlefield studies and talks tend to coincide with regimental events and anniversaries or overseas exercises and deployments but are rarely part of an incremental programme of study.
Although anecdotal, my experience is perhaps informative and somewhat typical of a soldier’s exposure to informal PME. Since joining the Army in 1994, and notwithstanding my involvement in planning, delivering or guiding as a volunteer, I have participated in only one unit-organised battlefield study, to Cheriton in 2010. Similarly, I have attended but a handful of unit-organised events engaging with the conceptual component. In that time, I have also endured innumerable lectures on far more fashionable, but arguably less important subjects. The truth is, in general terms, the Army does not prioritise PME, in recent years even the policy on priorities for attendance on CLM has had to change to reflect the reticence of soldiers to engage with their own professional development. To be sure, unit life is busy with training time and budgets limited and an onerous compliance burden stifling activity, and yet time is found for sports afternoons, winter sports, and adventure training to name but few. It is not my purpose to denude the importance of the aforementioned activities, rather I seek to illustrate that, when favoured by the chain of command, almost any activity can be facilitated within a busy battle rhythm.
The Army remains a highly paternalistic organisation, providing the soldier with most of his needs from accommodation to clothing, from enlistment to discharge. Arguably this encourages a culture of dependence which creates an inhibition in soldiers preventing them from seeking out informal professional development opportunities. Where it is provided, for example in engagement with leadership theory, interest is high. Official sanction appears to be critical to soldier commitment. Returning to my own experience, in recent years I have chosen to seek out informal PME opportunities, attending events and talks on the conceptual component nationwide. This developed into studying for, and attaining, a MA in Military History at the University of Birmingham, taking advantage of the excellent opportunities for higher study afforded by both the Army and Royal Air Force, and from 2017, devising and delivering a series of Talks, the War Talks, which aim to deliver informal PME, covering the gap between formal periods of education, particularly for soldiers, and encouraging service personnel to study further and wider than their formal PME courses may have taken them. In total, thirty Talks have been delivered across the South East. primarily in Aldershot, garnering a regular audience of around 35 and a Twitter following of almost 2,000. Notably, however, the audience mainly comprises serving and retired Officers and civilians with NCOs and WOs relatively under-represented.
An examination of the audience is informative; although we regularly see Staff Officers up to the rank of Brigadier, only three Commanding Officers, and no Regimental Sergeant Majors, have attended any of the thirty Talks held since 2017. Platoon and Troop Commanders are regular attendees, but almost never with their soldiers. Again, the busyness of Army life is accepted, but is it not peculiar that many of the attendees who do travel come independently from as far afield as Plymouth and Chepstow, and very few from units 250 metres away? It is contended that the cause of this lack of support is not merely the natural discomfort felt by junior soldiers in the company of officers, although that certainly plays a part, or a paucity of leadership, but an institutional apathy towards the conceptual component, which has sometimes been described as an anti-intellectual bias. This bias manifests itself as a preference for, and encouragement of, any other activity other than PME. In the rare circumstances where PME is encouraged, it is usually seen as an ‘officer sport’, although officers who are too embedded in it are largely seen as peculiarities or enthusiasts. It is not for nothing that the British Army is characterised as having the best doctrine, but not the best readers.
PME should be a process not an event. Closing the gap between formal PME events is essential for improving our performance as a reference force. To do this, the Army needs to encourage and demand that its soldiers think about the conceptual component, we who organise informal PME need to think about our formats and the media through which our product is diffused, and soldiers need to understand that engagement with PME is essential, not just for promotion but for employability and deployability. If soldier attendance at informal PME is encouraged and demanded, the fear of the unknown will be mitigated, and if this is set in the context of a progressive programmed plan of PME, then the gap can be filled. Perhaps, the strongest lever we have is the Appraisal Report; if Reporting Officers were required to comment on the Subject’s engagement with PME, thus linking education with promotion, the effect could be instantaneous. There will be inevitable resistance to this from some, who might say that soldiers do not want to engage with the conceptual component, however, as an analogy, many soldiers do not enjoy CBRN training but are compelled to do it and for good operational reasons. The conceptual component should be seen in the same vein. It may not be as much fun as snowboarding in the Alps, but it is arguably of greater value and utility to both the Army and the soldier. The horse must not only be led to water, it must be encouraged to drink.
Image: US Army Soldier Reading Philosophy in Iraq circa April 2003 via wikimedia commons.