The Elusion of Critique: On Developing Critical Approaches in Defence Discourse


Matt Lewis is a PhD student at the Defence Studies Department and an Infantry Battalion Commander in the British Army. His research focuses on decolonising the concept of violence, with specific reference to Algeria and Critical Theory. He tweets in a personal capacity as @mattlewisfab.

Accounts from 20th Century graduates of NATO Staff Colleges depict a time when PME focused almost exclusively on honing specific procedural competences of direct relevance for Staff Officers destined for busy formation HQs. Staff Officers, it seemed, would be conditioned like battery hens for a highly focused series of tasks undertaken in steeply stacked hierarchies.

An appreciation of this historic approach came quite recently in a letter from Professor Jim Storr, published in BAR 163 (2015). Graduates of the Army’s Intermediate Command and Staff Course (ICSC(L)) and the joint Advanced Command and Staff Course (ACSC) were these days, he claimed “…simply not as thoroughly trained in operational staff work as they used to be…” and that “…professional training should not be infected by academic distractions…”.  I recall some time later, a quite withering response to Storr in the same journal from Maj Gen Julian Free (then Director General of the UK Defence Academy): outlining variously, the passing of time; the strategic nuance and the vast array of ‘customers’ for graduates of the Joint Services Command and Staff College. It was a quite eviscerating defence of the emerging ‘learning culture’ that has happily taken seed over the last decade.

Of course, there does remain a significantly procedural aspect to modern UK PME: we have retained a predisposition to interpretation through modelling; for estimate processes and conceptual paradigms. And quite appropriately so, because on courses (such as the UK single Service ICSCs) that act as a comprehensiveeducation for an entire career cohort, these devices provide a common framework for students with varying learning needs and professional experiences. They remain, in sum, a useful pedagogical foundation (breadth) from which to then develop individual specialisations (depth): a basis for the next set of questions beyond any sentimentality for the binaries of the (last) Cold War.

As we continue our transition into an effective learning organisation, we have come to place some primacy on the concept of critical thought and discourse. This agenda has gathered significant momentum since the Chilcot Inquiry’s focus on policy and decision-making cultures in Government; and on the imperative of ‘speaking truth to power’. And reassuringly, my recent experience of teaching on ICSC(L) for two years suggests that our critical capacities are indeed developing; buoyed, I suspect, by an approach shared with the US Army’s CGSC on educating for uncertainty.

Yet for all this progress, we are still to effectively extend our collective critical discourse much beyond the parameters of our pedagogical training models: ideas are ‘wargamed’, perspectives ‘Red Teamed’ but our conversation too readily descends into banal contrarianism and ‘what aboutery’.  The new imperative, in this post-truth information environment; this new Cold War where concepts and norms are so easily debased in a context of constant competition; is that our capacity for critique has asystematic rigour.  Here, the military blogosphere must shoulder some responsibility: in one breath urging the ‘virtuous insurgency’ of ideas whilst simultaneously closing the shop to academics, non-combatants and dissenters.

Symptomatically, the venerable Clausewitzian binary of nature and character stands unchallenged in this conceptual world: the holiest of cows that categorises everything in the sphere of conflict, and yet explains nothing.

Youri Cormier’s recent War as Paradox (2018) perhaps offers us a route out of this intellectual cul-de-sac: impossible, as it is, to not come away wondering if we have spent the last two centuries fixated on the wrong dead German. Cormier’s introduction of Hegel to an analysis of the inherent contradictions of conflict moves our discourse beyond the Clausewitzian fetish for the tactical how and what; to the ethical (and by inference critical) consideration of why?

As a proponent of dialectical thought, Hegel employed a cognitive framework far removed from what could be described as ‘identity’ or ‘classificatory’ thinking: in which (much like Clausewitz’s nature/character binary) instead of saying how something is, determines what categories something falls under, or of what it is an example or representative of.  Rather like a rose, which must be visualised, smelt and felt to be appreciated as a whole form, if the discrete characteristics of conflict are merely classified, they may be representative of something else entirely.

As one of numerous methods of critique, ‘dialectical’ thought avoids the cognitive traps of categorising the component features of a thing (a rose, an act of violence) by instead considering the processes, external connections, history and array of possible futures which are all contained within the thing. By focussing on these processes, changes and interactions of a real, concrete phenomenon, dialectic thought organises a reality for the purposes of study and presents them in a manner that it logical to people who do not necessarily think dialectically – the recipients of our ‘orders’, the media or Parliamentarians.[1]

As a basic framework Bertell Ollman describes ‘dialectical thinking’ as a mode of thought which involves the recognition and interpretation of four kinds of relations: identity/difference, the interpenetration of opposites, quantity/quality, and contradiction.  In contrast to the predictable analytical patterns of identity thinking; and the associated fixation on categories and classifications; the relations that define a dialectical conception of reality considers the effects and tensions imminent and eminent from the perceptible differences of one entity from another. However, the very perception of difference may fundamentally conceal several identical characteristics between two perceptively diverse entities.

This alludes to the second relationship; the interpenetration of opposites.  Evocative of the famous terrorist/freedom fighter analogy in COIN, the interpenetration of opposites implies a perspectival element that recognises that things appear very different depending who is looking at them. Therefore, nothing is uniquely as it may seem in a particular place and time; viewed in another way, from another physical or perspectival position, a single entity or process may appear entirely the opposite from when it was previously beheld.

The tension between issues of quantity and quality are as familiar to academic students as they are to military campaigners.  Analysis of change in quantity/quality relations brings into focus the before and after aspects of a development.[2] For instance, what proportion of the population must be radicalised for an uprising to assume the characteristics of an insurgency? How many military fatalities render the incidence of operational casualty a strategic failure? What scale of ‘collateral damage’ is tolerable or legally justifiable within the parameters of the Law of Armed Conflict?

And what of contradiction? Perhaps we need only recall that poignant depiction of the gathering on General Browning’s balcony at the end of A Bridge Too Far:

“That’s it then. We’re pulling them out: it was Nijmegen…”

“…It was the single road getting to Nijmegen…”

“…No, it was after Nijmegen…”

“…And the fog…in England.”

It was, of course, a varying combination of all these frictions. Because as an inherently human phenomenon, conflict and warfare exist in a reality constructed by the fusion of individual subjectivities: not all of which can be easily reconciled. Contradiction is therefore as much part of our ‘battle picture’ as the complementary information sources our biases tend to draw us toward.

“What now happens…” Storr objected in his letter of 2015, “…is that highly educated but relatively young academics mark the writing of staff college students…students learn to write academese”. So, what then is the relevance of a framework such as dialectics to our operational output? Is it just, as many would contend, self-indulgent intellectual noodling?

To invoke the comfort of my subjective experience, I would point out that in the three staff appointments I held as a Major – in Policy and Operational HQs and against shifting operational and political contexts – I would be routinely asked to return my analysis to ‘first principles’ or to ‘reframe my assumptions’. In effect, I was being asked to fundamentally challenge the epistemic basis of what I thought I knew. I would also emphasise that I held these appointments at a time before a Parliamentary Committee sat to determine the level of Russian interference in our elections; before Robert Mueller began his investigations in the US; and before the new currency of ‘fake news’.

If today we take the threat of ‘constant competition’ seriously, our capacity for critical thinking must not simply be a blogger’s cliché, but routine military behaviour.

Image via flickr.


[1]Bertell Ollman. Dialectical Investigations. London and New York; Routledge. pg. 10-11

[2]Ollman Ibidpg. 13-14

One thought on “The Elusion of Critique: On Developing Critical Approaches in Defence Discourse

  1. I’d like to thank Matt Lewis for his profound and critical post.

    A colleague considered Julian Free’s response (clearly drafted by a junior staff officer) to be ‘tetchy and bad tempered’.

    I submitted a reply. It was not published. I believe that was at the direction of Major General (retd) Andrew Sharpe.

    I had previously had 23 articles and 5 letters published in the British Army Review. In the 1990s and 2000s I was the most frequently published contributor to the Review.

    I stopped contributing to the British Army Review. I’m confident that readers will see the relevance to Matt Lewis’ post.


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