Tuesday, September 04, 2007

A Failure of Leadership?

Please excuse this one - it is going to go on a bit ...

Like it or not, we all have bosses. These may be obvious or more subtle - let's call them "people whose commands we cannot ignore" - or 'bosses' for short.

The manager will have his (senior) manager in turn, up to the CEO who will claim to be responsible to the shareholders but, aside from actually having shareholder representatives on the board, he is more likely to answer to a group of industry-sector city analysts who, with an unwarranted ability to drive the share-price of the company can grotesquely impact his remuneration. The entrepreneur spends far more time than she would like dancing to the tune of the bankers or venture capitalists who back her. The small businessman answers to the customers directly, or they take their business elsewhere. Cut to home and we all, no matter what we pretend and how politely it is phrased, often do the bidding of spouse and children without demur or complaint, in the name of harmony. Just because being co-operative is less hassle than being right (at least, that's my excuse, find your own.)

At university, with a significant amount of military training behind me (prevarication is almost always the wrong decision, etc), I can remember finding it difficult to bite my lip when the regular "what pub shall we spend the evening in?" discussion was ongoing (on the rare occassions when we weren't studying, Mum, of course.) "Let's go to the nearest half-decent one and discuss over a beer", seemed such an obvious solution ...

Recently, with the serialising of General Sir Mike Jackson's autobiography "Soldier" in the Telegraph (1, 2 & 3) and various commentary in the British and American press (including this in an official US military magazine) regarding the apparent lack of preparation from the immediate and subsequent post-war phases in Iraq, it has been strongly suggested that generals whose military advice is not heeded by their political masters should 'bite the bullet', so to say, and resign. I find this an interesting conceit in our modern democracy.

Clearly, for anybody, military or otherwise, there will be professional and moral circumstances (and the occasional utterly loathsome boss) where resignation from a job is clearly justified1. You may have been asked to do something you consider improper or have been put into an unacceptable position vis-a-vis your fellow workers. Merely having your advice being considered and rejected (especially in part) is rarely enough. I have certainly gone to a manager and said "I need 3 weeks and £4x to do this task", and got "Well, I can give you £3x but we really need it done by next Thursday". Is that a resigning matter? Of course, the case goes, rejecting the advice of the generals will cost soldiers lives, which is true enough. What it misses is the basic truth that almost any decision taken by a senior military officer has the potential to cost lives, even outside of the war-fighting environment:

  • Let's improve military fitness. Cue old gits and fat knackers dropping with heart attacks.
  • Let's go on a military exercise. Cue helicopter accidents, hypothermia and expiration from culinary shock when eating compo (MREs for the trans-atlantic among you.)
  • Let's have a live firing exercise. Cue negligent discharges, ricochets and simple accidents.

So let's look at this from a strictly military point of view:
  • Part of the raison d'ĂȘtre of the military (and the reason for civil society paying to have a military) is for them to 'just get on with it' when put in to situations which would be considered completely unreasonable in the commercial world or the wider public sector. I refer you to compo, MREs, etc as an example strict to the point.

  • Despite the oath of allegiance being generally (Ed notes: yes, bad pun but unintentional) taken to the Head of State, we assume that the military will at least attempt to be reliable servants of the government of the day. We tend to call countries where this doesn't happen "military dictatorships". It is not, to be frank, the British or American way. I strongly believe in this point and, taking it far past where many would stop, also believe that serving officers should not be members of any political party, to underline their neutrality (in service if not belief).

  • Senior officers clearly have a duty to provide their best advice in the circumstances to politicians and to recommend the most appropriate course(s) of military action to achieve the declared political objectives. If politicians have any complimentary duty, it is to listen to and consider that advice - not to simply take it. The same applies to the Government Chief Scientist, the Governor of the Bank of England, the Chief Medical Officer and any other professional or technical specialist working for the Crown. To give an example, the government might well insist that a military coalition must include units from an allied state which the professionals consider ill-equipped or unreliable. This is well documented from the first Gulf War (1990/91, Operation Granby or Desert Various)

  • Even if his advice is ignored, the General has a duty to his troops. This includes both ensuring that they have the best available leadership (normally, in his view, himself) to conduct the task just made more difficult by the supposed political error and making sure that morale is maintained by, if necessary the illusion of, agreement in the chain of command - the principle of collective (or cabinet) responsibility.

  • There needs to be a point behind the resignation - probably to shame the politicians into changing their decision - military officers are rarely the 'smug moral superiority' type. The impact in our modern society of even a very senior military resignation should not be overstated. Politicians are far more experienced (and, usually, much better) at media spin than the military and operational security concerns will usually prevent any open discussion or analysis of the merits of both sides of the case.
Let us also not forget that we are dealing both with the 20/20 hindsight that ensures that the commentariat never make a misjudgement or mistake ("Soldier" not having been published yet, I am not sure how brutally honest Jacko is) and with one view only of what was certainly a many-faceted situation.

It would be nice to believe that soldiers are always led by men of intelligence, experience and honour. By and large, as far as the UK and most Western countries are concerned, I believe they are, although the various rapid changes in war-fighting may render less useful some, or much, of that experience. However, I also believe that part of that experience is to do with making the best of unfortunate or unpalatable (back to compo and MREs again :( ) situations and that some of that honour flows up to the elected government (however much an egregious irritation of mendacious statist cnuts you know they are) as well as downwards to the troops.

1. This is not to ignore (as our poli-scoundrels do) resigning having admitted responsibility for your own (or under your command) screw-ups.

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