Training has always been an obviously important component of military capability. Less obvious has been the importance of education. There is, however, reason to believe that education is becoming an even more important component than hitherto. The changing character of conflict is pointing towards an environment for military action that is becoming ever more uncertain, complex and ambiguous. In these circumstances military success depends not just on training – teaching people to carry out certain actions in given circumstances – but on education – preparing minds for unpredictable circumstances. In a mathematical analogy, training teaches you to solve given equations; education enables you to reformulate equations for new circumstances or to design completely new ones.
Education also provides the necessary understanding of factors such as culture which play such an important part in the success of contemporary campaigns. In retrospect, it is easy to see that there was considerable under-estimation of the amount of time and effort needed to acquire the necessary cultural understanding prior to deployments to both Iraq and Afghanistan.
Although the British armed forces devote significant amounts of time and money to formal education, this only scratches the surface of what is required. Courses such as those at the UK`s Defence Academy all cram a packed syllabus into a finite time, and too often the demands for training trump those for education, not least because the output of training can be measured in a way that that for education cannot be.
Inevitably, much of the education required depends on self-education. Clausewitz alluded to this. `The knowledge needed by a senior commander is distinguished by the fact that it can only be obtained by a special talent through the medium of reflection, study and thought.` This self-education is a lengthy process. There are no short cuts. And the more senior the officer, the less time is available for it. An important ingredient is the catalyst which can provide the necessary mental stimulation and inspiration: discussion and engagement with fellow-travellers on the learning journey. In the past this has depended on the exchange of ideas in professional journals and face-to-face discussion facilitated by organisations such as the Royal United Services Institute. But now, with the advent of social media, a whole new opportunity exists.
A group of quite junior army officers have set up a blogging website aimed at generating discussion about current British military issues. Named Wavell Room, after the room at the Defence Academy where they met daily whilst attending the Joint Services Command and Staff College, the website welcomes diverse and divergent opinions and independent critical thinking, and has already attracted original ideas and provided the forum for lively debate on contemporary issues. It has the potential to provide just the sort of stimulation which will encourage the reflection, study and thought of which Clausewitz spoke, and to contribute to the development of policy.
Wavell Room has a fine path to tread. To be of value it must play host to controversial views that may be uncomfortable to some in authority in the Ministry of Defence. At the same time it must demonstrate that it is utterly apolitical and not part of some insurgency against authority. In its turn, the Ministry would be wise to show a rather more relaxed approach towards websites such as Wavell Room than it has sometimes done in the past towards perceived critics. If both sides get it right, there is great opportunity at little cost for helping the armed forces to become even better prepared to meet future challenges. wavellroom.com @wavellroom