The Curious Absence of the British Military Blogger

communication

You don’t get people to think about their profession simply by ordering them to; you get them to think about their profession by engaging with them in thinking about it.

Military blogging is experiencing something of a renaissance at the moment. Across the Atlantic sites such as the The BridgeWar Council and War on the Rocks are going strong with an established reader base and a growing portfolio of military writers. Debate is lively and participants cover a broad spectrum; from military professionals, policy wonks and academics through to interested individuals with something to say.

Here in the UK we have some high quality blogs covering the defence and security spectrum (Ballots and Bullets, Defence in Depth, Kings of War  and Think Defence), but what we lack are British Military Bloggers commenting in a professional albeit personal capacity.

The Thin Pinstriped Line filled this niche admirably until last year, and new kids on the block Fall When Hit have hit the ground running, but the absence is noticeable and troubling.

It is troubling for a number of reasons:

  •  If the British Military aspires to maintain an agile edge through its people, then open professional engagement is essential to this. A military does not develop a thinking edge by remaining inside its box.
  • Engaging professionals in thinking about their profession needs to start early and continue throughout their career. At the moment there simply is not any medium for open debate on professional matters either within the Army, across the Joint arena or across the Regular-Reserve spectrum. Social media allows such access.
  • The only forums for professional military dialogue that I am aware of currently are the single service (professional) journals (Naval Review, British Army Review, Air Power Review ). To my mind blogging engages the mind and crystallises the thoughts, writing for a journal expresses the thesis. The medium should be appropriate to the subject.
  • Engaging on social media will allow the British Military to capitalise on the wider expertise available; the Forces do not have a monopoly on military thought. Debate is measured by the quality of thought, not the identity of the input and the Forces need to tap deeper into the experience and expertise available outside their own community.
  • If the British Military feels at risk of being isolated from the society it serves, then not engaging widely will not help. Engagement is more than informing about what we do, it encompasses debating the how and why of the things that we do. It is an interactive educational experience and social media is now the mainstream for this. The military might complain about a lack of understanding of what we do, of the limits and benefits of the appropriate use of military capability, but incomprehensible jargon and professional self-isolation do not help us keep build understanding.
  • Defence Engagement and Defence Diplomacy are now happening daily online. The #CCLKOW weekly debate on Twitter is a good example of this, contributions to War Council and Small Wars Journal are others. A British contribution is valued but largely absent.

So why is there very little open professional engagement?

Mostly it is a matter of culture, of attitudes towards open media and attitudes towards professional debate. There remains a distinct distrust by the chain of command of the media in general and social media in particular. This distrust is based on many things, but like all government bureaucracies a desire to control the narrative and not be politically embarrassed looms large.

Ministry of Defence online engagement guidelines are clear that Service personnel do not need clearance when talking online about ‘factual, unclassified, uncontroversial non-operational matters”. These guidelines are sufficiently broad that anything of contemporary interest (recent campaigns, Army 2020, use of Reserves, women in combat) could be construed as falling foul of the guidelines, and this likely acts as a brake on military personnel engaging. “Better safe than sorry” is the easy path to take in looking after one’s career, but the military is a career that relies upon its members to be able to distinguish between actual and perceived risk.

The bigger brake by far however, certainly in the British Army, is that of the intellectual culture.

The vestiges of an “accomplished amateur” ethos expected in officers still acts as a gentle brake on demonstrating a keen professional interest, and the Army (less so the other Services) remains largely an organisation of Doers and not Thinkers. This is in itself not inherently a bad thing, so long as the Thinkers can think out loud! As the Services are small and unlikely to get bigger maintaining critical mass for debate is going to become essential.

The odds are stacked, but not insurmountable.

The fact is that as any Defence Academy academic or senior officer who visits there will testify, debate is alive and well, albeit highly localised. While the Ministry of Defence guidelines may seem onerous, they are in practice sufficiently broad to enable informed professional debate; the intent of the guidelines is not to stifle debate, but to protect operational security and prevent the military from falling into disrepute. Grounded Curiosity recently gave some excellent advice to military bloggers and her advice tallies neatly with the MOD guidelines: keep it professional, debate is allowed dissent is not; maintain OPSEC.

My personal experience is that there is a keen but understated culture of professional interest in certainly the British Army, but that this is not yet reflected in a culture of debate.

So in starting to blog here I simply hope to encourage all those engaged with defence to Think Defence and engage in the debate.

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