Past Matters: The Value of an Understanding of Service/Military History and Heritage to the Training of HM Armed Forces
By G.H Bennett, Associate Professor , University of Plymouth.
Service in HM Armed Forces is like no other line of employment. It calls on individuals to demonstrate the highest standards of loyalty to the Crown, to the service and to their fellow sailors, soldiers and airmen. In no other line of employment is there the same expectation that, in certain circumstances, the individual might have to display extraordinary levels of courage, endurance and determination. In no other line of employment is there a bottom line which may involve individuals in laying down their lives in the interests of the country. The education and development of members of HM armed forces must necessarily go well beyond simple processes of induction, training and professional development related to the particular function which individuals are being prepared to undertake.
Awareness and understanding of military history, and the traditions and development of the service of which they are a part, can play an invaluable role in shaping the identity of our service personnel. This awareness and understanding comes about through a variety of ways: didactic interventions in training and professional development; organically through contact with older service personnel; and from training in historic locations with the capacity to inspire.
In a multi-cultural Britain where devolution, the European project and globalisation have resulted in serious and on-going challenges to the notion of what it is to be British, the sense of identity of our service personnel cannot be taken for granted. “For what and for who do I potentially fight?” are key questions for all those who join HM Armed Forces. We cannot expect them to behave in extra-ordinary ways and to the highest standards if they are not encouraged to see themselves as part of organisations which daily, and across the decades, have gone well beyond the ordinary.
2.0 Questions of Identity
The aim of teaching service/military history to members of the armed forces has always been concerned with influencing how service personnel see themselves – their ideals, discipline, loyalty and sense of duty. It has helped them to define their role in society, ponder that role from a variety of perspectives, and understand that all military decision-making involves reconciling factors such as objectives, means, opportunities, risks, doubts, costs and consequences, including the inescapable price in human lives (possibly including their own). The attitudes and analytical skills required, and the general principles to be applied are, to a great extent, timeless. They can be approached through a study of past examples: indeed, they can hardly be studied through future examples which still lie in the realms of speculation and fantasy. The need for these personal qualities will endure, even if leadership in wartime is increasingly exercised by commanders far distant from the battlefield.
The past is vital to our understanding of:
- who we are
- our values
- why we believe in what we do
- why we act in certain ways
Without a strong sense of the past, individuals do not have a strong sense of their British identity. Without a strong sense of the past of the service to which they belong the modern corporate mission, methods and expectations of the Royal Navy, Army and Royal Air Force do not have deep underpinning. With such underpinning, messages received in induction, training and professional development are maximised and embedded more deeply.
More generally, the past can help service personnel understand the answers to three key questions about their place in the armed forces:
- what are the standards expected of me by my country?
- what are the standards expected of me by the service?
- what should I expect from my fellow officers and rankers and what will they expect of me?
An understanding of the past can also help service personnel with answers to more specific questions. For example:
- What are the moral issues involved in military service?
- How should I behave in a survival situation?
- How should I behave in a combat situation?
- How should I behave as a prisoner of war?
The answers to these questions may be suggested in induction, training and professional development but it is the power of the past, of story telling, of exemplars, that can truly drive home those messages. An individual must both understand what is expected of them, but also feel instinctively what is needed from them. Such understanding on an emotional level can also help the sailor, soldier, airmen to make the right choice when circumstances occur which have not/cannot be anticipated in training.
The value of a strong identity, underpinned by an understanding of the past and traditions of the service, was exemplified at Trafalgar in 1805. Nelson’s famous signal ‘England expects every man to do his duty’ was greeted with a certain amount of derision across the fleet. The men fully understood the past and traditions of the navy, and knew exactly what the nation required of them. Nelson’s order, indeed any order, was superfluous. That is the power of the past and of tradition.
3.0 Inspiration and Practical Solutions to Practical Questions
It is often said that if we do not understand the past then we are condemned to repeat it. It might equally be said that if we understand what worked in the past we can make some intelligent and well informed choices about what might work in the future. The past can provide:
- inspiration for service personnel who may have to face daunting obstacles and unthinkable choices well beyond the expectations of civilian life. The past can provide inspiration to show that the impossible is possible and the implausible can be made a reality with sound planning, strong leadership, resolution and team work. From the defence of the mission station at Rourke’s Drift in 1879 to victory in the South Atlantic in 1982 and beyond, history is replete with inspirational examples of success against the odds.
- potential options in terms of strategy and tactics. An understanding of the past can provide service personnel with what amounts to a playbook in terms of potential strategy and tactics. Despite technological changes the fundamentals of the battlefield remain remarkably unchanged. For example, General Norman Schwarzkopf’s defeat of the Iraqi Army in 1991 was based on his understanding of Hannibal’s defeat of a numerically larger Roman force at the Battle of Cannae in 216BC.
- models of leadership and teamwork. An understanding of leadership models and teamwork can be underlined by understanding of the past. The devolved leadership model of Nelson can be contrasted with the charismatic leadership model of Henry V or the more teamwork orientated approach of Eisenhower.
- parallels and a perspective from which to assess on-going issues beyond the battlefield from relations between the civilians and military, relations with Allies, relations with the enemy, the impact of new technologies.
It is often said that performance is based on the interplay of ability and experience. Induction, training and professional ability can develop the necessary abilities in our sailors, soldiers and airmen. Our military history and heritage constitutes the collective experience of HM Armed Forces, not just across a single career, but across the generations.
To be aware of the past is not to be confined by it. For service personnel an understanding of the past can shape in a very positive way their identity as soldiers, sailors and airmen. It can provide them with a set of practical lessons about what has worked in the past and what may work in the future. It can also provide them with an awareness that there are routinely moments when current thinking and accepted logic must give way to the new. The past can both ground service personnel in the core values of a nation and its armed services and liberate their thinking to meet the challenges of the moment and the future.
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