By Shaukat Qadir
Education is not a product of degrees but a state of mind. That state of mind is anathema to the military mind
“The only thing more difficult than getting a new idea into the military mind is to get an old one out”.
—Basil H Liddel Hart, English soldier, military historian and leading inter-war theorist
It has been my considered opinion that the military needs the greatest intellect, compared to any other profession. It is the ultimate chess game in which the pawns are real soldiers who pay for errors of judgment with their lives. The fall of Knights, Castles, Kings and Queens, all denote various levels of defeat, including the defeat and enslavement of nations.
And yet, the common perception, not far wrong, is that soldiers, who rise to higher ranks, seldom possess superior intellect. I am certain we have all wondered why.
Many a book has been written on the subject, listing numerous reasons. In my opinion there is only one reason why the military fails to promote intellect in its officers and it is compounded by a corollary. The reason is that the military is structured to function on one principle: obedience (also called discipline): Orders are to be obeyed “in letter and spirit”.
The spirit of the order is invariably lost in the obedience to the letter. The corollary is that peace-time armies are non-risk-taking ones; thus reducing war(s) to a game of numbers, rather than intellect.
Thus, while all militaries are “trained”, some better than others and, perhaps, the Pakistan military is among the best trained militaries in the world, they are seldom “educated”.
It can be argued with good reason that today’s militaries, particularly in the western world are highly qualified compared to their predecessors, including this author, far more PhD holders among our officers and in developed countries, even among their rank and file. That is quite true.
However, I submit that education is not a product of degrees but a state of mind.That state of mind is anathema to the military mind. Education is a product of the ability to question everything; obedience (discipline) brooks no question.
Look at how we train our soldiers: we start by drilling them to teach them instinctive obedience; we repeat the same training cycles year after year; our courses (of further education) are regimented and inflexible. Where there is scope for interpretation or initiative, those gaps have been filled by SOPs.
If the first few — formative — years of young officers, our future leaders, is so strictly regimented for unthinking obedience, how can they be suddenly expected to start thinking independently and questioning everything?
When under training for rising to higher ranks; at the National Defence University, there is an effort to promote independent thinking. The problem is that it is a case of “too little; too late” and not the entire faculty is willing to contribute to it. That is the reason due to which I refer to this effort at “higher education” also as training.
Why is questioning so important? Because without questioning, even the unquestionable, there would be no progress. George Bernard Shaw once said, “the reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to make the world adapt to him. All progress, therefore, depends on the unreasonable man”.
Such unreasonable men, like Prophets or those who change the world by challenging existing dogma or thought, come few and far between. We, lesser mortals, can only hope to learn from them.
As soon as my children began their education, I explained to them repeatedly, that the secret of education is the ability to ask two questions: “why” and “why not”. Obviously, us lesser mortals; those who lie within the various shades of “reasonable men/women” will get nowhere if we asked these questions frequently e.g. student to teacher, soldier to commanding officer (CO)—now that would certainly be a very brief career, even child to parents.
Thus, the next secret to education is when and whom you can ask this question of? However, even if the question is not asked aloud, it must be in the mind.
If we agree thus far and are also aware that without discipline (obedience) militaries will cease to function efficiently, we then reach the next question: can we combine discipline with the ability to question; and if so, how do we balance these contradictory requirements.
I think it can be done. The German military found a via-media called Auftragstaktik (mission oriented tactics). Let us take an example. If a CO tells A Company Commander, “A Company will attack from the right at 0600 hours to capture hill X by 0800 hours”, it is an inflexible order with no room for the company commander to exercise any initiative.
On the other hand, was the CO to tell his Company Commander, “We need to dominate the area extending from Y to Z by 0800 hours tomorrow; it seems that the best way to do this is by capturing Hill X, the best approach seems to be from the right. Make sure you dominate the area Y to Z and confirm by 0800 tomorrow”.
Now, we have an order where the company commander has been given a mission — to dominate area extending from Y to Z. Whether he does it by capturing the hill or otherwise, where he chooses to go from and how he does it is his decision.
For most COs this will be difficult to swallow. They will be worried: what if the company commander doesn’t fully understand? What if he attacks from another direction? What if —? But this same company commander will, in his turn rise to be a CO and, if he has not made such decisions before, on what basis should he be expected to take decisions for all his company commanders?
That is the real object of the annual military training that militaries do — turn them into education. And, in the process the CO identifies those officers who are capable of handling responsibility independently or not. Not only will this help him identify those fit to be promoted further, in the event that the unit goes to war under his command, the CO will know whom to assign a mission to and who to issue orders to.
As far as asking questions are concerned, during peacetime training, all officers should be encouraged to participate and express their views. However, after the discussion, the CO decides on a plan — a mission oriented one, which is executed.
As I stated earlier, the compounding factor is that “peace-time training” is a no-risk training but if it is converted to mission oriented training; not only will it convert from training to education, it will also teach officers to judge and take calculated risks.
All great captains of war distinguish themselves by defeating superior forces with inferior ones, through their ability to judge when and where to employ their force, be able to forecast the moment in the course of a war (or battle) when the opponent will offer an exploitable opportunity and, the really skilled ones will even be able to create these opportunities.
During my years on the faculty of the C&SC and the War Wing of the NDC (now NDU), my observation was that plans were made “as an insurance policy against failure rather than to achieve victory”. This is true of almost all militaries in the world; which is why they resort to the use of numerical/technological superiority or firepower.
I have been frequently asked about the “New Military Doctrine” dealing with the internal threat. I have, on each occasion explained that, even though Guerrilla Warfare has always been taught at all levels, it has been at a very low priority.
However, it is my view that if our officers were educated rather than trained, no new doctrine would have been necessary; they would all have adjusted to the new tactics of the enemy and increased devolution of authority.
The writer is an independent risk and security threat analyst known more recently for his critically acclaimed work Operation Geronimo: The Betrayal and Assassination of Osama bin Laden and its Aftermath.