Lessons must be learned

Agincourt. A village in France and a battle, immortalised by Shakespeare, that is known to all Englishmen. It stands in the pantheon of popular culture, alongside the Battle of Britain, as one of England’s greatest military victories.

Azincourt or Agincourt

Azincourt or Agincourt

It was a victory by a small but determined force against a superior but over arrogant foreigner. It was a “backs against the wall” fight for survival, which the English seem to relish, and embodied what would later be known as the “bull dog spirit”.

Agincourt, fought in 1415 came at the back end of The Hundred Years War (1337-1453). The English forces, utilising the devastating fire power of the long bow, dominated the French for almost a hundred years, despite the latter’s numerical superiority and internal lines of communication.

The Battle of Crecy

The Battle of Crecy

In order to put this in context you need to understand the chronology of the three main battles. In 1346 the English army, lead by Edward III, defeated a superior French army at Crecy using the novel tactics of massed bowmen behind obstacles designed to break up a charge by French knights.

The next major battle was in 1356 at Poitiers. The French knights charged with some effect. The English bowmen realised that their arrows were bouncing off the French armour so changed their point of aim to the horses. The French, unable to break through the hedge protecting the English, were eventually routed by The Black Prince.

It appears that the French understood the tactical lessons of these defeats. At the battle of Pontvallian in 1370, the French army under command of Bertrand du Guesclin, routed the English by attacking before the archers had properly established themselves, proving that it was possible to defeat the English if you attacked with surprise and speed.

But at Agincourt on 25 October 1415 all this was forgotten. The French army, commanded by Charles de Albret, who had fought with du Guesclin at Pontvallian, waited for the English move. For four hours the opposing armies viewed each other until King Henry V of England took the initiative, marched his army within bow shot of the French and started the battle that would end in a catastrophic French defeat. Same teams, same tactics, same result. article-1080497-023CD053000005DC-953_468x401

We are supposed to learn from our mistakes but the French failed to do this. You would have thought that the French military leaders might have sat down and said “ These English archers are really bad news, but if we hit them hard and fast before they can organise we can defeat them. Let’s come up with some innovative tactics for doing that”.

The problem of assuming that we will learn from mistakes is that either nobody will admit to mistakes, for very well proven psychological reasons, or we gloss over them as unpalatable truths. As a result we build on our experience slowly and are out done by those who can do it faster.

The simple truth is that lessons can and should always be learnt from any experience, good or bad, routine or extraordinary. Development relies on the exploitation of feedback provided by experience; quick feedback speeds up your development enabling you to get inside the development cycle of your opponents, rivals or adversaries. You get to change quicker which gives you the advantage.

In order to achieve this lessons must be identified. Solutions must be developed, implemented and subsequently embedded in the culture so they are not forgotten. This is in military parlance can be a “force multiplier”.

Yet, surprisingly few people or organisations exploit their experience in this manner and prefer to muddle along or lurch from crisis to crisis.

Lessons must identified, implemented and embedded to ensure that they are learned and not forgotten. That requires determined and sustained leadership.

How often do we hear leaders – politicians, CEOs, public sector appointees, generals – declare that there have been a terrible mistakes and lessons have been learnt? Ask yourself how many of these lessons will actually be embedded in the organisations culture.

Have we really learnt the lessons or are we just going through the motions? Are we likely to see another game of multi-billion roulette by the next generation of bankers once the lessons from the first decade of the 21st Century are forgotten? I wonder.

Joan of Arc Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Joan of Arc
Dante Gabriel Rossetti

As for the French, well they did eventually learn their lesson. The catastrophe at Agincourt decimated the old military nobility, the king died and a young peasant girl emerged as an inspirational and innovative leader. The French went on to win the final quarter and finally kicked the English out of France by 1453; but this could have been achieved sixty years earlier if they had heeded the lessons of Crecy at the time.

So next time you are watching sport and see an English team supporter think of Agincourt and the need to learn lessons from experience. Then think how you can apply and embed it within your own business, organisation and institution.supporters

 Happy New Year

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Maysan Revisited: What good will come of it?

  Lawyers are not a popular breed, especially when they are perceived to be chasing ambulances. But in some cases they can actually help, although not always in the way you might expect.

Take, for example, an incident in which six British soldiers died when their outpost at Al Majarr Al Kabir, in Maysan province of Iraq was overrun by local tribesmen. It sounds like an Al Majar Al Kabirevent from Britain’s colonial past but in fact it took place on 24 June 2003.

The subsequent Board of Inquiry conducted its work thoroughly and “found that the incident at Al Majarr Al Kabir was a surprise attack, which could not reasonably have been predicted”.

The inquest in 2006 recorded a verdict of unlawful killing. The British Army learnt and implemented its lessons. The six soldiers were remembered along with the other 173 British deaths in Iraq between 2003-2009, during what was known as Operation TELIC.

That was it, until 31 July 2013 when Sky News announced “Murdered Red Cap’s Family To Sue Government”.

Following the landmark judgement from the Supreme Court in June, which ruled that soldiers at war in foreign lands were covered by human rights laws and therefore owed a duty of care, the family of Corporal Russell Aston is suing the British Government for negligence.

The lawyers will no doubt be looking forward to this. For some it will be the crusading instinct of testing their skill against the boundaries of the law. Others will be salivating at the thought of all the potential “no win, no fee” work ready to be scooped from past and future conflict. All will be anticipating some healthy fees. However, lawyers aside, what good will come of this legal action?

Will the family benefit? I doubt that the court case will provide much comfort to them, despite the £250,000 sum that Sky News is quoting in compensation. I don’t believe that it’s about the money.

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Photograph by Felix Spender

The adversarial nature of the court means that it will be win or lose and the stakes are high for the Ministry of Defence (MOD). Losing will perpetuate the family’s anguish and  winning will come at a price. I have never met anyone who has found tribunals or litigation less than traumatic, even if they end up on the winning side.

The best solution for the family would have been to resolve the conflict through mediation. This private, informal, consensual approach would almost certainly have delivered the answers needed by the family.

Sadly, it’s probably too late now, but if they were to change their minds North Light Solutions would support them.

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Photograph by Felix Spender

The Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007 focussed the Army on unacceptable deaths under the Health and Safety umbrella . It forced commanders to take legal responsibilities for equipment and training through a system of competent army authorities. It became incumbent on all the Armed Services to make sure that individuals were properly prepared for operations and that equipment was fit for purpose.

If such an authority had been in place in 2003 it is probable that failings such as the lack of body armour, highlighted at the inquest of Sergeant Steven Roberts, who was killed by friendly fire in March 2003, would never have occurred.So a legally defined duty of care for soldiers on the battlefield should be a good thing. No more half measures, just proper support.

The MOD will be concerned that the legal action will result in an outflow of cash in damaging legal actions. Army commanders will be concerned that additional legislation would limit their freedom of action in operational theatres. And yet maybe that would not be such a bad thing.

The Army’s operation in Iraq was not the British Army’s finest hour, despite the best efforts of the youngsters on the ground.

British operations were shown to be under-resourced and under-committed. The withdrawal of troops from Iraq in 2003 to garrison a peaceful Northern Ireland, just as the insurgency broke out in Southern Iraq, seems to me to have been a significant misjudgement.

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US Army Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles entered service in 2007.

The British Army showed none of the agility of the US forces who, once they realised they had got it wrong, were able to write the doctrine, design and procure the equipment and retain the force while our soldiers were still trundling round in the ill suited SNATCH Land Rovers.

A successful action will force the Army and the MOD, in particular, to look more carefully at resourcing operations. The political cap on manpower will have to match the task. No more “just enough, just in time” logistics that turn into “too little, too late.” 

Military priorities will have to be reviewed as new operations emerge. Allies will have to be asked about their intent; no more mates going to a party but business partners working together over clearly defined aims. The decision makers – politicians, civil servants and senior officers – will have to be accountable.

Nobody would be naive enough to believe that the risk could be taken out of military operations but we should all subscribe to the belief that if we are going to do it, we must do it right.

So will any good come from this action? As I said earlier, the family will find it devastating and I sincerely wish they would take the less adversarial course of mediation to meet their needs.

For the rest, I think it could be a catalyst for positive change and I will raise a glass if the family wins.

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Photograph by Felix Spender

Somali Piracy – The Reverse of the Coin

Gallery

Somali piracy is now under control. EUNAVFOR statistics show a dramatic reduction in sightings, attacks and boardings. No vessel has been successfully captured by pirates since May 2012. So great has been the success of the anti-piracy action that Somalia … Continue reading

Iron Lady of the South Atlantic?

swf+Margaret+Thatcher+parties

Not everyone thought well of Mrs Thatcher

In March, as the bells tolled, the people of Britain remembered Margaret Thatcher for better or for worse.

She was also remembered in the South Atlantic by the Falkland Islanders who owe their continuing autonomy to Mrs T’s resolve in 1982.

In another part of the South Atlantic the people of Argentina should have given thanks to the grocer’s daughter for the role she played in bringing down the Junta. The Iron Lady believed in democracy, she believed in doing what was right and in doing so opened the way for the return to democracy in Argentina.

The Falkland Islands were catapulted to prominence following the Argentine invasion in 1982. The war changed the British view of the Islands; they were no longer inconvenient smudges on the map to be sloughed off; they became the manifestation of Thatcher’s revitalised Britain.

I never visited Argentina during that period of new democracy but I got a sense that Les Malvinas were not, at that time, a national issue. People were focussed on democracy and the economy.

In the 90’s, I enjoyed very amicable relations with the Argentinian officers with whom I worked on various overseas military missions. The Falkland Islands were rarely mentioned and we spent more time reminiscing about Maradona’s “hand of god” goal in 1986.

Now things are very different. President Cristina Fernandez Kirchner has shrilly pursued Les Malvinas as far and wide as the UN and the Vatican. Her response to the overwhelming vote in March to remain a British Oversea’s Territory ( the results showed that 99.8 per cent of the Islanders had voted yes, with a 92 per cent turnout among the approximately 1,650 Falkland Islands eligible to vote) was to declare that it was as if “a bunch of squatters were to vote on whether or not to keep occupying a building illegally.”

Another Argentine politician, Senator Daniel Filmus described the vote as a “publicity stunt”. He said “We must denounce this trickery that pretends to represent the popular participation of an implanted population.” These are extraordinary remarks from the child of European immigrants, who now acts as a democratic leader.

The question which perplexes me is why do the Argentinian leaders expend such energy on the issue of Les Malvinas? England and France came to working arrangements over the Channel Islands, which are only tens of miles offshore, many centuries ago.

Is it the sense of loss? Hardly. The Falkland Islands are 500 kilometres away from the Argentine mainland – apply that in Europe and it takes you from Dover to the town of Wiesbaden in Germany. They were never continuously settled by Argentinians and it appears to have been a dead issue between 1849 – 1941. There is no emotional similarity to the forced division of Ireland or Germany.

Is it a useful means to divert the Argentine population from the economic woes? Perhaps. The Argentine economy is struggling with reduced growth (2.6%) and rising inflation with an official figure of 10.5% – disputed by the International Monetary Fund – and the real figure assessed to be around 25%. Difficult days for the majority of the population.

Is it a means of capitalising on the South Atlantic oil bonanza? Possibly. It is estimated that the Falkland Islands could receive up to $10 billion in tax revenues and royalties over a 25 year period. However the Argentine economy is rated at 22 in the world with a GDP of $474 billion, which makes the Falkland Island oil income a mere drop in the ocean.

Is it to enhance de Kirchner’s personal standing? Probably.

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President Christina Fernandez de Kirchner

Christina de Kirchner has set her sights on changing the Argentine constitution to enable her to have a third, and who knows possibly fourth consecutive, term in office. But she is beset with falling ratings and accusations of corruption in the Argentine media.

Who could blame her if she aspired to portray herself as Argentina’s Iron Lady by reclaiming Les Malvinas?

The problem is that de Kirchner has no chance of achieving this and runs the very real risk of making herself look naive in the world’s eye. The Falkland’s issue is deadlocked with de Kirchner refusing to hold discussions with the Islanders, the British Government refusing to hold discussions without the Islanders, and the Islanders refusing to hold discussions on sovereignty issues.

Meanwhile the UN and the US sit on the sidelines encouraging the parties to find a resolution, in the knowledge that there is little they can either do or want to do to influence matters.

Ironically, the only person who could break the deadlock is de Kirchner herself. If she took the long view and studied the work of the British and Irish governments, in the run up to the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 and the subsequent amendment to Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish Constitution in 1999, she might be able to come up with a cunning plan to normalise the South Atlantic to everyone’s mutual benefit and great personal acclaim as a stateswoman.

Is President Cristina de Kirchner brave enough to take bold decisions?

kirchener 1Only time will tell if she can become Argentina’s Iron Lady.

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What is the worst sin?

What is the worst sin? It’s an interesting question to ask yourself or indeed to throw into a faltering conversation. On the occasion I did this in my local pub the initial reaction was a stunned silence, as people struggled to understand how the topic of conversation could possibly have been changed from racing.

Once on to the topic, people ran through the usual list of crimes – murder, blasphemy, adultery, paedophilia – before they focused on the less well defined offences such as bankers’ bonuses, indifferent care for the elderly and the FA’s failure to utilise goal line technology.

What became clear is that sin still has a meaning in our daily lives. It is used entirely within its definition¹, derived from the Old English synn and related to Latin sons/sont meaning “guilty”, as an immoral act considered to be a transgression against divine law or an act regarded as a serious or regrettable fault, offence, or omission.

Sinning is not necessarily illegal but it is a transgression against our fellow human beings.

So in answer to the question – which is the greatest sin – I offer a choice of three.

First up is Excess. This is an amount of something that is more than necessary, permitted, or desirable and is driven by greed or power.

Excess was the major driver for expansionist wars and underpinned the exploitation of colonialism. It brought about the collapse of the financial markets and is currently draining our planet’s resources. As Goethe wrote “ unlimited activity, of whatever kind, must end in bankruptcy”. There is a strong case for excess as it may well lead to the destruction of our planet and the demise of mankind.

Planet Earth in peril from excess

Our endangered planet

Next up is Self Interest, which is defined as one’s personal interest or advantage, especially when pursued without regard for others. Many people see nothing wrong with self interest on the basis that it is merely looking after yourself, but the key issue is “without regard to others”.

It is this aspect that makes self interest so pernicious because it deprives humans of the generosity of spirit and politeness that oil the gears of society. As Jean-Paul Sartre observed “Hell is other people”.

Self interest ignores other people’s desires. It blinds individuals to the wider issues, destroys debate and undermines democracy. As Gough Whitlam so eloquently pointed out “the punters know that the horse named Morality rarely gets past the post; whereas the nag named Self Interest always runs a good race.”

Finally, there is Betrayal which is defined as the action of betraying one’s country, a group, or a person; treachery.

Betrayal is a highly emotive subject because it cuts at the very heart of trust and friendship. It is no surprise that “Et tu, Brute?” are the final, highly charged words uttered by Julius Caesar in Shakespeare’s play of that name.

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Benedict Arnold
Reviled American traitor

It is no surprise that Judas Iscariot became infamous for his betrayal of Christ, despite being preordained to do so. Benedict Arnold is still reviled for his treachery against the young America fighting for independence. Traitors and informers are subject to the worst possible sanctions.

Betrayal is an attack on trust and trust, once broken, fully can never be restored. The actual elements of betrayal may be small in themselves but the act creates ripples disproportionate to the events.

It undermines every level of relationship and belief – personal, business, establishments and politics. It reduces the group cohesion and ultimately the group’s chances of survival.

There are two very interesting manifestations of this today with the waning support for the British Conservative party, over the introduction of gay marriage, and the Catholic Church’s crisis over child abuse.

Neither issue is cataclysmic in itself but both have become highly destructive because they are perceived as betrayals. One because the gay marriage never featured in the election manifesto: the other because the Church betrayed those individuals entrusted to its care.

So there you have the three great sins against humanity – excess, self interest and betrayal – but which is the worst?

Excess has created more misery and will eventual destroy us, unless we can find Aristotle’s “green mean of moderation in all things”. Self interest will drive us apart, undermine our democratic ideals and set the conditions for excess, while betrayal will attack the bonds of trust, friendship and belief.

I back betrayal because it destroys our group cohesion that has been fundamental to man’s survival and development over the millennia.

You, however, may have other views.

Just be careful where you ask the question. Do so in a pub near closing time and you may well be declared the worst possible sin against humanity. Good luck.

¹ All definitions taken from the English Oxford Dictionary.

Women in Battle: Progress or Retrograde Step

Last week the US Secretary of State for Defence announced that the US armed forces would allow women to serve in small group combat units, which President Obama and many other commentators have welcomed as a “historic step”. There is no doubt that this is a historic step, but does it move humanity forwards or backwards?

The subsequent discussion in the British media focused on the familiar topics of equal rights across the genders, of which this is just another facet, physical issues and effects of group cohesiveness of women serving alongside men in combat.

A senior journalist dismissed anyone who disagreed with the step as a stegosaurus, but there is more to the discussion than simple gender equality. There is the whole aspect of the development of civilisation.

The facts are these. British women already serve on the front line, many have engaged the enemy with their weapons, some have been wounded and a few have died.

British soldiers in Afghanistan

British soldiers in Afghanistan

Women live alongside men and share the hardship in Afghanistan. Women have mental endurance and act with comparable courage; some have received medals in recognition of their gallantry in the face of the enemy.

Women deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan have demonstrated that they can hack it with the men.

However, women are hampered by a weaker physique and were identified, in an Army

British infantrymen on patrol in Afghanistan

British infantrymen on patrol in Afghanistan

study in 2002, as being more prone to muscular-skeletal injuries than their male counter parts. This would be exacerbated by service in the infantry where typical fighting loads are in excess of 60 lbs per man; a weight that has remained fairly consistent since the days of Marius’s Mules in the first century BC.

That said, I have no doubt that there would be a cohort of women who would have the physique and durability to serve alongside men in combat units. The question is, should they?

In addressing this, it is important to understand that women serving in the front line would be stepping into very different territory when they take up close combat roles.  Currently women, along with 60% of the men, serve in roles that support combat – signallers, artillery, intelligence, engineers and  logistics.

British engineers building a bridge in Afghanistan

British engineers building a bridge in Afghanistan

Although their primary role may be in front line, they are usually one step removed from the killing; engineers building a bridge will only fight to enable them to complete their task. This is fundamentally different from the combat – infantry and armoured – units whose raison d’être is to seek out the enemy and kill them as efficiently as possible.

This is brutal and dehumanising work, as described by Captain Doug Beattie * “I heard the detonation and sprinted forward following the path of the grenade. Engulfed by dust and smoke I opened fire spraying all round the room…..I could just make out the prone body of a Taliban fighter….I leant forward and thrust my bayonet towards the body as hard as I could…..There was barely any resistance, the sharpened blade sliding deeper, quickly disappearing.” Savage work indeed, but this is the stark reality of infantry work and few who are involved in it are left unaffected.

British infantrymen fighting at close quarters

British infantrymen fighting at close quarters

Since the First World War Britain has done much, in the interests of humanity and efficiency, to reduce the pool of manpower exposed to close combat.  We no longer deploy youngsters below the age of 18 on operational tours nor do we deliberately expose older individuals to close combat. It is highly improbable that Boy Cornwell ** and Lieutenant Colonel Douglas-Hamilton *** would get an opportunity to win a Victoria Cross in today’s forces.

This brings me back to women, who have been exempted from close combat by culture and tradition. Is it right to draw them into this trade where the emphasis is on killing, when we have taken such steps to narrow the parameters of service in response to social advances?  Is this a step forward for civilisation or is it a retrograde step for society in the name of gender equality?

Many intelligent and ambitious young women will argue hard that in the interests of equality, women should have the right to take their place alongside men if they are able to do so. They will point out that we have already crossed the Rubicon with women fighter pilots and Apache crews but these activities lack the intimacy of close combat and may be easier to rationalise.

Apache helicopter on patrol

Apache helicopter on patrol

The issue may turn out to be a side show with service in combat units a niche calling for women. However, it is an issue that needs more thought than just rolling out the mantra of equality.  Women need to consider whether they want to be XX equal or XY light. The debate needs to be about where we move humanity – forwards or backwards.

I will leave you with a litmus test. Consider how you would react when your daughter, sister or niece announces that she wishes to follow a career in a close combat unit. I know what I would say.

* Captain Doug Beattie served with the Royal Irish Regiment and was awarded the Military Cross for gallantry in Afghanistan.  He recorded his exploits in his book An Ordinary Soldier.

 ** Boy Cornwell was a 16 year old sailor who was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross at the Battle of Jutland in 1916.

 *** Lieutenant-Colonel Douglas-Hamilton was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for leading his battalion at the Battle of Loos in 1915. He was 52 years old.

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