2013/02/13

Military (Self-) Discipline

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The idea of a blog post about discipline has been lingering in my head for a while. It's a most important issue, and *surprise* one in which I tend to reject the mainstream.

It's not that I dislike discipline on the job, but rather that I believe 'we' in the West are overestimating the discipline of Western military forces.

It's easy and superficial to look at the use of uniforms (not so uniform after all!), lockstep (very rare), proper shaving (not universally applied) and other visible indications of discipline. A slightly deeper look at command and obedience as expressions of military discipline yields another impression of a largely functional military, even though especially bloated orders are prone to be largely ignored.

The real discipline problem I am seeing isn't about resisting top-down orders. It's about self-discipline.

'We' are almost shockingly poor at self-discipline.


This knows many expressions.
Waste of ammunition, excessive detail in orders, micromanagement, resisting easy paths, predictability, the 'armour up' mentality and risk aversion in general, xenophobic behaviour and December fever belong into this category.

This is largely a leadership issue, as all of these problems could be avoided with better leadership (if need be up to civilian leadership by politicians).


Waste of ammunition in firefights is no universal problem, but a widespread one. It's clearly a failure of junior NCOs who are supposed to control their small unit's firepower. One leadership level's failure is the failure of levels above, so this can easily be considered a failure of leadership levels at least up to battalion command.

Excessive detail in orders is a problem of leadership levels with substantial staffs. Theatre commands lead by horrible example in this regard.

Micromanagement is about rather high-up leadership influencing smallish actions without being on the scene itself and assuming the leadership role there. This became possible by radio communications and has grown to ridiculous proportions due to live video feeds and few engagements going on in parallel.
The literature and articles complaining about micromanagement can probably already fill a library, while the rather feeble attempts at justifying it can probably fill a single book shelf. In the end, micromanagement is the expression of senior leadership's lack of self-discipline and/or its distrust in junior leadership.*

Predictability, especially daily routines and predictable movements, is a cardinal sin in warfare. There's simply no excuse, not even restricting terrain. Predictability allows the enemy to prepare appropriately, and to reach a satisfactory readiness for battle. This cannot be satisfactory to us.

The 'armour up' mentality and risk aversion in general have easily filled a library. An Australian article recounted how the priority list changed from mission-men-self to men-mission-self long ago. This is probably a side effect of fighting wars not worth much blood. Sadly, this war-specific infection has infected the whole body of Western military forces.

Xenophobic behaviour and other hostile thoughts (such as sexism) are rather common in history and not really a problem unless the strategic mission or cooperation between allies becomes affected. We are not going to get rid of this in any Western army, navy or air force any time soon - but we should keep this failure in mind next time when we kid ourselves about how well-disciplined our forces are.

December fever (the quick and often wasteful spending of remaining resources late in a fiscal year) is a typical bureaucratic defect. It's a failure of the bureaucracy and shows our inability to do a better job at allocating resources. It's still also a display of poor self discipline, as few leaders resist this bureaucratic instinct.


There are more self discipline challenges, particularly the challenge to stay focused, but  suppose I've largely made my point already.

We have a long way to go till reality matches ambitions in regard to discipline. We can and largely do get the obedience thing right, but the self-discipline thing is an ongoing struggle.

Sven O.

*: related

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