Institutional Operating Codes: The Culture of Military Organizations

January 28, 2020
X
Story Stream
recent articles

The Culture of Military Organizations. Peter R. Mansoor and Williamson Murray (Eds). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2019.


There are many elements that make up a fighting force’s effectiveness in battle; leadership, doctrine, and equipment are most often cited as key determinants. But, as this extensive study shows, organizational culture is also an important factor. Overall, The Culture of Military Organizations convincingly shows that internal culture has an enormous influence on fighting organizations. This influence includes their approach to warfare and their performance in battle.

An institution’s culture frames what its institution values, what heroes it reveres, and what it rewards. Culture imbues an organization with a sense of mission, identity, and core competencies. Cultural influences deeply impact what members think, how they perceive problems, and how they react to them. These are reinforced by rituals and narratives, passed on to recruits and acolytes in the training and educational programs of all armed forces.

A fighting organization’s culture emerges over an extended period, sometimes deliberately and often indirectly from victory and defeat. Culture operates internally like the operating system of a computer. Some scholars contend that culture is so deeply embedded that its existence and influence is imperceptible. In fact, military members are said to sense and act without being consciously aware that their belief system is framing their orientation and actions.

Numerous authors have researched the subject in the past.[1] Yet, it has never been comprehensively studied in a rigorous and comparative manner. This is what makes this excellent book valuable.

The editors of this anthology bring together extensive experience, from both academic and practitioner perspectives. Dr. Peter R. Mansoor, a retired U.S. Army Colonel, holds the General Raymond E. Mason, Jr. Chair of Military History at Ohio State University. Mansoor earned his PhD at Ohio State University and served as executive officer to General David Petraeus during the 2007 surge of U.S. forces in Iraq. His memoir of his tour as a brigade commander, Baghdad at Sunrise: A Brigade Commander’s War in Iraq, shows his mettle as a combat leader and student of war. Mansoor teamed up with Williamson Murray, an acclaimed U.S. historian and U.S. Air Force veteran from the Vietnam era. Murray’s best work has focused on grand strategy and military innovation and adaptation.[2] This book stands with those for relevance and historical scholarship.

The editors assembled an international cast of scholars to delve deep into their respective countries and areas of expertise through sixteen case studies. Most explore a single armed force within a particular country for a specified period of time. The book contains an introduction and framework, along with an international suite of case studies covering a range of cultures and wars, from the U.S. Civil War to the most recent conflict in Iraq. The cases examine institutional and wartime history, but stress how culture impacted its subject’s effectiveness over time.

Mansoor and Murray employ a wide definition of military culture, representing “the assumptions, ideas, norms, and beliefs, expressed or reflected in symbols, rituals, myths, and practices, that shape how an organization functions and adapts to external stimuli and that give meaning to its members.”[3] Culture is multi-dimensional, set in a large social context, and reflected in an organization’s internal practices. “A service’s culture is a complex aggregate of its attitudes,” Harold Winton has written, “toward a variety of issues including its role in war, its promotion system, its relation to other services, and its place in the society it serves.”[4]

The notion that a military service has a distinctive set of values that create its personality or DNA is fairly well accepted in security studies.[5] More relevant to our current strategic context, many scholars link the limits of a rigid culture when it comes to changing military organizations and their practices.  Several notable studies, including those of Elizabeth Kier and John Nagl, find organizational or military culture relevant to both peacetime innovation and wartime adaptation.[6] In Israel, Meir Finkel explored organizational flexibility and noted how critical culture was to learning and agility in wartime.[7] Murray’s own work on innovation recognizes policy makers or institutional leaders must work within or alter an existing culture to overcome barriers to change.[8]

The editors wisely commissioned two well respected researchers to establish an analytical foundation for this study. Dr. Leonard Wong and Dr. Stephen Gerras, both with the U.S. Army War College, employ two different analytical models for examining organizations. They adapted a framework generated in the commercial world, drawn from 17,000 middle managers and nearly one thousand organizations. None of the organizations involved were military. This framework is more useful for societal comparisons—which the pair recognizes, while still demonstrating the model’s analytical utility—but only within the U.S. Army. More familiar to scholars in this field was their inclusion of Edgar Schein’s list of embedding and reinforcing mechanisms. Unfortunately, this useful framework is left to the respective authors to consider, and few took up the task.

 The best chapter is Richard Sinnreich’s overview of the Victorian-era British Army. This case is a common interpretation, concluding that this era embraced the English gentleman ideal of an officer corps drawn from the upper tier of society. Rigorous professional development and competitive promotions were disdained and book learning frowned upon. Sinnreich details how pre-World War I tactical modernization in the British Army was stillborn, despite the introduction of breech-loading rifles and quick-firing artillery. The tribal conformity imposed by regimental life, and a social system that deferred instinctively to one’s superiors were pressures that “tended to stifle subordinate initiative and to breed a tactically rigidity ill equipped to deal with more modern and sophisticated enemies.”[9] This all came to a head in South Africa near the end of the century, where “British regulars, including storied regiments, repeatedly were outgeneraled, outmaneuvered, and outfought by South Africa’s indifferently organized but well-armed and determined Boer militias.”[10] Readers may want to compare this interpretation of social linkages and limited intellectual development with recent scholarship.[11]

The Royal Navy is not slighted, Professor Corbin Williamson covers its evolution from 1900 to the end of the Second World War. Williamson deftly addresses the Navy’s struggle to balance near-term training against higher order education to develop competent officers in a period of rapid technological change. He quotes another scholar’s assessment: “The educational system, as it existed in 1914, lacked coherence and ambition.”[12] When the test of war emerged, the Navy lacked officers who could make an impact at the cabinet level or in theater strategy debates. Andrew Gordon’s wonderful insights from Rules of the Game are leveraged to good effect to detail how rigid naval command had become. The disappointments from Jutland influenced the Royal Navy’s reconception of command, initiative, and offensive employment, and served as the basis for a series of reforms, drawn from Lambert’s Sir John Fisher’s Naval Revolution. “Through these reforms,” Williamson concludes, “the navy reinvigorated an offensive ethos and placed a higher priority on subordinate’s initiative based on an understanding of the admiral’s intent similar to modern ‘mission command.’”[13]

Allan Millett, former Marine and author of the definitive history of the U.S. Marine Corps, writes about the intense nature of that institution’s internal operating system. Millett gives appropriate recognition to General Victor Krulak and his son, General Charles C. Krulak, as institutional innovators. But this chapter overlooked an excellent appreciation of Marine Corps change agents by Terry Terriff of the University of Calgary.[14] There are other recent works that readers will want to explore.[15] The culture of the U.S Marine Corps is going to be sorely tested in this next decade, as a generation of Marines leaves behind a half-century focus on amphibious missions, after its 15 years of counterinsurgency operations, and now attempts to redefine its identity and transition to great power competition.[16]

The U.S. Air Force has a distinctive culture, and Robert Farley superbly draws out how that institution developed an unshakable and misguided belief that high-altitude, daylight, and precision bombing was a decisive form of warfare. He correctly notes how influential the Pacific and European campaigns of World War II were to the Air Force, conflicts in which its preferred operating paradigm was severely tested by adversary counter-responses. He argues the Air Force’s fervent desire for independence promoted an element of autonomy and assertiveness that still exists today, and with studied understatement notes, “the pursuit of technological innovation has played an unusually large role in the culture of the USAF for the course of its history….”[17]  This is a culture now beset by numerous priorities from air superiority fighters, stealth bombers, and remotely piloted aerial systems...and now to a competing Space Force. Farley suggests the combat experiences of the last generation has moved past its fixations with autonomy and technology, and moved towards closer interaction with other services, especially special operations. That may be the official line but the previous generation still contends airpower is even more precise and decisive.[18]

One of the distinguishing aspects of this book is the inclusion of non-Western examples. Dan Marston, now with Johns Hopkins University, provides an illuminating discussion on the Indian Army, and Gil-li Vardi’s chapter on the Israeli Defense Force is balanced. Vardi depicts the evolution of the Israeli Defence Force’s psyche; including its offensive nature and penchant for initiative and improvisation over hierarchy and directive command.

The lack of Chinese and French chapters is an obvious drawback in the book’s design. Given the increasing salience of the Chinese military today, this has to be considered a shortfall.[19] Furthermore, while the chapter on Russia was well executed, it stopped at the end of World War II, leaving readers to wonder how Russia military culture has since evolved. These weaknesses are offset by a strategic culture chapter penned by David Kilcullen, who does address Russian national culture. What he does not capture is the debate over the utility of strategic culture.[20] Some dispute its existence and use in understanding or anticipating a rival’s moves or deriving insights on how history, geography, form of government, and civil-military relations influence a state’s strategic behavior.

The editors present a selective suite of implications. They note the social links from any military to its larger culture, the criticality of military education to sustain critical thinking, and the tensions between continuity and change. Gil-li Vardi’s point about the difficulty of leveraging culture is underscored: “organizational culture is a resilient and even sluggish creature, which operates on cumulative knowledge, organically embedded into a coherent, powerful and highly restrictive mind-set.” This is the most salient feature of the study, assisting leaders in closing the gap between today’s force and one that meets the needs of the future conception of warfare. Murray’s past works on innovation clearly show that an organizational culture inclined to test its assumptions, assess the external environment for changes routinely, and experiment with novel solutions is best suited for long-term success.[21] The challenge for leaders today, not explored enough in the book, is learning how to successfully reprogram the internal code to improve its alignment with new missions or technologies.[22] We can hope some enterprising scholars will jump into this field and apply the same conceptual lens to complement this product.

General David Petraeus (BBC)

Retired U.S. Army General David Petraeus observed that “culture, once formed, is difficult to change; it cannot always be ‘tamed’ but it can and should be understood.”[23] Those responsible for strategic leadership and for preparing their military for the future, must understand how culture impacts the effectiveness of an armed force. This is particularly relevant since most officials today describe the strategic environment as an age of disruptive technological change.[24]

Professors Mansoor and Murray offer a superlative foundation for reflecting on how to change the odds of gaining that transformation short of the carnage of a world war.


Dr. Frank Hoffman serves as a Distinguished Research Fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies, and teaches strategy at the U.S. National Defense University, Washington, DC.


This article appeared originally at Strategy Bridge.

Notes:

[1] Theo Farrell, “Figuring Out Fighting Organizations: The New Organizational Analysis in Strategic Studies,” Journal of Strategic Studies, Vol. 19, no. 1, (Spring 1996), 122135; Theory Farrell, “Culture and Military Power,” Review of International Studies, Vol. 24, no. 3 (Fall 1998), 407-416; Theo Farrell and Terry Terriff, The Sources of Military Change: Culture Politics, Technology (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2002). 

[2] Williamson Murray, MacGregor Know and Alvin Bernstein, eds., The Making of Strategy, Rulers, States and War (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994); Williamson Murray and Richard Hart Sinnreich, eds., Successful Strategies, Triumphing in War and Peace from Antiquity to the Present (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014): Williamson Murray, Military Adaptation in War: With Fear of Change (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

[3] Peter R. Mansoor and Williamson Murray, eds., The Culture of Military Organizations (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2019), 1.

[4] Harold Winton and David Mets, The Challenge of Change, Military Institutions and New Realities, 1918-1941 (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2003), xiv. 

[5] On American strategic and military culture, Thomas G. Mahnken, “U.S. Strategic and Organizational Sub-cultures,” in Jeannie L. Johnson, Kerry M. Kartchner, and Jeffery A. Larsen, eds., Strategic Culture and Weapons of Mass Destruction: Culturally Based Insights into Comparative National Security Policymaking (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).  For a detailed study of the U.S. armed forces see Carl Builder, Masks of War: American Military Styles In Strategy And Analysis (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996; and more recently Jeff Donnithorne, Four Guardians: A Principled Agent View of American Civil-Military Relations (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018).

[6] Elizabeth Kier, Imagining War, French and British Military Doctrine between the Wars (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998); John Nagl, Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1999), 214.

[7] Meir Finkel, On Flexibility, Recovery from Technological and Doctrinal Surprise on the Battlefield (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2011).

[8] Williamson Murray and Allan R. Millett, eds., Military Innovation in the Interwar Period (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

[9]  Mansoor and Murray, The Culture of Military Organizations, 163.

[10]  Mansoor and Murray, The Culture of Military Organizations, 176.

[11] Aimee Fox, Learning to Fight, Military Innovation and Change in the British Army, 1914-1918 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017)  Additional insights can be found in Ian Beckett, A British Profession of Arms: The Politics of Command in the Late Victorian Army (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2018).

[12] Quoting Andrew Lambert, Peter R. Mansoor and Williamson Murray, eds. The Culture of Military Organizations, 327.

[13] Mansoor and Murray, The Culture of Military Organizations, 336.

[14] Terry Terriff, “Warriors and Innovators: Military Change and Organizational Culture in the US Marine Corps,” Defence Studies, Vol. 6, Issue 2 (2006), 215–247; Terry Terriff, “Of Romans and Dragons: Preparing the US Marine Corps for Future Warfare,” Contemporary Security Policy, Vol. 28, no 1 (April 2007), 143–162.

[15] Jeannie L. Johnson, The Marines, Counterinsurgency and Strategic Culture, Lessons Learned and Lost in America’s Wars (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2018); Ben Connable, Warrior-Maverick Culture: The Evolution of Adaptability in the U.S. Marine Corps, Ph.D. thesis, King’s College, London, 2016.

[16] General David Berger, Commandant’s Planning Guidance, Washington, DC: Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps, July 2019.  For a reflection on lost or ambiguous identity see Leo Spaeder, “Sir, Who Am I? An Open Letter to the Incoming Commandant of the Marine Corps,” War on the Rocks, March 28, 2019.

[17] Mansoor and Murray, The Culture of Military Organizations, 431.

[18] Phillip S. Meilinger, Limiting Risk in America's Wars: Airpower, Asymmetrics, and a New Strategic Paradigm (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2017). 

[19] For recent scholarship into changes that impact Chinese military culture see Phillip C. Saunders, Arthur S. Ding, Andrew Scobell, Andrew Yang, and Joel Wuthnow, eds., Chairman Xi Remakes the PLA: Assessing Chinese Military Reforms (Washington, DC: NDU Press, 2018). On the PLA’s culture see Alison A. Kaufman and Peter W. Mackenzie, Field Guide: The Culture of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, Alexandria, VA: CNA, Inc., February 2009, at   https://www.cna.org/CNA_files/PDF/D0019770.A3.pdf

[20] In support of strategic culture see Colin S. Gray, “Culture: Beliefs, Customs and Strategic Behavior” in his Perspectives on Strategy (New York: Oxford University Press 2013); and Frank Hoffman, “Strategic Culture and Ways of War, Elusive Fiction or Essential Concept?” Naval War College Review, Vol. 70, no. 2 (2017), 137-143.  For arguments against, see Antulio J. Echevarria, Reconsidering the American Way of War, U.S. Military Practice from the Revolution to Afghanistan (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2015), 32-46. 

[21] Williamson Murray, “Does Military Culture Matter?” Orbis (Winter 1999).

[22] Edgar H. Schein, “How Founders and Leaders Embed and Transmit Culture,” in Organizational Culture and Leadership, 2nd ed. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1992).

[23] This endorsement is found on the back dust jacket cover.

[24] Joseph Dunford, Jr., “The Character of War and Strategic Landscape Have Changed,” Joint Force Quarterly, 89 (2d Quarter 2018), 2-4; Christian Brose, “The New Revolution in Military Affairs, War’s Sci-Fi Future,” Foreign Affairs (May/June 2019), 122-134.



Comment
Show comments Hide Comments