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22 May 2023

Sticking to a Hateful Task- Resilience, Humor, and British Understandings of Combat Courage 1914–1918 [Recommended Innovation Articles (and Commentary) #28]

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Original post can be found here:

In the nearly three decades I have served my nation either in active duty military service, as a military contractor, or lately as a defense government civilian, I often hear about ‘warrior ethos’ and how important it is to every warfighting organization. This ethos is like an ever-burning flame requiring fuel, care, and the right conditions or else it fizzles out. We struggle with how to instill this into each member and systemically across entire teams. Many services and organizations are deeply integrated with myriad technological, technical, and often exquisite or peculiar abilities and missions that their force provides. Marines provide unparalleled small force amphibious or rapid entry, SOCOM can eliminate a terrorist cell anywhere in the world often in ways that are difficult to trace, USCYBERCOM is able to outwit and dismantle shadowy hackers in a keystroke, while the Navy’s nuclear submarine fleet is called ‘the silent service’ for that very reason.

All of these unique organizations have a warrior ethos, but each is contextually dependent upon what one does, how one does it, and why one frames reality and warfare in a particular way so that their purpose (and style, camaraderie, and belief system) in war is distinguishable from others. Yet every organization must hone this blade, and new organizations or those cast into entirely novel roles must go about forging a warrior ethos in a difficult, potentially illusive way. Copying someone else does not work, nor do generic platitudes.

New conflicts require new ways of thinking about warfare (and war itself), and organizations that must make a radical leap from legacy frames into something unfamiliar, alien, or ill-defined requires attention to what sort of warrior ethos they are attempting to establish. Horse cavalry went through difficult transformation from 1930–1939, with the US Army advocating for horse-mounted cavalry charges to defeat mechanized armor formations as late as 1938, and then Major Patton insisting the same in multiple journal articles for Cavalry Magazine in 1930… the same could be said for modern space, cyber, and other military forces attempting to make sense of massive technological, sociological, or other changes. The Air Force shift from human pilots to drones is ongoing, as one more example of the shift of a warrior ethos and identity. Now onto the recommended article:

The article is titled “Sticking to a Hateful Task: Resilience, Humor, and British Understandings of Combatant Courage, 1914–1918′ by Edward Madigan, in War in History, volume 20, issue 1, 2013, pp. 76–98. You can find the PDF here:

This article is an interesting historical study of British WW1 military culture, particularly the combat arms population fighting it out in the trenches. Yet this is not about war stories or “there I was” content. Instead, this article takes a deep sociological dive into societal and institutional frames on what heroics, sacrifice, suffering, and courage means. The British, geographically far closer (and existentially at risk) to WW1 than American society, had a civilian construct of what combat courage was, and how volunteers ought to go about demonstrating it. This differed from the actual experiences of those on the front- in that WW1 was a very different sort of war than anything previously. The intersection of technology, industrialization, nation-state politics, and military fixation upon older, largely outdated tactics and strategies led to horrific outcomes, particularly on the Western Front. Thus, a “pre-war paradigm” and a “in it now paradigm” developed.

Application: Given that space warfare began in the First Gulf War, but today there has yet to be a dynamic, high-intensity Space Conflict for any society or nation (the Russian-Ukraine conflict differs from what I mean here), how might there be a “pre-space war paradigm” that could already exist in the civilian and DoD (read Space Force, USSPACECOM) mentality- and would this potentially shift as it did in this case study, were a conflict to unfold? What about USCYBERCOM, and how cyberspace is a still ill-defined, uncertain yet essential aspect of contemporary and future conflicts? Across all the military services, artificial intelligence (AI) is rapidly changing the legacy command and control relationship between human operators and machines… we are entering a future where the human may supervise or monitor the “loop”, or perhaps even be “behind the loop”, making evaluations and after-action decisions long after the activities are completed by AI. Could most every service, branch, and military organization need to change how they view their force, purpose, function, and form due to such dramatic battlefield transformations? Will future Army Infantry need to recast their warrior ethos to be seemingly alien to what we have known for centuries as ‘humans on the ground, occupying by force and destroying the enemy’?

Will future warrior ethos require new ways of thinking, and how will leaders achieve this? Perhaps this is the most profound and difficult question, one that the British in WW1 in a terrifying, new industrial form of war had to contemplate while in the fog, death, and confusion.

How might this sort of transformation occur, what would the effects be, and how might we gain opportunities now thinking about this before such a conflict initiated? What can organizations do today, particularly those most in the “we are stuck in a horse cavalry ethos confronting a future war devoid of horse cavalry charges?” Lastly- the undertone of “war humor” is threaded throughout this piece. How does humor currently operate inside our organization or yours? Does it contribute to a warrior ethos? How might you amplify or dampen effects in your design? Is humor permitted in a military organization in some areas, but off limits in others? Does this work, or should we consider where humor might be one of many unexpected creative ways to unlock a new “warrior ethos” needed not for yesterday’s battle, but the one emerging tomorrow?

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