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British Army soldiers in Helmand province, 2006


The military can also set great store on its leaders’ external appearance and mannerisms – from neatly ironed uniforms to polished boots. Again, this is not without value. It is a terrible truth that people are more likely to listen to you if you stand up straight and have neat creases in your trousers. However, it only really works if such neatness is indicative of more profound internal qualities, rather than a disguise for a lack of them. The former officer remembers one Sandhurst


cadet who was highly intelligent, very fit and fluent in Arabic to boot. ‘He also couldn’t march very well and was rubbish at ironing: Bottom third.’ (He was classified in the bottom third of his cohort, a position no army officer wants.) The other tension that arises in this way of running things is the question of where the buck stops. Theoretically the British Army operates on an ideology called ‘mission com- mand’. Again, as with the Westbury selection tools, this is German by origin. Originally, it was Auftragstaktik, a system of speeding up command decisions that originated with the Prussian army around 1806, after defeat by the French. Under mission command a senior com- mander defines what end state he wants achieved but not the steps required to get there, delegating execution to the potentially better-informed junior at the scene. That is the theory, and it is a sensible one, but the mantra ‘delegate until you feel uncomfortable and


then delegate some more’ can sit askance with the deference that is also bred into the system. More significantly, mission command can also make it profoundly unclear where the buck ac- tually stops. ‘People have assumed that if you delegate execution you also delegate responsi- bility,’ one general involved in the humiliating endgame of British operations in Iraq in 2007 told me. ‘I think that’s a huge mistake.’ In the post-9/11 wars, junior British service- men and women faced a whole raft of novel accountability probes, from lawsuits to public inquiries. Some – but contrary to the public narrative in some quarters, certainly not all – of these were vexatious. However, British sen- ior commanders were almost invariably pro- moted, even if things went badly wrong. The most obvious example of this was the Taliban attack on the huge Anglo-American Camp Bastion base in Afghanistan 2012. Afterwards the US investigated and forced two marine corps generals to resign for a lapse in base se- curity. Their British senior counterparts were promoted. Meanwhile, the RAF Regiment personnel involved in the action received med- als. The objective, in the words of the former AOSB assessor, was ‘to turn a massive failure into a public success.’ That kind of thing damages the credibility of the system as well as the institution. S Simon Akam (@simonakam) is the author of The Changing of the Guard – The British Army since 9/11, Scribe, £25


CLASSICAL EDUCATION YOU’RE


WELCOME Daisy Dunn


THE MOST MEMORABLE story in the Odyssey describes the hero’s great escape from the Cyclops Polyphemus. On their jour- ney home from Troy, Odysseus, the cleverest of the Greeks, and some of his men have found themselves trapped inside the mon- ster’s cave. The only way out is past the enor- mous boulder blocking the entrance, but no mortal has the strength to move it, so the challenge is to keep Polyphemus alive just long enough to be useful. Odysseus plies old one-eye with wine and steels himself against the sight of him snatch- ing his friends off the cave-floor and turning them into supper. In accordance with his in- genious plan, Odysseus’s more fortunate companions sharpen a stake and, at the opti- mum moment, jab it in Polyphemus’s eye,


JOHN D MCHUGH/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES


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