News | Sept. 10, 2020

The Culture of Military Organizations

By Anthony King Joint Force Quarterly 98

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The Culture of Military Organizations
The Culture of Military Organizations
The Culture of Military Organizations
Photo By: Cambridge University Press
VIRIN: 200910-D-BD104-024

The Culture of Military Organizations
Edited by Peter R. Mansoor and Williamson Murray
Cambridge University Press, 2019
472 pp. $99.99
ISBN: 978-1108485739

Dr. Anthony King is a Professor and the Chair of War Studies at the University of Warwick, United Kingdom.

It would be difficult to find scholars who are better qualified to edit this excellent new volume of military culture. Having retired from the U.S. Army following a distinguished career, culminating as one of General David Petraeus’s most trusted aides in Iraq in 2007, Peter Mansoor has published a number of books on military history and Iraq. Williamson Murray has been a major figure in military studies for over 30 years, producing, among many other works, the now classic three-volume study Military Effectiveness (Cambridge University Press, 2010) with his long-term collaborator Allan R. Millett.

At the beginning of their new book, Mansoor and Williams suggest that The Culture of Military Organizations is intended to address some of the shortcomings of Military Effectiveness: “In the three volumes of Military Effectiveness, focused on World I, the interwar period, and World War II, editors Allan R. Millett and Williamson Murray . . . posited a number of factors influencing military effectiveness. . . . But organizational culture was not an explicit element of the study and chapter authors, for the most part, did not address it.” This is excessively modest; certainly, I read that collection as a disquisition on military culture. Nevertheless, Mansoor and Murray see the current volume as a corrective to that study.

Like Military Effectiveness, the current volume is a scholarly work, but the editors also have a professional practitioner in mind. They do not merely want to interpret military culture but to change it: “One of the purposes of this book is to help military leaders understand how organizational culture forms; the influence culture has on organizational functioning and the development of strategy, operations, and tactics; and how culture changes.”

Mansoor and Murray are correct to address the question of military culture because it is vital to military performance and effectiveness. They are also equally justified in noting the complexity of the term. Because its connotations are multiple, it is a difficult term to apply with any analytic rigor. However, Mansoor and Murray propose a plausible definition of culture at the beginning of the work. They define organizational culture as “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.” Organizational culture refers, then, to the often unacknowledged stocks of shared understandings and to the habitual collective practices of military personnel. Culture unites the armed forces.

On the basis of this definition of culture, Mansoor and Murray identify a predicament in which all military organizations find themselves. Since they must order their personnel to kill or, potentially, be killed, armies, navies, and air forces have to be highly cohesive organizations; they must be unified like no civilian company. Yet, ironically, the military requirement for dense culture integration threatens to undermine them. Precisely because they must be so bound to existing hierarchies, established traditions, and internal commitments, military forces often ignore or wilfully misinterpret their enemies and the threat they pose. Frequently, they reject innovations which in retrospect prove vital because they seem to jeopardize order, discipline, morale, cohesion, and entrenched organizational interests. Like Achilles, the armed forces are tragic organizations, fatally compromised by their very virtues.

Every chapter in this book describes this predicament through colorful historical explication. For instance, David Kilcullen discusses how, in Mogadishu, at 1620 on October 3, 1993, U.S. Task Force Ranger had completed its mission to capture Somali militia leaders when a Blackhawk helicopter crashed over the city. Instead of simply returning to base, the convoy detoured to the crash site to save the pilots and crew. In the following 26 minutes, it suffered 50 percent casualties as it engaged in furious firefights in the city streets. Kilcullen notes, “Rational military decisionmaking is not a sufficient explanation for behavior in what was later dubbed the ‘lost convoy.’” Yet culture may. Bound by an ethos that no Soldier would ever be left behind, U.S. Rangers and special operations forces felt obliged to try to rescue comrades rather than complete their mission. The very cohesiveness of these elite forces led to mission failure in those streets of Mogadishu.

The Culture of Military Organizations is replete with insights like this. It explores the predicament of the armed forces from a diversity of fascinating angles. Particular high points include analyses of German (Jorit Wintjes), North Virginian (Mark Grimsley), Indian (Daniel Marston), U.S. Marine (Allan R. Millett), and U.S. Army culture (Peter Mansoor). Most of the chapters in this book use a narrative historical method rather than a critical, analytical framework, and the collection may, therefore, have benefited from drawing more explicitly on sociological and anthropological literature. In particular, although the infamous 1991 U.S. Navy Tailhook scandal is discussed insightfully by John Kuehn, questions of gender, race, and ethnicity might have been addressed more systematically.

Mansoor and Murray want this collection to be useful to military professionals. It will undoubtedly be of the greatest utility to the brightest and most inquiring officers. However, readers should be under no illusion. This is a scholarly work of the highest academic credentials that military scholars will find both deeply interesting and useful. JFQ