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Explanations for the successes or failures of militaries in both war and peace have traditionally focused on key factors such as technology, leadership, personnel, training, or a combination of all of these. A more recent addition to the list of possible variables contributing to military effectiveness is the concept of organizational culture – the pattern of shared assumptions that an organization learns as it solves problems, that has worked well enough to be considered valid, and that is therefore taught to new members as the correct way to approach those problems. This chapter combines the organizational culture concepts of Edgar Schein with the nine cultural dimensions of the GLOBE research program. The resulting model provides a useful framework to analyze a military’s organizational culture. Perhaps more importantly, the model also provides prescriptive actions leaders can take to align a military’s organizational culture with its mission and environment.
Culture has enormous influence on military organizations. One can broadly 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. Except in unique circumstances, culture grows slowly, embedding itself so deeply that members often act unconsciously according to its dictates. Because culture lies hidden under more visible organizational doctrine and symbols, one can easily overlook its power. Culture creates organizational identity and establishes expectations of how group members will act. Three important external factors impact military culture: geography, history, and the environment in which navies, armies, and air forces exist. Of all the factors involved in military effectiveness, culture is perhaps the most important. Yet it also remains the most difficult to understand, because it involves so many external factors that distort its formation and continuities, even in different military organizations within the same nation. Organizational culture will shape how military organizations respond to challenges. The hardship is that changing military culture represents an extraordinarily difficult task that may require years, if not decades, to accomplish.
Culture is a key determinant in organizational effectiveness and plays an enormous role in the lives of military organizations. Cultural biases often result in unstated assumptions that have a deep impact on strategy, operational planning, doctrinal creation, and organization and training of armed forces. The impact of culture on military affairs often remains opaque for years, if not decades, after the events it has affected. Leadership is essential to creating and maintaining organizational culture. Leaders who can shape an organization’s culture from its inception have an outsized influence on its future orientation. Leaders, therefore, must be discriminating when establishing the initial culture of an organization, for once embedded, that culture will prove extraordinarily difficult to change. But even superb leaders are limited. Selection of the right subordinate leaders is critical if an organization’s culture is to survive a leadership transition. Some military organizations do change, assisted by cultures that embrace innovation and a reasonable degree of risk-taking. Organizational culture takes on the characteristics of wider societal culture, but when the military becomes a caste apart, the result can be the degradation of its ethical foundations. Military organizations often have subcultures with significant influence on the larger organization. Technology-centric forces must not allow a culture focused on technological excellence to turn into one centered on technological determinism. Professional military education is critical in sustaining organizational culture.
Dissatisfaction with the Royal Navy’s World War I performance led a generation of officers to analyze the fleet’s wartime record. This analysis revealed three problems: over-centralization of authority, a reluctance to fight night actions, and an overly defensive use of destroyers. In an effort to correct these issues, the Royal Navy made changes to its doctrine, training, and professional military education that improved the Navy’s World War II performance, especially in surface warfare. Reforms flowed from a variety of sources, including First Sea Lord Adm. David Beatty, contributors to the Naval Review, and Mediterranean Fleet exercise. The interwar reforms reflected an organizational culture that pursued improvement and learning in response to the perception that in World War I, the Navy failed to live up to historical standards of success.
This chapter describes how the world’s first independent air force, led by Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Trenchard, reacted to the threats to its existence by maximizing the Royal Air Force’s (RAF) operational utility and financial efficiency, while simultaneously contriving a credible narrative about its future strategic potential. In pursuing these twin narratives, the RAF developed a unique culture of beliefs and taken-for-granted attitudes that thrived because of the conceptually incurious nature of the men it selected to become officers. Few of these technically able "practical men" were willing to challenge their superiors’ intuitive and speculative belief that the morale of civilian populations was especially vulnerable to bombing. Instead, like their leaders, they became consciously complicit in acceding to the societal prophecies, articulated in books, films, and newspapers, that bombing would have apocalyptic effects, and that civil societies subjected to its effects would wish to sue for peace. The chapter concludes by analyzing how this culture impeded the realization that the anticipated outcomes were not being achieved and explains how this stymied options to pursue alternative strategies.
The American Civil War presented an exceptional state of affairs in modern warfare, because strong personalities could embed their own command philosophies into field armies, due to the miniscule size of the prior US military establishment. The effectiveness of the Union Army of the Tennessee stemmed in large part from the strong influence of Ulysses S. Grant, who as early as the fall of 1861 imbued in the organization an aggressive mind-set. However, Grant’s command culture went beyond simple aggressiveness – it included an emphasis on suppressing internal rivalries among sometimes prideful officers for the sake of winning victories. In the winter of 1861 and the spring of 1862, the Army of the Tennessee was organized and consolidated into a single force, and, despite deficits in trained personnel as compared to other Union field armies, Grant established important precedents for both his soldiers and officers that would resonate even after his departure to the east. The capture of Vicksburg the following summer represented the culminating triumph of that army, cementing the self-confident force that would later capture Atlanta and win the war in the western theater.
From 1914 through 1945, the British Army displayed extraordinary heroism on the sharp end, while leadership at the higher levels was less than satisfactory. To a considerable extent, this was a result of a peculiar regimental culture that had developed over the nineteenth century when the army served as a constabulary force with its regiments spread across the empire. The result was a military culture that focused downward and that devalued the serious study of war as crucial to the development of military professionalism. The result was that at the sharp end, British regiments produced extraordinary brave and tough soldiers. However, at the higher levels, British generalship was less than impressive. The two exceptions to that rule, Field Marshals William Slim and Bernard Law Montgomery, spent substantial portions of their careers during the interwar period either as students or as instructors at the staff colleges. Moreover, both were serious students of military history.
Culture has an enormous influence on military organizations and their success or failure in war. Cultural biases often result in unstated assumptions that have a deep impact on the making of strategy, operational planning, doctrinal creation, and the organization and training of armed forces. Except in unique circumstances culture grows slowly, embedding so deeply that members often act unconsciously according to its dictates. Of all the factors that are involved in military effectiveness, culture is perhaps the most important. Yet, it also remains the most difficult to describe and understand, because it entails so many external factors that impinge, warp, and distort its formation and continuities. The sixteen case studies in this volume examine the culture of armies, navies, and air forces from the Civil War to the Iraq War and how and why culture affected their performance in the ultimate arbitration of war.