The pitfalls of learning from historical experience : the British Army’s debate on useful lessons for the war in Afghanistan
Title: The pitfalls of learning from historical experience : the British Army’s debate on useful lessons for the war in Afghanistan
Author: SANGAR, Eric
Citation: Contemporary security policy, 2016, Vol. 37, No. 2, pp. 223-245
ISSN: 1352-3260; 1743-8764
Why do armies often fail to transmit and coherently apply lessons from their past? Using the concept of ‘layered organizational culture’, this article formulates a pioneering theoretical argument to explain how military organizations learn from their historical experience. Analysing empirical material from internal debates within the British Army, the article observes an inherent incompatibility between lessons gleaned from, on the one hand, the Anglo- Afghan Wars and, on the other hand, British counterinsurgency campaigns after 1945. This is less a result of actual differences in the external context but of changing organizational ‘filters’: different layers of military organizational culture result in different ways of selecting and transmitting relevant lessons from warfare experience. Older and newer cultural layers can interact and thus contribute to incoherent strategy-making in the present. This argument is illustrated by reviewing the layering process within the British Army since the 19th century. The article shows a shift from emphasizing the specificity of local contexts towards the application of universal principles. This has contemporary relevance: co-existing yet incompatible historical lessons contributed to significant incoherence in operational strategy during the initial months of the British deployment in Afghanistan in 2006.
Published online: 20 May 2016.
Initial version: http://hdl.handle.net/1814/22687
Version: The article is based on part of the author's EUI PhD thesis, 2012
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