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Book Reviews

Understanding Military Culture: A Canadian Perspective

by Allan D. English

Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2004 198 pages, $27.95

Reviewed by Colonel (ret’d) Randall Wakelam

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Book coverWhen one thinks of culture, one is drawn to such things as food, music, art, literature and history. So what then is military culture? And for Canadians, what then is Canadian military culture? In this new work, sponsored by the Canadian Forces Leadership Institute, and based on research done for the Command Group at Defence Research and Development Canada – Toronto, Doctor Allan English has brought together a range of ideas that attempt to answer these questions, and then to provide a response to that classic military rejoinder: So what?

Just to give the reader a sense of that ‘so what,’ suppose, for a moment, that after years or decades of military service, or scholarly study of the military, one has not yet quite figured out how the institution fits together – how it sustains, changes, and even attempts to transform itself. If there were a simple answer to this, one would say that the military accomplishes these functions through its culture. But just what is culture? English provides a fairly extensive description, excerpted here:

“Culture, described as the ‘bedrock of military effectiveness,’ ...can help explain the ‘motivations, aspirations, norms and rules of conduct’ – what might be called the essence of the Canadian, or any other, military.

“The concept of culture also allows us to understand how new technologies may influence, and in turn be influenced, by military culture in the future.

“‘...formal doctrine is only one part of a military’s character; so too are the experience and value systems of a military force’s leaders; in fact since armies choose doctrines, doctrines may be more a reflection of the organizational culture than a factor effecting change in the organizational culture.’

“The ethos and ethics of a military organization are also closely linked to its culture, and a key part of that link is the officer corps as it bears the responsibility for creating and modifying the organizational culture of the military force as necessary.

“The concept of military culture ... enables us to examine differences between services.... These insights can help explain both the different approaches the services take to vital issues such as war fighting, leadership, and technology, and why various units may perform differently in roughly the same circumstances.”

At this point, some readers may be thinking that this culture thing is just another passing fad, with buzzwords and mysterious concepts that someone has borrowed – as usual – from the business world. Yes, culture is multifaceted, but it is not borrowed from anywhere in particular, because it actually exists all around us in every part of society, and in the institutions within which we live and work. One might also now say that it is great to have culture out there, but it does not really exist in the military. Not so, if one gives any credence to English’s concept of military culture.

English sets out to examine culture with respect to one unique and vexing problem – the so-called Americanization of the Canadian officer corps. In doing so, one might say that he is no more than looking at the military version of the longstanding Canadian inquiétude – the Americanization of Canada. Notice that, in the latter case, one immediately thinks of cultural implications – this is exactly what occurs in the military milieu as well, whether we have recognized it as such or not.

The book is organized to take the reader through a series of logical phases of exploring culture in general, then in North America, and then in its armed services. English begins by looking at the notion of culture and its constituent elements: values, attitudes, beliefs and behaviour. He then explores the emergence of the study of culture, particularly military culture, explaining how it is a rather recent phenomenon. He then looks at organizational culture, the role of the leader, the profession of arms and its association with military culture, and, finally, military culture in Canada. In the next chapter, he investigates influences on military culture through brief examinations of both the United States and Canada. This leads to two chapters dealing with the specifics of each of these two military cultures. He then shows how each service is rooted in history, and in its own parent society. The conclusion is: The two nation’s armed forces are not the same.

In a subsequent comparison chapter, he refers to work by Captain (N) Al Okros, who has concluded that American data and models are not transferable to Canadian circumstances. Even the “seminal Huntington-Janowitz models concerning military professionalism and civil-military relations” are not necessarily applicable in Canada. From this point, English goes on to look at a variety of other issues, including ethnicity, homosexuality and other issues of the wider society, as well as joint operations and the so-called Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA). He then provides extensive commentary on the effect or lack of effect these issues have on military culture in the two respective nations. His thoughts on the RMA are indicative of the centrality and importance of culture. English posits that humans use technology, and so, the use of the technology is filtered through culture. “History has shown that it is it not technology itself, but how technology has been perceived and used, as guided by doctrine, that has spelled success or failure for armed forces in the past. ... But doctrine is determined by culture as much as anything else, and so for doctrine to be useful it must reside in a military culture that can cope with change effectively.”

He then draws another fundamental conclusion: While the Canadian military, as is the case with Canadian society, has absorbed some vestiges of American military culture, there has actually been a flow of Canadian military culture into the American services. While the Canadian Forces has adopted many ideas and practices from the American services over the last half-century, in efforts to achieve interoperability, English points out that many Canadian traditions and trends have been seen more recently in the United States, including: an all volunteer force, an increasing rate of participation in peacekeeping/ peace enforcement and conventional operations, while facing shrinking resources, and, finally, the obligation to employ groups of people previously excluded or marginalized. English feels that the small size of the Canadian Forces allows it to deal with these and similar issues more easily than the American military, and, as such, provides Canadians the opportunity to “influence [our] larger neighbour.” Talk about a surprise ending!

The book is written in an easily readable style that allows the reader to take one chapter at a time without losing a train of thought. Introductions, conclusions and section headings keep the flow clean and easy to follow. At the same time, however, this straightforward structure is deceptive. There is much hard thinking to be done, as Allan English has cobbled together a significant amount of discourse that, while all concerning the same range of issues, does not fit together all that tidily. As a result, the reader will have a fair bit of work to do in coming to terms with the real implications of the book, such as the surprise ending just described. Indeed, while English proposes some preliminary answers to the limited question which he has set out to address, he has opened ‘a very deep rat hole’ for those brave enough to venture in, challenging readers to look at any or all of the issues he has identified – from doctrine to social experiments – and to try fitting them into this thing called military culture. And this, I believe, is the true value of the book. The author has ‘connected many of the dots’ that make up the military culture of this nation, and has then left it to those in the profession, as well as to those who study it, to attempt to further investigate, and then ultimately employ the construct.

Is this book important? I would have to say that it is easily on the ‘top 10’ list of anything written about the Canadian military. I make this judgment after more than a decade working in the senior officer professional development arena. The curricula of the Command and Staff Course, and the newer Advanced Military Studies and National Security Studies Courses, have never had a unifying theme, but I would happily argue that culture, and specifically Canadian military culture, is just that.

For those who profess to lead both a military institution and the people within it, this book is, in my view, a must read.

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Randy Wakelam, a Canadian Forces pilot and staff officer for many years, is currently a doctoral candidate in military history at Sir Wilfrid Laurier University.