The Voices of War

60. Dr. Tony Ingesson - On Military Sub-Cultures And Their Impact On Behaviour

VOW 60 | Military Sub Cultures


My guest today is Dr. Tony Ingesson, an Assistant Professor of Intelligence Analysis at the Department of Political Science at Lund University in Sweden. His current research interests are decision-making, organisational cultures, and the technological aspects of intelligence and counterintelligence. For his Ph.D. dissertation, Tony studied tactical decision-making in high-stress situations in several military units conducting operations in wars ranging from WWII to the UN mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the early 90s.

He joins me today to discuss organisational culture, sub-cultures, and their impact on group behaviour.

Some of the topics we discussed are:

  • Tony’s background and service in all three arms of the Swedish Armed Forces
  • Conscription in Sweden
  • Cultures within Armed Forces
  • Defining ‘culture’ and its influence on behaviour
  • Culture as a tool for management of ‘Stress’ and ‘Uncertainty’
  • The role of symbols and tradition
  • Nordbat 2 in Bosnia and Herzegovina
  • Swedish ‘Mission Command’ and its origin
  • Reality of war in Bosnia and Herzegovina
  • Nordbat 2 in combat despite restrictive UN Rules Of Engagement
  • Swedish high-trust culture and its impact on the Swedish Armed Forces
  • Training against bias in intelligence analysis
  • Why members of a military are not ‘professionals’
  • Exploring whether we are asking too much from our soldiers


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Dr. Tony Ingesson – On Military Sub-Cultures And Their Impact On Behaviour

Before we get to the next episode with Dr. Tony Ingesson about military subcultures and their impact on behaviour, I want to say thank you to the many of you who have read my monologue published on World Refugee Day, about my own experiences of war as a child in Sarajevo. Discussing something so personal did not come easy, but I’m glad that I did for two reasons. 1) It’s only fair that those who choose to read the show get a better sense of my own motivations behind creating it. 2) Sharing my own thoughts and experiences in such a public manner feels almost cathartic and even cleansing. Thank you to everyone who has taken the time to read, and a special thanks to those who have reached out in one way or another.

The fun thing I want to do before we get to my chat with Tony is to thank my two Patreons. Thank you, Marcus and Marion. The former is supporting all the way from Norway, while Marion has opted to double the recommended donation of $5 AUD. Thank you both sincerely. To know that there are people out there who not only read the show but also wanted to grow, it warms me immensely. Let’s get to my chat with Tony, which proves very insightful and enjoyable.

My guest is Tony Ingesson, who is an Assistant Professor of Intelligence Analysis at the Department of Political Science at Lund University in Sweden. His research interests are decision-making, organisational cultures, and technological aspects related to intelligence and counterintelligence. For his PhD dissertation, Tony studied tactical decision-making in high-stress situations in several different military units conducting operations in wars ranging from WWII to the UN mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the early ‘90s. Interestingly, prior to his academic career, Tony served in all three arms of the Swedish Armed Forces. He joins me to discuss organisational culture, subcultures, and their impact on group behaviour. Tony, thanks very much for joining me on the show.

Thank you.

You have an amazing background. I can’t go past without asking about your service in all three arms of the Swedish Armed Forces: Army, Navy, and Air Force. What made you join the Swedish Armed Forces in the first place, and then how did you end up serving in all three arms?

It’s a strange story. Most of it is a random chance more than anything else. Back when I was in my teens, I joined the Air Force Volunteers because I liked aeroplanes, and that was a good way to get close to aeroplanes. I was there for a few years, which was a useful experience. The time came for me to get drafted because we have conscription, and we also had conscription back then.

When I was doing the tests and all of these things before the draft, I applied for the Air Force for Intelligence. I had some backup ideas about being a tanker. None of that worked out because I had glasses, so I couldn’t be a tanker because I had to have perfect vision for that. I never heard backup about the Air Force Intelligence application. After a few of these weird turns of events, I ended up in Army Explosive Ordinance Disposal.

It was the old conscription system. If they had a vacancy and they thought you might be a somewhat good fit, they would just put you in there and notify you. It wasn’t a lot of a choice involved. I went to EOD, and I became a specialist there, as they were called, so we had a little bit longer service than regular conscripts.

How long?

This was ten months. If you were just a private conscript in a regular position, you had 7.5 months, and 10 months was for squad leaders, but we weren’t squad leaders, but we had to have some extra time just to get through the technical stuff. You also have 12 and 15 months for higher command positions. In ten months, it worked out nicely for me. I liked the theoretical part. You had to learn a lot about different weapons systems, fuses, and explosives. I got to blow up stuff. It was fun. Before I was due to get discharged, this guy shows up from the Air Force and asks my platoon commander. He says, “I want one guy to work for me in the Air Force. Can you make a recommendation?” My platoon leader recommended me.

The guy from the Air Force whom I’d never met just asked me, “How about you come to work for me after your discharge from the Air Force?” I said, “Sure. I don’t have anything else planned. That sounds good.” I ended up in the Air Force, and we had to create this new unit, this function that didn’t exist before. I had to find information on air-launched munitions, missiles, bombshells, cluster munitions, and rockets, you name it. I had to find this information, and then I had to assess the quality of the information, analyse it, and get into what are the dangerous parts of this from an EOD perspective. That’s why he wanted an EOD guy.

It’s like how much explosive is in this missile or this rocket? That’s important. You have to calculate the blast radius if you are going to blow it up. How do diffuses work? Are they dangerous to approach? How much of the propellant charge do you have to calculate for stuff like that? How do you identify this thing? Not all of this information was readily available, especially not for foreign systems. Our EOD people are being deployed all over, they might find all sorts of things. We had people in Kosovo, Bosnia, and Liberia. Liberia wasn’t that hot in terms of air launch ammunition stuff but Kosovo, definitely was.

I had to input all this information and database, and then I had to function as an advisory function so people could call me or send pictures of whatever debris they had found. I identify what the weapon is, and then I could send them schematics and data on how much explosives and all that. Not tell them what to do, but give them information so that they could make an informed decision on how to deal with this thing they found.

That’s your Air Force tick in the box. You also did some time in the Navy.

I left the Air Force after a few years because we had budget cuts coming in, and things were looking a bit grim, and I didn’t want to relocate. While I was young and I was a bit worried that I might end up being in my 30s with skills that had no real use in the civilian sphere, and then regretting my life decisions. I decided to get out instead while I was still young enough to pursue another career. I went to Lund to study Peace and Conflict Studies originally. I ended up in Political Science. I was only supposed to stay for 3 years, but I ended up staying for 5 instead. I got a double Bachelor’s Degree in Peace and Conflict Studies and a Master’s Degree in Political Science.

That was right in the middle of the financial crisis. It was 2009. The job market wasn’t looking very good. I landed a job in Stockholm’s private sector job. It was okay, but I didn’t like it that much, and I wanted to do something else. I was based outside of Stockholm at that point. I’m working in Stockholm, but I was living outside. Right nearby was one of the Navy bases, and I found out that they were hiring and they wanted people with a background in the Armed Forces, not necessarily the Navy because this was a position in an underground command centre. You didn’t need to be a sailor or anything like that. They just wanted people to have some background so they don’t have to train someone from scratch. You could just add whatever you needed.

VOW 60 | Military Sub Cultures
Military Sub Cultures: The Navy wanted people to have some background so they wouldn’t have to train someone from scratch. They could add whatever is needed.


They hired me, and the collection of people was just outrageous. It was a former fighter pilot and former air defence lieutenant. There was me. It was a completely random selection of people, but we got along famously. It was great. They sent me off to train at the surface warfare school. I got trained in command, control, and communications. The naval version, radars, and crypto. Cryptography, not cryptocurrency.

Otherwise, you wouldn’t be working right now.

Fortunately, that wasn’t the thing back then. I ended up working in this underground base. Few of us were supervisors, and then we had some conscripts, and we were mostly watching maritime traffic, communicating with ships, and stuff like that. While I was just starting this job, I noticed that my old department here in Lund was looking for PhD candidates, which is an employed position here in Sweden. It comes with a salary. I spent all of 45 minutes writing this application, which was just a completely stream-of-consciousness thing it seemed to me. I got some structure into it out of habit. Forty-five minutes that I wrote the entire application, submitted it, and just forgot about it.

I was working for the Navy, and I got this phone call and said, “We looked at your application, and we want you to come down to Lund for an interview.” I was like, “I’m in the Navy now. Things have changed.” I declined the position. I said, “No, I can’t do that to my new commanding officer because he’s just spent money and time training me. I just started to become useful.” I felt bad about just leaving him dry so I said no. A few weeks passed, and then they called me back again from Lund and said, “We think you should reconsider coming for the interview.” The guy who called me up later become my supervisor, but I didn’t know that at the time.

He said, “You need to do this now if you are ever going to do it because this opportunity is not going to present itself again. This is your one and final chance to do this.” I was like, “Okay. I will talk to my commanding officer before I say anything.” I talked to my commanding officer and he was a great guy. He said, “I can replace you. You can’t replace this opportunity. You should take it. You should go.” I was still grateful to him. Off I went and became a PhD candidate and I have been here ever since. Army Conscript and Air Force doing the air launch ammunitions thing, and then the Navy doing command, controlling, and communications. That’s my three boxes.

That’s impressive. How many uniforms do you have at home?

They didn’t let me keep my uniform when I was a conscript because they get recycled.

For conscripts, that makes sense.

In the Air Force job, I didn’t wear a uniform. I was a civilian. In the Navy job, the funny thing is I never got around to getting my uniform out of the supply depot because it was something about delays. They were like, “While you are in training, just wear your civilian clothes because you are receiving training at a different base. It’s statistically difficult if you get your uniforms from that place, you should wait until you finished your training, and then you come back here. You pick up your uniforms here because of paperwork.” By that time, everything was sorted out logistically. I knew that I was headed to Lund, and I was like, “I’m not going to pick up my uniform now just to return it.” They were like, “You are in an underground command centre. If you wear civilian clothes there, it’s not like anyone is going to notice. It’s fine.”

It’s very Swedish in its pragmatism. I like that. I will ask you that question as we unpack some of these subjects. There is something peculiar about that, and that’s the Swedish culture and approach to problem sets. That cascades down as we will talk about into the culture piece of particular units. One question that springs to mind now is the conscript piece. I do know that it’s still happening in Sweden, but where are they conscripted and how many are conscripted from the general walk of life into the Swedish Arm Forces?

I don’t have an up to date numbers right now as for the situation because these numbers shift. All the way through most of the 90s, it was pretty universal. Most males would serve as conscripts. The numbers started dropping so by the time I was a conscript when I was drafted in the early-2000s. It’s the number for my cohort in 2001 and 2002. It was something like 30% of the entire male cohort. We suspended conscription for a few years and then reinstated it. They are even lower back when I was a conscript because now we also have professionals. We have a mix now of professionals, enlisted people, and conscripts. They are talking about increasing the number of conscripts as we increase the number of units again. It’s shifting, but it’s a fairly small percentage.

Now we have gender-neutral conscriptions. Now women can join under the same conditions as men. They also have to go through the draft process. Even if you are not going to get conscripted, you have to go through the draft process. First of all, there’s a process to see if you are eligible and if you are hypothetically someone who could get conscripted, and then if you are, you can go through the draft process.

Do you volunteer for conscription?

In a way. They can still force you if they want to. If you have some important skills, they can just decide that you are going to serve. Most of the time, they prefer to have people who are not reluctant to serve. You only need a small number of people, so you might as well pick from the ones that want to.

Have those people who are not reluctant to serve because you only need a few. Click To Tweet

I was in Sweden for three years up until the end of 2019. This was when the tides were shifting towards the threat from the East of Russia. Gotland was being rearmed during the time we were there. There were the pamphlets that got dropped in all of our letter boxes about making sure that we have three days’ worth of rations. That’s a status quo for Sweden, as I understood. It was the government’s initiative to check that people do have their three-day rations, which for us as outsiders like, “This is rather odd.” I’m sure we will get to the social trust that exists between the citizen and the state in Sweden.

After your stints in the various arms of the military, you then ended up going to Lund. You had a particularly very interesting PhD research, your dissertation. It was about organisational cultures and decision-making. What was it about these particular topics that drew you to take you to the PhD level?

I come from straight out of the military, and I had these interesting observations because I had served in these different places and seen these different structures. There’s a difference between the Navy, Army, and Air Force. There are also differences within the Army I noticed. Even in the company I was in, I noticed that those of us in the EOD platoon, had a very specific culture that was all of our own because we were doing something very specialised and unique. You had people who are in the anti-tank missile unit, and they were completely different in their mindset and the way they were thinking.

I even saw this hilariously play out during exercises. We were trained that you have these landmines and unexploded ordinances and all these dangers that are all lurking everywhere. You have to be careful with every step because everything can be booby-trapped and so on. We were always moving very cautiously and we had a strong preference to stay on the road where some hard surface where you can be sure that there’s nothing hidden. The anti-tank guys wanted to hide. As soon as they saw bushes or something, they want to hide because that’s their instinct is to hide and ambush tanks. This weird combat thing was going on shots were fired and no one knew what was going on in the middle of an exercise.

The unit platoon was trying to take cover or move towards our vehicles as opposed to running into cover because this is a plain instinct to not run into the bushes and tall grass. The anti-tank missile platoon was right next to us and they did the absolute opposite and ran straight towards cover through the bushes. There was one of these judges nearby that decides what happens to everyone. It was two squads of the anti-tank missile guys who had been running and they were like, “All of you, you ran into a minefield and your legs are blown off.” We wouldn’t do that but they would do that. Now look what happened to them and then we had to extract them. It was this laborious process of sweeping and prodding.

We had a great time laughing at their expense and we took our mine. This tape you have to seal off our minefield, and then we would put there around their beds and all this mature stuff you do. That thing stuck with me. Why did we act so differently in that split-second scenario? If our officers had been nearby, they probably would have given us some reasonable middle-ground order, but we are left to our own devices for that second because there was no one within earshot. There was no officer within earshot of the anti-tank guys either. Everyone was just acting completely out of instinct, the first thing they could think of.

This stuck with me why were we so different? As I was doing my PhD, I thought about this in terms of subcultures and to me, it seemed that we had different subcultures even within the same company. I thought, “If that causes us to act so differently in a peacetime exercise, how does it impact people in war? What results can come out of these decisions?” I wanted to look at tactical-level stuff. Not strategic level. I want to look at what people do on the ground when things are happening around them. High-stress combat situations, you have to rely on your gut feeling. What do people do? What consequences come out of that and how is that linked to these subcultures?

It’s a relevant and interesting topic. It’s relevant for us in Australia and many of the Western militaries over the new conflicts. Particularly in Australia, a lot of discussions going on at the moment about unit cultures that have led to alleged war crimes potentially in Afghanistan. I know that the British military and the US are dealing with some of the same challenges. I’m not sure that Swedes are in any way. We will talk about that shortly. You did look at a particular Swedish or a Northern battalion in Bosnia. Firstly, how do you define culture? It’s one of those terms. They just exist out there. The definition of it always seems rather broad and large. How do you define it in your research and your understanding?

As a point of departure, I took this broad old classic definition of culture as being this complex hole, which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society. Obviously, that’s not useful for me. I slammed it down and I was focused more on what if culture is what we theoretically call a logic of appropriateness which is the feeling of what is appropriate to do in a given situation. If you think of yourself as, “What type of a person am I?”

VOW 60 | Military Sub Cultures
Military Sub Cultures: Culture is theoretically a logic of appropriateness, which is the feeling of what is appropriate to do in a given situation.


Let’s say I’m an EOD specialist in an EOD platoon. In this situation, what does an EOD specialist do? I think back, “What have I seen other people like myself do?” What I would expect someone else to do if they were me, is based on what I have observed, learned, and absorbed socially. In a simple way, the thing that shapes my gut feeling as part of a group. My gut can tell me things individually as well, but when it comes to this feeling of what type of person I am in relation to this group that I’m part of. What would someone who is a member of this group do right now? That’s how I view a subculture or a tactical-level culture, as you mentioned.

If I understand correctly, you are saying that it’s not a cognitive process. It’s not something that I sit there and necessarily think about it. It’s a response mechanism. It’s almost like software. This is a particular software that’s running inside my mind. This software has been installed by my participation in a particular social group, and embodying and inculcating the behaviours of that particular social group, which occurs inside the EOD case. It’s through this forming, norming, storming, and performing piece of building a team, learning your trade performance on exercises, and such. Is that right?

It’s not cognitive. It’s not a conscious process in any way. It’s the thing you do when you do not have the time or the luxury of cognitively like consciously or rationally processing your options. It’s what happens when you just act instinctively or reflexively. As you said, it’s a thing that you become part of it and it becomes part of you. It’s not a static thing. It can change over time. It’s not something that is frozen. There are these things that influence this in a positive or negative direction. It’s something that’s always being reconstituted or reconstructed. Whenever you act and someone else in your group sees what you are doing, you are reinforcing or possibly even reshaping this culture.

Which is the idea that culture is emergent. It’s not a static fixed. It’s very malleable, which is how we then see particular subcultures and will get to them in a second. Particularly, how we see subcultures can potentially morph and lead down a path of things like atrocities or things that are morally unjustifiable. What you are saying is within particular cultures exist subcultures. How do these subcultures then contribute to the sense of identity and then the decision-making of members within that subculture?

It can be a positive or a negative thing. In terms of identity, you can have this strong feeling of pride, for example, that is associated with this. It’s one of the components of a unit culture or subculture. It’s not something that automatically happens. You can feel nothing for your unit or even a sense of shame, so that’s possible. In most of the examples I have looked at, it’s more common to feel more pride and a sense of belonging of some sort. This is also frequently associated with symbols or expressions of belonging, so unit symbols. When I was in EOD, we had this unique blue patch on our uniforms that stood out because like gold, blue, and stuff like that. Not good for camouflage.

We loved having that on our sleeves because you could see it a mile away, and signalled something that we were something special. We all had it, and it was a bond we shared that the others were not privy to. You have Special Forces units with their colours on the berets, insignia, patches, and all these things. Symbols that show who I belong to and how I distinguish myself from other people who are not part of this unit. What was the other part of your question?

Once you are part of a particular group, how does that sense of belonging, shape and influence your decision-making on a day-to-day whether in operations or even in barracks?

It doesn’t determine everything you do. It’s not like you become this automaton that just acts like a machine. It sits or simmers in the background. Some things you do without thinking because they are everyday tasks or priorities. That’s one area where you could see a subculture helping you just structure what you are doing, how to do it and how to prioritise.

The other part is when you are in this high-stress situation. What I argued in my PhD dissertation is that when you have two components present in a situation, one being a very high degree of stress. When you fear for your life, the lives of your friends, or the lives of someone you want to protect something high stakes or high stress. You have to make a decision now. You can’t postpone it.

The other part is uncertainty. That is you don’t know what to do. It’s not obvious what to do because you can have a high-stress situation where it’s perfectly obvious what you need to do. Your subculture doesn’t necessarily have to come into it at that point because there’s only one feasible option. When you have different options, and you are not sure what to do, and you are not sure what consequences can I expect from this action. How do you handle that? You don’t have the time to think about it, and even if you did have the time, you can’t weigh your options rationally because you don’t know what the consequences would be. That’s when the gut feeling kicks in.

The advantage of having a subculture is that when you have people in a unit, and they have a similar gut feeling in response to a given situation, they will act more synchronised or more coordinated. They will do something fairly similar. That helps the unit act as a unit instead of individuals doing all kinds of random things. If everyone did whatever they felt like and it was completely random, then the unit would cease to function as a unit. It will be completely unpredictable.

When you have this shared frame of reference, then you don’t have to look at what the other guys are doing. You know what they are going to do. It’s not a conscious thing. You don’t think about, “I know what they are going to do,” you just know it, and you act automatically in the same way. All of this is just completely reflexive. You don’t think about it, and it just happens. It helps the unit remain cohesive when it works.

You can also have a subculture that doesn’t work. You just put a bunch of random people together, and you don’t give them time to form a subculture, or you don’t give them some common frame of reference, or they have a subculture that doesn’t work. Maybe a subculture that’s falling apart because they have conflicts within the group, and it won’t work. It’s automatic. You don’t get these advantages automatically. You get them when you have a subculture that works or is coherent.

VOW 60 | Military Sub Cultures
Military Sub Cultures: You don’t get advantages automatically. You get them when you have a subculture that works and is coherent.


We just had time to form and develop a response mechanism to the various situations that might occur. I like the fact that you are talking about uncertainty because of the way I understand it, even in my mind of culture. That is what culture is. It develops to help you deal with the uncertainty of your fellow compatriots in your social group.

The reason we shake hands is to reduce uncertainty. “This person is friendly.” I remember in Sweden, being struck even though I’m broadly speaking culturally aware. In Sweden, as you fully well know, men hug as a greeting. Oftentimes without even a handshake, which for me is an ethnic Bosnian, is not a problem. Breaching of personal space is not an issue. As a Bosnian, you generally will first shake hands, and then you will hug.

The reason we shake hands is to reduce uncertainty. Click To Tweet

Whereas in Sweden, I have had a number of awkward moments where I’d go for a handshake, and the guy will just come in for a hug. We just walk awkwardly, which is exactly what culture is. It reduces that uncertainty because you have the same program so you can function. Same for all other cultural technologies that we have, whether they be traffic lights to zoom. They all reduced uncertainty about who was going to do what and facilitate coordination within social groups.

That does speak to me, and it makes intuitive sense why it’s important to understand and appreciate the existence of a subculture and then play an experiment with that subculture in how it operates in a given scenario. Based on your research, how’s that best done? I’d imagine training and trying to get as realistic training scenarios as we would for the military and in an operational setting. Is that what you have experienced or what you have found?

That’s part of it. Realistic training. There’s no good alternative. Unrealistic training is not going to be useful for anyone. Realistic training is one way of encountering these challenges that you are likely to have to cope with in a real situation. Hopefully, that will show you to what extent your subculture is able to function. If it doesn’t work, if they are friction, or if there are problems, then in a best-case scenario, the subculture will adjust to accommodate and be more effective, which doesn’t necessarily happen automatically. If you have functional leadership that helps guide the process, then that should happen. There are other things as well that are more difficult to influence and also more difficult to identify.

You have these symbols I mentioned, for example. A lot of these symbols, sometimes if everyone is very aware that this is a symbol and it has this symbolic value. Special Forces units know the value of symbols, for example. Sometimes, this process can also be a bit more random or a bit more organic. I don’t think anyone thought about these patches we had, that they would have this symbolic value.

It automatically happened that way because it was important to us. Our commanding officers didn’t necessarily think all that much about it because they always had these patches, but for us, there was new, and it was something we had to take a test for, and it was a sense of accomplishment.

Sometimes you have these historical pasts that a unit clings to, not necessarily in a formal sense, but it could be something that seeps through from generation to generation, either positively or negatively. One of the cases I looked at was German submarine captains during World War II, and they had this very powerful inference from World War I because they had these role models and predecessors who had done something quite similar to what they had been doing. They felt that they had been quite successful. These predecessors. They wanted to emulate and improve on this example. This aggressive or more pretty ruthless submarine warfare where you hide and then you attack civilian targets even though these targets will be merchant chips.

They would be legitimate targets of war, but they were still civilian defenceless ships, but they had this hunter instinct that grew out of this legacy. The Americans didn’t have that because the Americans didn’t have this historical experience of fighting against an island nation attacking its lines of supply. They had different ideas about escorting surface competence or maybe just going on recon. They had lots of different impulses but didn’t have this single idea of a purpose and a tradition to guide them that the Germans had. The Germans were very aware that they would reinforce this very systematically.

Being the commander, he had this background. Everyone knew that, and he would draw on this background. In the American case, it wasn’t obvious to anyone what was missing that they didn’t have this tradition to fall back on. It was a problem that they didn’t have this tradition and didn’t try to associate themselves with this clear purpose.

It took them quite some time before they understood what the problem was. By that time, they had started to create a new tradition, new role models, and new examples to fall back on. It’s a mix. One of the things I look at in my dissertation is that the equipment you have has an impact on your subculture because it enables you to do some things and it creates certain incentives to do some things. It makes it impossible or difficult to do other things.

You can’t have a subculture that tells you to do things that your equipment won’t allow you to do. Your subculture will adjust itself to whatever equipment you have. The Germans, you have a submarine. A submarine is extremely fragile. A single lucky shot from a surface escort vessel then it just goes to pieces. One lucky hit from a depth charge, that’s all it takes, and then you are all dead. You are also slow. A submarine is not a fast vessel. World War II submarine is not fast. It can barely keep up with a surface vessel going at cruise speed. Slightly faster than a lumbering merchant ship. Nowhere near as fast as a thoroughbred surface combat ship. If it goes underneath the waves, it becomes extremely slow, it can’t escape because everyone has a speed advantage.

You can't have a subculture telling you to do things your equipment won't allow you to do. Your subculture will adjust itself to whatever equipment you have. Click To Tweet

What do you do? You can’t just go in guns blazing because you will die. You can go for a hit-and-run attack, but you can’t run. You can hit, but you need to hide. You have these escort vessels that are dangerous because they can kill you very quickly and easily, and they can hunt you for a long time. What do the Germans do? They just instil this sense of bravado in their captains that everything is stacked against us except that they don’t know when we are coming for them. That’s the advantage we have. We have the initiative. We pick when we are going to attack, and they don’t.

They were just like, “We hide, we ambush them, and then we just attack. Even if the odds are against us, even if they are heavily defended, even if we know that they are going to come after us, we go all in. We just go in for the kill, and then we hide, and we hope for the best.” If we get out of it unscathed or at least alive, then glory is ours.

The glory comes from this gung-ho attitude or this risk-taking. It gives you the glory and the pride. If you try to play it safe, then you are a coward that’s what they told you. I have seen this explicitly. Even if you have a badly damaged submarine and you decide, “I’m not going to risk another attack with this boat because I can barely submerge in time, and they are just going to kill me, so I’m going to go back to base and get repaired.”

VOW 60 | Military Sub Cultures
Military Sub Cultures: Risk-taking gives you glory and pride. If you try to play it safe, then you’re a coward.


You will get chewed out in front of all your men or colleagues. You will get chewed out by the commander who says that you are a coward and you are a disgrace because you could operate the boat. The boat wasn’t sinking or wasn’t destroyed. You could have pulled off another attack, even if it had killed you. It would have been preferable if it had killed you because then you would have been a hero. Now you are just a coward.

The power narrative and the sense of belonging that’s infused in these narratives, symbols, or heroes. This is where the idea of leadership comes into play. This comes out strongly in your dissertation when you are writing about Nordbat 2. This is a good time to pick that up because it’s rather relevant to what we see when we are talking about the culture and subcultures of a unit that was part of the UN mission in Bosnia. I’m from Bosnia, so many of my readers have read about Bosnia a lot. Maybe the wave tops of what was the situation that Nordbat 2 was thrown into both strategically, but also tactically on the ground that they had to deal with, and then we are going to get into what they did on the ground.

Nordbat 2 was deployed in late-1993. The war had been going on for a while by then, and it wasn’t new. The people fighting on the ground had developed strategies, methods, and tactics to accommodate the war they were fighting by then. It wasn’t like a conventional war by then. It had morphed into this very brutal civil war that we know these days. The UN had a peacekeeping mission that was supposed to keep the peace. A very important part of this was to protect civilians. One part of the assumption, when they deployed UN peacekeepers, was that there would be a peace treaty, and they would oversee the implementation of that treaty and just keep an eye on everyone. They had done many times before, but there was no peace to keep because the peace treaty never lasted.

The UN had a peacekeeping mission that was supposed to keep the peace. A very important part of this was to protect civilians. Click To Tweet

Instead, you had this fluid constant combat going on and off. You had the regular parties to the conflict. You had the Bosniaks, Croats, and Bosnian Serbs being the main parties to the conflict. You also had these roving bands that were run by warlords. Normally they would have some allegiance on paper to one or the other side, but they would be more interested in enriching themselves than anything else.

For example, they would try to control smuggling routes. They would loot civilians or just attack civilians outright and go into cities or villages and steal whatever they could and commit all sorts of hideous atrocities, and they were out of control. To some extent, they were tolerated, and they were impossible to control for anyone. They would just exploit this chaos that was going on and use it to their advantage. The UN was just trying to find some way to operate and not doing very well.

To throw an anecdote from an ethnic Bosnian perspective from Sarajevo. The local term for the UN, even in early ‘92 while I was still there, was the Smurfs. It depicts the paralysis effectively that UN soldiers were experiencing. There were caricatures, as you rightly point out, “What do you do? How do you keep the peace when there’s no peace to keep?” It was a tragic circumstance for many of the soldiers, but because their hands were tied geostrategically, that was all they could do.

It also shows an interesting disconnect because the original mandate from the UN Security Council is quite strongly worded. If that’s all you have, you can read it as something that would give you the freedom to engage in combat to protect civilians. The problem is that was a top-level document. You had this chain of command that was supposed to implement it.

They were adding all of these caveats and all of these rules of engagement that were extremely bizarrely restrictive. Simple things like firing and self-defence became this convoluted and weird process of taking steps. You cannot reasonably expect anyone to have a checklist when someone is shooting at you just to see when I can fire.

People were paralysed, froze up, and didn’t know what to do. As they didn’t know what to do, they would avoid situations where they might have to face confrontation or danger. The parties to the conflict were very well aware of this by this time, and they were using it to the fullest extent possible. They were manoeuvring around the UN all the time. Into this comes the Swedish, Danish, and also some small Norwegian parts, but the guys on the ground were primarily Swedes and Danes, mostly Swedes and Danes. They get thrown into this, and the commanding officer has read the UN Security Council, the instructions that were issued by the UN Security Council.

He’s like, “I can see that this is my mission.” You have these guys between me and the UN Security Council, but if they are going to be an obstacle to me achieving my mission objectives, then I will simply ignore them because that’s how we do things. They are not in a position to know what’s going on, on the ground. “At least not as well as I am,” thinks the battalion commander.

This is in the national chain of command?

You have both the UN chain of command, where you have regional commands and various levels. You have national commands which are supposed to be a bit more hands-off but aren’t. The Swedish military hierarchy was also very much a part of this culture of autonomy and freedom of decision making so they stayed out. They said, “It’s your call. You do what you need to do, and we will back you up.” You had a government, and they had ideas about what you are supposed to do and not.

A Swedish military tradition is that once you get a mission, you're left to your own devices to do what you need to do. Click To Tweet

The UN had these rules of engagement and all these kinds of different prohibitions and stuff like that. The battalion commanders simply decided that “I know what my mission is whatever the UN Security Council has decided, and this is what I’m going to try to do.” Whatever anyone else says is a recommendation and not an order.

Many strains pop into my mind. Especially, when we are talking about how culture is shaped, whether we are talking about symbols, language, or narratives, we can see how the UN culture was shaped on the ground or was shaped through these rules of regulations, which ultimately are symbols. They are writing and sending you a very clear message as to what you can and can’t do.

That was making the soldiers on the ground uncertain about what they can do. Increasing their uncertainty levels. Under the time of stress, they went with what they know. “This is safe. I know that I can’t get in trouble if I don’t shoot. Let’s pull back.” It decreases a soldier’s willingness to find out about the local culture, the local people, and about what’s going on in the actual local context because there’s no incentive to do so.

The more you know, the more you will care, and the more you will feel the pain of not being able to do anything. When you know you can’t do anything, then the safest thing is to emotionally distance yourself. We have seen this famously with the Dutch peacekeepers, which we can probably touch on as well, but it’s very interesting to me having seen Sweden. When you talk about this mission command as we come to understand it, what is it about Sweden and a Swedish battalion commander?

VOW 60 | Military Sub Cultures
Military Sub Cultures: The more you know, the more you’ll care, and the more you will feel the pain of not being able to do anything. When you know you can’t do anything, the safest thing is to emotionally distance yourself.


A lieutenant colonel, this is somebody who’s been in the military for arguably 15 to 20 years, has a broad amount of experience, but it’s not somebody who you would consider in the grand scheme of things. It’s not a general, not a leader of an army, not a foreign minister, not somebody one would expect to play necessarily a geopolitical role as some of the battalion commanders in Nordbat 2. What is it about this trust component that you mentioned between the Swedish government and the battalion commander or the real lived experience of mission command in this sense that’s very different to Sweden than you would say to other countries? Is it different?

Yes, it is different. There are two other examples that come close to Sweden, especially during this time period. That is the way the Germans trained before World War II. The other is the way the Israelis trained, so the Israelis did in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Those are the only two cases I know that are as pure mission command as Sweden was. The thing that unites these examples is the need to maximise the potential of every single decision-maker as much as possible. Sweden was facing this existential threat from the Soviet Union. The entire military organisation was built to fight an existential war against a vastly superior enemy.

An enemy that would have huge numbers and also a lot of advanced technology. It would probably not have a particularly hard time shattering the lines of communication, disrupting chains of command, inflicting significant casualties, and all these things. The entire military organisation has to be able to operate under these conditions. That means every unit has to be able to operate independently, but not randomly.

A unit has to be able to contribute some strategic value even if it’s cut off. That was one of the most fundamental core aspects that if your unit is cut off, you will switch to what we called the free war, which means that now you fight this war freely on your own. Engage the enemy as you see fit at the time and a situation of your choosing, but you have to continue the fight.

You do that until you can re-establish communications with superior commanders. The one thing that was completely anathema, the thing that you cannot do is to be passive. For the German submarine captain’s cowardice was prohibited. For Sweden, it was in action. In action was the greatest sin, a passivity that would immediately disqualify you as a leader.

VOW 60 | Military Sub Cultures
Military Sub Cultures: Inaction is the greatest sin. Passivity would immediately disqualify you as a leader.


Sweden hasn’t seen war for 200 years. It does come as a surprise to hear those words. Many were surprised by the actions of Nordbat 2, which we haven’t touched on yet. It might be time to give our readers an understanding of what happened on the ground to give some context to how unique this set of circumstances was and what Nordbat 2 ended up doing on the ground.

One of the good examples of this is when very shortly after the battalion, the Nordbat 2 arrived in Bosnia. They were supposed to take responsibility for protecting a hospital. It was not like a conventional hospital. It was more like an asylum for people with psychological afflictions. It wasn’t a full complex either because they had evacuated a lot of people, but some were left behind because, presumably, they were too difficult to evacuate difficult cases. They had a skeleton staff of nurses, a few doctors, and some patients, but they remained at the hospital in this compound. A very remote location in the mountains. If you look at a map, you can see how isolated this place is.

There had been a company of UN peacekeepers there protecting it before. They were due to be relieved, and a Swedish platoon was sent out to take responsibility for protecting this compound. You replace a company with a platoon. The numbers are not in any way comparable. Some of the parties to the conflict were watching this play out, and they waited for the company of peacekeepers to depart and for the Swedish platoon to arrive, and then they mined the access roads because this place was difficult to reach. It was pretty easy to mine the access roads. Now the Swedish platoon is cut off from reinforcements, and then they issued an ultimatum, which is also a common tactic for them.

Issued an ultimatum that it’s not immediately obvious what they want to do, so they just said, “Hand over the Muslim nurses, that’s all we want. Give us the Muslim nurses, and we will leave you alone.” What are they going to do with the Muslim nurses? That’s very deliberately left out. They know how the UN peacekeepers operate by now. They want to give them a way to some deniability.

They say, “They only wanted to take them captive,” or we didn’t know they were going to kill them or rape them. That’s deliberately vague, but the Swedes say, “Absolutely not. We are protecting this compound. You get nothing.” They are surprised by this because they have this enormous advantage in firepower and numbers surrounding the hospital complex. They know that the Swedes have no reinforcement that can get to them quickly.

They start shelling them with mortars to increase the pressure and see if they can get them to cave. The Swedes are just like, “No. You are going to fight. You are going to get a fight then.” They take up positions on the rooftops, and the platoon commander radios back to the battalion commander, and the battalion commander says, “It’s your call. You are the one on location, and I’m not.” The platoon commander says, “Okay. We will do whatever it takes. We are not giving in. You have to go to full combat alert, prepare for battle, and if they come, we will fight them for as long as we can.”

They take up positions, and the radio equipment gets shattered by mortars, and they just crawl out to fix it, and they remain in positions throughout the entire night. This unit with that issue, the ultimatum, they don’t know exactly what to do anymore, so they try to adjust the ultimatum, which is also a very common tactic.

They say, “We are not going to tell you that you have to give us the nurses. Give us access to the compound. Let us inspect the compound, and then we will leave you alone.” This is a way to infiltrate the compound, and by then, it would be impossible to fight them. They would be mixed up, and they would be too close and everywhere.

The Swedish platoon commander understands this. He says, “No, you are not coming in. There’s nothing to discuss here.” They remain prepared to engage. Finally, this unit that issued the ultimatum gives up because they have no interest in taking any casualties. They don’t care about the Muslim nurses or anything. They want to exercise power, but they are not willing to fight a platoon to the death just to see what happens after they win.

Not prepared for the wrath that’s coming down.

They also know that threatening you and peacekeepers, that’s fine. If a few of them perhaps are killed in something that you could make look like an accident, that’s also fine. Deliberately, slaughtering an entire platoon, that’s going to lead to some consequences and they don’t want that. They just depart. They leave and the Swedes have won. This was one of the early events that became part of the tradition that would grow out. That was something they could take pride in. They were willing to stick it out to protect people and risk their lives against this vastly superior adversary.

That is tied into this Swedish military tradition from the Cold War of being prepared because they were always trained to fight someone who is vastly superior. They were never trained to fight someone on equal terms because the Soviets would always come in these monstrous numbers and they would control the skies, bomb everyone, and decimate your unit, but your unit would continue to fight until it was rendered completely ineffective.

I can ensure to respond that the Australian Army espouses the idea of mission command. I can think back to elements of not operations I was involved in, but operations that the Australian military has been involved in where mission commanders were exercised. One of the things that we can’t forget is that this was in the early-‘90s when we didn’t just send armies onto expeditionary invasions. This is pre-Afghanistan, pre-Iraq, and pre-Syria. This is when we were enjoying the peace dividend poster fall of the Soviet Union. The West, broadly speaking, didn’t want to go to war anymore. Militaries were reducing their budgets left, right, and centre, and Bosnia was a thorn in their side.

It was not a quagmire they were willing to bloody their troops on. There wasn’t a lot of political will for most of the militaries that were there at the time until it switched to NATO and ISAF toward the end of the war. I say this only to draw a distinction because my readers might say, “That wasn’t that unique. They stood up to protect civilians.” That was very unique for Bosnia at the time and stood out. The battalion commander set the tone of the unit because he also flew into Bosnia pretty up-gunned. He demanded something very different to what normal units were having in Bosnia.

There are still stacks of academic literature from this era from the ‘90s that said that Western countries cannot accept any losses. Ten guys get killed, and they will pull out of the country. They don’t care. They are not going to take any risk because you had the Americans in Somalia with the Black Hawks, and a few dozen guys get killed and dragged through the streets, and it’s the most outrageous scandal in the decade. It was unprecedented. The other thing was that the experience of peacekeeping missions was modelled after the Middle East, where you could just sit and stare at completely static lines of people looking at each other across no man’s land, and that was it.

That was what they were expecting. You don’t need heavy weaponry for that. They thought that an APC would be fine in case something happens from the UN perspective. The battalion commander was like, “No. This is a war zone I’m going into. I’m not going to go into a war zone equipped with anything less than what I would have at home in a war zone. I want a tank company, for starters. A Danish tank company with Leopard tanks. I want my infantry fighting vehicles that we use at home with their 20-millimetre automatic cannons. We are going to bring machine guns, anti-tank guided missiles, mortars, and everything I would have in a mechanised battalion. That’s what I’m going to bring.”

They were like, “This is outrageous. You can’t bring tanks to Bosnia. That’s absurd.” He was like, “I am because I need those tanks, or I’m not going.” He was doubling down. He said, “I know the Danes have these tanks, and they have been upgraded. They are state-of-the-art tanks, and I want them.” If the infantry fighting vehicles, the politicians tried to say, “We don’t have that many to spare.” He said, “We have huge numbers for mobilisation in case of war, so I’m just going to pick some of those because they are just standing around,” and no one was there to stop him. He just pulled a lot of vehicles out of long-term storage that were supposed to be used for national emergencies. He was like, “I will bring these. These will be fine.” Down he went.

The funny thing, and most people don’t know, but just as they were deploying to Bosnia, there was a question from the UN. Would the Swedish-Danish Battalion be ready to take responsibility for Srebrenica for the enclave? Henricsson said, “No. I’m not very keen on guarding an enclave that is difficult to defend, but if I’m going, I’m going to bring everything I have, including the tanks. I’m not going in there without the tanks.” They said, “I’m not a Serb. I’m not going to accept that.” He said, “I’m not going to Srebrenica without the tanks.” They asked the Dutch and were like, “We are fine. We will take over Srebrenica. No problem. We are not going to bring any tanks and nothing like that.”

For anyone who doesn’t know what happened, Srebrenica is the place where nearly 8,000 men and boys were massacred, predominantly Bosnian Muslim, men and boys and the Dutch peacekeepers were chained to their armoured personnel carriers. It was a very embarrassing episode for the Dutch military. The Dutch government paid a very heavy price. The whole government ended up resigning over it.

Henricsson, the battalion commander, saw the situation in a very more realistic light. He said, “I’m just going to base my assumptions on what happens if they are going to come after me and attack me, and I want to be able to outgun them. I can outnumber them, but I can’t outgun them. That’s one thing I can do because they don’t have tanks like this.”

He was right. The Bosnian Serbs were not very keen. No one was very keen on these UN tanks, but he got his tanks. In the end, that turned out to be a very important asset for him. Another one of these examples is when the Bosnian Serbs tried to bait the tank company by firing mortars at a Swedish observation post because they knew the tanks would drive out to assist, and they have prepared this ambush with concealed guns in missile positions.

Tanks drove out. They started shooting at the tanks. They were expecting the tanks to fall back and then stay within the compound, but that’s not what happened. The Danes just went berserk and started shooting up the hillside targeting all the positions. The orders were to destroy all the positions, the guns, and the anti-tank missile positions. They fired off 72 main gun rounds and wiped out the Bosnian Serbs. One of the stray gun shells from one of the tanks hit an ammunition depot on the other side of a hill and set it off, and it was a huge explosion. The Danes estimated that possibly somewhere around 100 to 200 even people were killed.

The Bosnian Serbs denied all of this, but they learned their lesson because the Swedes and Danes were like, “If they push us back once, they will just keep going. We can never back down. If they start shooting, we shoot back. If they shoot, we shoot even more.” The UN command went ballistic over this. They asked the Danish commander of the company, they said, “Why did you fire off 72 main gun rounds?” He said, “I didn’t have any more.”

That would have gone down into legend. What a response. That’s fantastic. There’s something important here, and that’s the relationship between the military and politics or the executive arm of government. In democracies, the military does what it’s told to do by the city government. That’s just how it is. That’s part of the military’s role is to be responsive to the government’s needs. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems at least to me unique the relationship between the Swedish military chain of command and Swedish politicians that the actual real intent is provided but how the mission is to be done is not dictated by the politicians which I can’t see that happening in Australia.

If I think back even to our deployment to Afghanistan, and many have said that this is nothing new, because of political sensitivities, we employed Special Forces ultimately to do the role of what our basic infantry is trained to do. We didn’t have the political stomach to have infantry soldiers die, but if it’s a Special Forces soldier that dies while they were doing special high-risk stuff, generally, we might be more accepting of that. How do you feel about that? Is that rather peculiar to Sweden?

We have to keep in mind that the Swedish politicians during the Bosnia mission tried to micromanage. They tried to do what the Dutch did do because they didn’t have the stomach for this thing either. Nobody did in Europe at the time. The Brits were a bit more tough but most of the other ones not so much. They tried to micromanage, and the battalion commander interpreted this as “They have given me a mission, so that’s what I’m going to do.” He didn’t make up the mission on his own. “They gave me a mission, and this is the mission I’m going to work towards. If they try to micromanage me, I’m not going to listen to that.” That’s also a Swedish military tradition that you get a mission, and then you are left to your own devices to do what you need to do.

When the Swedish government tried to issue orders or micromanage, he would tell the radio operator that the radio is now out of order for how many hours he needed. After five hours, the radio will be back in order, and then you will notify Stockholm of what I have decided and what I have done, and then they will know. If they try to tell me what to do, the radio will mysteriously cease to function again. This is the game he played.

That’s part of how Swedish mission command is that if someone gives you an order and you think it’s wrong because it will not help you accomplish your mission objectives, then you should ignore that order. You can break that order. That’s fine. You will be held responsible for the outcome, but it’s fine. It’s expected to break orders. If you, as the commander on location, think that this will be detrimental to the achievement of my mission objectives, then you should disregard that order.

It’s extraordinarily trusting also in your subordinates that they are trained, intelligent, and understand enough. Nordbat 2 was famously largely ex-conscript volunteers. To what extent does that have anything to do with the Swedish mentality that these aren’t necessarily “professional soldiers,” I do want to get to that. Conscripts who then volunteered to join the full-time military. Most of them arguably had another life or did something else previously and had a completely different profession. I used that term specifically because I do want to get to this definition. To what extent do you think has even now an impact on the mindset of the Swedish military?

To some extent, there’s some influence here of Swedish high-trust society but it’s more than that. It’s also this element of responsibility that it’s, “I trust you to act, but you are also responsible both for your actions and to make sure that you do act because if you do not act, I will hold you responsible as well. You need to act.” As I said, doing nothing is the most inexcusable sin. If you make a mistake, fine, we will forgive you, but we can’t forgive you for doing anything. That was part of it. This culture entrenched itself during the last decades of the Cold War in Sweden.

By the ‘90s, it was at its peak. Probably the most purely refined version of this existed. It was a strange coincidence that this is exactly when Nordbat was deployed. If we look at it now, there’s this debate going on in Swedish military circles about how good are we at mission command or if are we just talking about mission command as if we are still this good at it.

The organisation is much smaller. We have these more contemporary management systems that every large organisation has these days. We have more networked sensors and higher situational awareness for higher-ranking commanders. There’s been this debate that all these things may go against the spirit of mission command, which is not to interfere.

The more you know, as a senior commander, the more tempted you might be to start to interfere, which is what you are not supposed to do. The debate is raging, and some people think that we are not as good at mission command as we were back then because we have allowed it to become more diluted and something that we are probably still pretty good at it, but at least there’s a debate. We have an expectation of ourselves to be good at this because it’s such an important part of our tradition. It’s difficult to say because we have units now that have served in Afghanistan, served in all kinds of places in Africa as well and been engaged in combat operations, and expecting that as well.

VOW 60 | Military Sub Cultures
Military Sub Cultures: The more you know, the more tempted you might be to start interfering. You’re not supposed to do that as a senior commander.


We still have very capable small units fully capable of mission command. This mission command culture that we had in the ‘90s went all the way to the top, so even people at the very highest levels of command were completely saturated with mission command and willing to accept. You had the head of the Swedish Army told the battalion commander, “This is your show, and you will run it as you see fit, and I will back you up.” I’m not sure that we have that mission command anymore. That’s hard to tell.

Hopefully, we don’t need to find out anytime soon, given what’s happening just east of you. It’s important to also highlight what you mean by Sweden being a highly trusting society. A personal anecdote with the personnummer, the personal number in Sweden, which everybody, my partner and I had. Through one personal number, you can go and find out everything about the person, including where they live, and what their phone number is. You can get a bracket of their income. Through that personnummer, you order everything. I remember moving into a new apartment. It’s andrahand. The rental system in Sweden confusing, to say the least.

You use your personal number to go and get internet, and the next day you get a package in the mail with your modem. It’s all up and running. The billing system is working against your personal number regardless of your address. It’s an exceptionally efficient system. If you mention to people in Australia, “Here’s my personal number through which you can find out everything about me, including my address, my salary, my phone number, family members where I work, and what type of work I do.” People will freak out because of various privacy concerns and the narrative or the culture that exists around trust. Famously we have seen it as well with COVID, where Swedes went the other way to the rest of the world.

It was rather loose rules and restrictions. That’s an important piece of this culture within which the military is a subculture within which Nordbat is another subculture that found itself in the circumstances of Bosnia. Within Bosnia and Swedes, we were held in legendary esteem because of their behaviour during the deployment. An important question for militaries broadly is, what are the conditions necessary in your view and based on your research for successful mission command?

If you want to achieve this pure mission command, first, you need trust. I’m not sure you need a high-trust society, but you need to have a high-trust organisation. I say that because the most paradoxical, strange example and the original example of mission command is from Nazi Germany. That was not a high-trust society. Not one that allowed for much individualism or individual initiative and stuff like that, but somehow it did work in the military context because the military organisation was simply different. You need to have a military organisation that has that trust, that it trusts subordinates to do the right thing but also tells them that they need to do the right thing. They need to act that being passive is not an option.

There are two sides of the coin. You give them the freedom to act, but you also demand that they use that freedom to act. You are held responsible for everything you do, and within reason, you will be forgiven for doing the wrong thing as long as you try to do the right thing. Simple orders. Avoid the temptation of micromanagement. Sometimes, it’s fascinating to see American things, orders, or manuals, they are so verbose and extremely detailed, and then you have a Swedish manual or the thing you would give to a soldier. We have hand-drawn figures of people doing things, and then you have a few pages and that’s it.

VOW 60 | Military Sub Cultures
Military Sub Cultures: You have to give your subordinate the freedom to act, but also demand that they use that freedom to act.


Keep it simple because they will figure out the rest. You don’t have to tell them exactly everything and every detail. It’s better not to. Orders should be as simple as possible. Tell them what you want and let them do it. Don’t try to micromanage, and that goes for everyone. No one should try to micromanage anyone.

Give them as much autonomy as possible, and you have to do it to people who are very junior as well because as they advance through the ranks, they should have this mindset already ingrained in them. You can’t micromanage them when they are second lieutenants and something, and then expect them to become completely independent by the time their majors. Shifting is difficult, but if they have this mindset from the very start, then that’s all they know. They are going to be completely saturated with this thinking.

No one should try to micromanage anyone. Give your team as much autonomy as possible to do things. Click To Tweet

Now you teach an intelligence course and intelligence analysis which is a hugely important piece of the military machine. Within intelligence organisations, there are subcultures. Those subcultures dictate how information is turned into intelligence, which at least in theory, should be driving operations and therefore has a huge impact on the battle space. One of the things that you try to do in your courses is to make your students who are both civilian and military, if I’m correct. You try to make them aware of group thinking and bias, which is a direct product of a subculture. Now can you talk about that a little bit, and then we can maybe touch on how to improve military intelligence analysis or what are some of the principles you try to inculcate in your students?

I have mostly civilian students here at the university. I also visit some of our government agencies to train their intelligence analysts, mostly law enforcement people, but I also meet the military sometimes. Bias is a very difficult thing to teach people about because it’s something that has a lot of negative connotations, but it’s not something that you can get rid of. It’s also inevitable.

You have individual biases. Some things are just doing these psychological basic mechanisms that everyone has, and they can have different impacts in different situations. You have group-level things like organisational cultures, groupthink, and stuff like that. What I try to teach everyone, students and practitioners alike is that, first of all, you should know that this thing exists and be on the lookout for it. The second thing you should know is that you can’t get rid of it.

I will still be impacted by bias no matter how much I know about it because you can’t get rid of it. However, what you can do is try to build organisational structures and procedures to at least mitigate the impact of bias and prevent things like groupthink and destructive or inefficient cultures. For example, you can have structured analytical methods. They are not going to fix everything magically for you, but they can help you to some extent in certain scenarios to at least reduce the impact of bias by making things more transparent, if nothing else. You can see how people are thinking, and you can scrutinise that critically.

You can also have things like devil’s advocate functions where some people are appointed specifically to argue the contrarian perspective. You have to be able to provide reasonably good answers to their contrarian questions and perspectives. You also have to be mindful of group and organisational dynamics. This especially applies to managers or supervisors, people like that. You have to be mindful of what group I am running here. What norms are in operation here? What roles are people filling? Sometimes I run these exercises, and I tell my students or practitioners that there’s a task, and they work on the task. What they don’t know is that I’m observing their groups as they work.

They come back to report the task, and I tell them, “I don’t care about the task, but here’s what I noticed about your group. Here’s something you should think about for the future. When did you speak up? Why didn’t you speak up? Did you try to reach a consensus? Did you try to compromise? Did you suggest something you don’t believe is the correct conclusion because it’s easier to reach an agreement on that? If so, what consequences can you expect?” I try to teach them awareness and a few different structured methods and procedures that you can do to at least mitigate the impact of bias. Awareness and structure are two kinds of basic tools we can use to reduce the impact of bias.

VOW 60 | Military Sub Cultures
Military Sub Cultures: Awareness and structure are the two basic tools we can use to reduce the impact of bias.


It’s incredible. All of these tools exist, whether it be in planning, intelligence analysis, or anything. These have been forged over, in some cases, centuries of knowledge and understanding. It amazes me how often we forget them, and maybe the stress of our situation makes us forget them, which is an interesting piece. We talked about it before. The importance of training and following the processes that you have without being rigid and a slave to the process, but understanding that each of these processes has been developed for a reason to try and shine a light on some of the vulnerabilities in your thinking which bias. We might not be even aware of it, but we cannot escape it. It’s always there.

My last pivot and last question I have is on this idea of professionalism. I know you have written quite a lot about the military or a military professional being almost a myth or the idea of being a professional of trade. What do you mean by that? What is your concern with the idea of a professional soldier?

I get the impression looking in from the outside that when people in professional military education talk about the professional ideal, what they want to say is, “This is what is good, and we should be good at what we do.” There are ramifications here that we need to think about. One of these things I have been arguing for years now is that, in my view, the traditional professions are usually listed as a doctor, a lawyer, a clergy, and an engineer. If we focus on, for example, being a doctor, I take the position that being a doctor is in many ways much easier than being a military leader, even a junior military leader.

If not easier, then at least different because it takes a lot of knowledge, analytical skills, common sense, ethics, and all these things to be a doctor. However, a doctor does not have an enemy that is trying to kill the doctor actively and an enemy that doesn’t care about any rules. The doctor doesn’t need to think about strategy. The doctor doesn’t have a strategic goal that may shift and change. I have the greatest respect for doctors, but I think that what they do is too different. I don’t think it’s a useful thing to compare yourself against and try to emulate, because the risk is that you will lose some of this complexity that comes with military leadership.

Those are two things. The first thing is the antagonist. You have an enemy who will try to identify your weak points, and this enemy is relentless. The enemy is always studying you. At least you have to take that as an assumption because if the enemy doesn’t, then it will be easier for you. You have to expect the worst-case scenario, and that is the enemy is constantly studying you, looking for your weaknesses, and your predictabilities. If you start to behave in a predictable way, the enemy will exploit it. The enemy doesn’t care for rules, international law, or for the Geneva Conventions. You have to expect that the enemy will do anything just to inflict damage on you. This is not something traditional professionals have to deal with.

If you start to behave predictably, the enemy will exploit it. Click To Tweet

The other is strategy. Strategy is a very difficult thing. For example, in the US, we are fighting in Vietnam, and US military decision-makers would complain that we are not allowed to bomb targets in on the other side of the border. No, you are not because that’s the strategic limit. The war does not fight itself as separate from political gains. That’s what Clausewitz taught us a long time ago. Like it or not, this is the way the game is played, and you have to accept that because war is ultimately strategy, and strategy is ultimately politics.

You operate within this political world, and that is also something that traditional professionals don’t need to deal with. It is something that intelligence professionals need to deal with. They also frequently have an antagonist and a strange strategic sphere to deal with. Although usually, it’s easier for intelligence professionals. They don’t have to cope with the same range of situations that a military leader does.

The important piece to highlight here is that in no way are you saying that soldiers are below a professional. If anything, they are above. There’s more expected, which is the strategic corporal or the three-block war. They all fall into this weight. On one block, you are a humanitarian, and you have to adapt to the cultural setting or provide food around the corner. You might be fighting an urban war, in which all of these required different responses, different mechanisms and an adjustment of the application of violence. Puts it outside of the realm of a profession that has clear rules, clear ethical norms, clear ethical guidelines, and a membership of a particular group. Some of which militaries have, but it goes a little bit beyond that.

My question to you is, are we asking too much of soldiers potentially? Especially, when we are talking about junior soldiers who we are expecting to be cross-cultural experts patrolling through the streets of Basra. We are expecting them to be able to manage sometimes century-long feuds or ethnic rivalries that exist beyond the issue. Are we expecting too much?

I don’t think we are. I think that what Nordbat 2 shows is that high expectations can yield amazing results. If you have low expectations, then you can’t expect much of anything. The Dutch Battalion shows what happens when you have low expectations and micromanage people. You need to have realistic expectations. You can’t expect you and are a soldier to make the right decision every time, but you have to give the junior soldier the opportunity to make the right decision.

As good tools as they can have and as much knowledge as they can absorb, and then you have to give them the opportunity. If they do make the wrong decision, again, within reason, try to forgive them and try to show them what they can do right next time. That will give you the most efficient military organisation. With low expectations, you have set the limit from the start, and then you can’t go beyond that.

You have said the Barlow. On that note, it’s probably a good way to end the conversation in a slightly optimistic tone. Thank you so much for your time. This is a discussion that’s close to my heart because of this idea of culture and how much a culture can shape behaviour. How understanding and investing in building and nurturing a culture that embraces and embodies mission command, which allows the troops on the ground to make the decision based on the circumstance on the ground. While equipping them not only with the right physical equipment but the mental and moral equipment that we can infuse in them. Thank you very much for your time. It was a useful conversation.

Thank you.


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