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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Fragments from a War Diary, Part #60



When working in close proximity to the front line of an active war zone, it is common for civilian and military personnel, irrespective of their roles, to work together and everyone comes to adopt a series of core values of respect, trust and mutual care for the other within a framework of strict timing and military order. Working with the military is a distinct experience unlike anything else and once you have experienced military discipline it tends to change the whole way you think about living and working as you hive off time into distinctive segments each day and allot set time period to specific periods of labour or leisure.


What happens on or near battlefields is not generally rocket science (except perhaps literally, but even missiles are flown by computers these days so rocket science is a lot more straightforward than it used to be) but does require precision and exactitude. Generally things are being done on a large scale. So you find yourself getting up at the same time each day, arriving at your duty station at the same time each day, and so on and so forth. Life becomes regimented. You can expect to perform a series of tasks but you also need flexibility when things change, people go missing, people become sick or wounded, or some contingency arises - such as this morning, when I was pinned into my hotel by reason of Russian cruise missiles that had slammed into Kharkiv city centre, causing building damage over several blocks - that disrupts your plans. In both military and civilian life on the front line, you get used to contingencies of this kind and you learn to work around them. This often means that you end up performing a task you were never trained for. And indeed that is often how you learn new skills: on an ad hoc basis, as you are suddenly required to perform a new function.


I have learned over the last few weeks that effective management of teams in a military environment is rather different from managing teams in a more academic or intellectual office environment. In an office, assuming that your staff are reasonably skilled, the most effective form of management involves making it clear in general terms what each staff member ought to be doing, and how each staff member ought to interact with the other; and then leaving the staff member to get on with the task within a fairly wide scope of discretion. Micro-management in office environments is suffocating and nobody likes it. If you find yourself having to micro-manage then there has been a failure in the recruitment process or a failure in management itself - most likely by you, as the manager. The most important thing you have to do as a manager in an office is to ensure that each team member has a role that meets their specific skills and weaknesses; that they are kept busy (team members who are idle find their own things to do and this is often problematic); and you manage the relationships between individuals that may be characterised by competition and jealousy, amongst other emotions.


By contrast when you are managing a process such as making bread, cleaning vehicles or loading gun magazines with ammunition, far less discretion comes into the task and jealousies between individuals are less likely to arise because every person is doing something that in principle can be described as fairly repetitive and not requiring huge amounts of intellectual willpower but nevertheless each straightforward task has to be completed effectively. Therefore each person needs to know exactly what they are being required to do and good management involves very clear leadership, informing people when they need to change tasks and giving them initial preliminary instructions to undertake their role in the chain. They will then learn what they are supposed to be doing by watching their colleagues do the same thing. You are managing a process rather than a group of people, and it is important to have the flexibility to reassign people as you see that the overall goal - preparing 20,000 magazine rounds for firing, or 5,000 bread rolls for eating - or whatever the task may be - is being met, or you are falling behind, or you are working too fast.


In military operations, it is important that personal feelings of jealousy and competition are put aside in favour of camaraderie and mutual support, and it is essential that respect is maintained for the institutions and for the order of management. The person providing orders must be respected, and he or she must be clear, honest, as open as he or she can be, supportive, friendly, food at listening, admired when he or she takes the lead and regarded as fair and correct. That is because in military theatre, it is no good if your management structures are a pit of snakes. You are each reliant upon the other for support and for help, because any one of you may become sick or wounded at any time or you may have other personal problems and you all have to support one-another. Military environments are necessarily very supportive ones.


In Ukraine, I have watched and participated as Ukrainians and foreign workers and soldiers alike all align themselves to common tasks and the common goal which is defiance, persistence and victory over the Russian aggressor. Although many foreigners come to Ukraine offering their services in a variety of roles without much knowledge of Ukrainian culture, nevertheless the Ukrainians are generous enough to let them in their midst and I have been made extremely welcome by virtually all the Ukrainians with whom I have worked, even where there have been significant language barriers. Granted, I may know Ukrainian culture better than many, having worked with and visited Ukraine over a number of decades. Nevertheless the Ukrainians have shown real warmth in working with me and other international colleagues in a series of essentially military operations.


This sense of camaraderie and participation in a common set of goals, not working in competition with one another as though in a vitriolic modern office but instead working with discipline, is essential for every NGO, private company, military unit and public organisation. We all have to work in unison in bringing a varied range of skills and training to the common workplace. These are some of the most important lessons of working in military theatre and they are lessons that stick with you for life. You never forget the people you worked with in a war zone. Their faces, characters, voices and quirks stick with you forever.


There is a serene quiet outside. After this morning’s missiles, the alarms and sirens have stopped. The centre of Kharkiv is suddenly empty of traffic. After the tense anxiety of the streets this morning, and a full day’s physical labour for me, the sun has come out, the streets have come to life, couples are holding hands and walking down the tree-lined avenues, and a sense of normality has returned to the air. It is Friday evening, I can hear birds chirping elegantly in the distance, and I am going to find a glass of golden beer. But not for too long. I have a strict window for recreational activities, and then my work schedule begins again first thing tomorrow Saturday morning. The most important things in war zones happen in the mornings, so a heavy Friday night out is not on the cards.

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