How Western Soldiers Fight: Organizational Routines in Multinational Missions

Why do soldiers do what they do? In How Western Soldiers Fight, Cornelius Friesendorf (from the IFSH in Hamburg) argues that focusing on “organizational routines” helps explain why, despite identical mandates and similar operational conditions, soldiers from different countries tend to behave differently while deployed in multinational missions. Routines are defined as a “regular course of action learned by an organization” (p. 48). As such, routines have a number of useful functions: they allow organizations to coordinate their activities, the stabilize the behavior of organizational members, routinized behavior is cognitively efficient, and routines are carriers of organizational knowledge. Routines do not determine behavior: in that sense, they could be likened to grammar, which defines whether a sentence is correct or not, but the speaker has multiple ways to express the same meaning through different sentences. Applied to a military context, the concept of routines implies that some military organizations will be better suited at certain tasks, provided that they have developed the adequate routines on which to rely. Routines therefore condition whether a military organization is flexible enough to conduct the diversity of tasks required for the contemporary battlefield. In principle, “a perfectly flexible military force has a repertoire of routines that allows it to operate anywhere along the continuum from high-intensity combat to community policing, and to move seamlessly along that continuum” (p. 22). Of course, armed forces are never perfectly flexible for a diversity of historical, organizational and practical reasons, which limits their effectiveness in accomplishing certain tasks.


Empirically, Friesendorf demonstrates his argument through detailed studies of four military organizations (US Army, British Army, German Army, Italian Carabinieri) in three military interventions: Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo and Afghanistan. Based on a historical analysis of the evolution of the four military organizations under study, he argues that the US Army has developed limited routines for unconventional tasks, the British army has routines for supporting crime fighting and for counterinsurgency, the German army has no routines for unconventional tasks and the Italian Carabinieri have routines suited for crime fighting. These diverse “pre-dispositions” lead the four organizations to behave quite differently, in particular at the tactical level, and more or less effectively perform the multiple tasks required by the complex battlefields in which they were deployed. Overall, “the British Army and the Italian Carabinieri were better prepared for unconventional tasks than the US Army and the German Army. However, none of the select military organizations was perfectly suited for crime fighting and counterinsurgency” (p. 242).

This is an important book, which contributes to major debates in contemporary security studies, and deserves a large readership. First, the book contributes to the growing scholarship trying to explain military behavior, or rather military performance: in other words, why soldiers behave the way they do, and what explains patterns of behavior. Friesendorf’s book is then best read in parallel with Chiara Ruffa’s Military Cultures in Peace and Stability Operations (2018), which examines the behavior of French and Italian troops in Lebanon and in Afghanistan. Like Ruffa’s, Friesendork’s book is theoretically coherent, methodologically rigorous and empirically rich. The author must be commended for the breadth and quality of the data collected over several years of research: his approach, which brings the reader closer to the actual activities and practices of soldiers, is a welcome departure from a literature which previously had the tendency to look at the evolution of doctrines and, from there, infer mechanisms of military change. Looking at what soldiers do, and trying to explain why they do it, is clearly the best direction for the literature to go, and this book is an important milestone in that effort.

Moreover, the book contributes to the important literature on military adaptation and innovation. While the literature has mostly focused on key mechanisms (for example, in their Military Adaptation in Afghanistan, Farrell, Osinga and Russell identify domestic politics, alliance politics, strategic culture and civil-military relations as key “shapers” of military adaptation), Friesendorf’s approach provides the micro-foundations explaining why and how change may occur: routines shape and constrain the way the organization evolves, thus making “adaptation (…) more likely than innovation” (p. 59). Such micro-foundations could help make progresses in different fields, for example explaining success and failures of military cooperation through the relative degree of “fitness” between the constituting organizational routines of different military organizations.

While reading the book, two issues emerge which will help drive the field forward. The first issue is related to the analytical choice of focusing on organizational routines. This choice is justified by the author as an import from organization theory, which is absolutely legitimate. However, organizational routines are no longer studied in isolation, and are embedded within the study of practices (looking at the practical dimension of action) and processes (looking at the temporal dimension). It is then a bit surprising not to have mobilized concepts such as “communities of practices” or “background knowledge”, which are directly related to the way organizations learn, change and shape the actions of the individuals. As such, the book focuses on the meso dimension of the organization, but is surprisingly thin on the macro (community of practice) and micro (background knowledge enacted in practice) dimensions, and how organizational routines interact with them. The absence of theorization of such interactions leaves room for further study of military performance.

Second, and related, one might wonder the extent to which the focus on routines introduces a “conservative bias” in the study of change within the organization by overlooking other dimensions of institutional, doxic or practical change. Friesendorf is very careful in reminding the reader that organizational routines still leave room for improvisation, adaptation and transformation of the soldiers’ behavior while on the ground. But, ultimately, he leans towards continuity and sees routines as a stabilizing factor: ceteris paribus (and accounting for the differences in operational environment, equipment, etc.), he would not expect a German soldier deployed in Bosnia to behave fundamentally differently from another German soldier deployed fifteen years later in Afghanistan. He may be right, but this reviewer wonders whether this is the result of over-focusing on organizational routines at the expense of other dimensions of the (military) organizations.

This being said, it is worth repeating that this is a very well-crafted, deeply researched and important book, bridging the gap between military sociology and security studies, and making a clear and important contribution to the field of military change. It deserves a wide readership and will hopefully generate important debates, as well as receive well-deserved praise.

Olivier Schmitt, Center for War Studies, SDU (membre du Conseil scientifique de l’AEGES)

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