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PME is not just for Officers

The problem with being too busy to read is that you learn by experience (or by your men’s experience), i.e. the hard way. By reading, you learn through others’ experiences, generally a better way to do business, especially in our line of work where the consequences of incompetence are so final for young men.[1] – GEN James Mattis

Recently there has been a significant increase in independent professional military education (PME)-specific literature, websites and associated content. The majority of these resources, if not all, are written by senior officers and aimed at their own cohort. This is not a bad thing, but all ranks should be seeking to develop themselves further – not just those at the top driving the desks. The pursuit of professional mastery should be a necessity for anyone, regardless of rank. We don’t just need soldiers to follow blindly only knowing the bare minimum, we need them to excel in all aspects. We are creating the leaders of the future and that’s why PME is not just for the officers.

A soldier’s perception of PME

 A number of soldiers I have spoken to are unaware of what PME is, or believe it’s an officer thing, not applicable to their work. Many of these soldiers don’t make the time to read anything – other than social media. Doing ’extra work‘ during and after work hours is something foreign that eats into personal time. Being forced to sit through ’mandatory‘ briefs, training and lectures on a variety of topics is often seen as a chore, taking them away from their ‘real job’.

The younger generation, of which I am a part, have been brought up with an expanse of resources at their fingertips, yet reading – or taking on new information – is almost non-existent. I am not just talking about reading books, but also reading blogs and eBooks, watching or reading the news, listening to podcasts or audiobooks and everything in between.

What PME means to me

 In its simplest form, PME is anything that improves your personal and professional capability. I am not talking about diving into the theory and tactics of Hannibal or Napoleon – yet.

I don’t particularly need to know how to command a Brigade or about Australia’s foreign policy in South East Asia or how to train host-nation security forces – but I read about it anyway. These resources provide snippets of knowledge applicable to anyone and, if anything, enhance my knowledge of the world around me and my situational awareness.

Many resources provide excellent information applicable to everyone from the Digger to the Major General. I’ve learnt a considerable amount from the expanse of military-specific PME resources online including The Cove, Grounded Curiosity, From the Green Notebook, Wavell Roomand The Strategy Bridge. However, I also learn a lot from non-military resources like podcasts, TED Talks, business websites and personal blogs. A good fiction book or movie also does wonders for the imagination.

Don’t get me wrong, PME is well-aimed at the military practitioner and the profession of arms; however, anything that makes me a better person, soldier, husband, and father is PME to me. If I can be better in my personal life I will be better at my job and vice versa. Reading books is a great start for PME and provides the deepest context and widest breadth of knowledge in my opinion – and I always have a few books on the go at any one time. However, when life gets in the way or I am short on time I regularly check in on these websites, blogs, news, and business and leadership resources – the majority of which are accessed through Facebook (yes it’s not just all memes).

What PME for soldiers COULD be

 PME doesn’t have to be a weekly lecture in the Officers Mess or a round table with the CO. PME for soldiers can be as simple as printing out a Facebook or blog post you’ve read and sharing it with your immediate team or network. A simple soldier’s five on what it means to you and why others should hear it is more than enough to increase your knowledge, and that of your mates. You could read a book on any topic and provide a brief review on it. PME could also include a discussion on a current world event and what it means to you and the Australian Army. How about, what’s happening in Iraq at the moment and how it affects your chance of a trip to Taji on the next rotation? Maybe PME could be watching a movie. Many excellent books have also been made into movies. Most of history’s key events have featured in movies in some form, and provide a good starting point for expanding your knowledge.

The mere fact of knowing broadly what is happening in PNG, what makes a successful leader, how the Soviets lost in Afghanistan or who Clausewitz was will make you a smarter, more well-developed, and conversant individual capable of a lot more in your personal and professional life.

How to make PME a part of your day

Picking up a book is an excellent start! Military-focussed books provide an excellent start point; however, don’t limit yourself by theme. Some classic books include On War by Carl von Clausewitz, The Art of War by Sun Tzu, and Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. More-recent titles include Jawbreaker: The Attack on bin Laden and al-Qaeda by Gary Berntsen, Ghost Fleet by P. W. Singer and August Cole, and Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink. Some excellent non-military fiction books include The Road by Cormac McCarthy, 20,000 Leagues under the Sea by Jules Verne, and Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer. The mere act of reading, regardless of content, is a means of improving your knowledge and linguistics abilities.

For those short on time, routinely accessing PME websites or following them on social media provides a quick an easy way to read and learn. Sites like The Cove, From the Green Notebook, Doctrine Man, The Strategy Bridge, 3×5 Leadership, Grounded Curiosity, Modern War Institute and my own personal favourite, the Twitter account of MAJGEN Mick Ryan (@WarintheFuture). These sites all post regular content that will take less than five minutes out of your day to read with topics ranging from history, the future of war, leadership, tactics, operational successes and failures, health and fitness, self-development, leadership and even book reviews. If you can’t make the time to read a book, read a review of a book and get all the best bits in a short succinct post.

If you just can’t force yourself to read anything at all, try a podcast or an audiobook. Put some headphones on during the commute to work or listen in your car. Audio versions of the books Lone Survivor and 13 hours provide excellent accounts of recent events and the actions of those involved. There are numerous military-specific podcasts available including The Modern War Institute and The Dead Prussian. I have also learnt a lot from a wide variety of non-military podcasts including The Jocko Podcast, The Joe Rogan Experience, Hardcore History, and TED Talks.­

All it take is a few minutes a day! Then you can share those few minutes with your mates, consequently imparting that knowledge on them by “paying it forward” with PME. A smarter work environment is a more successful work environment. Successful soldiers are happy soldiers and happy soldiers achieve more. in the hopes of building a more successful and more capable Defence Force for the future, PME should not be restricted to the Officer’s Mess and should be fun and accessible to all individuals, regardless of rank.

About the author: Daniel Cowan is an enlisted Intelligence Analyst with operational experience in both Army and Navy across a variety of roles.

[1] accessed 14 December 2018

10 thoughts on “PME is not just for Officers

  1. I am with you 100% on engaging with higher level resources, but if it’s ever going to be a part of being a junior soldier then the link to how it’s going to make you a better soldier needs to be made more explicit. Sure, there’s a general sense in which the more you know the better you are at anything, but specifically, how does reading about Australian foreign policy under Whitlam in Thailand make a rifleman better as a rifleman?

    The more hands on and practical a task, the less obvious it is that knowing the broader context is important. I think that’s why PME is thought of as an officer level endeavour. That being said, whilst a rifleman might not benefit from strategic level texts, all soldiers are humans first and foremost. That means which learning about a range of human level things, perhaps with connections to higher level stuff, is going to pay the highest dividend: a text like Extreme Ownership can be applied by anyone. Meditations is about human nature before it’s about being an emperor. A book like Exit Wounds by John Cantwell exposes the reader to to the very human problem of mental illness just as much as it gives insight into the career of a general officer.

    Once you broaden the horizons a bit, soldiers will naturally develop interests in one topic or another. Reading about human nature could lead you to classic biographies or books on economics. But developing the applicable level PME for junior soldiers is important before prescribing that they learn things that will seem esoteric.

    1. Thanks for the commments! I agree with what you are saying but you are looking very deep into an introduction post.

      This post was meant to stir some thought and provide some options for those currently not undertaking any extra curricular activities. I am not providing specific study guidelines for certain jobs or individuals. That should come from units, career managers, and the soldier Corps members.

    2. That’s fair, it’s just a topic close to my heart but on which very little action is done because there is not enough direction or cultural expectation, and I think that’s in part because there has not been enough leadership explaining the ‘why’ of junior PME. Which is not to say that everyone has dropped the ball on this one – I’m sure some units or sub-units do it very well, and some corps no doubt do it better than others. Have you found that working in intelligence means you are more or less encouraged to PME relative to soldiers in combat corps?

  2. PME subjects should be aimed at teaching our soldiers HOW to think, not WHAT to think. The topics do not even need to be exclusively military, there are many facets of civilian organisational culture or philosophical topics that can be applied in a military sense.

    1. Thanks for comment Andy. My intent was to give some options for learning and self/professional development to guide those that are unaware. Educated soldiers should already know how to think and shouldn’t be told what to do in every aspect of their lives. Provide the content and some guidelines and let initiative take its course.

    2. I don’t think it’s really possible to teach soldiers how to think without tackling a particular area of knowledge. How to think in an area like the natural sciences is different to how you need to think to be successful at mathematics. Similarly history requires a different mode of thinking to natural sciences. So teaching how to think in general is either a trivial task because there are few fundamentals across all fields, or a mammoth task because the thinking modes are so varied across the full spectrum of areas of knowledge.

  3. Great article. I’m contemplating introducing a monthly TED Talk type PME thing in my section, bringing SMEs in from a variety of areas to talk to my guys (followed by obligatory cake or other calorie dense social thing). I want it to be seen as interesting and motivating, not just another random brief that the boss made them sit through. Any suggestions?

    1. Start it off as an in house thing, not with SMEs, but with diggers from your section talking about something they know and care about. After a few, bring in the occasional SME from outside to raise the level. It won’t be perfect to start with but there will be so much more buy in that by the end of it you’ll have educated diggers that are capable of teaching themselves and teaching others.

    2. Thanks for the kind words!

      That sounds like a great idea. I think the cake idea will definitely keep people around! I’d say to keep it interesting it needs to be relevant to your job or the interests of the soldiers. Not a totally obscure thing that no one understands or has interest in.

      An idea I’ve been thinking of is to have someone talk about a recent topic in the news, book they are reading, or topic of interest. Just rotate through the section as a way of learning something new and generating some discussion in something people may have otherwise not known. Also have a search for an article called “coffee and clausewitz”, by Franklin Annis. It provides a good idea for a similar way to generate discussion over coffee.

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