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Australian Journal of Defence and Strategic Studies

AJDSS Volume 2 Number 1

Professional military education in the context of disruption

Paul Davidson and Jane Tsakissiris

To cite this article: Paul Davidson and Jane Tsakissiris, 'Professional military education in the context of disruption', Australian Journal of Defence and Strategic Studies 2, 1 (2020): 65-76,

Published online: 21 August, 2020


Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
the blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
W.B. Yeats

In 1919, the Irish poet, W.B. Yeats reflected on the dreadful afterglow of the worst war the world had known. 1 Disruption, even if of lesser magnitude than that of the First World War, continues to pose a threat to peace and prosperity. The destabilising global impact of the COVID-19 virus in 2020 is a calamitous example of disruption wrought by unpreparedness and overwhelming threat. In any nation or organisation, decision-makers strive to minimise uncertainty amidst environmental turbulence so that their predictions may be more accurate, and thus allow better decision-making. Uncertainty is a product of disruption brought about by the demands and effects of change. The familiar rules no longer apply, and as Yeats wrote, anarchy brings chaos.

However, there is a distinction between the disruption in 'normal' environmental turbulence, even that brought on by crisis and unpredictability, and the disruption deliberately brought on by organisations as part of competitive strategy. Military leaders both initiate and respond to disruptive environments. Because of the role of disruption as both an environmental reality and on occasions an intended effect, Professional Military Education (PME) needs to address disruption in the development of effective military leadership competencies in its officers. It can do this through creating awareness of the nature of disruption and the options for response that it presents. This is not straightforward. The demand to understand disruption without necessarily controlling or removing it is counterintuitive to military leaders whose default approach is to opt for linear command, even in the context of non-linear complexity. Only by being open to the discomfort of its inherent threat, by understanding its nature, can disruption become an ally rather than an enemy.

Disruption appears ubiquitous in both the past and the present. It manifests in new forms of warfare, from unconventional and asymmetric to cyber and space, to conflict between non-state actors and nebulous forces, A shadowy enemy may be a citizen shopkeeper by day and terrorist by night. 2
The 'grey-zone' has governments and forces operating below the threshold of declared war, all struggling for legitimacy, power and hegemony. 3

The negotiated conventions of armed conflict are frequently disregarded in the fog of war, and the resulting disruption threatens the prospect of any rule-based international order. 4

This paper examines the nature of disruption and our instinctual resistance to tolerating it and proposes that an understanding of disruption should be designated as a key priority for PME.

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1 William B. Yeats, 'The Second Coming', in Jim. Haughey (ed.), The first world war in Irish poetry, (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1920), 161.

2 Eliot Cohen, 'Civil-military relations in a disruptive world', Australian Journal of Defence and Strategic Studies 1, no.1 (2019): 11-21,

3 Joseph L. Strange and Richard Iron, 'Centre of gravity. What Clausewitz really meant', Joint Force Quarterly 35 (October 2004): 20-27

4 Stephen Frühling, Defence planning and uncertainty: Preparing for the next Asia Pacific War (London: Routledge, 2014).