The meaning and importance of time for the military

At first glance, talking about time seems to be a bit of a pointless effort. As we all know, time progresses in a linear way and this process cannot be stopped or altered. If it could be stopped or slowed down, we would not have to invest in face-lifting creams or worry about our pension plans. And yet, in a philosophical sense, time does not always advance in a linear way. A sub-category of the academic discussions in history deals with exactly these matters. It is a very deep and philosophical debate and it would probably send you, the reader, straight to sleep if I went into detail here, so I won’t go there.[1] Perhaps most importantly for the military reader, this is not a purely academic debate, but one that has direct implications for the conduct of operations and fighting wars.

Author: Prof Matthias Strohn: Visiting Fellow CHACR

It took over 600 years to build the cathedral of Cologne, the third tallest church in the world and the largest Gothic cathedral north of the Alps. The people who started building the cathedral knew very well that they would not see it finished, but it did not matter to them. They understood their actions as part of an ongoing journey, one in which the end result mattered, not the beginning. Time in the modern sense of the word did not exist. Life was characterised by the seemingly ever-lasting cycle of the seasons and religious festivals. And even less mattered the time spent on this earth. Life expectancy was short and death was a daily companion. Just think of the great plague of the 14th century, which killed about a third of Europe’s population in just a few years. What mattered more than temporary life on earth was eternal life in heaven. Even the invention of the mechanical clock did not fundamentally alter this, and the time zones often changed from one city to the next. It was only the arrival of the industrial revolution which altered this. Production now had to follow a clearer schedule. The developing railway system demanded the synchronisation of time-tables, which, in turn, demanded the harmonisation of time as a measurable entity if people were to arrive on the platforms at the right time.

This changed understanding or perception of time has to be combined with another philosophical aspect: The rise of the importance of the individual. If you see yourself as a small part in the clockwork of ever-repeating seasons, in which you can detect a superior divine will, the individual becomes less important, and so does the time that the individual spends on earth. This is not the case if you accept the individual as the centre of society as we do in the west today. If you combine this with some theological aspects, especially that of Calvinism (where the ‘value’ of the individual in god’s eyes is represented by general ‘success’ on earth) you can begin to see why things like the industrial revolution were predominately driven by protestant countries. Again, I do not want to bore the reader with a philosophical piece here, so just take my word for it.[2]

Now, the question is, why does this seemingly very academic and philosophical debate matter for the Army? It does matter (otherwise I would not be writing this piece, would I?) in a number of areas. We have all heard the catch-phrase ‘we have the clocks, they (Afghans, Taliban, ISIS, etc) have the time’. Our modern western understanding of time and the perceived urgency of matters hic et nunc clashes with a more traditional understanding of time (and space) in other cultures. As we have seen in places like Afghanistan, this can cause problems and hamper a long-term development in countries that work with different time-lines. Four or five years, the political cycles of western democracies, might seem like a rather long time for us. To other cultures (and the Europeans of the middle ages) this is just a blink of an eye in the context of eternal existence. To understand this, we do not even have to venture to other continents. It is probably not astonishing that the Third Reich, which placed the (non-religious) community over the individual, was called the ‘1,000 Year Reich’. If you accept this long-term view and place the survival of the group, or as the Germans would have called it, the Volk, above everything else, typical slogans such as ‘Germany must live even if we die’ sound less radical than they do to us in the west today. Just go to Merville Battery in Normandy and you will see these words written in the wet concrete of one of the German gun emplacements there. Slogans like these and the fanaticism that come with them are one, albeit not the only, factor why the Germans kept on fighting until 1945. In the eyes of the Nazis, history would have lost its purpose if Germany was defeated and the long-term survival of the state was threatened. To avoid this, they were willing to sacrifice droves of their own people, or, as they would see it, mere individuals that counted less than the overall sum – the eternal state. The importance of this relationship between time, individual and the state cannot be overestimated. It seems that we in the west are not quite good at understanding this, because we are all moulded by our contemporary (philosophical) western backgrounds, which give centre stage to the individual in the here and now. To put it provocatively: Would we be willing to build a high-speed railway line across Britain if we knew that we will never see the trains whizzing across the country, but that the project might be finished in 600-years’ time, just like Cologne cathedral? I guess we all know what the answer is, but we need to learn again to adopt the view of the long-durée. We are not good at this at the moment. Take, for example, our understanding of war. We seem to view the end of a war as something finite. How many Second World War documentaries have you watched that do not end with the German or Japanese surrenders in 1945? And yet, history, and thus time, did not stop in 1945. The outcome of the war shaped history for the following decades and it still shapes our world today. This can take different forms in different countries. Do we in the UK really understand the way in which the war shaped political and also military thinking in, for example, France, Russia or Germany? Understanding these issues is of utmost importance, because only a good historical understanding can explain our friends’ and adversaries’ actions in the 21st century.

In recent years, this general process has been accelerated by the advent of things like the internet. Long gone are the days in which, say, the British viceroy in India had to communicate with London by letter, which had to be sent by ship. The first time that we really see this modern type of communication technology in action is during the Crimean War in the mid-19th century when the telegraph was used. We probably all saw the images of President Obama as he followed in real-time the US forces’ action to capture Osama bin Laden. The advantages of this acceleration of communication seem clear, but, naturally, there are also down-sides. We all know of the ‘long screwdriver’ which is often applied in (military) operations. The seemingly endless opportunities to get instant information off the internet with the click of the button are very useful, but they also present their own challenges to decision makers, who not only need to act fast, but need to be constantly aware of the fact that information travels quickly. This means that official channels often play catch-up in the information ‘war’ – one reason why the ‘long screwdriver’ is applied, because this seems to suggest a level of control even before information can filter through. And this, in turn, can make it more difficult to conduct operations on the ground, as we all know. This is particular pertinent for the military in the area of decision-making and initiative. The ‘long screwdriver’ stifles this initiative on the ground. In the days of old, long communication lines and protracted periods of ‘radio silence’ meant that people on the ground had to act on their own initiative in practically all areas. The on-going debate about a lack of mission-command in western armies, a perceived lack of initiative and willingness to accept responsibility and to take decisions can all be explained to a large degree by these changes. This applies across the spectrum of war and is not restricted to the military, but affects other government organisations and departments just as well.

The importance of time for military operations and planning in all its facets is being dealt with in another commentary by the director of CHACR (‘Time-synchronise watches…’), so I do not wish to dwell on it too much. Just to give you one example: We hear a lot about German ‘Blitzkrieg’ in the Second World War. And yet, when you look in more detail at German military thinking, you quickly realise that a ‘Blitzkrieg’ concept did not exist until at least 1941. So how could the Wehrmacht win the campaign in the west in 1940? The answer is related, once again, to time: The western allies, in particular the French, wanted to play the long game. It had worked in the First World War, so why change a winning concept? It was not important to be strong in the first push, but to be superior in the final push. The Germans knew that they had to win with the first push, because, otherwise they would be crushed as had happened in 1918. Hence their emphasis on mobility and tempo in all areas, including communications and the OODA-loop – which links back to the earlier point about the long screw-driver. It was not witch-craft and the Germans did not have any wonder-weapons; in fact, the allies had more soldiers and often the better equipment. It was the delta between the German emphasis of a short war, initiative and tempo on the one hand and the allies’ idea of a long war on the other that resulted in the rapid collapse of the western allies in 1940. Tempo, and thus time, was the deciding factor, and it was based on initiative. To give you just one tactical example: when the German Army had crossed the river Meuse on 14 May 1940, it took the German forces 45 minutes to reach the dominating high-ground to the south. The French counter-attack took 15 hours to develop, mainly because of a confused command and control system which stifled initiative. By the time the French tanks appeared on the high ground, the Germans were prepared. This lost the French this engagement and, some might argue, the war in the west in 1940.

As is so often the case, somewhat arcane philosophical concepts influence our lives more than we realise, and this includes the concepts of time. We need to engage with these seemingly ‘non-military’ matters if we really want to understand how armies, states and nations fight and win their wars, both in the short-run and long-term. Engaging intellectually with the questions that surround our concept of time will not result in you being able to save the money for face-lifting creams, but it will make the Army, and thus the state, stronger and more efficient.

[1] If you are interested in this topic, I suggest that you read Christopher Clark’s (of Sleepwalkers fame) latest book, in which he sums up these ideas in a concise and understandable manner. Christopher Clark, Time and Power – Visions of History in German Politics, from the Thirty Years’ War to the Third Reich, Princeton 2019.

[2] If you are interested in this field, I recommend that you read Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. It was written in 1905, but remains as current today as it was on the day it was published.


This work is strictly the view of the author, not the British Army and Ministry of Defence.