I had a cracking day at the Edinburgh Festival yesterday - blue skies, T-shirts, tasty nosh, a so-so comedy show and a great play.
The play, Breaker Morant, told of how three Australian lieutenants were court-martialled for executing prisoners and a German missionary as a way of deflecting attention from war crimes committed by their superior officers during the Boer War.
Harry Morant, the leader of this bunch of 'Bushvelt Carbineers' (commandos who make mayhem and kill behind enemy lines) was also a poet whose touching blunt Australian lines make for many a wry smile.
The play is essentially a fast-paced courtroom drama - think LA Law in 1902 army uniforms. Highly recommended.
The obvious parallel is with Abu Ghraib and Donald Rumsfeld's shenanagins, but I was also struck by another military milestone - the formation of the SAS by David Stirling in the early 40's during the Second World War.
One of the many subtexts running through Breaker Morant was the disdain that the British Army held for these volunteer Bushvelt Carbineers, who were 'irregulars' without formal army training. The army especially disliked the informality of the relationships between the officers and the men, which if you've ever worked in any antipodean organisations, you'll immediately appreciate (vs. the sometimes stilted worker/manager relationships still existing in many British organisations).
These irregulars however, were experts in their craft - living off the land deep behind enemy lines and killing Boers. They employed unorthodox and highly successful tactics; sitting Boer POWs in open carriages at the front of trains to stop them being blown up for example.
Jumping forward 40 years - David Stirling formed the SAS to operate deep behind German lines in North Africa. His unit also employed unconventional and highly successful (although not always) methods that came to the attention, and disdain, of a few senior army officers. His view of warfare 'just didn't fit' with how it 'should be done' and many tried to have his maverick unit disbanded. It took a personal intervention by Churchill to keep them going, and onto greater things.
I'm pretty sure that this scenario still plays itself out in many organisations today. Someone with a bit of passion at the sharp end of the business has a well-considered slightly risky idea that the CEO would love to see piloted. But it doesn't get off the ground because there are too many vested interests in the way.
Plus ca change...