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The Electronic Journal of Communication / La Revue Electronique de Communication

Volume 10 Numbers 1 and 2, 2000

The Postmodern Organisation



Bruce Horsfield
University of Southern Queensland

    Abstract. The study reports research on the role of communication in the constituting of an Australian ‘Special Forces’ military organisation, the Special Air Service Regiment (SASR). It is argued that democratic communication practices in the SASR largely define the Regiment’s organisational character, constructing the SASR as a postmodern organisation. The report begins by defining the SASR and its conceptual roots and orientations. Postmodern organisation is then defined as plural, flexible, and open, and as displaying "de-differentiation," trust, synchronicity and diffuse aims. The research question is then framed: to what extent do the data justify the claim that the SASR is a postmodern organisation? A list of binary distinctions between modern and postmodern organisations was used to guide data analysis. Although the SASR is structured prima facie on conventional authoritarian, or modernist, military lines like an infantry battalion, its non-hierarchical ethos makes it unconventional in the military context. Data illustrating the unorthodox communication and culture of the SASR, including the SASR Selection Course for recruits and the functional role of humour, are described and categorised, the analysis supporting the view that the SASR is a postmodern organisation

Introduction to the SASR: Concept and Origins

The Australian Special Air Service Regiment, based on the coast at Swanbourne, just north of Fremantle, Western Australia, was begun in 1957 along the lines of the British 22 SAS and the World War II Long Range Desert Group as a ‘Special Forces’ (SF) unit in order to be trained in unconventional warfare techniques such as clandestine, not covert operations [1]. SASR concentrates on how to train local counter-insurgency forces, demolitions, strategic reconnaissance, and, more recently, hostage rescue and counter-terrorist operations. However, with the changing nature of modern warfare and the scaling down of hostilities between nations and groups to "LICs" (Low Intensity Conflicts) and various other forms of aggressive encounters, SASR responsibilities have become very diverse, including peacekeeping as well as combat roles. A major current role of the SASR is provision of counter-terrorist measures for the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000. It is comparable with elite covert units such as the US Navy SEALS, the Russian SPETSNAZ, the British SAS, the Royal Dutch Marines, and other Special Forces. A main principle of elite SF groups like SASR is that a disproportionately small force can achieve large strategic success.

The Literature on Modern and Postmodern Organisations

In one sense the term "postmodern organisation" is an oxymoron: "organisation" betokens the modernist virtues of organicism, integration and unity, while "postmodern" is the trigger word of its antitheses -- synchronicity, fragmentation and dissociation. The literature on the postmodern organisation is robust, with studies in professional and organisational communication (see for example Berquist, 1993; Calas and Smircich, 1992; Parker, 1992; Clegg, 1990a; Clegg, 1991) that sustain the viability than an organization can be postmodern.

An organisation is postmodern when it has a "structure that is numerically and functionally flexible, with no clear centre of power or spatial location" (Parker, 1992, pp. 3-4). Parker (categorising his analysis as a meta-narrative in order to escape the logical contradictions of being "a postmodern author") cites Foucault in characterising the postmodern organisation as one whose rationalities:

are relative and collective. There [are] no absolute criteria for truth and wisdom inside or outside any given organisation and those "truths" that are utilized are continually subject to re-negotiation and re-encoding by others within the negotiation. Given this continual state of flux, power becomes a matter of constraining signifiers to agree on acceptable organisational aims...Their members must be less a part of an organisation than participants in the process of organising; continuing to bring new rationalities to bear on the process. (Parker, 1992, p.8).

  The postmodern organisation can take many forms, from totalitarian to pluralist, depending on the organisation’s specific practices (Clegg, 1990a, pp. 3-4). In general, the postmodern organisation will be less authoritarian, will use surveillance and supervision less, and will have internal flexibility and more worker autonomy. In contrast to modernist organisational practices of differentiation featuring centralised organisation, "de-differentiation" will characterise postmodern organisations. De-differentiation is a communal, inclusive practice which includes the "refusal to separate the author from his or her work," the "deconstruction of some, at least, of the bases of modern management," and the "concern to de-differentiate whatever categorical canons, boundary markers and judgements of taste had been erected by modernism" (ibid).

The distinctions outlined between modernist and postmodern organisations are drawn from Parker and Clegg, supported by additions drawn from the interview data, and supplemented by conceptual background from Harvey (1990), Berquist (1993) and Vattimo (1992).

The Modern Organisation The Postmodern Organisation
Specialised mission, goals/strategies Diffused mission, goals/strategies
Bureaucracy Democracy
Control through disempowerment Empowerment
Extra-organisational accountability Intra-organisational accountability
Inflexibility  Flexibility
Mistrust Trust
Differentiation De-differentiation
Conformity Creativity
Unity Plurality
Imposed discipline Self-discipline
Rank as authority Knowledge as authority
Diachronic (tradition-orientated)  Synchronic (contemporary)
Learned responses Proactive communication

The Research Question

The question to be decided is whether, or to what extent, the Australian Special Air Service Regiment can be classified as a postmodern organisation in the context of the literature, using the "thick" data made available from research originally undertaken for the writing of a television script. The data on such sensitive organisations are normally not available, and open and in-depth interviews with organisational members are normally unavailable. For these reasons, the retrospective analysis of these data from an academic viewpoint is practically and theoretically interesting.

Theoretical Frameworks
To understand the unorthodox culture and methods of the SASR it might be helpful to differentiate it from modernist "conventional" military fighting units comparable in size to SASR, such as an Australian infantry battalion. "Conventional forces provide force backed up by fraud. Special Forces provide fraud backed up by force" (Telephone interview with Lt. Col. Ric Bosi, May 1997). Clegg (1990a) contrasts modern and postmodern organisational structures. Basing his analysis on Weber and Gramsci and studies of actual organisational practices, Clegg’s work can illuminate the difference between the (postmodern) SASR and the (modernist) infantry battalion. The modernist organisation, Clegg writes, has a base of rigidly configured workers supporting "a pyramid of control designed in classically bureaucratic fashion…[where] authority would reside in individuals by virtue of their incumbency in office and/or their expertise" (Clegg, 1990a, p. 2). Control of the organisation is downwards through the hierarchy, with fixed, formal rules, "direct surveillance and supervision" (ibid), sanctions, the careful selection of new staff that would reproduce the homogeneity of the organisation, and motivation based on external rewards differentiated according to position in the hierarchy. The "hallmark" of the modernist organisation is differentiation, which is "the maximal specialisation of jobs and functions and an extensive differentiation of segmental roles," with the separation and institutionalisation of intellectual and manual work and the "ideal of the specialist-expert" as the basis for "sub-unit empowerment in the system" (ibid, p. 3). The conventional infantry battalion conforms to Clegg’s description of the modernist hierarchical organisation. Leadership is vested in the commanding officer and staff in a pyramid of mainly top-down communication. The conventional infantry battalion, such as the 3rd Battalion, the Royal Australian Regiment, currently in East Timor, normally operates as a complete battalion entity, its numbers and unified mission directly related to its prospects of military success. Orders, training syllabuses, and methods come down to the soldier from the top and officers and NCOs impose discipline. The soldiers are required to accept the training syllabus per se uncritically. Little if any access to decision-making processes is accorded to infantry soldier and independent-mindedness and individualism can be seen as threatening to the smooth functioning of the battalion. As a tightly controlled organisation, the conventional infantry battalion is a modernist system wherein the top down chain of command authorising whole battalion operations is a key organisational given, with the commanding officer and the headquarters staff the source of mission statements, doctrine and methods (cf Horsfield, 1990, pp. 40-44).

This analysis is an outcome of qualitative script research for a television documentary series based on oral history of the SASR. The project is supported by a Memorandum of Understanding between the SASR, the Australian SAS Association, and the University of Southern Queensland The project is unusual in that the security conscious SASR rarely approves outsider research and media requests. Initial approval came from the Commander of Special Forces because of the "sensitivity and balance" evident in my 1994 television documentary on the Vietnam War, Long Tan – the True Story (Letter from Brigadier J Wallace, January 19, 1996). The data discussed in this article derives from 53 unstructured, in-depth interviews recorded from 1995 to 1999 by assistants and myself with former members of the SASR of all ranks, and a small number of serving staff (executive) officers. Some corroboration has been derived from personal observations made during visits to the SASR base, and from books such as Horner’s SASR history Phantoms of the Jungle and Asher’s Shoot to Kill: A Soldier’s Journey Through Violence. The data produced included material on aspects of organisational culture and communication in the Regiment Barracks, Western Australia. The data collected have been subjected, where appropriate, to content analysis using the attributes of both modern and postmodern organisations supplied by Clegg (1990a, 1990b) and Parker (1992). The research began in 1995 and continues in late 1999 with a quantitative survey of the SASR to "test" the finding of qualitative research that the SASR is postmodern in many aspects. In some cases anonymity has been preserved for security reasons by the use of the interviewee’s initials only.

The SASR and Postmodern Characteristics

Using binaries developed from Clegg (1990a, p. 20) and Parker (1992) and the interviews were applied to a description of the conventional infantry battalion and the SASR. The examples support the view that the SASR is in many ways a postmodern organisation.

Creativity; Trust; Democracy; Knowledge

The degree to which local decision-making is validated by SASR practices is a strong indicator of a postmodern sensibility in the Regiment. In the conventional Australian defence forces there are very strict rules forbidding the soldier from modifying or tampering with his/her equipment or firearm, especially on safety grounds. However, SASR soldiers have ignored these rules with impunity. For example, in preparing for Vietnam some SASR soldiers independently modified their British World War II packs and webbing according to personal need and taste with the help of a Fremantle sailmaker. Again, in response to the jungle war in Vietnam they made innovative, radical and quite "illegal" modifications to their standard issue SLR rifles. They removed the SLR muzzle flash suppressor, reworked the trigger control to fire as a machine gun, and shortened the bolt return spring. The result a huge muzzle flame and a booming, slower rate of automatic fire often tricked the Viet Cong into thinking that instead of a small five man SASR team they had encountered a big Australian heavy weapons unit, demonstrating the postmodern SASR "fraud versus force" principle. Also, the cut-down, shorter SLR rifle was less prone to entangle jungle vines on patrol (Interview with Holt McMinn, 1997). An infantry battalion Regimental Sergeant Major who reported the illegal SLR rifle modifications to the Australian Task Force senior staff was told to stay away from the SASR lines (Interview with "Tiger" Lyons, 1996). These creative SASR experiments also relate to other binaries in the Clegg and Parker list: empowerment, intra-organisational accountability, creativity and proactive communication.

Empowerment; Flexibility; Trust

The SASR, in privileging the patrol commander as the key operational member of the Regiment, displays a postmodern approach to its roles. The Special Air Service Regiment has the same nominal organisational structure of commanding officer, senior staff, NCO’s and soldiers ("troopers") as the conventional infantry battalion. However, in the SASR this traditional Army pyramid of rank does not at any particular moment indicate the levels at which key decisions are being made, who is providing leadership, or the direction and strength of structuring communication flows. In this way, in the case of the SASR the pyramid of the conventional modernist organisation may be seen as somewhat inverted: In SASR there is agreement at all levels that the most important person is the patrol commander, often a sergeant. The SASR’s faith in the patrol commanders from the junior ranks is unique. Often isolated, they are responsible for the execution of national policy and strategy on the ground. They must be able to understand the political and strategic consequences of their choices. We therefore focus on the intellectual and physical development of those junior ranks. (Interview with Lt Col Bill Forbes, 1996.) The covert SASR team ‘tractor job’ in Vietnam (Horner, 1989, chap. 1) demonstrates this democratic process of devolved responsibility to lower levels for planning, resourcing (including developing a new land mine) and conducting an operation with trust and confidence. Many find such trust well-rewarded: "Every time that I gave a task to an SASR team or individual, that task was without exception done far better than I would have expected it could be done" (Interview with Brig Jim Wallace, July 1999). The syllabus in professional communication in the postmodern organisation is, ideally, concerned least with micro-skilling and most with group processes and the negotiation and "capture" of meanings within the organisational context. The SASR has at times interrogated its own identity, policies, and democratic ethos to resist organisational stasis and the possibility that the unconventional can over time become the conventional. For example, an SASR commanding officer (with a Masters degree specialising in organisational change), believing that SASR was becoming conventional and complacent, established an SASR "Regimental Council" to develop new paradigms at all levels. Council membership, representing all SASR sub-units, cut across tacit lines of command based on rank. Innovations included Project Ulysses, offering family and personal support; Project Zen, designed to enhance the SAS soldiers’ intelligence by university and further studies; Project Veritas, a psychological research programme; and Project Amelio, an experiential programme to fund unusual but individual initiatives reflecting SASR philosophy. Initiatives included dispensing with the use of rank and uniforms, using first names, and allowing long hair, beards and earrings. The point of this pilot project was not the style that the soldier chose, but having the soldiers question hallowed military conventions. This diffusion of responsibility for localised action is an indicator of a postmodern organisational culture in SASR. However, the commanding officer was the self-appointed Council chair with the right to veto Council decisions. Thus the SASR did not entirely divorce itself from the modernist conventional military organisation.

Intra-organisational Accountability; Self-discipline

The SASR approach to discipline is compatible with localised, postmodern practices. The inverted pyramid of the postmodern organisation is seen also in the matter of control in the SASR, where discipline and the maintenance of professional performance standards are up to the individual and where the ultimate SASR sanction or punishment is being dismissed from the unit. Whereas in a modernist conventional battalion, surveillance and sanctions, backed by the Manual of Military Law, reinforce discipline, in SASR, where every soldier is a volunteer competing professionally with every other soldier, discipline is left to the individual soldier. The democratic empowerment of individuals in SASR down to the lowest ranks entails leader-like and operational responsibilities devolved to, or shared with, the soldiers involved in the operation. For example, in the conventional battalion detailed orders on how to achieve an objective are devised by senior staff and handed down to subordinates for implementation. By contrast, in the SASR only the objective itself may be allocated to a five man SASR team by the senior staff. The team devises its own plan of achieving the objective, and all members of the team have an equal say in the plan. If the plan stands up to the critiques and cross-examination of senior staff in a two way egalitarian dialogue in which rank does not necessarily have the final say, then the operation is approved.

Parker’s postmodern organisational attributes the ability to speak new languages and to incorporate new rationalities are found in the flexible, decentred management of the SASR. In contrast to the conventional battalion, the SASR sees itself as:

essentially beyond the range and capability of other Australian Defence Force elements and a defence force as small as ours cannot afford any duplication... Because capability development is a dynamic issue we are constantly changing due to new processes, new systems technology. So where SASR sees itself living is in the periphery of capability development, right on the outer edge. If you imagine a circle which encompasses a military defence force’s capability, we’re on the circumference of that circle. (Telephone interview with Lt Col Ric Bosi, May 1997)

SASR members are in the second highest quartile of intelligence of the population (Interview with Cpt Mike Lines, January 1998), often displaying a genuine receptivity to new ideas and methods, a general absence of dogmatic attitudes, intellectual humility, polite assertiveness, sociability, integrity and unfeigned composure. Members interviewed frequently displayed a critical openness to established myths and traditions. For example, recalling SASR operations in Vietnam (which militarily were very successful), one key informant added the critical comment, "The SASR was wasted in Vietnam. Its ambush role could have been done by the infantry battalions. The SASR should have been deployed in special operations, for example, training the local Montagnards to fight the Viet Cong" (Interview with Danny Wright, January 1996).

Diffuse Strategies; Plurality; Flexibility

The SASR is conspicuously postmodern in its multi-skilling and versatility, permitting organisational decentralisation. Unlike a conventional battalion, the SASR is multi-centred and never operates as a full regimental entity. The Regimental parade ground, an index of the conventional battalion provides parking space for soldiers’ boats and sailing craft. All non-operational members are "at home" in their barracks only about three times a year. Multi-centred authority and the autonomy of sub-formations are crucial to SASR operational capacity and constitute some of the major differences between the conventional and Special Forces fighting unit. At any time the SASR has small groups located in Australia and overseas on exchange (with for example Britain’s 22 SAS or US Navy SEALS) or in peace keeping roles. Multi-skilling, a characteristic of the postmodern organisation, is practised by the SASR. For example, two troopers were sent to Rwanda with the United Nations force, and currently (October 1999) small SASR teams are operating in East Timor as bodyguard for the UN Commander and in surveillance and intelligence gathering, reporting on the movements of anti-independence militia across the East Timor border. The SASR counter terrorist Squadron is preparing security measures for the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games while others are engaged in tasks that for security reasons are not common knowledge within the Regiment or even within the same Squadron or Troop.

Knowledge; Synchronicity; Proactive Communication

The professional communication of the postmodern organisation de-emphasises the passing on of an established body of skills and lore to a subordinate group. This emphasis on novelty holds true of the openness of the communication that characterises the SASR, which sponsors creativity, laterality, unconventionality and unorthodox ideas through the maintenance of a critical egalitarian dialogue with and among soldiers. For example, officers seeking selection for SASR must demonstrate that they are not troubled by taking direct instruction, even spoken orders, from a lowly subordinate. In the SASR officers are appointed for three years, but other ranks may stay in the Regiment indefinitely: "The knowledge base in the SASR resides not in the officers, but in the other ranks. A patrol that includes a captain and even the SASR commanding officer may be led by a sergeant, if he is the expert" (Interview with Laurie Clarke, January 1996). Prospective officers must recognise at the outset that the SASR regards knowledge, not rank, as the source of authority. "In the SASR, soldiers in effect select their own officers" (Interview with Neville Farley, September 1999).

The deliberate SASR policy of valorising the devolution of responsibility and authority, of the primacy and synchronicity of factuality, and of an organistational culture sponsoring re-negotiation and re-encoding by SASR members of each other’s assertions, regardless of rank, is a reliable indicator that the SASR is a postmodern organisation. Synchronicity builds directly much-needed self-confidence and autonomy, enabling the SASR to assign minimum numbers to major tasks.

SASR soldiers are easy to lead because they are so switched on and independent…An SASR sergeant, operating alone in, for example, Cambodia, may have to assert his views effectively to a general or prime minister. This requires strength of character and a high degree of understanding and integrity. (Interview with Lt Col Mike Hindmarsh, January, 1998)

On Parker’s (1992) definition, professional communication training in the postmodern organisation will be highly sensitive to evolving external events and will be proactive in monitoring and generating new terms and concepts to define new events and ideas relevant to its corporate aims and roles. The SASR displays many of Parker’s postmodern criteria: it constantly seeks new ideas and roles; it promotes the eclectic quest for new knowledges and methods, and engages in self-critiques that review and renew the language manifested by its own organisational culture and communication behaviours. For example, to sustain its goal of being "a versatile force for volatile times" (Telephone interview with Lt Col Ric Bosi, May 1997), the SASR retains external bodies such as the Global Business Network, which is:

a very loose collection of well-placed experts who come together to do scenario planning and analysis for organisations. They foresaw the oil crisis for Shell in the early 70’s, which helped Shell to organise and survive, and they have assisted South Africa with the transition from apartheid. SASR used them to list all the scenarios likely and unlikely in which the Australian government might have to commit troops. The advantage of considering a range of possible futures is that we either have to change to meet those futures or continue to adapt and develop to do so. We steal liberally from everyone else, because the military doesn’t have a mortgage on good ideas. (Ibid.)

Selection for the SASR: Communication Without Closure

Much can be learnt about the structuring role of communication in the SASR by studying the values embedded in the SASR selection process, since the topic permits key informants to provide rationales for SASR admission policy and the test items. For example, the Regiment’s practice of basing competitive selection for the SASR on non-specific generic personal attributes such as moral, physical and mental stamina and humour, rather than on the specified preordained and absolutist criteria, can be interpreted as postmodern in approach and implementation.

To gain the prized sand coloured beret with its winged Excalibur badge showing full acceptance into the operational, or Sabre, Squadrons of the SASR, all officers and other ranks (apart from personnel in branches such as support and logistics) must complete the SASR Selection Course. The course requires the completion of a series of very difficult physical and mental tasks over a period of about three weeks. It is widely regarded by all key informants as a vital guaranty of continuing quality in the Regiment and therefore its tough standards are carefully maintained. On average only about 30% of applicants are accepted.

Candidates for SASR membership are subjected to sleep and food deprivation that takes them to levels of physical exhaustion not experienced before. Exhausted candidates are required to think and speak coherently, for example, by answering questions and describing phenomena passed since the last checkpoint. In such stressful circumstances it is assumed that the "inner person" - the "base personality traits, or how you are when you are not being observed" (Interview with Cpt Mike Lines, January 1998) cannot be hidden and will emerge in verbal and non-verbal communication behaviours. A candidate may arrive very fit physically on the Selection Course but because the activities are so tough any fitness advantages tend to be lost in the first few days: only character and personality attributes can sustain the candidate for the rest of the course.

Physical stamina is essential. However, the criteria of the Selection Course address generic qualities, not specific physical or mental skills. Thus, all successful applicants must possess a good measure of such qualities as practical intelligence, maturity, honesty, integrity, teamwork, initiative, discipline, leadership, stability under stress, endurance, judgement, decisiveness, influence in a group, task effectiveness, as well as having good spoken and written communication. The result is a mixture of physical types and personalities, and many SASR soldiers appear relatively ordinary and nondescript. A serving SASR captain commented, ‘The personal qualities needed to pass the Selection Course are not confined to the SASR; you could easily find the same qualities in a civilian paraplegic in a wheelchair’ (MR, 1997).

Given the generic criteria and stable structure and goals of the Selection Course, does the SASR Selection Course culture produce an archetypal SASR soldier? One might expect so, and the Regiment initially assumed that an SASR stereotype would emerge. However, the opposite proved to be the case, mainly because the Selection Course is not preordained and quantitative but "open," assuming that the SASR mentality manifests itself in diverse and often unpredictable behaviours. Clearly, there is no fixed set of attributes or personality type that corresponds neatly with performance criteria but instead what is encountered is an array of different personalities. Intuitive judgement informed by experience seems to guide the assessors: "There is no fixed "type" that we look for on the Selection Course. We just create situations and see what happens" (Interview with Cpt Mike Lines, January 1998). This inductive approach means that the assessors wax creative in setting up testing scenarios without closure, specified behaviours, or pre-ordained aims.

For example, on one Selection Course activity a famished team was given food to take to a "starving patrol," a task that necessitated a two day march on an empty stomach. The team was told that if the food was delivered untouched then it would be rewarded with a hot chicken dinner. They completed the task, and the chicken dinner was ready for them. However, the chickens had not been plucked or prepared, and some of the hungry team refused to eat the broiled meal. Others were marked down for pouring the nutritious broth out onto the ground in a vain search for vegetables (The Battle for the Golden Road, Channel 9 Perth, 1984).

By seeking core qualities rather than skills and conformity, the SASR eschews homogeneity and an "SASR mindset." In this approach, it is unlike, for example, the French Foreign Legion with its explicit institutionalised denial of the candidate’s social identity, kinship and overt individuality, or the British Parachute Regiment with its implicit mindless conformity to and subjugation by institutionalised tradition and authority [2].

Supervisors assess candidates’ verbal and non-verbal reactions closely, both as individuals and as team members – the candidate must pass both. For example, SASR soldiers must know Morse Code and on one Selection Course a Morse Code receiving test was administered to physically exhausted applicants. The test given was intentionally too hard for the candidates and their behaviours during the test were observed. Some became stressed but the more likely applicants rejected the test, shrugged, laughed or gave up without undue concern. Another typical Selection Course activity requires candidates to form a team and move a laden but wheel-less jeep five kilometres along a track within a given time. They were given four rimless tyres to assist them. This pointless and exhausting activity tested commitment to soldiering, initiative, leadership, lateral thinking, team cooperation, and endurance.

Disappointments or "sickeners" may figure in Selection Course strategies. These frustrations help to identify the candidate who is sustained by a false or romantic idea of being in the SASR or whose mental calendar has identified a date on which the ordeal of the Selection Course will end. For example, the candidates will be told the Selection Course is over and they have passed, and the supervisors offer congratulations all round. Then in their moment of triumph they will be told the Selection Course is actually still on and they have to start up again. Some candidates, despite having passed three weeks of exhausting tasks, have withdrawn themselves at this point. Most dropouts are by people withdrawing themselves but the rejection process begins very early and the instructors can RTU (return to unit, that is, fail) a candidate at any time (Interview with Cpt Mike Lines, January 1998).

Candidates who are officers must meet extra criteria, including decision making under pressure and group acceptance based on written peer ratings. A self-assessment form for officer candidates is used as a foil for Selection Course assessment, that is, the officer’s self-assessment is compared with the directing staff assessment. As specified above, a crucial criterion in officer selection is their willingness to take advice and even direction from more experienced lower ranks.

The core SASR ideology is heterogeneity of personalities, ideas, and perspectives. The stress laid on this value does not arise from an inherent SASR humanism. Rather it comes from this strategic realisation: to continue as a genuinely unconventional force the SASR has to select people who are good communicators, sociable, independent and unassuming, well-adjusted to themselves and others and stimulated by their environment and who will promote a culture that will generate unconventional answers to strategic and tactical problems from any SASR soldier regardless of rank. For these reasons the Regiment actively resists creating a ‘template’ of the SASR soldier, as stereotypical thinking runs counter to the milieu of the unit. The rotations of Selection Course staff every two years mean a template or ideal would not be manageable even if one could be established.

At this point it might be objected that the SASR selection process is actually modernist, and that its claim to heterogeneity is subverted by a dominant discourse inherent in the selection process. On this argument the Selection process reinstates the central control of the conventional military unit by favouring a specific homogeneous SASR discourse or mind-set in much the same way as the Foreign Legion or the British Parachute Regiment ruthlessly assert their own discursive variants. Such an objection, however, would require that the inculcation of the core ideology of each respective military unit would have to proceed by the same methods. Both the Legion and the Parachute Regiment place great importance on unquestioning and prompt obedience of direct orders, and back this requirement up with ruthless, bullying discipline in the case of the Parachute Regiment and determined de-historicising and annexing of individuality in the Foreign Legion. However, in the SASR members can debate or critique orders and are free to leave at any time.

Of course this difference does not quite answer the objection that the SASR Selection Course is really modernist control in a postmodern guise of heterogeneity. To clarify further, the discursive differences between both British and French units and the SASR may be expressed as follows: the British and French units inculcate their authoritarian discourses, while the SASR inculcates a meta-discourse. This meta-discourse, heterogeneity, acknowledges all the possible discourses that may be propagated in the SASR context, including those that may conflict with each other or even with the discourse of heterogeneity itself. Meta-discourse is a key difference, highlighting the SASR as a postmodern organisation.

Not actually written into the Selection Course criteria ("To do so would look a bit strange," Interview with Col Mike Silverstone, November 1997) is a sense of humour that surfaces readily when things go wrong. Humour in the SASR is "when everything has turned to shit, God doesn’t love you, you’re soaking wet, the radio doesn’t bloody work, you’re lost, but you can still crack a joke. And that’s the sort of humour we look for someone who can keep some sort of proportion, I suppose” (Interview with Laurie Fraser, January 1996). “Humour in the SASR is the ability to laugh at yourself and your own competence and incompetence and your circumstances, especially when the going is tough...Humour aids stability under stress" (Interview with Col Mike Silverstone, November 1997). Another reason for omitting humour from the "official" list of selection criteria is the difficulty of defining "humour": humour takes many forms and so is left to the course assessors’ discretion. The following example occurred on one Selection Course in the heat of a Western Australian inland summer when the candidates were told to put on their facial camouflage cream for a patrol exercise:

I said, "camouflage up," and I gave them a few minutes to do so. The camouflage stick had green cream one end and white on the other and you camouflage with both ends. Now this young guy obviously hadn't been watching, and he camouflaged himself up only with the white! He was all white, and I was flabbergasted. I said, "Jesus Christ! Look, mate, do you know what you've done?" He says "No," and I said, "You've bloody camouflaged yourself up white!" And he was horrified. But he said, "Well, it's cold enough to be bloody snowing!" Instant pass for SASR (laughs)! (Interview with PB, January 1996)

Humour is a very serious matter in the SASR. On one Selection Course the candidates all agreed that one of their number was a certainty for selection: the man was physically fit, coped easily, helped others and was a good team man. But he was suddenly RTU’d. Very angry, he demanded to see the Commanding Officer, who told him that the reason for his rejection was his lack of a sense of humour. The candidate angrily thumped the CO’s table and said, "That’s bullshit!" The CO said, "That’s what we mean." (Interview with Terry Slocombe, January 1996)

SASR humour permeates the unit. SASR soldiers have lively minds and often possess a high level of subtlety and sophistication. SASR humour can be cryptic and elliptical, at times functioning as private communication in a public place. The T-shirt of one SASR sub-unit carried the graphic of the Polish Workers’ Solidarity Movement of the 80s a whimsical comment on the social status of that sub-unit within SASR.

SASR humour tends to take extreme forms and while black humour is found in most military organisations, in the SASR it is more intensely black and anarchic, surfacing in difficult situations to help the Regiment to recover its amour-propre and, typically, to preserve high standards of professional performance. For example, the black humour in the SASR after the disastrous Blackhawk helicopter accident near Townsville might have appeared somewhat shocking and unfeeling to an outsider not conversant with the cultural contexts and organisational maintenance role of SASR humour. In the annual Stirrers’ Parade, targets for mockery and satire have included the strategic theories of particular officers, the SASR’s self-image, popular myths of the SASR trooper’s physical and mental prowess, and, in the following satirical sketch, the abiding stress in SASR on unconventional warfare.

SASR soldier A ( in guttural, demented tones): Men, the SASR has to get into South East Asia. So here’s what we do. We build a big wooden horse and all get in it and push it all the way to Asia!

SASR soldier B: You bloody idiot. There’s water between Australia and South East Asia!

SASR soldier A (scornfully): And you call yourself unconventional! (Author’s notes from the Stirrers’ Parade, September 1997)

Humour is also essential communication behaviour for maintaining the cohesion and smooth functioning of the basic operational unit of the SASR – the five-man team or patrol. Like the Selection Course, the five-man patrol or team is a focal point for understanding communication and culture in the SASR. In its specificity of operational functioning and its democratic management, the team is intensely bonded and all members are secure in the knowledge that if wounded they will not be left behind even if the entire team is threatened. All individuals in the team must perform capably, and humour plays a crucial role in maintaining the self-discipline needed for high operational standards. Friction in the team results in personnel changes as dissension is magnified by the small size of the group. An insight into the role of humour in maintaining performance levels is contained in this statement from an interview with Travis Standen in January, 1996.

There’s nothing secret or personal about the humour – it’s just taking the absolute mickey out of everyone, even your best friends. You are not having a go at someone, but paying them out for something they’ve done. This happens in the SASR every minute of every single day. You can’t do anything wrong or make a mistake because the minute you do everyone is on your back pulling your leg. You might have just been divorced by your wife and are feeling dreadful but they will joke mercilessly about that. If you haven’t got a sense of humour or if you take everything seriously, you’ll burn out.

Hence humour in the SASR is not one dominant discourse but a plurality of discourses in concert. Anarchic black humour, humour that sustains de-differentiation and individual performance levels, and humour as self-deprecation and as satire on the cherished values of the SASR, are different discourses that support the interpretation of the SASR as a postmodern organisation.


This research analysis contributes a detailed case study to the corpus of work on the postmodern organisation. As a study of an Australian military unit in the context of research literature focussing in the main on Japan, the USA, and Great Britain, it draws attention to the possibility of identifying postmodern organisations in industrialised and post-industrial countries, and perhaps learning useful lessons from them.

The postmodern organisation is not an entity without control or direction, but functions as an assembly of de-centred, dissociated, flexible, often multi-skilled autonomous or semi-autonomous groups. The SASR is superficially a modernist, traditionally organised hierarchical army unit, but is postmodern in its egalitarian communication behaviours, tolerance of conflicting discourses, democratic culture, de-centred organisational thinking, and wide variety of multi-skilled operational roles. In resisting a drift to modernist organisational and strategic stasis, the role of the SASR Selection Course, which selects soldiers as people first and soldiers second, appears crucial. The individual personal qualities of the SASR soldier, including humour, sustain the culture of democratic communication and promote novel thinking and unconventionality. The communication characteristics of the SASR show it to be a flexible and evolving entity with a history and tradition but no necessary commitment to historically determined functions or received ideas. The open communication in SASR ensures that the policy agenda of the SASR keeps changing and that a "pure" definition of SASR is thereby permanently deferred. The pluralist, flexible SASR is an example of the way that unassuming communication can constitute a postmodern organisation.

In the current period of economic rationalism in the "developed" countries the postmodern character of the SASR can offer organisational models and practices alternative to those of Western hierarchically structured conventional organisations and bureaucracies in both the public and private sectors. The SASR draws attention to possibilities for enhancing organisational roles and performance in a number of ways worth remarking. It recruits and encourages employees for their demonstrated heterogeneity, it de-differentiates and empowers through the multi-skilling all levels of the workforce, it entrusts lower levels with the organisation’s mission, and it recognises that employee motivation may not lie in material rewards. These ideas are not new, of course, but they appear to be neglected by government and business organisations struggling amidst the difficulties of the present era.

Author's Note:

This article draws on material also covered in my 1998 article, ‘Warrior monks: Notes on professional communication Culture and training in the Australian Special Air Service Regiment (SASR), Part I’, published in The Australian Journal of Communication, 25(2).

I would like to acknowledge the cooperation of Brigadier Philip McNamara, Commander of Special Operations, Lieutenant Colonel Tim McOwan, Commanding Officer of the Australian SASR Regiment, members of the Regiment, and members of the Australian SASR National Association for contributing to the research and preparation of this article.

Where initials have been used in citing sources the speaker is a serving member of SASRR and full names cannot be used.


[1] On the difference between "covert" and "clandestine" a serving officer explained: "Covert operations are those in which the identity of the sponsor is concealed whilst clandestine operations are those in which the actual operation is concealed. The operations that SASR conducts invariably are concealed but if compromised would not be denied by the Australian Government." (Telephone interview with Lt Col Rick Bosi, May, 1997)

[2] These are the writer’s observations after watching documentaries on the Parachute Regiment and the Foreign Legion. My comments about the contrast between the (modernist) authoritarianism of the Parachute Regiment and the (postmodern) openness of the SAS are corroborated in excellent detail in Asher (1991). Asher served first in the British Parachute Regiment and then in the British SAS.


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Personal papers

Telephone interview with Lt Col Ric Bosi, Canberra, May 1997.

Interview with Laurie Clarke, Perth, January 1999.

Interview with Neville Farley, Redcliffe, September 1999.

Interview with Lt Col Bill Forbes, Leeuwin Barracks, Fremantle, January 1996.

Interview with Laurie Fraser, Swanbourne Barracks, January 1996.

Interview with Lt Col Mike Hindmarsh, Canberra, August 1999.

Interview with Cpt Mike Lines, Swanbourne Barracks, January 1998.

Interview with ‘Tiger’ Lyons, Swanbourne Barracks, January 1996.

Interview with Holt McMinn, Canberra, September 1997.

Interview with Cpt MR, Toowoomba, January 1997.

Interview with PB, Swanbourne Barracks, January 1996.

Interview with Col Mike Silverstone, Canberra, November 1997.

Interview with Terry Slocombe, Swanbourne Barracks, January 1996.

Interview with Travis Standen, Swanbourne Barracks, January 1996.

Interview with Brig Jim Wallace, Canberra, July 1999.

Interview with Danny Wright, Swanbourne, January 1996.

Letter from Brig Jim Wallace, January 19 1996.

Author’s notes from the SASR Stirrers’ Parade, Swanbourne Barracks, September 1997.

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