Profile on: Major Will Strickland
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I have always been interested in international affairs. As an archaeologist, my father always travelled and began his career in the Middle East on some of the famous excavations. On leaving Art School, I also travelled extensively: working for charities in India and Zimbabwe, and in press facilitation across the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. During my time in the former Yugoslavia, I met a number of people who were in, or had been in, the British Army, and I decided to join. My family also have a history of being in the British Army.
I have conducted operations in Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan. This experience fuelled my interest in current and international affairs, and ultimately my desire to take a degree in Politics and International Relations. I needed to do a degree by distance and flexible learning because of my job, and was advised to do it with the University of London by a friend – primarily because of the degree’s academic link to LSE and the quality of the course content.
I managed to complete the degree in five years. One of those years, I could not take exams because I was in Iraq. I therefore took exams in four years, which roughly equated to taking three units every year. I found it extremely difficult, and I often look back with amazement that I managed to complete it. I had to remain flexible and be persistent. Most of my study was done during the evening or at weekends. I tried to get the reading material as quickly as possible in the new academic year and start reading as early as possible.
Because of Army commitments, it was normally chaotic and I could not maintain a study routine. I tried to take leave (normally about three weeks) immediately prior to exams, to prepare in detail. But having said all of this, the fact that the degree is an exam-based programme allows flexibility in study.
I remember studying for my first year – often late at night or early in the morning – in what had been the Shatt al Arab hotel (which had been a former RAF base in the 1920s) in Basra, Iraq, overlooking the Euphrates and Tigris River. Insurgents often fired rockets at the hotel in the evening or early morning, so some of my study is now cognitively connected to rocket attacks! In the third year of my study, I was also in Iraq. I remember going through a bizarre routine of studying for an hour or so after supper and then going back into work and often working late into the night on what we call strike operations (the apprehension of potential insurgents). Then doing another half an hour or so in the morning. Some of my study memories are almost dream-like.
The degree has helped me in my formal career progression, but more importantly has helped me conduct operations better. Having a sound analytical framework to what you do has helped me immeasurably. This was given to me by both the degree content but also the exam-based method.
The degree content is particularly relevant in what the British Army is currently conducting in Afghanistan: counter-insurgency. Counter-insurgency is a military problem by default, but is really a political, social and economic problem. Operations are population-centric in counter-insurgency. Therefore, to conduct an operation, you need to understand the human dimension. I have constantly referred to and directly used elements of political science, nationalism and sociology. I have used sociological methods in trying to work out a framework for understanding various communities in Helmand. I have tried to understand the impact of our actions through political Enlightenment theories, and to work out methods of delivering progress through concepts of state-building. I think the last is the most relevant. The work that LSE is conducting through the Crisis States Research Centre – connected to the Nationalism unit on my degree – encapsulates the problems the British Army have faced in Iraq and Afghanistan.
At the conclusion of my degree, I had planned to leave and study at LSE. In 2008, I was accepted onto the MSc in Comparative Politics and wanted to try a career in politics. In the end – and I still question whether I was right to – I decided to stay in the Army. I have conflicting motivations!
I would like to take a year out of the Army within the next few years and try again for LSE. Ultimately, I would like to gain a PhD.