Professors on the Battlefield
Evan Goldstein reports on an interesting new Pentagon initiative called Human Terrain System which “embeds social scientists with brigades in Afghanistan and Iraq, where they serve as cultural advisers to brigade commanders.”
The Human Terrain System is part of a larger trend: Nearly six years into the war on terror, there is reason to believe that the Vietnam-era legacy of mistrust–even hostility–between academe and the military may be eroding.
This shift in the zeitgeist is embodied by Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of the multinational forces in Iraq. Gen. Petraeus, who holds a doctorate from Princeton University in international relations, made a point of speaking on college campuses between his tours in Iraq because he believes it is critical that America “bridge the gap between those in uniform and those who, since the advent of the all-volunteer force, have had little contact with the military.” In a recent essay in the American Interest, Gen. Petraeus reflects on his own academic journey and stresses how the skills he cultivated on campus help him operate on the fly in Iraq. As such, he is a staunch proponent of Army officers attending civilian graduate programs.
Over the past few years, Gen. Petraeus has been cultivating ties to the academic community, drawing on scholars for specialized knowledge and fresh thinking about the security challenges facing America. “What you are seeing is a willingness by military officers to learn from civilian academics,” says Michael Desch, an expert on civilian-military relations at Texas A&M. “The war on terrorism has really accelerated this trend.”
The prospects of the learning flowing both ways, however, are more dim:
“Anthropologists have the opportunity right now to influence how the national security establishment does business,” writes [Montgomery] McFate in an email from Afghanistan, where she is a senior adviser to the Human Terrain System project. A Yale University-trained anthropologist, she has been the target of bitter criticism from the anthropology establishment on account of her tireless efforts to convince the military that cultural knowledge is key to winning over the people in war-torn societies like Iraq and Afghanistan. She insists that a growing number of anthropologists are questioning the conventional wisdom and reconsidering whether the most effective way to influence the military is “by waving a big sign outside the Pentagon saying ‘you suck.’ ”
That may be wishful thinking on Ms. McFate’s part. A majority of members active in the American Anthropological Association seem to reject her as naive and dangerous. And history provides plenty of legitimate cause for concern. There is a toxic legacy of military-funded clandestine research–most notably the infamous Project Camelot in Chile in the mid-1960s and a 1970 scandal triggered by American social scientists’ efforts on behalf of a Thai government counterinsurgency campaign. Roberto J. Gonzalez, a professor of anthropology at San Jose State University and a leading critic of rapprochement between the national-security community and professional anthropologists, has taken to the pages of the Chronicle of Higher Education to warn against “the militarization of the social sciences.” In recent years, the annual meetings of the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association and the American Anthropological Association have been dominated by discussion about what ethical responsibilities scholars have in relation to war, terrorism and torture. At such events, Ms. McFate and her rare sympathizers often sound like a lone voice in the wilderness.
Like Thomas Barnett, I see this as a very good thing. The alienation of the military from society in general, and especially elites in academe and the mass media, is dangerous and any steps to bridge that divide are worth taking.
It’s obviously problematic for the elite opinion makers to be anti-military. Not only does it lead to distrust but it creates disinformation and undermines our ability to win the fight. Harry Summers, channeling Clausewitz, argued a quarter century ago that democracies can not win long wars without the strong support of a Holy Trinity of War: The military, politicians, and the public.
At the same time, this distrust furthers the natural instinct of militaries to pull inward, viewing the media, academics, and even the public at large as unworthy to comment on the actions of the professional warrior class. While a caricature, the Colonel Jessep mentality is very seductive.
In the type of conflicts the United States has been engaged in since the early 1990s, the expertise available in the outside world is invaluable. It’s well and good for regional experts to stand up and loudly voice their views on why prospective wars are misguided. At the same time, once the contrary decision has been made, they should have a stake in making sure we fight the wars as well as possible.
We should do everything possible to encourage in journalists and academics a return to the mindset that they are Americans first, not merely detached analysts. And we need to make sure that military officers understand that the press and the academy is not the enemy.