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.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. And we need to make sure that military officers understand that the press and the academy is not the enemy.

    That will, of course, be easier when the press and the academy don’t see the military as the enemy. We can still only look forward to the day when the press and the academy attain the level of civility that officers in the military generally provide today for those with whom they must agree to disagree.

  2. ken says:

    It’s obviously problematic for the elite opinion makers to be anti-military.

    I think that all Americans should have a built in bias against the military. The military at best is a necessary evil.

    A professional full time military is inherently risky for democracies. It becomes a sore temptation for presidents to use it at a whim (Grenada, Panama) until it becomes almost impossible to stop them from using it whenever they want. As a nation we have become too enamored of the military/industrial ethos and are in danger of losing our soul to it.

    Our priorities should be such that it is the air force that is having bake sales instead of our schools.

    That is the way it was supposed to be.

  3. M. Murcek says:

    Maybe when (some parts) of academe “grow up” again and stop indulging a knee-jerk need to pay obeisance to the PC fashionability of hating the military, an intelligent meeting of the minds between military and academe can occur…

  4. Anon says:

    In the physical sciences and engineering academia, we are somewhat less insulated. I and my colleagues have DOE funding, so we have the understanding that our research, at least indirectly, may serve our nuclear arsenal.

    Some of my colleagues spend summers in Rome NY funded by the Air Force. Other colleagues get funding from ONR, AFRL, etc.

    So, the next time Malkin/Coulter/O’Reilly watches a video of an M1 destroying an enemy tank, or a JDAM killing some terrorists/insurgents, they should think about the fact that a lot of the people responsible for our ability to produce such weapons are people that they would probably call appeasers and/or traitors.

    Yes, we are nerds, geeks, academics, and some of us are even–dare I say it–liberals, and we may not be able tell the difference between a Bradley and an Abrams. But we know our fracture mechanics, our combustion fronts, our CFD, our MPI, our PDEs, our C++/Java/Fortran, our Internet “tubes”, etc.

  5. Anon says:

    Charles and M., it cuts both ways. When you’ve got people like Coulter/Limbaugh/O’Reilly supposedly representing Red America, you are automatically going to earn the disdain of a lot of academics.

    It’s not so much about policy/politics. The sense is that Red America disdains us because we like to think, we appreciate nuance and subtlety, and we generally think it is worthwhile to study and understand the bad guys.

    Of course, there is some irony to all this considering that Rumsfeld, Rice, and Petraeus all have PhDs from elite universities. And it’s true that some universities share some of the blame by banning ROTC, etc.

  6. Triumph says:

    It’s obviously problematic for the elite opinion makers to be anti-military.

    Please name me an “elite opinion maker” who is anti-military. They don’t exist.

    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.

    This is just bizarre. Countless social scientists studying international relations have argued that the doctrine of pre-emptive wars will result in proliferation of nukes, more propensity for unilateral action by rogue actors, and general destabilization.

    Once the decision to engage in the pre-emptive war “has been made” you are saying that they need to make sure that the war be fought “as well as possible”? What if the problem–as in the case of Iraq–was engaging in the pre-emptive war, itself? They have the moral obligation to end the war.

  7. James Joyner says:

    Please name me an “elite opinion maker” who is anti-military. They don’t exist.

    The vast majority of Ivy League and comparable profs and the elite press (NYT, LAT, NPR, CNN, ABC, NBC, CBS, etc.) are reflexively anti-military. Not in the sense of “they hate the troops” but in knee-jerk opposition to wars and their successful prosecution.

    Once the decision to engage in the pre-emptive war “has been made” you are saying that they need to make sure that the war be fought “as well as possible”?

    Yes.

    What if the problem–as in the case of Iraq–was engaging in the pre-emptive war, itself? They have the moral obligation to end the war.

    Why not do both? Testify and protest to try to prevent the war from starting and continue writing op-eds and taking other patriotic steps to dissent.

    At the same time, recognize that Americans are in harm’s way and lend your expertise to minimize the damage you think the mission will bring.

  8. Triumph says:

    The vast majority of Ivy League and comparable profs and the elite press (NYT, LAT, NPR, CNN, ABC, NBC, CBS, etc.) are reflexively anti-military. Not in the sense of “they hate the troops” but in knee-jerk opposition to wars and their successful prosecution.

    My understanding of an “opinion maker” is someone who, well, helps to “make opinion.”

    If the radical “anti-military” professors were so adept at “making opinion” why are their views so out of step from public opinion?

    Same goes with the media.

    How does this reconcile with the fact that most Americans have a favorable opinion of the military? [84% had “very favorable” or “mostly favorable” opinions in the January Pew poll]

    These anti-military “elite opinion makers” are obviously not very successful in influencing opinion.

  9. Andy says:

    n knee-jerk opposition to wars and their successful prosecution.

    This is just ridiculous. Of course there are a lot of people who are knee-jerk opposed to war. But I don’t know very many who are opposed to “successful prosecution,” besides the radical America-hating leftists that primarily exist in the fevered imaginations of the reactionary right.

  10. I am pursuing a PhD Economics, and I’m looking into becoming a “professor on the battlefield”.
    However, I am still Dutch, unfortunately.
    I should talk to a recruiter about programs like these — my loyalty is with the USA and the Constitution above all and I do not mind being in the sandbox.
    Get ideas for my PhD thesis and write one that might be useful outside academics.

    Even if I can not bridge the gap I can at least cross it myself.

  11. G.A.Phillips says:

    This is just ridiculous. Of course there are a lot of people who are knee-jerk opposed to war. But I don’t know very many who are opposed to “successful prosecution,” besides the radical America-hating leftists that primarily exist in the fevered imaginations of the reactionary right.

    Andy, are you trying to tell me that your a figure of my imagination? lol.