Soldier-Scholar (Pick One)

My latest for War on the Rocks.

My latest for War on the Rocks, “SOLDIER-SCHOLAR (PICK ONE): ANTI-INTELLECTUALISM IN THE AMERICAN MILITARY,” has published.

The crux:

While each of the four longstanding services values intellect, they are wary of intellectuals. This tendency is reinforced by a stultified personnel bureaucracy that requires officers to successfully navigate a series of wickets to remain competitive for advancement. The result is to reward tactical expertise while capping the careers of the best strategic minds.

[…]

In his Pulitzer Prize-winning Anti-intellectualism in American Life, Richard Hofstadter declared, “The common strain that binds together the attitudes and ideas which I call anti-intellectual is a resentment and suspicion of the life of the mind and of those who are considered to represent it; and a disposition constantly to minimize the value of that life.”

That duality has been a constant of the modern military.

The piece spends roughly 2000 words laying out the case.

FILED UNDER: Military Affairs, Published Elsewhere
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies 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. CSK says:

    In the past 50 or 60 years, and even more so in the past 30 years, intellectuals have been increasingly equated with liberals in the popular culture. And denigrated. Pat Buchanan openly disparaged them, and Rush Limbaugh always pronounced the word “intellectuals” as if he were vocalizing the phrase “child molesters.” It was made plain that no patriotic American could be an intellectual; it became indeed a contradiction in terms.

    The military has always tended conservative, so this doesn’t surprise me. I do hope your essay over at WOTR provokes some discussion; I read it and enjoyed it.

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  2. James Joyner says:

    @CSK: Thanks! And, yes, I think there’s something to the ideological argument. Democrats, too, play to the populist instinct and always have. Still, it’s also true that, at least in the modern era, they’re far more likely to choose wonks for the highest office.

    Richard Hofstadter identified anti-intellectualism as a general American phenomenon way back in 1963, so it’s not just a conservative thing, much less something foisted on us by Limbaugh and company. But there’s no doubt that, as the academy has gotten more liberal, it has been a villain of the right.

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  3. CSK says:

    @James Joyner:
    Oh, I realize fully that anti-intellectualism didn’t start out as a conservative position, merely that it has become one more and more in the past half-century.

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  4. MarkedMan says:

    From Wiki:

    The Know Nothing movement, formally known as the Native American Party, and the American Party from 1855 onwards, was a nativist political party and movement in the United States, which operated nationwide in the mid-1850s. It was primarily an anti-Catholic, anti-immigration, and xenophobic movement, originally starting as a secret society. The Know Nothing movement also briefly emerged as a major political party in the form of the American Party. Adherents to the movement were to simply reply “I know nothing” when asked about its specifics by outsiders, providing the group with its common name.[3]

    Despite the fact that “Know Nothing” came from it’s secrecy, it eventually became associated with anti-intellectualism.

    Historian John Mulkern has examined the party’s success in sweeping to almost complete control of the Massachusetts legislature after its 1854 landslide victory. He finds the new party was populist and highly democratic, hostile to wealth, elites and to expertise, and deeply suspicious of outsiders, especially Catholics. The new party’s voters were concentrated in the rapidly growing industrial towns, where Yankee workers faced direct competition with new Irish immigrants. Whereas the Whig Party was strongest in high income districts, the Know Nothing electorate was strongest in the poor districts.

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  5. James Joyner says:

    @CSK: Agreed. During the Cold War, it was arguably because the intelligentsia were more sympathetic to the Communist cause—and especially to the anti-Vietnam War movement. But it’s also at least as much because traditionalism and the “life of the mind” are in dramatic tension.

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  6. DrDaveT says:

    @CSK:

    Oh, I realize fully that anti-intellectualism didn’t start out as a conservative position, merely that it has become one more and more in the past half-century.

    I was going to respond to James, but you did it first so I’ll just pile on.

    I think it’s important to note that, like many other other cultural features of America, a trait that was already widespread in the population (and that cut across all political parties) became closely associated with one party as people self-sorted. It’s not just anti-intellectualism; it’s also environmentalism / conservationism, xenophobia, anti-LGBT prejudice, belief in science, etc. etc. on down to the trivial (e.g. affection for stock car racing or country music).

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  7. CSK says:

    @DrDaveT:
    Indeed. And you can also separate it into country and city. For a long, long time in American popular culture, the country, and country people, have been held up as the repository of all the virtues: honesty, simplicity of life, faith, respect for tradition, and love for family and neighbors, whereas city dwellers and the city are slick, heartless, dishonest, cynical, and manipulative.

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  8. Scott says:

    Good article. All are factors. A couple of random thoughts for consideration.

    1. I think intellectual pursuits tend to be happen and be emphasized during time of relative peace (20s/30s and post Vietnam). We’ve been at war almost continuously since the 90s.

    2. Changing nature of the Officer Corps. Basically built on the Prussian model where the upper class were Officers and therefore, more likely to be educated and engage in intellectual pursuits. This was true, I believe, in the 1800s. Also in the 1800s, the Officer Corps was overwhelmingly Episcopalian, reflecting the ruling class of this country. Today, Officers are more inclusive, diverse. Many enlisted have just as much education. Often, I wonder why you still need an Officer/Enlisted split at all. But that’s another whole discussion.

    3. Starting in the 1970s and accelerating in the 80s and 90s, the growth of women in the workforce began to have an impact. Not only were women becoming officers in themselves, traditional officer’s wives were entering the workforce and not available to support their husband’s careers through taking care of the home/finances/kids, etc leaving less time to pursue an advanced degree or other intellectual pursuits.

    4. Even with the vast amounts of money DoD spends, there are less people in uniform. There is less time available to do your basic job and therefore less time to “indulge” in intellectual activities.

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  9. DrDaveT says:

    @CSK:

    For a long, long time in American popular culture, the country, and country people, have been held up as the repository of all the virtues: honesty, simplicity of life, faith, respect for tradition, and love for family and neighbors, whereas city dwellers and the city are slick, heartless, dishonest, cynical, and manipulative.

    Indeed. I was startled to come across exactly this argument, accepted uncritically by both sides of the debate, in the Federalist / anti-Federalist papers.

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  10. CSK says:

    @DrDaveT:
    I haven’t fully explored this, but it may be traced back to a misunderstanding or misinterpretation of Thomas Jefferson’s idea of “the natural-born aristocrat.”

    The United States was a rural country rising up in rebellion against Great Britain, epitomized London, one of the world’s great cities at that point.

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  11. Michael Reynolds says:

    I have some sympathy for the anti-intellectual instinct. It may not be practical, but it probably feels just to most people.

    Intellectuals don’t follow orders. Intellectuals consider and debate and analyze and reach conclusions. They’re harder to manipulate. Who is more likely to climb up out of a trench and run at the machine guns, the guy who can see the war in historical context, or the guy who only sees that his buddy is going over the top?

    Intelligence is a separate hierarchy that exists parallel to the military hierarchy of rank. Oh, you’re a colonel? Well, I’m a genius. I suspect it’s a bit like wealth in that way, a hierarchy that rivals rank. As you of course know (being an intellectual sort) in pre WW1 days many militaries equated military rank with social rank – you purchased a commission, money and good tailoring could buy you command of a regiment.

    In the modern military if you came in as a second lieutenant and fought your way through a war or two to make colonel, do you want some rando with inherited money or inherited IQ jumping the line in front of you? If you’re a guy who sets off airport metal detectors because of the shrapnel in your leg, don’t you deserve promotion over some untested nerd with a quick mind? Dues paid and all that?

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  12. sam says:

    @Scott:

    We’ve been at war almost continuously since the 90s.

    I’ll be 80 soon, and in every decade of my life, my country has been at war someplace.

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  13. CSK says:

    It’s ironic that Donald Trump, who exemplifies anti-intellectualism and is adored by anti-intellectuals, is so frantic to be considered a “super-genius” who was a “top student” at “the best school.”

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  14. mattbernius says:

    @James Joyner:

    Richard Hofstadter identified anti-intellectualism as a general American phenomenon way back in 1963, so it’s not just a conservative thing, much less something foisted on us by Limbaugh and company.

    Agreed. Limbaugh’s contribution was perfecting the packaging, commercialization, and mass delivery of anti-intellectualism.

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  15. Jay L Gischer says:

    An “intellectual” is not just “somebody who is very smart”. Somebody who is very smart might make decisions like, “I’m not going to challenge the colonel’s decision here, because I see the factors influencing it, and I don’t think he can change it”, or “I’m going to suggest an improvement to the plan, but not make it into a pissing contest”.

    I’m not sure an “intellectual” is well defined as “somebody who often wants to have a dominance contest based on intelligence, instead of social position or physical prowess”. However, it is this category that puts people off. They can work out, and improve physical prowess. They can advance their social position. But they can’t do much to get “smarter”.

    And conversely, being smart – having high IQ – helps with everything a little. But it doesn’t seem to help as much as people who are smart think it ought to, and they are often resentful. Thus the social dominance.

    Of course, I know nothing at all about the military and how this plays out there in specific, but it seems these general dynamics are probably in play.

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  16. CSK says:

    @Jay L Gischer:
    I’d define an intellectual as someone who reads widely and thinks deeply about a number of subjects, and frequently writes about those subjects.

    I was struck by your mention of “a dominance based on intelligence.” Certainly this describes some academics, who regard their knowledge of, say, the eighteenth century English epistolary novel as making them experts in everything who are not only licensed to pontificate on all subjects but must be heeded. I find such people as irritating as most of us do.

    But–and this is a big but–this description does not, by any means, fit all intellectuals, or even most of them. It is, however, very soothing to the souls of those who are rabidly jealous of anyone endowed with brains.

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  17. Jim Brown 32 says:

    James,

    Good article, but Im not sure “anti-intellectual” is the best descriptor. Certainly, schooling helps, but lets be honest–at every level of PME–Service or Joint doctrinal concepts are crammed down your throat. The “intellectual” flexibility you have in these schools is applying doctrinal framing to current events of the day or historical examples. Not exactly “outside” of the box.

    Intellectual and “Problem Solver” are separate things. Problem solvers are rewarded with promotion if they are solving problems that are important to those 1-2-3 ranks ahead. Educating ones self, as Gen Mattis stated, is a tremendous what to have a body of knowledge at the ready to tackle a problem. That only the science part of the equation. The Profession of Arms is both a Science and Art. The Art is using knowledge to keep an edge on the Enemy either through the way we organize, train, and equip Forces OR the combat approach we employ in the battlespace.

    There is a synergy between the smart guys and the gunslinger–every now and again you get a guy or gal who balances both gifts. I don’t think that will ever change.

    As for the General Officer ranks–completely different type of skillset needed there. The General should never be the Subject Matter Expert–and if they are you are in trouble. They are in control of too many specialties they didn’t grow up in and have to blend them all together into a coherent capability. The most successful Generals I’ve had the pleasure of seeing up close are the ones that know how to choose the best of 2 good options or 2 bad options. They also know when a bad option is dressed up to appear good and when a seemingly bad option is being poorly represented and is better than it seems. I don’t know how you teach that in a school or what type of training you could model to help senior leaders improve on this ability.

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  18. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @mattbernius: I don’t see it that way at all. We’ve been noting that anti-intellectual stances go all the way back to the founding of the nation. Limbaugh’s “role” in marketing anti-intellectual thought is the equivalent of the dairy farmers’ association marketing milk as good for adults in the “milk does a body good” ads of the 60s and 70s. We already knew that. The ads were to break down the belief that milk should be reserved for children because we had enough for everybody now. And with price supports, it was comparatively inexpensive, too. Most of us made enough money (remember: this period is also the high-water mark of minimum wage purchasing power) so that we could buy enough milk for everybody to have 3 glasses a day.

    Limbaugh did the same thing in showing that anybody could be anti-intellectual. There was enough for everybody to adopt it.

  19. Kathy says:

    There’s an adage more or less: amateurs discuss strategy, professionals discuss logistics.

    I’ve no military experience (and wish none), but one thing that’s glaringly obvious is that before an army can fight, it needs to be organized. there’s a lot under that simple insight, from teaching a soldier to clean a rifle, to managing a supply line halfway around the world.

    This means lots of policies are needed, and that means there’s room to study how effective such policies are relative to the aims of the armed services.

    Then there’s the whole issue of military doctrine.

    So it seems to me the military ought to be studying what it does, how it does it, how things work, how things work in other countries’ armed forces, etc. and that suggests the need for military intellectuals.

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  20. Michael Cain says:

    Interesting piece. I admit that my interest in things military pretty much ends at logistics (well, and a “fetish” for large complex weapons systems). How does that kind of thing fit into the anti-intellectual problem?

  21. Michael Cain says:

    And I see that @Kathy beat me to it by six minutes :^)

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  22. gVOR08 says:

    @Kathy:

    There’s an adage more or less: amateurs discuss strategy, professionals discuss logistics.

    In his book The Generals Thomas Ricks adds that real military insiders discuss personnel policy. Some time since I’ve read it. Max Boot reviewed it in 2012 for NYT. In WWII sixteen U. S. division commanders were relieved, out of 155 total. Their careers weren’t ended, they went to training or other commands and made contributions. Five returned to combat commands. Now, apparently, we rotate commanders frequently and generally figure a questionable commander will be out in some months anyway, just let it go. Then a new guy comes in and starts from scratch.

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  23. Michael Cain says:

    @Kathy:
    “My logisticians are a humorless lot. They know they are the first ones I will slay if my campaign fails.” — Alexander the Great

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  24. DrDaveT says:

    @Kathy:

    So it seems to me the military ought to be studying what it does, how it does it, how things work, how things work in other countries’ armed forces, etc. and that suggests the need for military intellectuals.

    Sorta like these guys?

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  25. Jim Brown 32 says:

    @Kathy: @DrDaveT:
    All of the Services have Organizations that do nothing but figure out what war in the future looks like and how to position training and acquisitions to meet those requirements. The Army has an entire 4-star Command dedicated to it. Part of that equation is the activities you mentioned. In addition, we do alot of combined training with allies so that exchange alone is mutually beneficial–we get to understand their capabilities–they get to learn from the best.

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