A friend posted this piece on facebook: “Why Nerds Should Not Be In Charge of War.” It draws from the new PBS Vietnam War documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick to argue that it happened because of the prominent role played by “generalists.” Yes, Robert McNamara and his gang of Whiz Kids are mighty arrogant, and they have much blame to share for the war. Indeed, McNamara, unlike certain other arrogant former SecDefs, has spent the time since trying to grapple with what he had wrought. There is something to the idea that we need folks involved who are regional experts. Indeed, there has been much debate about whether we political scientists did area studies wrong by insisting on generalizable theory and advanced methods.
But as a national security generalist, I am mildly miffed at the, dare I say it, generalizations made about the generalists. “Generalism breeds (unwarranted) confidence and certitude.” Um, maybe if you focus on Kissinger and McNamara, but there are plenty of generalists who are constantly worried about not knowing enough about a place, wondering when we will get called out for being the imposters that we think we are.
The funny thing is that I read this piece only a few days after participating on a panel on the Kurdish referendum at a think tank in DC. I have no Kurdish credentials–all I have are the lessons I have learned about the general dynamics of separatism (pretty much everything I was doing before I moved towards doing NATO stuff and civil-military relations). The other panelists were a Kurd who had a sharp understanding of the politics of the area and a Middle East expert who knew much about the regional dynamics. I felt very much like an outsider, but, as it turns out, the organizer had the right idea because I could put the specific situation into a broader context to highlight how the Kurdish situation compares and contrasts with other separatist movements. The audience, mostly of folks who are less generalist and more area studies, actually dug what I was doing. It turns out that those who do this Mideast stuff rarely get a chance to see the forest for all of the trees, and I got to provide them with a view of the forest, which helped them understand the specific trees better.
So, let’s not burn all national security generalists for the sins of some of the most powerful of our kind. We do need to take seriously how to foster and encourage area studies as funding of such training and work has declined. The good news is that I have seen plenty of next generation scholars who mix general lens with specific expertise including but not exclusively my students. Last week, I engaged in a discussion on twitter about how much area specific knowledge is necessary, and my answer to that question was to make sure generalists like myself converse with the area experts. To be clear, we need to have more occasions where the generalists and the specialists meet so that we are all both educated and humbled.