I woke up to find a piece that castigates the academic world for being ignorant about the armed forces. My reaction was:
I love how broad this brush is. “I talked to some folks who are profs and they say some dumb stuff, so let’s suggest that this is a broader thing”
Confirmation bias much? https://t.co/jWhcaniD2B
— Steve Saideman (@smsaideman) September 20, 2018
Tom Ricks, who posted this questionable piece, pushed back:
I’m throwing a penalty flag here, professor. If you think he is wrong, tell us why. Is he? https://t.co/bTvRQiMekX
— Thomas E. Ricks (@tomricks1) September 20, 2018
I will try to be concise, but it will be hard. I will first address Professor Adrian Lewis’s claims about the state of the military these days. I will then address the larger problem–that this generalization about academics and their expertise about the military is so very flawed.
- Sure, the US armed forces are smaller than during the Cold War. I can’t insta-survey professors who study International Relations, but my guess is that most would already know that. The real question is: do we have the right force at this moment? Do we need to be spending ever so much more money on the US military? There are good and reasonable arguments to be had on both sides of this question.
- War is awful, sure. Deterrence is far better than war. But what does it take to deter American adversaries? It could cost less than we spend given how much money is wasted in defense procurement, that the money spent on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have not produced lasting outcomes, etc. So, saying that our current force is cheaper than war says nothing about whether we are spending the right amount now.
- Ah, the spinoff argument. An oldie but a goodie. The question is not whether there are great spinoffs from military research, but whether money invested elsewhere might be as or more productive. I have no idea since I am not a technology prof, but, again, I am sure we can find studies on either side.
- Who is arguing that military stuff doesn’t wear out and/or become obsolete?
- Defense industries employ lots of Americans and? I would like to think that the US spends money on defense to defend the US and its allies and not as a jobs program. I have expressed elsewhere my annoyance about justifying Canadian defence spending via jobs. Lots of ways for governments to create jobs–military spending just sells better politically. It is not necessarily better.
- Sea lanes. Sure, who is arguing that the US do away with a blue navy?
- Lewis mentions that the allies have “outsourced their security to the US”, which I think is a particularly biased and relatively ignorant way to put it. Do most spend less than the US? Sure. Is it in American interests to foster stability in Europe and East Asia? Yeah. Have the NATO allies bled and died for American causes? Hell yeah.
Lewis concludes by saying that the his school and some of its faculty greatly support the armed forces, so #notallacademics. So, let’s start there: is it the job of academics to support the armed forces? I don’t think so. Indeed, one of the big challenges of the past 20 years or so is that the mantra of “support our troops” has perhaps prevented us from asking critical questions about the performance of the US military (and the same applies to the Canadian armed forces and those of many democracies). Only very recently have people started raising questions about the annual declaration made by the general exiting Afghanistan about how well that war is going.
Are academics ignorant of the US armed forces? Well, which academics? I would not expect chemistry professors and creative writing professors to know much. But how about those who study International Relations? How about those who study Civil-Military Relations? One of the things to note is that Lewis is a Professor of History, which is significant as military and diplomatic history has been on retreat for quite sometime in the History discipline, so that might be a source of his frustration. In Political Science and International Relations, however, civil-military relations and the study of security is on the rise. The last few conferences have seen more and more panels on civ-mil, and the last two decades have seen a big growth in the number of journals focusing on security issues, which means more people studying military stuff.
Almost two years ago, I was pushed by Tom Ricks to list good, relevant work that should be of interest to those who read military history, and I came up with a short list easily. There is plenty of expertise on the US armed forces and those of other countries. To give a related example, I am currently working on a major grant application that would fund a network that would bring together Canadian scholars who study defence (c for Canada) and security issues with the Canadian Armed Forces, the Department of National Defence, research centres across Canada, think tanks, and other actors. It involves over 100 professors, and, yes, Canada is 1/10th the size of the US. Can we extrapolate to suggest that a similar network in the US might have 1000? Is there more interest in the US military in the US than the Canadian military in Canada? Probably since, as Professor Lewis argued, there is a hell of lot of money and activity involving the US military.
My twitter feed has already gotten the usual pushback that privilege veterans as having exclusive or superior expertise to academics who have never served in the armed forces. Now that is an ignorant argument, as it denies the expertise that can be generated through extensive study and analysis. A tree might have a really great understanding of itself and its immediate neighbors, but it will not have a great understanding of the forest or of other forests.
While veterans on twitter complain about academics not having military experience, I have met (anecdotal data!) many senior officers who search out for academic expertise because they know that knowing more is better than knowing less. When Admiral (ret.) Stavridis was SACEUR, he passed around the PDF of the Dave and Steve NATO book because it shed light on what his officers were experiencing in Afghanistan. Officers have this obsession with reading lists, including the retired general who was known as the Warrior Monk, because they understand that repeating old mistakes is a bad idea.
Which leads to the big question: who has the time and the incentive to systematically study the armed forces? Not military folks who have day jobs. Retired veterans may have the time, but do they have sufficient experience beyond their MOS and sufficient training to think and research rigorously? Academics have the time, the training, and the curiosity to study the US (and other) armed forces. But not all academics, just those who are focused on this stuff. It is a great tragedy that military history may be devalued these days, but, after meeting so many young civ-mil scholars over the past couple of years (check out the Naval War College for a secret stash), I can say that the present and future of the political science of the armed forces is in great shape.