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Winning as Its Own Justification

The idea that one should study warfare and national security history, theory, and “science” in order to make instruments of national security more effective is so accepted within government and the military that is banal. In academia, it is substantially more controversial. Without giving into stereotypes of “tenured radicals” that are less valid today (a time of heightened cooperation between academics and the government on national security), it is eminently justifiable to point out that the intimate connection between government and academia fostered during World War II and the early years of the Cold War is a thing of the past. Moreover, the idea that the study of warfare in order to make one’s nation more effective at the winning of military operations, campaigns, and wars is vastly more controversial today than it has been in the past. However, it shouldn’t be–and enabling one’s forces to win is a noble goal for research and analysis.
      Due to the sometimes hysterical nature of this subject, it is wise to tread lightly. Perhaps the best place to start is the problem of War Studies (the integrated field comprising international relations, military history, military science, and related social science fields) in America and its quest to justify its relevance. As academia became more specialized, history in turn began moving away from the study of pivotal events to the look at large-scale societal forces (Fernand Braudel’s work for example), and some scholars became actively hostile to government and the military, fields such as military and diplomatic history suffered. By the time the Cold War was done, War Studies had to make a desperate plea for its own relevance as the smaller field of Strategic Studies began to be seen by some as obsolescent.
      War Studies scholars made three main arguments to save the field. First, they argued that war was central to the human experience and one cannot understand it purely through social history–combat history and theory is needed. Second, knowledge of war enables a better democracy because citizens need information about how to decide basic matters of national security. Finally, combat history and theory does not equate to a desire for war. These were all good arguments, even if many in the intended audience were not impressed by references to Thucydides or Clausewitz. Each argument can stand on its own as a valid reason for studying conflict. However, winning also matters and provides its own justification. Why?
      Unless one is a complete pacifist, they will agree that force has a utility–even if it is a severely circumscribed one. In order for the use of force to be effective, a nation’s army and other organs of national security must be effective. Study of history and theory is one of the major sources of military effectiveness–especially since the last major war against an conventional opponent that inflicted serious operational defeats on an American force was during the Korean War. It is better to learn from other people’s mistakes (if you can) rather than your own. This is true whether one is waging a desperate defense of their homeland or an expeditionary conflict abroad. Operational excellence is a social good that is just as legitimate as any other real-world application of academic knowledge. While people may fervently disagree about the use of force, there are few who would deny its basic utility under some circumstances.
      This is not an excuse to ignore the policy dimension, as a poor policy essentially ruins everything that flows from it. It is also not an excuse for history and research that tells policymaker what they want to hear regardless of the political, strategic, or moral consequences. But history and theory that not only illuminates and explains an important issue in War Studies but also has the added benefit of providing some level of assistance to making American military forces more operationally or tactically effective should be seen as commendable. The idea that one’s research should benefit those disadvantaged by society is commonly accepted in academia. But since the utility of force is universally accepted by people of most political persuasions (even if there is little commonality about how it should be used), it is difficult to see why the idea that one’s research should also make force more effective is not as commonly accepted as other academic interventions.

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