Evan R. Goldstein: Professors on the Battlefield

Roundup: Talking About History

[Mr. Goldstein is contributing editor at Moment magazine.]

... 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 terms of this relationship are most evident in the new Counterinsurgency Field Manual. In the face of a gruesomely persistent Iraqi insurgency, Gen. Petraeus was charged with revamping the outdated counterinsurgency doctrine. In an unprecedented collaboration, he reached out to Sarah Sewall, who directs the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University, to help him organize a vetting session of the draft manual at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas.

The conference brought together journalists, human-rights activists, academics and members of the armed forces to exchange ideas about how to make the doctrine more effective and more humane. Ms. Sewall, who since 2001 has been trying to get the military to bring the concerns of the human-rights community to the table, tells me that with Gen. Petraeus it is like pushing on an open door. And according to Montgomery McFate, who had a hand in drafting the manual, this was probably the first time that anthropological insight has been officially incorporated into more than 200 years of military doctrine. In chapter one, it explicitly states that "cultural knowledge is essential to waging a successful counterinsurgency. American ideas of what is 'normal' or 'rational' are not universal." (The manual was published last month by the University of Chicago Press. Ms. Sewall wrote the foreword.)

"Anthropologists have the opportunity right now to influence how the national security establishment does business," writes Ms. 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.' "...

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Jason Blake Keuter - 8/20/2007

This is nice except for the underlying assumption that colleges and universities are bastions of wisdom and enlightenment that have so much to teach to the savage military. In other words, it seems a nice way of saying "you suck..here, let me take over"

Randll Reese Besch - 8/18/2007

Those signs being waved are due to the fact that no channels are open officially to the military or the WTO or any other organizations that people feel powerless to even speak with.
I wait to see how far this partnership with anthropologists will be perverted to harm others the way psychology is used now in torcher.
Just look to totalitarian states and their use of the disaplines of science to bend to their prejucies and preversions of rationality and anti-humanity.