Strategy, War, and Skepticism

I have been thinking lately about the problem of defense and strategic analysis. A recent journal article notes the following:

Amidst recent Western military campaigns that have defied strategic logic and produced few, if any, tangible gains, the utility of force in contemporary conflicts is being questioned increasingly, yet very few useful answers are emerging. Unfortunately, policymakers have too limited an understanding of military affairs, and the officials and experts tasked to inform them often have vested interests or lack imagination. Whereas strategic studies scholars were once highly sought after to “think the unthinkable” and provide fresh ideas for policymakers, the field has since fallen on hard times and shows no signs of recovery. To resuscitate the field there is an urgent need for a fundamental re-evaluation of long-standing strategic concepts in light of present realities.

I will, sometime in the future, respond at length to the article but I will say for now that I find both the prescription and the diagnosis it makes lacking. It did make me think: is it possible to revive strategic studies? There is a human cost to concept failure, and even if I am often critical of the rationalist fantasies that often underlie a lot of strategy thinking I still am also unwilling to give up the idea that working on strategy has value. I will admit, however, that my faith has often been seriously tested. And it sometimes is hard to justify to myself why I do it to begin with. So why would we all be worse off if Homo Strategicus went extinct? What I keep coming back to is simply the reality that there are very few people who study and write about strategy relative to the problems that governments and political communities must sort through in making decisions about war and peace. The academic and policy position/status of strategic studies is no less perilous today than it was close to 20 years ago at the end of the Cold War, for that matter.

Having a group of people with expertise in strategy and security/defense more broadly won't prevent bad decisions. In fact, sometimes it will make bad decisions more likely than not. That said, without people who have taken the time to learn how to reason about strategy, it is hard to see how any number of desirable things (such as civilian control of the military and oversight of the national security state more broadly) are possible. Without people who have read the books, gotten the academic degrees, or humped a ruck and a rifle in the 'Stan translating their knowledge into research, commentary, and analysis on matters of war and security we are left with uninformed partisans whose opinions about defense are a mere extension of their ideology or hawks and contractors whose financial, bureaucratic, and political interests will dictate what they propose we should do about such matters. And nowhere is this reality clearer than the recent dustup touched off by a plea for skeptics to apply their skeptical lens to war.

Recently, I read an op-ed by John Horgan imploring skeptics to be more skeptical of powerful figures in the tech and political worlds and less skeptical of the likes of homeopathy. Though I certainly appreciated the call to apply skepticism to ridiculous tech scams and tech Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt (FUD), Horgan's embrace of the "punching up/down" debate made me uneasy. Why should a skeptic buy into the idea that one should only punch up as opposed to down? Certainly a skeptic should focus their skeptical energies on all targets worthy of skepticism, whether it is California hippies waxing poetic about the latest health product or Pentagon contractors pushing yet another gold-plated platform. However, what concerns me more is the evident message that one can be skeptical of something without core subject-matter knowledge or at least the ability to sift through published information about a topic. Or the message that a narrow set of normative preferences about war and peace are equivalent to skepticism about the topic.

Before I get started on Horgan, see Stephen Pinker's rebuttal of Horgan's comments on the "deep roots" theory of war. Pinker errors somewhat in his response. The claim that no leader has justified a war with reference to evolutionary fitness, for example, is mostly true but also of very dubious relevance due to the historical connection between social Darwinist ideas and militarism. The causation, in any event, is murky. Wars have always been justified as a struggle for existence, so it is perhaps only natural that militarists would seize on perceived scientific justifications for it. Regardless, there is much to recommend in Pinker's response. War has deep roots. What precisely those roots are is the puzzle to be solved, and I recommend Kenneth Payne's books on psychology and war for an overview of the debates and how they relate to social scientific ideas about war. Part of what makes this difficult is the lack of high-quality long-run data , but the Seshat Project will hopefully mitigate some of these difficulties. As Pinker has discussed most of the problems with Horgan's missive, I shall dwell more on this part of Horgan's essay:

The United States, I submit, is the greatest threat to peace. Since 9/11, U.S. wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan have killed 370,000 people. That includes more than 210,000 civilians, many of them children. These are conservative estimates. Far from solving the problem of Muslim militancy, U.S. actions have made it worse. ISIS is a reaction to the anti-Muslim violence of the U.S. and its allies. The U.S. spends almost as much on what we disingenuously call defense as all other nations combined, and we are the leading innovator in and peddler of weapons. Barack Obama, who pledged to rid the world of nuclear weapons, has approved a $1 trillion plan to modernize our arsenal.

The antiwar movement is terribly weak. Not a single genuine antiwar candidate ran in this Presidential race, and that includes Bernie Sanders. Many Americans have embraced their nation’s militarism. They flocked to see American Sniper, a film that celebrates a killer of women and children. In the last century, prominent scientists spoke out against U.S. militarism and called for the end of war. Scientists like Einstein, Linus Pauling, and the great skeptic Carl Sagan. Where are their successors? Noam Chomsky is still bashing U.S. imperialism, but he’s almost 90. He needs help!

Reasonable opinions may differ, but I fail to see what is "skeptical" about Horgan's suggestion of embracing leftist agitprop. Horgan gives the game away when he praises Noam Chomsky for his rhetorical assault on "U.S. imperialism." Yes, the same Noam Chomsky that flirts routinely with totalitarian movements, committed gross errors of omission about the Cambodian genocide, writes introductions to books by Holocaust deniers, formulates bizarre conspiracy theories about how and why the US supported the Bosnian Muslims, etc. Even without all of this, Robert Farley sums up why Chomsky is only of "limited utility as a theorist of international politics."

Reductionism is probably the most consistently annoying problem with Chomsky’s approach. He’s not the worst example of a writer who substitutes lazy quasi-Marxist analysis for sophisticated analysis of why states do things, but he’s pretty bad. The “elite Beltway consensus” theory of foreign policy behavior extant in the progressive blogosphere is limited in its own ways, but is a hell of a lot more sophisticated in terms of connecting interests and ideas with foreign policy that Chomsky’s crude economic approach.

A second major problem is his US-centric approach. Like neoconservatives, Chomsky acts and writes as if the United States is the source of all activity in the international sphere; dictators rise and fall at our behest, multilateral institutions collapse or persist based on our interests, etc. Chomsky rarely bothers to turn the lens that he uses to analyze American foreign policy on any other country. Again, he’s better than some; Chomsky was never much of an apologist for the Soviet Union. Moreover, a focus on the United States is understandable in terms of a political program to attack US foreign policy. However, one can’t begin to understand the genuine dynamics of international politics without recognizing that the factors that motivate the United States often motivate other countries as well.

Chomsky’s understanding of international law is simply terrible. He doesn’t know much about the content, and he doesn’t know much about the process, which leads him to say things that are either flat wrong or that are mystifyingly stupid. For Chomsky, international law is more of a rhetorical cudgel/trope than an actual body of law and process of producing legal agreement. In particular, the notion that international law is somehow “leftist” in orientation is really quite odd; I recall his famous debate with Foucault which left Michel simply flummoxed at Chomsky’s naivety with regard to what international law is, how it’s produced, and what it means for the pursuit of left wing politics.

I do not fully agree with Farley on this assessment, but it is also a well-reasoned one from a well-respected scholar of international affairs and prolific writer on defense matters in such publications of note as The National Interest and The Diplomat. So make of it what you will. Farley's take on Chomsky begs the question of what value a skeptic should place in someone who, whatever his normative intentions, simply doesn't seem to grasp the realities of what he writes about or engage in discussions about them in good faith. Even Marxist dependency theorists such as Andre Gunder Frank or Marxist Cold War historians such as Gabriel Kolko have more to offer the discerning reader. So why, then, in an article about why skeptics should be skeptical of war (among other things), does Horgan hold up Chomsky as an ideal of a skeptical scientist that others should emulate? Is he unaware of what others who are knowledgeable about the subject think about Chomsky? Or does he simply not care, because the normative virtue of Chomsky's opposition to militarism outweighs any other consideration?

I cannot personally discern the causal motivation for such a baffling stance, but readers are invited to make their own assessments. And given the skeptical spirit of the inquiry that Horgan invites us all to participate in, I will refrain from psycho-analyzing him. However, it is also clear that Horgan is guilty of the same sins that Farley attributes to Chomsky, and a few more. As Pinker notes elsewhere in his response, Horgan is reductionist in the extreme. To Horgan, either it is the "Muslims" that are responsible for the horrific wars of the last decade+ of war (a view espoused by some prominent atheists that he argues against) or it is America. Most people who study international politics will pencil in option three: none of the above. It really is more complicated than that, and any skeptic seeking to understand war shouldn't be limited to binary and simple explanations unless a strong and compelling reason exists to do otherwise.

It is true that Islamist terrorists have committed horrific wrongs, and one cannot completely say that this has nothing to do with Islam. Yet it also says something that the likes of ISIS and al-Qaeda are most upset with fellow Muslims that have preached moderation and risked their lives to put an end to such barbarism. If you do not believe me, consider that ISIS released a hit list of American Muslim imams that have urged their flock to embrace nonviolent and tolerant co-existence as a part of the American body politic. Only someone completely and totally wedded to the neoconservative mythos surrounding US wars would also deny that many have been prosecuted incompetently and irresponsibly. Even David Kilcullen, the man brought in to design and prosecute the counterinsurgency in Iraq, called the casus belli for the war itself "fucking stupid." Yet to argue that America is fully responsible for everything wrong that has occurred in the Middle East and South Asia is to ignore the agency of local actors themselves who -- from ISIS' band of throat-slitting savages to third parties (such as the Gulf Arabs, Iranians, and Pakistani intelligence services) and local politicians -- fan the flames of war until conflicts that might have been de-escalated become towering infernos.

Horgan also repeats common cliches about defense that many defense analysts are frankly tired of hearing. Yes, it is true that US defense spending is, in aggregate, almost higher than the rest of the world combined. Would the world be more peaceful if the US spent much less? Make the argument. Nor is it clear about whether or not the US ceasing to peddle weapons would result in a more peaceful world, as opposed to European and Asian defense companies simply capturing American market share. Yes, it is disingeneous that Barack Obama rhetorically committed to a world free of nuclear weapons, but why shouldn't the US modernize its nuclear arsenal? Make the case. Horgan also repeats lies and misrepresentations about the movie American Sniper, which while violent and flag-waving in the way that only a Client Eastwood movie can be, is also not a cinematic celebration of war crimes. In fact, the scene where the titular sniper barges into the home of a frightened and confused Iraqi family and barks orders and questions at them is one of the few examples of a major Hollywood Iraq war film showing what it feels like to be on the receiving end of Americans trying to impose "freedom" at gunpoint.

And to Horgan's point about the lack of a genuine antiwar presidential aspirant, perhaps even the socialist populist Bernie Sanders (a man who hobnobbed with Latin American communists and honeymooned in Moscow) also recognizes some political realities that Horgan does not. Perhaps Sanders understands that being President requires making some allowance for the need to defend the nation and its allies against terrorism and militancy. So why, on this issue, is Horgan not #FeelingTheBern? In sum, Horgan is arguing here that skepticism about war is the same thing as far-left tropes about US foreign policy and the military. And this in and of itself is a significant problem with his call to skepticism. Yes, far-left normative beliefs overlap in places with skepticism about war -- Chomsky was, after all, right to oppose Iraq (though not really for the right reasons) -- but reflexive opposition to US intervention and a college dorm room-esque belief that America is the biggest threat to world peace are not really skepticism at its finest. Unless a college kid carrying a Bushitler sign is your idea of skepticism, which even those who loathe Dubya do not necessarily endorse.

Horgan and others may dismiss these criticisms as yet more prattle from a mindless cog (me) in the vast machine that is the military-industrial-congressional-research complex. However, my stock response to this is a variant of Winston Churchill's famous but possibly fictional comeback to a woman that called him a drunk. Yes, I am a part of the defense world. But Horgan's argument is also simplistic and ridiculous. One day I may no longer be a part of the defense world, but Horgan's argument will still be simplistic and ridiculous irrespective of my professional status. So what, then, does skepticism about war involve? First, skepticism has to come from a genuine willingness to engage tough security problems on their merits, not engage in the behavior described here:

A few months ago, amid all this, I was told with great fanfare that I’d spend the next year working on a side blog with a national security expert who – without divulging too much – had access to an enlightening and largely unknown trove of sensitive government information. That turned out to be a colossal oversell; the expert was embittered, obsessed with more than a few red herrings, occasionally unreliable, and singularly unwilling to share his still-undisclosed trove for stories. He preferred instead to write bombastic score-settling rants and conspiratorial suppositions – precisely the sort of unwarranted jeremiads I’d assured readers and friends in the national security space that we wouldn’t be doing. At a certain point, I sort of gave up on the experiment, unable to associate with factually shaky posts that claimed the Charleston killings weren’t terrorism and that portrayed a former defense secretary (whom I don’t particularly like) sucking and rubbing off the Washington Monument.

Second, any kind of skepticism has to come from genuine knowledge. A vague desire to speak truth to power isn't enough. People like Farley have devoted an enormous amount of their own time and incurred significant opportunity costs to produce useful knowledge about war and peace. People like Farley are, also, not coincidentally, well-placed to make critiques of bad thinking on defense and national security that do not amount to copy and paste jobs from Chomsky essays or conspiratorial rants. Horgan should talk to some of these people! They don't bite, and sometimes can take time off from their busy academic and professional schedules to give interviews to journalists! Yet I don't expect Horgan to sudenly start interrupting Farley's model WWI battleship kit building with phone calls for the following reasons:

  1. Greater knowledge about how war works makes one less likely to give prescriptive policy recommendations or make black and white judgments about who is at fault. As a writer, I mostly prefer to produce diagnostic assessments that voice opinions but are very light on prescriptions. I see the value of what I do mostly as helping other people see complexity as to better help them make decisions for themselves, mostly because my lack of high-level policy experience makes me skeptical about how much I can come up with good actionable recs from a distance. Sometimes I do choose to give specific recs and I often suggest them indirectly, but my preference is really for diagnosis above all else.

  2. Greater knowledge about how war works makes one also more cognizant of how there are no objectively "right" answers to major defense problems that can be separated from political commitments. And if there is one thing that is a constant in US national security and defense, it is that politics does not stop at the water's edge. Can good defense analysis be done even when people disagree about basic normative questions? Sure. One does not need to be a Republican or a Democrat or an Realist or an Neoconservative, for example, to evaluate whether or not American combined arms operations in World War II were effective or argue about whether or not American defense planning is up to the task. But who you are and where you sit does matter quite a bit when you think about what the US long-term foreign policy and defense investments ought to be.

The reason why 1-2 pose significant problems for Horgan lies in his view of how skeptics and above all else scientists should behave as regards to war. In the book The Honest Broker, Roger Pielke Jr. describes two polar opposites of science policy:

Pielke....[condenses] the key messages of his book into a diagram. The author’s recommendations and argument hinge on a useful two–by–two matrix. On the horizontal axis are two views of science that potential policy advisers may hold to; namely the linear model and the stakeholder model. With the linear model, knowledge is considered a prerequisite for action and should sometimes compel policy. In contrast, the stakeholder model adopts the perspective that policy–relevant science must be made in reference to values and consideration of both the user and the application of the science.

This can be simplified further into what Pielke dubs "abortion politics" and "tornado politics." Abortion politics are characterized by enormous and intractable normative divides and can only partially at best (if at all) be addressed by scientific research. Tornado politics, in contrast, is considerably simpler. If you want to protect people from tornados, you consult the scientists who have expertise about tornados and tornado preparation and turn their knowledge into actionable policy.

To develop his ideas further, Pielke proposes a thought experiment distinguishing between “Tornado Politics” and “Abortion Politics.” Imagine that you are in an auditorium with 50 other people when someone runs in and exclaims that a tornado is fast approaching. The group must decide what to do – do you take refuge in the basement or not? Stage two is to imagine the exact same group in the exact same auditorium but faced with the question of whether or not to permit the practice of abortion in their community. Each scenario ends with the same key question: “What should we do?”.

The author refers to the two stages of the thought experiment as examples of two forms of politics. First, Tornado Politics: situations where a consensus on values exists (“we must escape this approaching tornado”) so that the focus becomes a systematic search of new knowledge in order that scientific uncertainties are reduced which leads to a legitimate decision. In cases where the consensus is perceived to be lacking from both a scientific and political response and therefore “no” is the answer to the first question, Pielke refers to this kind of scenario as Abortion Politics: situations where value disputes cannot be resolved by reducing scientific uncertainties.

Adding to the scientific knowledge base will not help resolve the situation and allow protagonists and antagonists to agree. In this kind of context, the challenge for scientists is to either expand or reduce the range of policy options. If they pursue this they assume the role of issue advocates and thereby align themselves with a particular political agenda or interest group.

Horgan, in reaching back to scientists' warnings about nuclear war as a guideline for skepticism in the 21st century, conflates tornado politics and abortion politics. And this is not a good thing. Scientists often end up getting into significant trouble when they use science to impose their political preferences via the backdoor. Their status as neutral experts is questioned, as well as their expertise. Second, trying to use science to sneak normative preferences in via the backdoor also closes off debate and narrows the search space of possible policy solutions to problems. I will also add that war and defense is an area in which many can contribute. I am a PhD student studying strategy, but I try to weigh the opinions of an combat veteran with only a high school education equally with those of my fellow researchers. He (and increasingly she) was there and I wasn't, after all. In any event, no matter who is making the argument, arguments either can either be supported by sound logic and evidence (some of which can be experential depending on the topic) or they cannot. Closing off debate in the way that Pielke fears only lessons the amount of people that can contribute who may have something to contribute. That is a shame, because some of the best ideas about defense have flowed from bottom to top rather than top to bottom.

I do not think, regardless, that the answer to problems about defense is either skepticism per se or Pielke's own "honest broker" that illuminates policy options. Both are subsets and products of a larger capability: the art of strategic reasoning. I will close this with a quotation of my friend Nick Prime's historical scholarship on the "control" school of defense strategy:

The great value of a comprehensive theory, one inclusive enough to cover the comprehensive direction of a nations power (both military and non-military), is in its ability to provide the foundation for what Rosinski called ‘strategic reasoning’. Strategic reasoning, he suggested, was an analytical methodology that needed to be taught. It was analogous to the ways in which law schools do more than teach legal cases, they teach law students to think like lawyers, legal reasoning; likewise, medical schools teach more than specific medical cases they teach a broader conception of medical reasoning. The means to approach, analyse, and most importantly, communicate about strategy with others across the various services and organizations, through an explicit theory, was “imperative in order to provide common ground for a discussion and to avoid semantic misunderstandings.”

Ultimately, the only way that we are going to get the ability to evaluate claims about war and defense better is to learn how to reason about war and defense. Strategic reasoning isn't about a particular method - Nick is a historian and I will be getting my PhD in computer modeling. It's about learning how to think about correlated, adversarial decisionmaking in the presence of either violence or the threat of violence. Studying strategy trained me to think in a disciplined way about decisionmaking in all forms, and helped me not only analyze defense topics but also broaden my base of knowledge by helping me immerse myself in the details of other fields and issues. It helped me learn computer programming and teach myself esoteric aspects of it like the Robot Operating System (ROS) by translating my knowledge of strategy and choice to how computers make decisions. It helped me teach myself game theory and cognitive science because of the way that strategy taught me to ponder both formalized and rational approaches to decisionmaking and what those approaches leave out.

You don't have to be committed to helping the US national security state like I am to benefit from it either. Marx and Engels knew more about strategy and war than most high-ranking generals did in the 20th century. Lenin, Mao, and Ho Chi Minh all read military history and strategy and benefited from it in their own struggles from below. There are important parallels between the strategic theories of Martin Luther King Jr., and Carl von Clausewitz, to say nothing of the lesons that a rabble-rouser like Saul Alinsky took from Machiavelli:

The basic requirement for the understanding of the politics of change is to recognize the world as it is. We must work with it on its terms if we are to change it to the kind of world we would like it to be. We must first see the world as it is and not as we would like it to be. We must see the world as all political realists have, in terms of "what men do and not what they ought to do," as Machiavelli and others have put it. It is painful to accept fully the simple fact that one begins from where one is, that one must break free of the web of illusions one spins about life. Most of us view the world not as it is but as we would like it to be. The preferred world can be seen any evening on television in the succession of programs where the good always wins — that is, until the late evening newscast, when suddenly we are plunged into the world as it is.

It's hard to see the world as it is, and many so-called "realists" often fail to do so. And it's even harder to keep the "is" and the "ought" separate. Especially due to the fact that no one here in DC analyzes defense in a political, professional, or even personal vacuum. Issues of whether or not saying X will imperil a future political job, get one fired, or offend a drinking buddy at a NW DC bar all factor into what defense and security analysts here in DC say and write. I worry about the long-term effect of this, because it means that, as Joshua Foust (a man that has paid a steep personal and professional price for being willing to challenge powerful people and ideas here in DC) argued, we can no longer talk about strategy, defense, and security issues (as well as politics in general) honestly and frankly.

So, that leaves us movies. In film, and TV, and books, and so on, we can still ply the philosophical ideas that undergird our life without immediately running over a horrifying minefield of right wing and left wing triggers for acrimony. It's like narrative art has become the last bastion of credulous debate. You can't do it about politics anymore, but you can do it with movies. This isn't philistinism, but desperation.

For the life of me, it reminds me of how political criticism sometimes worked in the Soviet Union, where artistic output was heavily censored and political debate tightly constrained, but they were free to pick apart the class consciousness and government repression of the West. It provided a mild, indirect way of highlighting the fundamental contradictions in Soviet society without tripping over the secret police and the art censors.

Obviously, things in America are not that bad. But it's telling to me that there is far more detailed, nuanced discussion of the politics in the Marvel Cinematic Universe than there are of the politics in the real world -- like all the energy we once spent on actual policy is now being redirected into cultural criticism because the stakes are lower.

It is really sad when one can only talk about such things in the context of the latest Captain America movie or Game of Thrones episode, and also corrosive in the long-term to public policy. But even if we could say everything we wanted without fear of political and professional consequences, we all would still be nothing more than flawed humans prone to ego and confirmation bias. At a minimum, the best we as defense analysts can do is try to engage in strategic reasoning and spread knowledge of how to do it to others. Hopefully this can breed skeptical intellectual habits when considering issues of war and peace. It's not guaranteed, but none of the alternatives are guaranteed to do so either. So if you really want to be a skeptic about war, study strategy. Read Clausewitz, but also with a mind to the reality that he is not the last word. Read military history, political science, and anything else vaguely relevant you can get your hands on. We need more people who are informed about strategy, willing to learn, and interested in both contributing fresh ideas as well as calling out bad ideas and applying old ideas better. And we especially need people from a greater variety of backgrounds -- intellectual, demographic, or otherwise. [1]

What we do not need is what Horgan is offering -- more analysis that is "skeptical" of the Pentagon but takes Noam Chomsky's word as holy writ. As my friend and defense journalist Kelsey Atherton noted in a series of tweets making the case for "dedicated popular defense journalism," the details do matter when analyzing and critiquing strategy and defense issues. Anyone can rail and rant about the montrosity that is the F-35. But not everyone can do so while retaining command of the facts of the case. And not everyone can make the critiques that are most useful about it. "[w]ith the F-35: 'is an all-our-eggs-in-one-basket approach good or desirable? is a question that’s too late to answer," Atherton observes. The decision cannot be reversed, for a variety of reasons. So while I enjoy lamenting the mess that is the F-35, I also admit that such laments won't help a decision-maker grapple with a world in which the F-35 decision has already been made. What should be done now? Being skeptical alone won't tell you that. Knowing something about strategy might.

[1] For those curious about the status of the Papers We Love in Strategy group, expect an update next month. I got sidetracked dealing with my wife's immigration process, among other things, while balancing my other commitments. I'll be emailing something out in June about the first meeting.