FM 3-24, Social Science, and Security
In his review of the updated FM 3-24, Bing West has some harsh words about the manual’s academic tint: “[t]he COIN FM is harmful because it teaches war as sociology.” Charles J. Dunlap is also unimpressed, characterizing it as a mishmash of warfighting and material targeted to “northeastern graduate students.” West and Dunlap’s remarks suggest FM 3-24 belongs in a social science faculty lounge instead of a war room. Recently, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates also voiced similar sentiments about those who he believes treat war like a “science.”
West, Dunlap, and Gates’ frustrations are not without merit. The history of social sciences’ entanglement with the military and intelligence community is undeniably troubled. Reading West and Dunlap’s critiques of FM 3-24 raise the question of whether a better and more productive relationship is possible.
As a social scientist-in-training, I write this essay to offer some constructive general suggestions about how social scientists and national security practitioners can best collaborate together.
The Correlates of War
The relationship between American social science and national security dates back to World War II and hit a high point during the Cold War. The social sciences cut their teeth on the toughest political-military problems, and government patronage was also a key ingredient in the growth of the modern social sciences. This relationship abruptly changed during the Vietnam era. Military practitioners came away feeling (with some justification) that academics had overpromised and underdelivered. Moreover, the culture of the American university became more hostile to national security concerns as campus protests pushed the military-industrial complex away.
The end of the Cold War dramatically reduced government patronage of the social sciences. Certainly the spigot wasn’t completely turned off, as evidenced by government-funded ventures like the Political Instability Task Force. But compared to the feast of Cold War social science, the fall of the Soviet Union led to famine.
Without a Cold War-style mobilization of intellectual resources academics are ultimately bound by disciplinary incentives to produce work for other academics -- hence the “gap” between policy and academia. The Global War on Terror partially reversed these trends. The government called on academics that utilized social scientific methodologies ranging from cultural analysis to computational number-crunching. Did all of this reduce war to academic hair-splitting?
In a rare feat of social scientific deference to a historian, I will leave that question to historians of military and intellectual matters like my friend Nick Prime. Instead, I will suggest some pointers for productive collaboration between social scientists and their government counterparts in the security sector. These are by no means an exhaustive list of suggestions, only those that do not seem to have been discussed very much in dialogues about social science, academia, and security.
Eating Soup With a PhD?
1. The employment of social scientists instead of national security practitioners must be justified in each and every use case. Unfortunately, the question of whether or not social scientists can add value to national security is also complex enough to be a social scientific field of study in and of itself.
Government is, like any other area of life, a question about how to allocate limited resources. There are a lot of reasons why a national security practitioner might be a better choice than a social scientist. In the world of security practice, a PhD is not guaranteed to grant intellectual insight superior to that of a battle-tested Marine. Tacit knowledge, military training, experience, and socialization into a particular security context are valuable beyond measure, and these are all generally things academics lack.
This doesn’t mean that experience is everything. The famous game theorist Bruce Bueno de Mesquita is an effective consultant because he extensively elicits practitioner knowledge and plugs it into his models. De Mesquita’s combination of academic chops and solicitation of subject matter expert input makes him a favorite among government and industry clients. That said, without expert inputs for his models de Mesquita would likely be much less successful.
The answer to “should I get an social science academic?” always should be “it depends.” There are a variety of contextual considerations that will decide whether or not academics will provide valuable applications. Powerful defense innovations like amphibious warfare did not require anyone with doctorates in political science or sociology. In contrast, economists made a significant contribution to the World War II war effort, and an anthropologist produced a pioneering postwar study of Japanese culture.
Ultimately there are no easy answers to this question. The anthropologist-staffed Human Terrain System’s troubles show that even application areas (cultural knowledge) that intuitively seem geared towards social scientists can prove problematic in practice. What worked for Ruth Benedict didn’t work out very well in Afghanistan. Consequently, quantitative modelers utilizing a statistical methodology called search theory helped solve key problems in the highly technical and domain-specific area of anti-submarine warfare. Today, researchers in economics and statistics use search theory to help combat improvised explosive devices.
Context, the nature of the task, and professional judgment will ultimately decide whether or not consulting a social scientist is necessary to help solve a national security problem.
2. Basic academic research is useful even if it does not yield an immediate applied payoff.
Policymakers and journalists often lament that political scientists and their compatriots prefer jargon, mathematical abstractions, and parsimonious theories to ideas that are of clear use to policy concerns. It’s true that most of what is printed in The American Political Science Review has little to no practical utility or relevance. But that’s also the point.
The core mission of the spy is to gather intelligence, the core mission of the soldier is to fight the nation’s enemies, and the core mission of the social science academic is to contribute to knowledge. Many academics would not have suffered through the toil of a doctoral program if they did not value knowledge for knowledge’s sake. Hence, to call their research abstract and impractical is to miss the point entirely.
Also, without basic research there can be no practical applications. This is clear in the “hard” sciences, where absent-minded physicists and mathematicians made discoveries that led to powerful military and civilian applications. Cumulative knowledge about the world is what ultimately paves the way for useful tools. By making practical application the sole criterion of social scientific research value, government consumers paradoxically ensure that they will never get the best research applications.
Basic research that challenges the assumptions of policy also can be highly valuable. The idea that monopoly of force is what makes a state, first professed a century ago by the social scientist Max Weber, is now extremely controversial. One of the more depressing tragedies of American nation-building efforts is how much blood and treasure was lost pursuing an objective (host nation monopoly of force) that may not have been necessary or possible to begin with. Had policymakers paid attention to the research, perhaps they might have arrived at a different course of action.
Sure, most basic research is probably not relevant to day-to-day practitioner needs. But practitioners should not completely discount the possibility that dry, jargon-filled journal articles might be of value.
3. Academics studying war and conflict must engage with domain-specific research and knowledge that practitioners utilize.
One of the great barriers to greater cooperation between social scientists and the military is the existence of two parallel sources of knowledge regarding war and conflict.
In the purely academic sphere, linkages between the volumes of literature produced by strategy scholars, military historians, security practitioners, and those of mainstream social scientists are few and far between. In particular, Infinity Journal’s A.E Stahl argues that subfields of mainstream political science that study international conflict often neglect the conduct of war. Social science academics also frequently ignore or misunderstand technical details of war, weapons, and how the US military-industrial complex functions.
There are prominent exceptions to this generalization. Bear Braumoeller, author of one of the most sophisticated and widely acclaimed new works on international security, engages and responds to Clausewitz. One can agree or disagree with Stephen Biddle’s methodologically dense work Military Power while nonetheless acknowledging that Biddle read the military history and considered technical problems often ignored by international security research.
At the end of the day, academics are unlikely to have the vast command of military-technical detail that practitioners do. Nor will disciplinary divides between American social science and military history and/or war studies be bridged tomorrow. But social science academics would undoubtedly benefit from familiarizing themselves with both the tools of the trade relevant to practitioners and the literature that matters most in war college panel discussions and national security forums.
4. The concept of “policy relevance” is not the only viable model of academia-policy collaboration.
Academics and practitioners both share a flawed image of how they should relate to each other: the notion of “policy relevance.” In theory, the academic publishes some peer-reviewed social science research that is relevant to a government concern. In return for making jargon-free yet rigorous research that is of value to the government consumer, the academic is rewarded with attention and support from Uncle Sam. Everyone is happy, right? There is one big flaw with this model. What an academic considers “relevant” may not be so relevant to the practitioner, and what a practitioner considers relevant may be unpalatable to the academic.
Peer-reviewed academic research also competes with thousands of think-tank reports, op-eds, and white papers tailored specifically to the desires of policy. Unless academics try to mimic think-tanks and advocacy groups, what the Ivory Tower considers relevant often won’t be relevant enough to Langley or the Pentagon. A timely think-tank report condensed to a memo or a PowerPoint will always beat a thick but “relevant” journal article. Both sides of the divide also have different expectations about what “policy relevant” research constitutes – and these expectations aren’t easy to resolve.
This doesn’t mean that we ought to throw the policy relevance concept out the window. But policy relevance should be qualified and contrasted with an alternative model: applied projects and partnerships that match social scientific methodology and subject matter expertise to government need. The government benefits from research and analysis that is tailored to its unique problems. And in turn, academics get opportunities to demonstrate the utility of their ideas and methods while also field-testing them on difficult challenges.
My frequent co-author John P. Sullivan has recently begun a profitable partnership with the University of Southern California (USC)’s CREATE Institute. Sullivan and CREATE utilize game theory and multi-agent simulation to develop more robust police deployments. Sullivan gains by working with academics on solutions to help make Los Angeles safer. USC academics, in turn, have an applied environment to further develop their theory of security games.
There are a variety of possible models of policy-academia cooperation, and “policy relevance” is only one of them. We do ourselves a disservice by making it the exemplar.
5. Government-funded social science research efforts require careful consideration and evaluation.
There are countless laments about how government and social scientists have drifted apart. Most of these ignore the plethora of existing government programs that fund social science research on national security matters like the Minerva Initiative. Researchers like Marc Sageman that have consulted on national security matters have a different complaint: the applied research is useless:
Well-meaning research based on social-network analysis, data-farming, agent-based modeling, Bayesian networks, and other kinds of simulations flourished for a few years. The hope was that those cutting-edge tools would anticipate the tactics of the enemy, but they failed to deliver on their promise. What the government did not support was the methodical accumulation of detailed and comprehensive data. As one official once said to me, “Why should I fund the collection of publicly available and free information?”
Is this a fair characterization and assessment of government-funded research? At a very minimum, Sageman’s complaints deserve attention. Before more taxpayer money is funneled to applied research, the government and academics ought to first ponder successes, failures, and areas for improvement in current research initiatives. This can only help make future research more useful to national security policy and practice.
Some research applications are also vastly easier to evaluate than others. Determining the causal relationship between a social scientist’s new data mining algorithm and an increase in enemy fatalities is not easy, but it also is vastly simpler than evaluating long-run research efforts that may not yield tangible payoff for some time or have indirect (at best) impacts on national security.
However, evaluations and critiques should also avoid the Washington habit of taking research out of context and misleadingly holding it up as an example of frivolous spending. Too often, politicians misunderstand the nature and dynamics of academic research and insult academics that, like anthropologist Scott Atran, dedicate enormous amounts of time to national security applications.
Taxpayers obviously deserve the best value for their money. But academics that seek to help the nation also deserve respectful consideration. The fact that research is sometimes difficult to evaluate does not justify holding it up for mockery.
6. Don’t dismiss the complex ethical dilemmas that social scientists face when doing national security work.
In his new history, Mark Lilla enumerates the misadventures of intellectuals in politics. Academic involvement in “politics by other means” poses just as many – if not more – ethical problems.
Certainly some academics will never agree with American foreign policy and will routinely turn down any opportunity to work with the military or intelligence community. But for others the question is more complex. One does not need to be Noam Chomsky to see the problematic elements of political scientist Samuel Huntington’s involvement in the Vietnam-era Strategic Hamlet program. Unfortunately, academic involvement can lead to harm to Americans, allies, and foreign civilians.
Social science also thrives on openness, communication, and debate, but national security work by definition is highly secretive. For many academics, the secrecy and compartmentalization of the national security world runs contrary to basic norms of scholarship and accountability. In particular, social science today emphasizes the importance of replication and reproducibility – which classification makes difficult, if not impossible.
Lastly, academics may potentially face harsh professional consequences for national security work but most would agree that they aren’t likely to be shot at or blown up. This powerful asymmetry in consequences is a frequent source of practitioner resentment when it is not acknowledged.
Ethical dilemmas are not impossible to cope with. But they are also omnipresent in any academic collaboration with the security state.
War and Social Science: A Better Future?
Bing West is right. War isn’t sociology. It’s violent, crude, and frighteningly unpredictable. And this sad reality – along with the many differences between academia and the world of practice, will inevitably produce tension between social scientists, soldiers, and other national security practitioners.
The nation has benefited in the past from fruitful collaboration between social scientists and national security practitioners. Potential for equally productive future collaboration exists.