Friday, January 09, 2009

Acadmic freedom in US war colleges (Updated)

I wondered whether the military colleges were under pressure from Cheney and Rummy to conform their academic work to the Republican Party line. I frequently quote from papers and articles from the Army War College's Strategic Studies Institute (SSI) and from their quarterly journal Parameters. And I also have used material from other military war colleges and service publications.

While some of those papers and articles do reflect the administration line, for better or worse, many provide information that doesn't conform to the administration's preferred public image of the Iraq War or other situations. The military colleges have long maintained a strong record of quality scholarship and academic freedom, which means they provide materials representing a variety of viewpoints and types of analysis, not just pieces reflecting current official positions. (You can find the PR stuff at the services' press sites, much of it so wooden you'd think they would be embarrassed to publish it.) The Autumn 2008 issue of Parameters includes articles by Travis Sharp of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation and Michael Lind of the New America Foundation.

Tom Ricks in his new blog at the Foreign Policy Web site, which started just this week with a whole new look and approach that should make it a more valuable source of commentary on contemporary events, addresses some issues that have arisen at the Army War College in particular. The bottom line: Rummy did try to impose a more Party-line approach at that institution.

Rather bizarrely, professors have been prohibited from assigning the works of radical Islamists.[Update: two commenters have pointed out that Ricks' report on this aspect is not correct, which I'm glad to hear. I take their comments to be accurate. So the comments in the following paragraph don't seem to apply to the actual situation at the Army War College.]

This is another example of the hairbrained notion of shallow-minded Manichaeanism that someone thinks that understanding the enemy (or potential enemies) is a bad thing. Do they think that knowing what Sayyid Qutb's or Mawlānā Abu'l-A‛la Mawdūdī's approach to political Islam was is going to turn them into suicide bombers? This is a real fear of ideas. This notion that you shouldn't even read what the Other Side says about their goals seems to have an underlying assumption that you only read things for instructions, like the directions for how to set up your new TV. (Qutb and Mawdūdī are probably easier to understand than the average electronics or appliance instruction, but that's another matter.)

Ricks' two posts on that topic are Fiasco at the Army War College 01/07/09 and Fiasco at the Army War College: The sequel 01/08/09. The first post involves Steven Metz of the SSI, and includes comments from Metz himself in response. I won't try to summarize the particular dispute here, but the post and Metz' response give a good idea of what happened - which wasn't quite what Ricks seems to have first assumed.

I got a smile from a commenter responding to Metz, saying, "Probably the majority of bloggers have never heard of you before despite your great accomplishments." That's certainly not true here, where I've posted a number of times about Metz' work about the nature of counterinsurgency. I'm also going to be posting about his 2008 book Iraq and the Evolution of American Strategy, in which he provides one of the best descriptions I've seen of the whole "revolution in military affairs" and "transformation" that loomed so large in the US military in recent years. He also makes some important points about how the Iraq War is likely to be taken as a paradigm for future wars and why it's important to understand what really happened in a clear-eyed manner.

In his comments to the first post, Metz gives a description of how academic freedom has a different context in the military colleges than in most public or private universities:

There are other important differences between academic freedom in a DoD setting and a civilian academic setting. Much of the analysis done within DoD is about the organization itself--its structure, policies, leadership, etc. Most of the analysis done in civilian academia deals with organizations, policies, and people outside the academic organization itself. This means that as a general rule, critical analysis done under the policy of academic freedom within DoD strikes more directly at DoD itself than does critical analysis undertaken in a university. Very few academics build their careers through critical analysis of academia, particularly their own institution or their own leaders. But that's exactly what DoD academics do.

It is also true that most of the leadership in DoD, whether uniformed military or senior civilians, have not spent all or most of their careers in an environment where the value of academic freedom is inculcated. They understand "strategic communications" used to promote the messages and interests of the organization, but may not be as comfortable with public criticism of their organization from inside it. Given that, there is an amazing depth of tolerance for self criticism from DoD's senior leaders. I have long been amazed that the U.S. Army pays me to, with some frequency, tell it that I think it's wrong. That Army and DoD leaders can understand, tolerate, and value something that they may not have deep personal experience with says much about their sagacity.
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