Lionel Beehner’s post asking whether war is too important to be left to the social scientists rubbed me the wrong way. The subject he tackles is very valuable, but it’s tackled in a way that makes me fairly uncomfortable in the dualism it seems to propose.
There is a juxtaposition here of a classic set of stereotypes, which Beehner riffs on but doesn’t challenge — the rational, scientific academic/manager fond of regularity and abstraction and the muddy-boots practitioner that seems to prize a more “thick” and contextual idea of war gained through experience and the study of history.
The ur-text of this divide is the Vietnam experience. As the legend goes, McNamara and his math whizzes thought they could reduce the war into a set of equations or game theories, and lost track of the human element of war. But hanging the blame for the war on the whiz kids seems a bit strange — it’s not as if their counterparts in the military were any less immune to the problem of lacking contextual and cultural knowledge. And it was precisely a group of academics and “whiz kids” that produced what would later be known as the Pentagon Papers, a damning internal assessment of strategic failure. Finally, those same social science academics and military planners with social scientific and technical training had also contributed significantly to World War II strategic planning and operations research.
Finally, these sorts of “political scientists are from Venus, soldiers are from Mars” kinds of dichotomies elide rather substantial variation in the actual beliefs of those in the military and academia. Bob Gates, who Beehner quotes in his post, fusses about computer models and game theories that reduce war and make it abstract. But I would counter that many things strategic practitioners regard as sacrosanct — such as the Lykke model of strategy — are equally reductionistic.
I have never seen a game theorist or computer modeler that would conclude, a priori, that a strategic failure is due to someone not having “good strategy” or failing to “balance ends, ways, and means.” Not only are these terms so fuzzy as to be analytically useless, but they seem to make big assumptions about models of strategic reasoning and rationality/computational capacity. Ironically many qualitatively-minded strategic practitioners seem to make stronger assumptions about rationality than most quantitative social scientists and rationalize them with canned case studies that do as much violence to history as any parsimonious theory. The difference is that at least scope conditions are clear in social science, whereas practitioners often present their own parochial biases or aesthetic preferences as the “enduring logic of war.”
Finally, vague references made to “fear, honor, and interest” or dead Prussians are often ways of disguising more controversial inferences or forces of habit. I have stopped using “fear, honor, and interest” myself because it is true in a banal sense but can justify almost every sort of inference possible. Is war more likely in today’s international system? Yes, because of the eternal fear, honor, and interest. Is war less likely? Yes, because of the eternal fear, honor, and interest.
Contrary to Beehner’s description of Nagl vs. Peters as a monolithic academic thinker vs a hedgehog, social scientists also recognize variation and heterogeneity. Variation is the heart of social science. If things did not vary in the world, there would be no cause for theories to explain why they vary. And practitioners are just as likely to treat things of interest as monolithically as theorists do. This exchange, however, is valuable:
Starting to answer one of Peters’ points, Nagl said, “Speaking as a social scientist –”
Peters interrupted: “You’re not a social scientist. You’re a soldier.”
Nagl, a bit puzzled, replied, “Well, I’m a social scientist and a soldier.”
“No!” Peters thundered. “You can’t be both. Which is it?”
Peters’ overwrought statement might be useful if is elaborated on more fully. He is grasping some aspects of an inconvenient truth, though not perhaps the way he might believe.
Social science is about explanation. A social scientist tries to develop explanations for things and forces that we see in the world. What causes wars? How do institutions impact information and aggregation of preferences? What factors make it more likely for peace-building missions to succeed?
At best, all of these explanations are incomplete in some important way. They do violence to the truth for the sake of general explanation. And there are substantial uncertainties, mysteries, and paradoxes embedded in them. Legitimacy, for example, is the "dark matter" of political science — something we can’t directly observe but infer from other things we observe. Sounds cool in a sort of Ivory Tower way. But does that help an Afghan war planner trying to figure out how to bolster the horribly uneven legitimacy of Afghanistan’s government? Probably not.
Second, post-hoc explanations about past events only give us a limited purchase on making decisions about the future. Framing the problem correctly determines what analytical tools we need to use to try to influence it, and that is something social scientific training gives us no real guarantee about doing correctly. You’ll also expect me to trot out Tetlock and his work on expert prediction — and I do because it is a reason why academics ought to be humble. Academic knowledge does not grant any special purchase on prediction, even if academic knowledge/specialization is about explanation rather than prediction.
Emergence and probabilistic behavior also matter in in complex systems — even a rough qualitative understanding of a system trajectory isn’t enough to exactly predict how things will go. Finally, the law of large numbers may create a smoothing effect over time — but the behavior of something of interest is anything but predictable at first go. Over time the casino eventually wins, but it’s anyone’s guess what happens with the first dice roll. You might say that the idea revealed by military history books like America’s First Battles is that unless you can cope with the consequences of momentary shock of the new, you don’t get a second dice roll.
So if war is so fiendish and difficult, our intuition is so poor and qualification-prone, and we have such difficulty coming to grips with variation how does anyone win? Part of it is the context of the strategic interaction itself — I’m leery, for reasons already expressed in previous entries, for heroic strategy or great commander just-so stories. But another reason — and the main one that Whiz Kids vs. Mud and Boots dichotomies all ignore — is the role of tacit knowledge.
Applying organized violence is a practice. It is about doing things, not explaining them post-hoc with a clever theory. The purpose of boot camp is to make the application of organized violence automatic — they shoot at you, you kill them. What separates a special operations operative from a foul-mouthed 12-year old nerd playing Black Ops 2 is that the kid handles a very simple set of cognitive, emotional, and reasoning tasks reliant on the ability to move a computer character around a map and fire weapons at simulated opponents.
Our 12-year old would not be able to acquire the multitude of skills, habits of mind, technical knowledge, and physical endurance necessary to survive the Special Forces qualifying exams without (among other things) substantial immersion into the specific training mechanisms of the special operations community.
Similarly, the idea that being able to explain the use of organized violence for political purpose suddenly grants you the ability to manipulate organized violence for political purpose or somehow gives you insights superior to that of an practitioner is just as plausible as our 12-year old becoming a Green Beret through excessive camping. The skills simply do not transfer, even if there are some superficial similarities.
Ultimately, nothing I’ve said can really improve on Max Weber’s distinction between politics as a vocation and science as a vocation. Social science allows you the ability to rigorously explain things in the world, and perhaps grants you a limited purchase on predicting them if you have good data, set your expectations reasonably, and are scrupulous about learning from error. War is a way of violently creating new political facts, and the social scientist that participates in it becomes a de facto political actor.
Ultimately, to return to the Nagl-Peters exchange, one can be *both* social scientist and political actor while not necessarily being both at the same time. Being a political actor in the world often harms your ability to be reflexive about it — I see this repeatedly in the idea of “strategy for practice” in that biases of particular practical bureaucratic contexts become false intellectual truths. And having to think about the wild and wooly realm of practice often spurs theoreticians to make richer and more interesting ideas — or at the very minimum disciplines them to be more intellectually honest and humble.
Perhaps, though, the binary survives because it seems to flatter both sides. It gives practitioners a false image of themselves as worldly men of action, as opposed to Keynes’ slaves of “defunct economist[s].” Acknowledging that they do not possess a monopoly on strategic knowledge is a gateway to loss of status — in some respects jealously of the game theorists had to do with the fact that their methods (used for the new problem of nuclear deterrence) deprived the military of its traditional epistemic authority.
And it also flatters academics by drawing a clear demarcation between the world of theory and the world of practice. If academics are just abstraction-loving “whiz kids” and soldiers and government civilians are practitioners in the thick of things, this implicitly would mean that the latter have nothing to teach the former. But to return to my analogy of the 12 year old — the realism of the game he plays depends a great deal on the extraction of weapons, tactics, jargon, vehicles, gear, and historical contexts from the “real” world.
Mastering a fun game and winning a war are two strikingly different tasks, but obviously the game would not be fun if you couldn’t drive tanks or fire guns that bear resemblance to the real thing. Academics will be successful if they pay attention to the lived experience of practitioners, and use it to improve their own ideas.
The lesson? We’re all better off avoiding constructing some false binary between a pocket protector toting PhD that treats war as a science experiment and a Clausewitz-quoting man of action that seems to talk like a stereotypical Cormac McCarthy character about the chaos and unpredictability of war and its blood and toil. Both the practitioner in the arena and the academic are grown up enough to leave slogans and cliches alone.