Is war a science? I don’t ask that to be flippant, since most of this blog’s readership’s careers are premised on the notion that there are basic laws and principles that most wars follow. In Robert Gates’ much-discussed new memoir, Duty, he decries the White House for its apparent blasé treatment of war. He writes that he was “deeply uneasy with the Obama White House’s lack of appreciation — from the top down — of the uncertainties and inherent unpredictability of war,” adding that “they all seem to think it’s a science.”
This dismissal of “science” from the Pentagon is not a new phenomenon. In his new book, The Insurgents, Slate’s Fred Kaplan recounts a heated conversation between John Nagl, a coauthor of the Army’s FM 3-24 manual on counterinsurgency, and Ralph Peters, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and fierce critic of COIN. Here’s a relay of their November 21, 2006 exchange, according to Kaplan:
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?”
Is Peters right? Is there a danger in enlisting pointy-headed soldiers like Nagl, and treating war as some kind of abstract and falsifiable science?
Gates and Peters inhabit two separate criticisms of the ways our recent wars have been fought. Gates appeared to be taking issue with Obama’s barely-out-of-college data-driven NSC staff that overlooked the fact that war wrecked people’s lives and were more impressed with stats and poll numbers. In this way, he comes off sounding like the cultural anthropologist scoffing at the large-n econometrician who makes overarching theses without knowing the conflicts up close and personal.
Peters, on the other hand, is old school in his thinking that war involves killing, clear and simple. He seems to take issue with bumper-sticker slogans lifted from the COIN manual like “clear, hold, and build” and “winning hearts and minds.” Their basic disagreement is that Nagl, echoing Kalyvas and other civil war scholars, holds that knowledge is everything and that counterinsurgency is not just about killing insurgents, but also finding them. But Peters takes exception to Nagl and other social scientists-cum-soldiers who treat all insurgencies as monolithic, especially since in Peters’ opinion, religiously motivated insurgencies are in a class of their own. In other words, the wisdom of FM 3-24 might have worked in, say, Vietnam circa 1968 but not in Afghanistan circa 2010, when facing an enemy willing to carry out mass killings and a host government whose interests do not align with the foreign occupier and principal counterinsurgent.
The slew of books out related to the “rethink” of COIN (David Kilkullen’s Out of the Mountains among others) bristle with interesting anecdotes like the one above, showing us how the sausage was made as we bungled our way into Iraq, appeared to be making progress post-2007, only to bungle it again as we pulled out precipitously.
But it also calls into question our ability to treat war as a “science” to be studied and analyzed dispassionately, the resistance such studies encounter from the military brass, and the differences between studying war and, say, mating rituals among rhesus monkeys. For those of us who have done journalism or ethnographic interviews in war settings, it is hard to separate yourself from a caring human being and a dispassionate researcher (I ran into this while carrying out interviews in a Syrian refugee camp).
For those in charge of deploying forces, too much empathy and they risk looking like the Colonel Davenport character in Twelve O’Clock High; too little empathy and they may come off as insensitive to the human suffering war entails.