Soldiers in Dark Times: Military Education, Ethics, and Political Science

U.S. Army soldiers with Charlie Company, 2nd Battalion, 30th Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade, 10th Mountain Division look on as an Afghan local waves to them in the Baraki Barak District, Logar province, Afghanistan, Dec. 20, 2010. By: Pfc. Donald Watkins.

By Celestino Perez, Jr. for Denver Dialogues 

Political scientists, particularly those who study high-stakes situations wherein lives and regimes hang in the balance, tell causal stories. They proffer compelling (if contestable) accounts for why insurgent groups succeed or not, why peacebuilders often fail to establish peace, and why strong states tend to lose wars against weaker adversaries. These scholars provide explanations about how an assemblage of causal forces (whether structural, institutional, ideational, or psychological) combine to create politically important results and patterns.

These stories have the capacity to improve the real-world decisions of political leaders, soldiers, developmental aid workers, and citizens. This is true especially when political scientists posit counterintuitive or otherwise hidden aspects of a situation. Hence, reading political science can usefully complicate and enrich practitioners’ thinking about how the world works.

My community of practice, the military, demonstrably needs this enrichment. General Raymond Odierno, who just retired as the U.S. Army Chief of Staff, observes that satisfactory strategic outcomes are elusive because military professionals neglect politics and economics. A 2012 study by the U.S. military and a 2014 RAND report reinforce Odierno’s point. General Martin Dempsey, the U.S. president’s top military advisor, also suggests something is amiss when he observes, “Simply the application of force rarely produces and, in fact, maybe never produces the outcome we seek.”

Yet political science’s capacity to improve real-world practice remains inchoate. It is common to blame scholars. For instance, the blog War on the Rocks features a “Schoolhouse” section that explores (mostly) how political scientists are doing too little to “bridge the gap” between theory and practice. Common sins include scholars’ Ivory Tower insularity; their organization into pernicious academic disciplines and sub-disciplines; and their cowardly refusal to ask big, policy-relevant questions. Political scientists too routinely beat themselves up (here and here).

I reach a different conclusion. My thesis is that political scientists are doing enough…and they are doing it well. Employing sophisticated research skills and an expeditionary mindset, political scientists are accumulating a body of rich, penetrating scholarship on conflict, war, and peace. The problem is that my community of practice—as a whole—neglects this scholarship’s potential. This neglect is ethically problematic.

I approach the empirical study of high-stakes situations as an Army colonel and as a political theorist. As a colonel, my aim is to integrate political science into strategy formulation and military decision making. This task, it seems to me, is necessary to meet our obligations to political leaders, rank-and-file soldiers, and—especially—those noncombatants who live, work, and play where we operate. As a political theorist, my aim is to craft a theory of political judgment that helpfully configures the relationship between science, causal literacy, and real-world practice.

I posit that the scholar who claims policy significance for her work simultaneously activates a three-way series of obligations among scientists (who traffic in causal claims), normative theorists (who evaluate ethical performance), and political agents (who seek to realize desired outcomes).

First, as Marc Lynch has written, the political scientist’s obligation is to get the causal story right: “The purpose of social science, if it has any, must be to inform our decisions about the likely effects of our actions.”

Second, and less understood, is the obligation the normative theorist incurs. Max Weber, in “Politics as a Vocation,” argues that the political agent must carefully assess competing courses of action in terms of their likely consequences as part of an “ethic of responsibility.” Similarly, the philosopher James Murphy, in his new take on just war theory, instructs that ethicists must assess a political leader’s and general’s “foresightedness or prudence or practical good sense.” Since hidden and counterintuitive dynamics suffuse politics, normative theorists must begin reading political science to properly evaluate ethical action. For instance, should not a normative theorist expect military leaders to have studied and debated the conditions under which negotiated settlements tend to succeed or fail?

Third, and perhaps most controversial, is the obligation the military professional incurs when a scholar claims policy relevance. First, I observe that military professionals are today preoccupied with wars in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Ukraine. Second, I observe scholars studying how civil-war dynamics unfold throughout space and time. Third, I observe that intuition, more so than rigorous science, guides military interventions. The results are predictable (see here and here).

With respect to civil wars, I know of no better education than to have military students read, map, and discuss articles by such scholars as Patricia Sullivan (war aims); Stathis Kalyvas (master and local cleavages); Paul Staniland (insurgent group cohesion and collapse); Fotini Christia (civil-war alliance shifts); Peter Krause (rebel factions), Kristin Bakke (foreign fighters); Barbara Walter (separatist conflicts); Monica Duffy Toft (negotiated settlements); Page Fortna (peacekeeping); Sarah Elizabeth Parkinson (social networks and rebel movements); Zachariah Mampilly and Ana Arjona (rebel governance); Francisco Gutiérrez Sanín (crime and war); and Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan (nonviolent resistance). Especially helpful are outreach publications by Marc Lynch’s Project on Middle East Political Science.

My point is that military professionals must wrestle with the science…regardless of the transaction costs (which, really, are not that high). I have found that the simultaneous mapping of these stories invariably leads students into a “competition of ideas,” which in turn facilitates the critical evaluation of causal claims and the creative and ethical development of civil-military interventions.

For two and a half years at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where U.S. Army majors (who are about halfway through their careers) receive military education, I created and taught a seminar entitled the “Local Dynamics of War.” A select group of students learned to digest and depict causal stories graphically on white boards. They came to appreciate how considering complementary and competing causal stories improves their understanding of the political landscape wherein military operations occur. Political scientists, through their writing, served as the guides. (I tell the story of my seminar in the current issue, now ungated, of Perspectives on Politics.)

My professional desire to revive and expand the integration of political science into military curricula is simultaneously quixotic and needful. The military professional is given a conditional license to kill and destroy en masse. The military officer’s educational burden should be commensurate to this license. Post-Enlightenment military officers are obliged to consult the science. The onus is on the profession of arms…not political science.

Celestino (Tino) Perez, Jr., PhD, is an active-duty colonel in the United States Army currently assigned to U.S. Army North in San Antonio, TX. The views herein are the author’s own.


  1. I posit that the scholar who claims policy significance for her work simultaneously activates a three-way series of obligations among scientists (who traffic in causal claims), normative theorists (who evaluate ethical performance), and political agents (who seek to realize desired outcomes).

    Interesting, and sharp, I like.


    Does this essay imply that there ought to be a fairly clean separation between the scientists, normative theorists, and political agents? And that each ought to respect the distinct role of the other two, with the integrity of the system coming from respecting the boundary? Or ought each of the three roles deliberately acknowledge the connection to the other two and deliberately take them into account in their own work — more closely linking the two, blurring the lines, taking on some responsibilities that come from the ethics of the other two roles?

    Also would I be right in understanding that consumers of this science within the military belong in the “political agent” role?

    (I didn’t mean for this to be a loaded question but after writing it I realize it might be…)

  2. Political scientists really believe that they are scientists and deal with causal relationships?

    You can’t do experiments in political systems. Without experiments, you only have correlation data. That makes political ‘science’ a subset of history. Same as economics, tho I don’t believe either comes to the level of sophistication that history does in its analyses, e.g. DHFischer’s “Historian’s Fallacies”.

    1. You have an extremely truncated view of science. Paleontologists are scientists but they cannot run an experiment, all they can do is collect data and test competing theories against the data record. Astronomers do the same. Experimental science is only one part of a larger scientific tent.

      You are also not familiar with a large body of work on qualitative causal methodology. Establishing chains of causality and applying them to multiple historical examples and competing hypotheses can give you a good view of causation.

      For domains of inquiry where experiments are impossible there ares still many systematic tools to assess competing hypotheses with existing evidence.

  3. “My point is that military professionals must wrestle with the science…regardless of the transaction costs (which, really, are not that high).”

    I absolutely agree with the professional, even ethical, imperative to study politics and its science. However, I think you underestimate the transaction costs. The profession has “outsourced” way too much of its intellectual development. Think tanks and contractors sell trendy “solutions” and political science is not trendy. I believe a key problem is far too few officers understand enough about science, social science in particular, to be skeptical of questionable claims. From my viewpoint, wisdom is viewed as originating solely from the Pentagon. The Professional Military Education system trains doctrinal wisdom. Education beyond that is self-help and episodic. While an amount of doctrinal wisdom is necessary, it is woefully insufficient. The institutional inertia in military education is stifling.

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