Monday, February 6, 2012

Civ-Mil Spat of the Weekend

I got in a minor twitter spat with a military officer (and I was not alone).  Peter Munson tweeted his frustration at the ivory-towered folks who simplistically recommend force (this time over Syria), that R2P folks should line up at the recruiting office.  Munson and I went back and forth.  He later explained on his blog:
I annoyed several people today on Twitter when I mused as to whether those who were touting our responsibility to protect (so glibly abbreviated by people who want this to be a "thing" as R2P) the people of Syria were going to be heading down to recruiting offices to join in the effort.  This was a rhetorical jab and one that some took umbrage to, saying that people who aren't in the military have a right to an opinion, as well, and that such questions are too important to be left to generals.  The sensitivity of these Ivy Tower champions of the utility of force to such jabs drives me to distraction, but it also misses my point.
Sure, it was rhetoric and it distracted folks (namely me--I was the one who said "too important to be left to the generals).  But I spewed on twitter directly at this line because I don't have a problem with the argument that intervening in Syria would be problematic with second and third order consequences, just as I oppose striking Iran these days or invading Iraq in 2003.  I supported the Libyan effort because consistency is the Hobgoblin of little minds.  I am not a Realist in terms of IR theory, but I am realistic--I prefer to support stuff that is less complicated and has a high probability of success (even if it means that a linebacker might intercept the ball on the 10 yard line). 

But the idea that only folks with military experience should be able to advocate the use of military force is a very dangerous one.  One of the best things about post-World War II democracies is the rise of alternative sources of information about security issues.  It used to be that only the militaries, with some rare exceptions, seriously studied war, strategy and the rest.  Having more folks study it, even those who do not have any military experience is very much a net good.

The argument is also, well, fallacious.  The idea that someone who has seen combat has a better idea of what is effective at the strategic level than someone who has no combat experience is like a baseball player feeling as if an observer with heaps of knowledge cannot really know baseball (no, I have not yet seen Moneyball, but I did read the book).

To give the best example I can think of, Obama has no military experience, but clearly takes great care about putting folks in harm's way and certainly appears to feel that burden.  But as President, he has to be willing to deploy military force for the national interest (whatever that is), even if combat is incredibly messy on the ground.

Scholars can make claims from their Ivory Towers, based on their research and analysis, about what might work and what the effects might be, even if they have not smelled napalm in the morning.  They may be wrong, but so often are the generals and colonels and the retired ones.  Policy must be the product of informed analysis.  Some information and judgment come from those who have been in harm's way, but some must come from elsewhere.

There are many ways to serve one's country.  Fighting for it is one.  Providing the best advice one can is another.  Limiting input to only those willing to fight is foolish at best, dangerous at worst.

Yes, it was a rhetorical point, but a lousy one that plays to the wrong instincts.  We already have enough presidential candidates saying that they will do whatever the generals recommend, as if the generals speak with one voice and think with one mind.

Again, I agree with Munson on the larger point--intervention in Syria is way more complicated than Libya (and Libya has not ended sweetly and easily either).  I just disagree with him about the relevance of rhetoric.  Arguments matter.  Lousy ones tend to get wider play (Huntington, Ferguson, Friedman).  Better to make a stronger argument so we do not get distracted.


Unknown said...

It seems that this spat was a twitter artifact- Munson's explanation was more annoyed with academic oversimplification of military intervention (e.g. "we'll create a buffer zone") without any tie to what that would really entail, rather than the presumption of academics to offer military advice.

This seems a valid, not dangerous, line of argument. Unfortunately, it seems the distinction between his annoyance with the question rather than the questioner got lost somewhere around character 140.


Nitpicker said...

Munson wasn't arguing that only those who fight should speak, but that those who advocate for war should have enough courage of their convictions to put their own asses on the line.

Steve Saideman said...

The twitter give and take between Munson and I went on about this for a bit. He continued to insist that his Ivory tower claim was a rhetorical point and I continued to claim it still mattered.

Steve Saideman said...

That amounts to the same thing. Most folks who have steady, non-military jobs and are not 18-25 years old are unlikely to put their asses on the line. So, saying that they should line up at the recruitment office if they advocate the deployment of force is the same thing as telling them to shut up.

One can certainly criticize folks about being cavalier with the lives of soldiers, but having military experience or not, being in the military or not really does not matter. Just ask the soldiers sent to the trenches during WWI about the attitudes of officers.

Peter J. Munson said...

I understand your concern about civ-mil affairs, but I think that your charge that I am dangerously suggesting that debate should be closed off to non-military types is an overreaction and a bit of a strawman. Part of this can be explained by my annoyance with the R2P crowd, the nature of Twitter, and the barb attached to my statement. I don't literally mean that academics should head down to the recruiters, nor do I mean that they don't rate an opinion. More than a rhetorical jab, it was a rhetorical question, to which the answer is "no." The advocates for intervention will not be materially invested in this course of action. This does not mean that they cannot advocate such a course. Many who aren't materially invested have done the same in the past, from all spectrums of the political and ideological rainbow.

The real barb in my jab/question, though, is at both the civilians and the military. I want the civilians to consider their calls for intervention much more seriously because I do not trust the generals to sufficiently and properly inform debate. Some of this is due to flaws in some generals' conception of the strategic environment in past conflicts. Some of this is due to generals' civ-mil duty to stand back from shaping debate. So when civilians say that they can advocate certain actions, then leave it to the experts to inform policy-makers before a final decision is made, this is disingenuous. The civilian policy elites will shape the debate and hand policy-makers a narrowed set of options. If policy elites have not properly laid out the costs and risks in their advocacy, then the politicians and generals are left with a skewed "decision environment," which institutional factors predispose them to further bollocks up.

So, my rhetorical question was more of a call to the civilian elites to step up to their responsibility of considering the real consequences and second/third order effects of their desires than to really ask them to head to the recruiters or shut up.

D said...

So, saying that they should line up at the recruitment office if they advocate the deployment of force is the same thing as telling them to shut up.

War should be a really, really, REALLY hard decision to make, which is why the Constitution requires Congress to authorize it. (Though, alas, Congress has punted on that responsibility for two generations now).

In WWII people did line up at the recruitment office. After 9/11 people did volunteer. Not to mention, the CIA and FBI were overwhelmed with applicants.

If you believe someone else should die for your country, it's reasonable to ask that you make the same commitment.

And if you're not willing to make that commitment, then you have no skin in the game. Calling for war is no more difficult (or meaningful) than calling for a tax cut.

jaylemeux said...

I think it's important to note that the resort to military experience is used by various groups to justify arguments both for and against force.

I tend toward sympathy with D's point, because if you're going to advocate force in pursuit of lofty abstract goals without consideration of the general principle that military force can fly out of control with the greatest of ease, then I think you should have to share my risk of bleeding to death in a Blackhawk while the pilots struggle to locate the hospital that's posted in one of two bases with the same name. As D noted, when they've really perceived war to be worth the cost, Americans have put their money where their mouth is.

On the other hand, combat experience is used (more often, in my experience) to justify more, more, more war in Iraq and Afghanistan in the face of all available evidence that it accomplishes the opposite of whatever it's imagined to accomplish. I know plenty of Marines who, to this day, know because they "were there" that the majority of the Iraqi insurgents were foreign terrorists.

In general, I agree: The idea that only people with combat experience are qualified to make decisions about war is stupifyingly dangerous if carried to its logical conclusion, since each generation then requires its own war so as to produce policymakers who are competent to later make decisions about the next generation's war, which is necessary for their vets to be competent in matters of war...