Friday, October 4, 2019

Too Close? Maintaining Perspective While Engaging

One of the questions we get from time to time and one of the insults I get from a certain reporter on occasion refers to whether one can be critical of the armed forces if one hangs out with them.  Of course, I think so.

Why did I go on Exercise Collaborative Spirit (see this video of the exercise for an idea of what we did)?
  1. I am a deeply curious person (more on that below) so I wanted to learn more about the Canadian Armed Forces.  I write about them often enough, and I figure that by engaging with them, I can learn more.  Plus even if I didn't study the CAF, I would still want to know more because ... I am deeply curious.
  2. It was fun.  Yeah, shooting guns and watching 155mm artillery pieces fire and invading a beach and playing soldier is fun.  
  3. It was good networking.  I have spent the past six years building the Canadian Defence and Security Network.  Most of my military contacts have been senior officers thanks to researching how the civilians controlled the various militaries in Afghanistan.  I want to diversity my contacts--I wanted to meet junior officers and non-commissioned officers so that I can see the CAF from multiple perspectives.  Plus I wanted to meet the folks that the CAF invited--these stakeholders.  Some are junior DND policy officers, some work in other parts fo the defence sector, and some were random civilians.  
I was aware when I got the invitation that this exercise is an information operation.  The CAF and DND were not just doing it to be friendly and generous, but to help create a positive attitude towards the armed forces.  And, yes, carrying around heavy equipment and hanging with these soldiers has that impact.  Does being aware that this is the intent immunize me from the powerful socializing impact that the CAF has?  I'd like to think so.  I did go to Afghanistan in 2007 when DND and CAF felt it was important to have professors observe stuff up close.  Using profs as a tool in an information operation is risky because we tend to be critical, but I think they gambled on informed criticism being better than uninformed criticism.

Which gets to the fundamental thing: we professors have three key related attributes: we are curious, we are critical, and we are used to criticism.  We get into this business because we want to learn and want to know more. Most of the profs I know are deeply inquisitive people who keep asking questions not only about their own research, but about other people's research and about stuff beyond their areas of expertise.  We just like to ask and answer questions.  The whole idea of a PhD is to train someone to ask novel questions and then to answer them.

The training itself and then the lived experience focuses on criticism.  We are trained to pick holes in arguments, we do not believe what we are told--even if the person telling us stuff is friendly and let us fire their gun.  We are constantly given opportunities to criticize--we criticize the work of our students so that their work gets better, we criticize the work of other academics via peer review processes, we criticize the institutions that employ us, and on and on.

Speaking of peer review, we are used to criticism.  Indeed, we seek it out.  Either because we sincerely want our work to get better or simply that we need to survive review to get published.  We are constantly being criticized by our students (teaching evals) and by publishing outlets--especially by reviewer #2.  So, we tend to develop thick skin.

The one exception, at least in my case, is I tend to get pissed off if someone questions my integrity.  David Pugliese, a Canadian defence reporter, has pulled that particular chain a few times by implying that I am too close to the Canadian Armed Forces.*  He apparently does not read my stuff, where I have criticized the CAF plenty of times.  I also criticize the US military aplenty despite spending an amazing year on the Joint Staff in 2001-2002.  How can I do that, despite their powerful socialization efforts?  Because I am critical of everything.  I am critical of some of Pugliese's stories even as I find much of his work to be amazing stuff that helps us to understand DND/CAF.  Indeed, in my current project on legislatures and oversight over armed forces, I have come to the conclusion that civilian control of the armed forces includes not just the executive in that category of "civilian" and not just the legislature, but also the media, think tanks, academics, and others who have expertise and ask questions and engage in research.

Anyhow, in designing the CDSN, we have been careful to bring in a number of perspectives, including organizations that tend to be very critical of the CAF.  We also include elements of the CAF as we fundamentally believe that engaging provides more opportunities to learn than taking potshots from a distance.  Some academics feel differently about that (and we were lucky to avoid those in the review process).  I always think knowing more is better than knowing less, and interacting with the CAF allows me to know more.

I keep on learning, and one of things I will try to learn is not to respond to thin skinned reporters who question my integrity.  But apparently not this day.

* Pugliese also took shots at my junior colleagues, which is how this stuff came up again.  They are both sufficiently critical and thick skinned to be willing to wade in and criticize journalists.  If only this particular journalist would take the criticism to heart rather than firing back.  

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