Free Media Learning Opportunity: Stephen Biddle on the Study of War and Military Victory

[*Note: video available here.]

Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations and (at one point) the U.S. Army War College, sat down with Harry Kreisler at UC-Berkeley in 2006 to talk about his work in general and his book Military Victory in specific.  However, in conversation about his career, he gave an interesting response to a question about his intellectual interests:

Biddle:  Intellectually, I study strategy. I study the conduct of war, the outcomes of wars, the role of technology in war, recent combat experience. The difficulty for me is that unlike the workings of an economy, for example, or elections or other complicated social phenomena that have disciplines to study them, war does not have a discipline to study it – it lies on the seams of the way academia is organized. So if you want to study war, you have to either become a political scientist, or historian, or do public policy, and then pick this up as your particular subject matter interest. But there are very few people who approach the study of war as their primary interest, whereas for whatever reason, I have. 

Kreisler: So what are the skills required to do this kind of work? 

Biddle: I think the best skill set is diverse and multi-disciplinary. War is a complicated social phenomenon and to understand it, it helps to be able to approach it from different directions. One of the things that I liked about public policy training, for example, is that rather than teaching you to be good at anything in particular, it teaches you to know a little bit of a lot of different things. 


It helps to have a solid grounding in political science, of course, but it also helps to have an ability to handle mathematical modeling so that you can represent your ideas formally and think at a higher level of abstraction when you need to. It helps to have enough interest in the subject matter to have mastered the historical record involved.  It amazes me the number of people in this field who have no idea of the past record of military events that in many ways resemble those of today. So some combination of mathematics, statistics, political science, history, a certain amount of economics, a very eclectic background enables you to understand a complex multi-dimensional phenomenon better by looking at it from different sides

Kreisler: What about temperament?

Biddle: Certainly an analytical temperament helps. This is a deeply emotional subject matter. I mean, how can it be otherwise when it involves human suffering on a scale that this subject does. So part of just surviving in this job description very long, is an ability to take a subject matter that’s riven with human emotion and approach it in a relatively objective, relatively detached way…One of the great challenges in this field is being objective and analytical without being so bloodless that you lose track of the enormous scale of human suffering associated with the undertaking…[I think this] is important to doing the right thing, as well as reaching the correct findings, in a field like this one.

Author: ML Cavanaugh

Unequal parts strategist, assistant professor, wordsmith, runner, wine-o, reader, philosopher of firepower, and hopeless lover of three ladies named Rachel, Grace, and Georgie.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s