A Very Unequal Dialogue: Debating Civil-Military Relations with Tom Ricks


*Note: What follows is the beginning of an essay of mine (“A Very Unequal Dialogue”) on the current state of civil-military relations, which is available in full over at The Best Defense. 

Tom disagrees with my recent assessment that the recent New America Foundation/Arizona State University Future of War Conference underrepresented the uniformed military, resulting in a stunted, unbalanced product.  In response, I’ll do three things; first, we’ll look at the numbers. Second, I’ll explain why this is imbalance undermines the conference’s efficacy.  Third, I’ll get into some personal anecdotes that describe how these civil-military themes play out at the individual level.  What a reader will find is that the civil-military gap is unacceptably wide in the intellectual sphere, and even the kindest expressions of gratitude cannot effectively bridge this expanse.  My takeaway from the Future of War Conference: the military is to be thanked and not heard.

If we categorize the panelists according to their current primary occupation (i.e. academia, policy, journalist, military, government), we can see the imbalance most directly.  Of 66 total panelists, exactly six (or 9%) were active duty military.  Breaking these six down to a more granular level, we find one navy admiral, two army generals, two colonels, and one midshipman from the US Naval Academy intent upon a non-combat role after graduation.  So even in the “military” category, none of these six is likely to see an enemy combatant in the next war.  There was exactly one more NFL player (Donte Stallworth) in attendance than Marines on any panel (zero). The average audience member was closer to retirement than the next battlefield.

Tom’s initial Twitter response: “Why would this be a problem?”  He suggests that if I had “re-categorized participants as ‘former and likely future policymakers in significant civilian roles’ – the numbers would look different.”  But his emphasis reveals a preference for civilian Washington elites, a preference that divorces policy from action. It is not hard to see the fruits that grow from this poisoned, single branched tree. Think of the split over required troop levels for Operation Iraqi Freedom – the infamous Shinseki/Wolfowitz-Feith testimony battle.  Or whenever a policy figure proposes the establishment of a “safe zone” in a conflict.  Shouldn’t we consider practical possibilities alongside desired outcomes?  When we undermine the agent, we harm the principal. There ought to be a constant dialogue between military expertise and those who ultimately decide the course of strategic affairs for the nation.  The Future of War Conference failed to provide this necessary link by systematically undervaluing the military profession’s input.

Tom also describes a wide variety of attendees at a fictional “future of baseball” conference.  But diversity is not where we disagree.  It’s balance and proportionality. In legal terms (as there were twice as many lawyers as active military at the conference): if war was the conference’s jurisdiction, then the military has the most standing.  That is not to say war is exclusively the military’s jurisdiction; I am not advocating a narrow provincialism. Far from it. I have long argued war is too big to fit into one discipline and that war is about much more than warfare.  But if we were we to conduct a conference on the future of intellectual property law, would we restrict our invited lawyers to only 9% of the total participant list?  Would we ensure that among this 9% representing the legal profession that none were likely to practice future intellectual property law?  This is how the Future of War Conference got the balance wrong.

Ultimately, the Future of War Conference objective should be to inform and engage those with the most at stake in the subject matter at hand.  Why else would anyone hold such an event?  To scan the conference’s audience, one would have found a handful of Naval Academy midshipmen adrift in a sea of older civilians.  In short, age was another imbalance, and we should not shortchange the value of demographics in any discussion on the future.

As Peter W. Singer pointed out via Twitter, if this conference was being held in the 1920s, we’d want an Eisenhower in attendance as opposed to a Pershing.  To put it in Wayne Gretzky’s classic phrase, we should skate to where the puck is going to be.  Young leaders are the critical audience for this event and their minds will be the decisive point and dominant terrain in the next war.  The Future of War Conference could have done much more to engage with these generations.

*Note: You can find the rest of this essay over at The Best Defense.

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.

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