Dr. Dave’s Hypothetical Institute for the Advanced Study of Stupid Shit


Editor’s Note: Welcome to our new series “The Schoolhouse”. The aim of this series is to explore and debate the state of advanced graduate education in international affairs. We aim to move beyond the often-repetitive and tiresome debates about the usefulness of scholarship to policy. We believe there are deeper issues at stake. Please join us and chime in in the comments section or with a submission.


Climbing the mountain of conflict? You sounded like a Nazi Julie Andrews!  — A frank exchange of views from the film In the Loop


President Obama’s overarching guidance on foreign policy has been reported to be “don’t do stupid shit.” The aphoristic homeliness of the phrase is to be admired — there’s nothing wrong with a commander’s injunctions to his or her followers being pithy and memorable, quite the opposite. North Vietnamese commanders, for instance, urged their troops to grab the American troops that they were fighting “by the belt buckle” the better then to be able to offset vastly superior U.S. long-range firepower, while George Patton in similar terms advised his green army to hold their German enemies (experienced and cagey veterans, in contrast) “by the nose and kick them in the pants.” Presumably, minus the folksy vulgarity, the president’s message to his foreign policy team was something on the order of “think through the second and third order consequences of our actions abroad and avoid inadvertently plunging the nation into (any more) strategic situations in which costs vastly exceed benefits.” Put that way, though, it’s just a truism — surely no one has entered the Oval Office intending to do the opposite thing, even if practically speaking that has sometimes been the result.

As in many things relating to politics and war, our ancestors understood the problems better (or at least no worse), while expressing themselves in a manner both more elegant and more accessible to policy than is the norm today. As Field Marshal Helmuth Graf von Moltke, chief of the Prussian General Staff from 1857 to 1888, put it:

Strategy is a system of expedients. It is more than a discipline; it is the transfer of knowledge to practical life, the continued development of the original leading thought in accordance with the constantly changing circumstances. It is the art of acting under the pressure of the most difficult circumstances.

The job of the strategist is to make up on the fly, as it were, as best as he or she is able on the basis of incomplete information of a constantly evolving situation and given a certain range of resources, a route towards the achievement of a given policy. Ideally, the latter is clearly articulated and plausible, though by and large nowadays that has not been the case. War is inherently and irremediably a gamble. This was, of course, one of the most salient observations of that other noteworthy Prussian military thinker, Carl Von Clausewitz, who pointed out another exceedingly pertinent truth: that war

…is not the action of a living force upon a lifeless mass (total non-resistance would be no war at all) but always the collision of two living forces. The ultimate aim of waging war, as formulated here, must be taken, as applying to both sides. Once again, there is interaction. So long as I have not overthrown my opponent I am bound to fear he may overthrow me. Thus I am not in control: he dictates to me as much as I dictate to him.

In other words, “stupid shit” is the essence of strategy, pervading it at all levels and at all times. At the time in which a decision needs to be taken, the line between what is stupid shit and what is not stupid shit is far from clear. Moreover, one’s opponent is actively seeking to maneuver you into the shit and vice versa. It behoves us as students of strategy, therefore, to accept certain things about it as being essentially given and work forward from there:

  1. Its essentially un-computable chanciness;
  2. Its almost always-present reciprocality;* and,
  3. Its human earthiness.

*(It is possible to shock an opponent into a state of inert lack of reactiveness through surprise but the effect is often temporary as Edward Luttwak describes in Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace.)

In this series we have been asked as educators, in what can be broadly termed international affairs, to consider the ends to which our efforts are directed and how well we are meeting them. Many of our students, though not all, seek to become or authoritatively study and comment upon the efforts of real life strategists. The challenge set by the editors is, if you could “redesign graduate programs from the ground up, what would they look like?” Francis Gavin called in an earlier essay for a “broader dialogue over what the mission of advanced graduate training is and should be.” I confess I do not think that I have the experience of a lifetime needed to answer that question, nor as a British scholar can I speak with much authority about the American academy. For what it’s worth, though, if it were in my power to create a graduate program focused on the study of the art of strategy from scratch it would have some of the features described below.

A Mob of Magpies

Methodologically, it would work on the logic of the magpie: if it’s shiny then steal it; take it back to your nest and play with it; when its luster fades then drop it. By all means let us train as geographers, or sociologists, political philosophers, anthropologists, biologists, historians, economists, what have you, but the fact is that it is practically impossible to say anything about war today (if ever) that is practically of consequence to the real world from inside any single academic discipline. If we are educating strategists we need to embrace the mongrel nature of the subject; in fact, we should celebrate it and seek to develop confident polymaths like the 19th century Englishman William Whewell who wrote in The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences:

The Consilience of Inductions takes place when an Induction, obtained from one class of facts, coincides with an Induction, obtained from another different class. This consilience is a test of the truth of the Theory in which it occurs.

No doubt readers will have their own list of books exemplifying this sort of lateral thinking — the leaping together of insights from disparate fields. Standing out on my shelf, books like Peter Adey, Mark Whitehead, and Alison J. Williams’ From Above: War Violence and Verticality, the late David Fisher’s Morality and War, Bradley Thayer’s Darwin and International Relations: On the Evolutionary Origins of War and Ethnic Conflict, Rafe Sagarin’s Learning from the Octopus: How Secrets from Nature can Help us Fight Terrorist Attacks, Natural Disasters, and Disease, and Eyal Weizman’s Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation seem to me exemplary of the sophisticated and fluent blend of war and [insert one or more other discipline of your choice — geography, biology, architecture, theology, media, in the cases above] that are driving the advancement of knowledge in the field the most.

It should hardly need mentioning that if strategy is about the “interdependence of choice,” being able to get inside the head of one’s enemy and see things from their perspective in order the better to frustrate and thwart them, then the study of foreign language, literature, and culture is also vital. However, if there is a master discipline in the study of strategy then it has to be history, with political philosophy biting at its heels. The eminent historian and strategist Hew Strachan has made this point in a way on which I cannot improve in his recent book The Direction of War:

For the historian strategic studies today present an interesting paradox. Thirty years ago strategic studies was a hybrid, a disciplinary mix of history, politics, law, some economics and even a little mathematics. Today the subject has been increasingly appropriated by departments of political science, its identity often subsumed under the amorphous title of ‘security studies’. As a result the study of strategy has been largely divorced from the historical roots in which it first flourished. This is not to say that history has no value for political scientists. They use case studies all the time, but they tend to choose those topics which prove or disprove a thesis, not subjects which are to be studied in their own historical contexts. Stories told without context obliterate the woof and warp of history, the sense of what is really new and changing as opposed to what is not.

I would add to this only that the point of elevating the understanding of historical context over other disciplines relevant to strategic thinking goes beyond the (admittedly exceedingly important) prophylactic effect it has against the regular myopic declarations that such and such development or occurrence is “new.”

Our considerations, for instance, of the implications of connectivity on strategy would be significantly enhanced by recognition that attaching the prefix “cyber” to this or that concept — terrorism, war, security — does not ipso facto render that thing unprecedented, only less comprehensible. It is, rather, that severing contemporary strategic thinking from historical context also severs us from the lessons of past strategic thinkers whose relevance in many instances to today’s dilemmas is undiminished by time. It’s not just the likes of Thucydides, Sun Tzu, and Machiavelli who are not read enough but there are meters of shelves of great works crowded into dusty obscurity by today’s industrious torrent combining both arid theory which too few read and understand with airport-bookshop-friendly histories that are often not worth the reading at all.

Out of the Cloister

In 2007, near the height of his fame, General David Petraeus wrote in The American Interest a vigorous argument titled “Beyond the Cloister” for the education of military officers in civilian graduate schools. He gave six reasons, all of them good (I dispute none, please send more American soldiers to my university) but I would pick out one for further discussion:

The sixth way grad school produces better military officers is that it typically imparts a degree of intellectual humility—not at all a bad quality in those who may be charged in the future with some very weighty responsibilities. I certainly found my own experience at grad school to be quite humbling at times—starting with the ‘D’ I got on my first advanced microeconomics exam. This frankly surprised me, for I went to grad school following a year at the Army’s Command and General Staff College, during which I won the so-called ‘white briefcase.’ I stood first in our class of a thousand or so students, so as I entered grad school I believed I was a reasonably thoughtful fellow.

I would add to this that it goes both ways. It would do the study of strategy in civilian universities a power of good to get out of the cloister too. I would not propose a sort of “Boot Camp for Intellectuals” with professors and grad students running circuits of assault courses and firing ranges, as fun as that might be. It would, however, be immensely useful for them to rub shoulders with soldiers more often, and to possess a greater familiarity with military technique, equipment, and weapons than is currently the norm. The concept of “friction,” for instance, is a lot more viscerally understood after one has walked just the length of one drill square under the normal weight of helmet and body armor, weapons and ammunition, rations, radios, batteries, and myriad other impedimenta carried by soldiers. How many security studies graduates understand how modern armies are organized and why, although they are superficially isomorphic, they are really quite different from each other? How many are familiar with the articulation of the combat arms and combined arms operations? The principle of the interaction of weapons effects?

These are neither incidental nor trivial details for people who hope to work at the summits of policy or publish journal articles on strategic affairs to understand. Too often, it seems to me, graduate education in international affairs skips over the subject of the actual conduct of warfare, rather as Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry under the tenure of Professor Umbridge tried to teach “defense against the dark arts” as a purely theoretical subject. If I had my way Jim Storr’s The Human Face of War would be on the syllabus of my institute’s core course, and Jim Storr would teach it. To be sure, our universities are full of thoughtful fellows and, as is often said, “strategy trumps tactics.” This does not mean, though, that we can be ignorant of the basics. What Petraeus described as “intellectual humility” is actually an integral component of a well-functioning bullshit detector. It is entirely useful, say, for the sort of civilian defense official charged with the weighty responsibility of advising on defense procurement or signing off service vision statements whom we are supposed to be educating. So much the less likely would such a graduate be gulled by the next sales pitch of the next multi-billion dollar all-war-winning wonder weapon.

More generally, though, there is an obvious practical element to strategic studies that it is counterproductive to deny. Some people will bring their experience as soldiers, diplomats, journalists, relief workers and the like with them to their studies — and should be encouraged to do so; others will need to develop their grounded sense of the field through internships and field work — and also be encouraged to do so. In the preface to Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen, and Leadership in Wartime Eliot Cohen recounted a story that seems to me very pertinent. Referring to the historian Samuel Eliot Morison, Cohen wrote:

Morison’s students, like the master himself, learned much from their personal exposure to the shocks of war. Succeeding generations, however, have become insulated from a world of practice, and the upshot is often a history that shows remarkably little sympathy for the cares and burdens of political leaders.

Should we care about this loss of sympathy? I think that we should — not in the sense of “feeling their pain” but in the sense that it represents a detachment of academic investigators from the profoundly human nature of the subject at hand. At the very least it should be of profound concern to the field if empiricism and basic understanding of the practice of war seems out of fashion amongst those who study it.

Mind the Gap

Frank Gavin’s essay began by referencing Alexander George’s Bridging the Gap: Theory and Practice in Foreign Policy, which “identified a growing divide between academics and policymakers interested in foreign policy and international affairs.” I would not argue against the existence of this gap, though whether it is growing, shrinking, or staying the same seems debatable (especially if one expands this analysis beyond the United States). Essentially, I agree with the spirit of the words of Sir William Francis Butler who, channeling Thucydides, once warned “The nation that will draw a broad line of demarcation between the thinking man and the fighting man will find it fighting done by fools and its thinking done by cowards.’ I would like only by way of conclusion to sound a few words of caution about the gap, the putative bridge, and the ideas and people that cross it.

The problem is that fairly often some of the ideas that make their way across the bridge are truly bad ideas that thrive only on foreign soil, as it were, because the native inhabitants there are unequipped to recognize when the exotic immigrant is talking nonsense. Some stupid shit really is just stupid shit. For example, the British soldier cum historian/strategist Basil Liddell Hart, justly praised for some of his contributions to the field also propagated quite a lot of self-serving history and mystifying strategic humbug, as John Mearsheimer showed in his Liddell Hart and the Weight of History. Or take Robert McNamara’s application while Secretary of Defense of management theories originating from his time as an instructor at the Harvard Business School to the war in Vietnam. As my colleague Lawrence Freedman concluded of this in his recent book Strategy, A History:

Whereas at first McNamara was celebrated as the exemplar of the most modern management methods, by the time he left the Pentagon in 1968 his approach was derided for its relentless focus on what could be measured rather than what actually needed to be understood—criticisms that in later life accepted.

The story of the once lauded Revolution in Military Affairs is another bad idea — a product of business management theory and pop-scholarship — that ought not to have crossed the bridge, certainly not with the brazen alacrity that it did. Also the perils of constantly reinforcing and rewarding those who are focused on what can be measured as opposed to what must be understood is something that scholarship really ought to take on board.

Perhaps we ought not to bridge the gap per se, at least not completely; perhaps we ought simply to be mindful of its existence for good and for ill. Sometimes it can be crossed and should be crossed but that is not a priori always the case, in my view. The 2006 U.S. Army/Marine Corps FM 3-24 Counterinsurgency provides something of a case in point: at the time of its publication it was widely praised, becoming a national bestseller — surely a first for a piece of doctrine — in part because of the collaborative and academically inclusive manner in which it was written. A decade on, its merits are less obvious both as a piece of doctrine and as a piece of scholarship; it is neither fish nor fowl.

Gavin writes that,

‘Policy relevance’ is a notoriously ambiguous term, meaning different things to different people (perhaps a better term would be ‘public mindedness’). We need far more clarity over its meaning and its connection to basic research, to better identify when the ivory tower can usefully contribute with rigorous scholarship, while guarding against chasing fads and simply mirroring the day-to-day concerns of decision-makers.

For my part, I am ambivalent about policy relevance in research, at least in the direct sense that is sometimes implied as desirable. I always cringe slightly when students write policy recommendations at the end of academic papers. I do think there is value to be had in mixing scholars and policy-makers, and I’ve always been delighted when asked to take part in strategic “horizon scanning” and doctrine discussions. Ultimately, though, the worlds are quite different. In my world, a day (a week, a year) spent following an idea from one book to another, chasing it from cul-de-sac to cul-de-sac, is time well spent. That’s why academics are good at context and at looking at things from a perspective that is beyond the obvious and/or counterintuitive. In the real world, however, thinking slow can get you dead and policy-makers need good instincts and the conviction to act decisively.

It’s not an easy question what the “mission of advanced graduate training” should be. I regret my thoughts on it are not so original and perhaps too prosaic. I agree with Isaiah Berlin who said in “The Pursuit of the Ideal,”

Only barbarians are not curious about where they come from, how they came to be where they are, where they appear to be going, whether they wish to go there, and if so, why, and if not, why not.

As ours is not a barbarous society (although one might debate our current direction of travel in this respect) it should have as part of it a certain number of people pursuing such questions simply for their own sake, because they are interesting, and may (or may not) be of use to policy. I wonder, however, if perhaps too much stock is placed on research in the academic institution as a whole. They also serve who only think and teach.


David Betz is Reader in Warfare at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London where he is head of MA programs. He blogs occasionally at Kings of War and his next book, Carnage and Connectivity, is to be published in March 2015.


Photo credit: Discott