Political Scientists and the Military

August 10, 2015

Before engaging military leaders on issues of policy and strategy, spending some time on the basics can pay terrific dividends for civilian academics.

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In a conversation a few years ago with one of us, a senior political scientist from a prominent Ivy League university asked for insights on how to offer defense policy advice on a contemporary Middle East security issue. It quickly became clear that this academic had no idea of the overall structure of the defense policy community, much less specific ideas about who to approach or how best to offer advice. Specifically, this individual wanted to approach the military leadership but did not know the difference between the service chiefs and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, much less understand the unique roles of the Joint Staff, combatant commands, or Special Operations Command. Moreover, this person was uncertain what was actually under the purview of the military leadership when it came to selecting and implementing policy recommendations. As the conversation went on, it became clear that this expert lacked the most basic understanding of the defense policy world and especially of how the military fit into it. The academic’s opportunity to offer advice, unsurprisingly, never materialized.

Though the international relations community has for some time focused on the need to “Bridge the Gap” between academia and policy, the above anecdote illustrates an important aspect of this divide that has received far less attention: the lack of military expertise in academia. Indeed, while articles in the Schoolhouse series here at War on the Rocks, journal articles, and entire books have been dedicated to closing the broader gap, they have collectively overlooked the military component. We highlight here bridging the academic-military gap because both communities can contribute to and learn from one other, and because greater interaction will ultimately lead to improved policymaking and policy-relevant research.

Much political science scholarship in the security arena aims to explain military phenomena and to draw theoretical insights from technical and complex events. At the same time, very few academics understand whether this scholarship reflects technical or strategic realities — either on the battlefield or in decision-making circles. Moreover they lack the professional military contacts to evaluate their claims. Indeed, only a minority of political scientists are well versed in military affairs and have access to the military community, but this minority has written some of the most influential security studies scholarship with significant policy-relevant impact. This is particularly true when we consider academic studies on civil-military relations, where Samuel Huntington and Eliot Cohen, to name just two political scientists, have had a profound affect on both the academic and practitioner communities. What follows reflects the idea that this kind of scholarship — technically sound, militarily relevant, and accessible to both academics and military personnel — will become even more important as the future unfolds. Likewise, it suggests that increasingly informed dialogue between the two groups can improve how political science is utilized within the military.

Before getting into specific recommendations, it is worth highlighting the informal cultural dynamics that could inhibit this discussion. While they might be obvious to political scientists, they are probably opaque to the military:

1. The military is not the intended audience for political science scholarship. Military-focused scholarship is not incentivized within the discipline; thus unsurprisingly, political scientists are not trained to communicate their work to the military. Moreover, while many political scientists are open to learning about the military, they lack the necessary time, opportunity, and instruction. This oversight stems from an already-overcrowded graduate curriculum and the fact that only a small minority of departments pay dedicated attention to this type of expertise — MIT’s Security Studies Program, Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies, and Columbia’s Department of Political Science, with the affiliated School of International and Public Affairs and its Arnold A. Saltzman Institute of War and Peace among them. This is especially ironic given that international relations as a dedicated field of study only became professionalized after two world wars.

2. Policy-relevance is not trained or rewarded. Even those who would like to engage the military need to make a deliberate effort to independently acquire the necessary skills. However, given the well-documented incentives that push scholars away from policy-relevant work, political scientists may choose to prioritize other kinds of training, especially early in their careers. Both of these factors (1 and 2) may cause political scientists to postpone their efforts to learn about the military, much less engage in military-relevant research, until after tenure.

3. Not all political science research is relevant to the military, yet there is a large body of it to cull through. Obviously, political scientists have different goals, purposes, methodologies, and audiences when they write. For those in the military, knowing where to access the research itself can be mysterious. Even a highly esteemed journal like International Security goes largely unread in military circles. Thus having a specific sense of the policy problem and a general understanding of the scholarship available are essential preconditions for military personnel when engaging the political science community.

It is worth noting that despite the above constraints, many political scientists want to be part of the solution. Moreover, our military colleagues describe instances where academic expertise could be useful in tackling challenges the military is currently facing or might face in the future. For example, nuclear and deterrence theory experts could offer creative new ways to communicate the importance of today’s nuclear deterrence mission to those on the forefront of this vital effort but unfamiliar with the dynamics of the Cold War and the first nuclear age. However, while many international security experts want to contribute, there is no obvious mechanism for participation, beyond the scholarship already being produced.

With this in mind we offer five recommendations to get civilian academics started in acquiring basic information about the military that will encourage improved interaction, better policy-relevant scholarship, and an enhanced policy process.

1. Learn key components of the defense organizational structure. At a minimum, anyone who deals with the military needs to understand the structure and role of the military services, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joint Staff, Office of the Secretary of Defense, and combatant commands. Absent this, it is virtually impossible to offer meaningful advice or find the correct audience for it.

2. Learn military rank structure. Policy advisers need to spend time memorizing military ranks. Having a discussion with a Navy captain for example is very different than having a discussion with an Army or Marine Corps captain. It is also critical to understand that rank itself means different things depending on location. An Air Force colonel at the wing level is in a very different role than an Air Force colonel in the Pentagon.

3. Learn key pieces of military hardware. Many aspects of policy advice are contingent on the actual hardware available to implement it. The basic composition of an aircraft carrier strike group, the difference between a P-8 and a CV-22, the capabilities of the A-10 versus the F-35: These are just a few of the kinds of items a policy adviser should come to know and speak of with ease.

4. Appreciate that history tends to be more appealing than political science for the military. Although most political scientists are loath to hear it, the majority of those in uniform gravitate to narrative history much more than to theoretical political science models full of variables and hypotheses. Indeed, many in uniform have an innate connection to military history because it gives them a sense of identity and connection to their past. Thus, political scientists with historical expertise should seek to leverage it where applicable.

5. Read what those in the military are reading. For those interested in the policy realm, it is worth taking some time to understand what those in the military are already reading. Depending on the challenges it is facing, this could be books on organizational management (e.g., The Starfish and the Spider), biographies (e.g., Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War), historical fiction (e.g., Once an Eagle, Killer Angels), or science fiction (e.g., Ender’s Game). These are in addition to strategy classics like Clausewitz and Sun Tzu. Online outlets can also provide a glimpse into the military’s mindset. For example, War on the Rocks issues a holiday reading list every year, polling its contributors — many of whom have spent their careers in uniform. The service chiefs and the chairman, among others, annually release a variety of reading lists that reflect organizational focus. They vary in quality but offer an important glimpse into the mindset and focus of the organizations publishing them. David Barno and Nora Bensahel have also recently penned a great reading list for the incoming Joint Chiefs that is likewise useful for the broader policy community.

We’ve unfortunately bifurcated the security studies and military communities for far too long. For political scientists interested in bridging the political science–military gap, regional expertise or mastery of strategy and policy classics only get you so far. Before engaging military leaders on issues of policy and strategy, spending some time on the basics can pay terrific dividends. By demonstrating a willingness to take these five basic steps, political scientists and others interested in influencing defense policy will find that they better understand those in the military they seek to advise. They will ask more knowledgeable questions and reveal a mastery of the inner workings of the military that will open many more doors than advanced degrees and peer-reviewed articles. In short, their actions will tangibly demonstrate a respect for those who serve in this large, fascinating, and imperfect organization. The resultant scholarship, policy processes, and hopefully policy outcomes would benefit greatly from having this engagement commence at once.

NEXT UP: What the military needs to know about political scientists …


Paula Thornhill is a retired USAF brigadier general and a senior political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND corporation.

Rachel Whitlark is a post-doctoral research fellow with the Project on Managing the Atom and International Security Program at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs within Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.


Photo credit: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

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7 thoughts on “Political Scientists and the Military

  1. Great article, I am looking forward to the next installment. As a military member with a Political Science degree, I think you are spot on on working on bridging the gap between the communities. For those of us in DC, are there any professional networking venues you would recommend along these lines? Thanks.

    1. CIMSEC is a good introduction. Very Navy-focused, but a good cross section of people with different military and/or foreign policy training. A group of professionals and educated amateurs.

  2. Curious to know what, if any, online sources are considered part of the military’s strategic communities must reads (blogs, etc) besides War on the Rocks of course.

  3. Once met a guy from the military who couldn’t distinguish an Asst Prof from an Assoc Prof, they also seemed to confuse a Provost with a Vice Principle, managed to not write a blog about it though…

    1. Right, but war is an extension of politics by other means. Education and war are only related in that education can be applied to ANY topic.

      Military officers and politicians need to understand each other to make communication more effective and efficient. Military officers and Professors don’t necessarily need to understand each other.

  4. This is a bit of a “Blinding Flash of the Obvious” article, and well-tilled earth.

    A more interesting article would have been: why do the social sciences discourage public sector engagement? Young PhDs must choose between the ivory tower or policy. This is in contrast to the hard sciences, where a PhD can work for industry or government and return to the academe without stigma. For example, a physicist PhD who works at Los Alamos National Lab is not punished for supporting the government the same way anthropologists, psychologists and other social scientists who work for DOD are. Social scientists who labored alongside DOD in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere are often blackballed from their profession. The American Anthropology Association has even made it a standing policy not to support such work, and I think the American Psychological Association is about to do the same. Hiring committees at the bigger political science departments frown upon those who spend too much time (5+ yrs) working in think tanks, FFRDCs, JPME institutions, etc. Some big-name professors even take pride in *only* studying theory, pumping out policy irrelevant articles in places like International Security (As Tom Ricks marvelously lampooned last year on WOTR). This seems like an odd way to contemplate reality.

    In other words, there is no room for real-world crossover in the social science world, and this is the bigger story behind the theory to practice gap in political science.

    Lastly, Generals and policy makers have no duty to understand political scientists. This is a one-way street. Political scientists must understand their subjects, and not the other way around.

    1. Sean, I strongly disagree with your last point. The scholar’s obligation is to create new knowledge or new understanding of the environment through their work. My obligation to that scholarship, as a military professional and implementer of policy, strategy, or campaign plan, is to seek out that knowledge and integrate it into my understanding of the operational environment. General and policy makers who eschew such available knowledge out of disdain for the “ivory tower” are destined to miss out on much reality-based and often counterintuitive knowledge that contradicts the assumptions on which policies and strategies are often founded. A one way street leads to policy that isn’t resonant with reality.