Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Because Ralph Would Have Wanted It That Way

For the past ten days I've been asking people if they've read The Pentagon's New Map and, if so, what they think of it. Most have heard of it, at least vaguely. Many have read reviews of it. One person owned a copy but said he couldn't really get into it. In pretty much every case the sense people had was of something slick, superficial, unconvincing, and not really worthy of engagement. Pressed to supply his own view of the book, the friend at the Pentagon who originally clued me in to its existence wrote:
Barnett's book, while interesting at some level, is an inch deep. It is essentially a 75 slide powerpoint presentation converted to words, with about 15,000 words of self-aggrandizement added in for filler. Readable, but annoying at some level. You'd do better to order from CSPAN their tape (in DVD if you want) of his 2 hour powerpoint presentation given this past summer at the National Defense University. Exactly same content, much faster to consume. He is an entertainer, with all that implies. The sad thing is that it is widely read here. Punditocracy has arrived in the Pentagon.
Actually, if you set aside the deprecatory appraisal for a moment, this is a pretty astute and unexceptionable description. It really is a PowerPoint presentation converted to words, as Barnett himself makes clear. The author has given this presentation more than 400 times to various military, policymaking, and think tank audiences, and eventually concluded that it had become so much sought-after that it deserved to reach a wider audience.

It's also true that you can get 95 percent of the book from watching the presentation. I haven't seen the National Defense University presentation, but last evening I did watch a 90-minute, 30-slide version of the presentation on C-SPAN (which Barnett, incidentally, considered an improvement on the NDU version). It's currently available on C-SPAN in streaming video and will be rebroadcast on December 26 at 4 p.m. It's worth seeing. Barnett has a real gift for the oral presentation, and he's an artist with PowerPoint.

It's also true that Barnett "is an entertainer, with all that implies." Having myself occasionally been accused of being an entertainer in the classroom, I don't necessarily consider the term an epithet. Barnett has a vision of the future of national security, he's trying to lodge that vision in the heads of those who can make it happen, and from endless repetition has pinpointed the images, epigrams, and metaphors that drive home his points most readily. It's really quite astonishing how much information, conceptualization, and interpretation he can pack into 90 minutes without losing his audience.

Barnett puts it this way in his latest blog entry:

[CSPAN host Steve] Scully asked me last night, "Has this become a career for you?" And the answer is, "Of course it has." But the career is determined by two factors: 1) the reproducibility of the strategic concepts (their essential utility); 2) the reach of the message. These are self-reinforcing in a network sense: the more I interact with the world at large, the better I tailor the concepts for their reproducibility (meaning the easier it is for a wide range of minds to instantly "get" what I'm talking about), and the better tailored the concepts, the wider the reach of the network. In short, I am constantly improving both reach and richness—the ultimate feat in marketing.
What this means, inevitably, is that he simplifies in the interest of "reproducibility," and if you have an academic temperament this lust for simplification can drive you nuts. Academics will occasionally praise a simple interpretation as "elegant," but more commonly will condemn it as "simplistic." Two of the most common verbs I hear in academic presentations are "complicate"--as in "I want to complicate the narrative of thus-and-such"--and "problematize," which, if clumsy, is at least self-explanatory.

In an oral presentation, however, to "complicate" and "problematize" is often the same as to "confuse" and "stupify." And if you're going to write a mainstream book intended to lay out a case and convince a reader, the scholarly hesitation and qualification characteristic of my profession just won't fly.

As to the balance of my Pentagon friend's assessment: even Barnett would probably concede that the book contains 15,000 words of "self-aggrandizement." Barnett deals out the pronoun "I" the way other people deal out commas. But another way to see it is that Barnett avoids the "God trick." He isn't the magisterial voice of a presumptive objectivity. Like Lilian Friedberg, he places himself in the narrative. You never forget for a minute that you're getting the views of a forty-something strategic analyst with an audience to impress and a mortgage to pay. Personally I find that refreshing.

Similarly, I can't find it in myself to fret that The Pentagon's Map is being widely read within the Pentagon. For one thing, it's reassuring to know that people in the Pentagon actually read books. But more importantly, it creates a framework for engagement. You can dismiss the book if you want, but right now I think it would be more useful to talk back to it. If it's too simple in places, explain why--and offer a better interpretation. If it's an inch deep, encourage the author to dig deeper. Or better, use PNM as a point of departure and do for it what, in the nature of the case, it can't really do for itself. Barnett can't very well push PNM and critique it, both at the same time. That's someone else's job.

The question is, is it worth making it my job?

You can divide this into two component questions.

First, is any sort of public engagement worth the time and energy involved?

On this score I've always been mindful of the illusion of influence. Usually the people you're trying to influence have already charted their own direction and embrace your work principally if it serves as an argument in favor of what they plan to do anyway. Barnett can push PNM with the zeal of a dope dealer but it doesn't mean anyone with real clout will mainline it. They're more likely to cut it and re-sell it to whatever group and in whatever way will further their own interests.

I once spent a summer at RAND Corporation researching European collaborative aircraft programs--the Jaguar, Tornado and Alpha Jet programs. Supposedly this was to be "objective," but really it was to help make the (futile) case that the Europeans should scrap the EFA and Rafale projects and buy our F-16Cs instead. I candidly didn't give a shit. I got to spend three months in Santa Monica and make several times my grad student stipend and I had no complaints. But a good friend of mine who went to work as a CIA analyst eventually left in frustration when his reports, which concluded in effect that such-and-such was "white," were revised so that white became first "beige," then "grayish-white," and not infrequently ended up "coal black." It's one thing to do this sort of thing on summer break. It's another thing to make it a significant chunk of your life's work.

That said, to some degree I already answered this question affirmatively when I let the Mershon Center give me a second campus office and, more importantly, buy me out of one course each year. The benefit to me is that it gives me a six-month on, six-month off teaching schedule. The expectation from Mershon is that I'll actively work to further its mission: "to advance the scholarly study and intellectual understanding of national security in a global context." This doesn't actually require me to get involved in public as opposed to purely academic engagement, but public was plainly the sort of engagement Ralph D. Mershon had in mind when he made his bequest to OSU.

C'mon! Could you refuse a face like that?

Second, is PNM specifically worthy of engagement?

One could argue that it is, simply because it's getting such play inside the Beltway. But it certainly isn't the only book getting play; there are easily a dozen books out there that, in one way or another, are prominently involved in the current national security discussion. What appeals to me about PNM is its attempt to link globalization to military affairs. This harmonizes well with the global history of war initiative, not just in terms of globalization but also in terms of its call for the armed forces to adopt a much broader definition of war. Barnett is as impatient as I am with the Pentagon's application of the acronym MOOTW--"Military Operations Other Than War"--to describe most of what it actually does in the current threat environment. Nobody says this in so many words any more, but the current Iraqi occupation corresponds, in most respects, to MOOTW. The "March to Baghdad" that claimed 140 American lives was real war. The occupation that has so far claimed over 1100 American lives--and probably ten times that many Iraqi civilians-- is part of the "post-conflict" phase.

I suppose I could worry, as one of my respondents did--in a very thoughtful email, by the way--that a project like this would be "presentist," and might well result in a forced, artificial use of the past: a set of raids on history to endorse or query PNM. I think if you take at face value Barnett's conception of globalization this would likely be the result. As this respondent pointed out, it not only takes a constricted view of globalization as essentially a post-1870 development, it also smuggles in the old, largely-discredited "modernization" theory whereby all societies are supposed to pass through the same stages of development in pretty much the same way. Part of the job would be to critique Barnett's model of globalization and ask what implications a different model would have for his national security prescriptions.

The other part--or at least one other part--would be to critically assess the prescription itself, which is essentially a call for the United States to field two kinds of armed forces: a "Leviathan" force to kick the crap out of the Saddam Husseins of the world, and a "Systems Administration" force adapted to the tasks of occupation, stabilization, and the restoration of normal law and order in the countries thus freed of their rogue leadership. Actually, to the extent that one is going to use military force, a good, robust, well-trained "Sys Admin" force sounds very plausible. But in the first place, it's a real question whether the use of military force, Leviathan or Sys Admin, doesn't create more problems than it solves. (The longer I study war, the more convinced I become that violence solves one problem at the cost of creating others--hopefully smaller and more manageable, but often just as serious as the initial one and occasionally a hell of a lot worse.) And in the second, it's worth realizing that a Sys Admin war is still a war, and any adversary will systematically try to thwart and overthrow such an effort. This isn't an argument against a Sys Admin force. It's a suggestion that previous "low intensity" conflicts need to be examined in new ways.

For instance, what would the United States do if a principled, nonviolent movement emerged in Iraq that insisted upon Shi'ite majority rule and the establishment of an explicitly Shi'ite state with close ties to Iran? A Sys Admin force could perhaps prevail against a bunch of bomb throwers. But against a Gandhian satyagraha campaign? Such a development sounds unlikely. But so did terrorists toppling the World Trade Center. So I think it's worth the thought experiment. And really, what could we do to counter such a thing?

Finally, it's worth recalling the fruits of my own involvement, years ago, with another hot idea then making the rounds of the Pentagon: RMAs--Revolutions in Military Affairs--which promised to banish the fog of war and give us a lean, qualitatively superior military capable of beating a much larger adversary by way of an asymmetrical advantage in information technology. My mentor Wick Murray was aghast--well, Wick doesn't get aghast, let's say outraged--at the historical myopia of such a view. In 1996 he put together a conference at the Marine Corps University in which a succession of historians--me included--reviewed other RMAs from the Hundred Years War to World War II in order to show how true RMAs were almost never merely technological but rather the result of much larger political, sociocultural, and economic factors. My own presentation focused on the American Civil War as an example of armed forces not so much harnessing an RMA as trying to survive the RMA of people's war.

It was actually a pretty clever presentation, and fundamentally correct. Even so, during the Q&A that followed a Marine major acknowledged my basic point but wondered if there wasn't any way by which one side during the Civil War enjoyed an asymmetrical advantage over the other. Abruptly it occurred to me that the Federal government did a much better job of financing its war effort--the huge Northern manufacturing advantage was a latent advantage, useless unless the Federal government could find a way to pay for the weapons and equipment it could yield. The sweeping re-imagination of financial policy--the artful mix of greenbacks, bonds, and taxes developed by government policymakers and private financiers between 1862 and 1864--resulted in what one historian has called a "fiscal-military revolution." I had never really appreciated this before, nor had I studied it closely. My engagement with the "presentist" RMA agenda wound up making me a better Civil War historian. I have a hunch that engaging with PNM will yield similar benefits for me as a global historian of war.

PS - That 1996 conference resulted in a volume of essays: The Dynamics of Military Revolution, 1300-2050, which is now on the U.S. Army Chief of Staff's professional reading list.

According to the list:

The Dynamics of Military Revolution, 1300-2050. Edited by MacGregor Knox and Williamson Murray

The editors provide a conceptual framework and historical context for understanding the patterns of change, innovation, and adaptation that have marked war in the Western world since the fourteenth century. Case studies and a conceptual overview offer to all senior leaders an indispensable introduction to military change.


Anthony said...

If I might kiss butt for a moment, "Dynamics of Military Revolution" really is a stunningly good book. It's also, incidentally, now one of the main core texts for first year undergrads at the War Studies department at King's College, London.

Lance Blyth said...

Good post; glad to see you are encouraging people to deal with the ideas in PNM. It is, like poco studies, a useful heuristic device for historians, being "good to think" so-to-speak.

Two comments: (1) On the use of violence and armed force vis-a-vis the Leviathan and Sys Admin forces. Barnett has made comments that suggest he envisions the Sys Admin force being primarily non-military; ie State, NGOs, other governmental agencies, other foreign organizations, with some enforcement power, ie the Marines. I have to agree that in such stability and reconstruction operations violence does not solve problems and can cause many others. But it does allow for an opportunity to solve some, if one is willing to accept the use of violence to do so. If you do not accept violence as a way to get to a solution (not a solution in and of itself) then you are simply causing more problems; possibly more than the use of violence would!

The real challenge will be getting all the non-military organizations to "step-up" to the Sys Admin force. This will require a large number of groups whose livelihood lays in the maintenance of the Gap countries (in my opinion) as poor and underdeveloped to help improve conditions. This will be difficult, but not impossible, if the basic structure is put in place.

(2) PNM and Global Military history. Barnett has often said PNM is about the future of war in the context of everything else. I think a global military history should capitalize on this and try to do the history of war not in the context of war (this is military history) but in the context of everything else.

An example I've used is Barnett's comment that if you want to get a bunch of men pissed-off start messing with their women and their definition of masculinity (which globalization does, by the way). Here is gender theory firmly thrust (yeah, used that on purpose) into military history and what an interesting study it would make.

Anyhoo, keep up the good work and my best to all in the coming year.


Mark G. said...

Many thanks to both of you.