On the Chamberlain Project Discourse: Intellectual Rigor Matters

The Chamberlain Project has become the latest controversy on campus. The program, aimed to “assist in building relationships and understanding between the United States Armed Services and civilian institutions,” will potentially bring a retired military officer as a teaching fellow to campus. According to the Chamberlain Project’s website, past fellows have taught at peer institutions like Wesleyan, Amherst, and Hamilton. All of them have Ph.Ds and most of them have years of teaching experience. However, some students worry that the program would further promote an imperialist ideology and inflict harm on students who have experienced the detrimental consequences of U.S. militarism. Various letters by different student organizations were published in Voices in mid-March, calling for the cancellation of the college’s collaboration with the program.  

As noted by the Op-Ed last week, whether they are genuine or not, Swatties love to cite Quaker values and the college’s mission statement in virtually every discourse on campus. These lines of discourse range from last semester’s boycott to the ongoing discussion of The Chamberlain Project. As a devout atheist, I couldn’t care less about religious beliefs or the Bible normally. Whereas SGO and multiple affinity groups on campus tend to use Quaker values as convenient to bolster their argument, I intend to follow Swarthmore’s emphasis on academic rigor and examine their arguments based on their own merit. 

There are three major arguments made by these students I want to tackle: students ought to participate in the decision-making process of collaboration with the Chamberlain Project; the U.S. Armed Forces promote imperialism and war; and officers should be held responsible for the wrongdoings of the U.S. Armed Forces. By engaging with these arguments, I hope to demonstrate the complexity of issues like war, ideology, and international politics. I argue that these issues should be debated based on academic sources rather than on big, oversimplified claims. 

Argument No.1: “Swarthmore has … shut … community members out of decision making processes on critical campus issues.” – Ban the Ban letter 

The premise of students’ argument against the Chamberlain Project is that students and faculty ought to participate in the decision-making process, and they are not given such an opportunity. For tenure-track professors, it is true that students’ feedback matters, but it’s the department that makes the final hiring decision. Also, for teaching or research fellows, students usually do not participate in the hiring process at all — see Lang Center fellows for example. 

As for the faculty, as reported by The Phoenix, there was at least one faculty meeting regarding The Chamberlain Project. According to the Project’s own position, its collaboration with a college does not guarantee that a fellow would teach at the college — there is a matching process between applicants and the college, during which students would still have the opportunity to review candidates. 

The “is” question is solved, and we are left with the “ought” question — ought students  to have a say in it? College collaboration projects (i.e. the education department’s collaboration with local schools; the political science department’s project with local prisons and think tanks) are usually established and determined directly by academic departments and the administration for resource and qualification reasons. Undergrad students simply do not possess the necessary academic skills (e.g. a Ph.D. in the specific field) to review fellowship candidates or collaboration programs. This is why students do not directly participate in choosing local schools or prisons to collaborate with – they  have neither the connections nor the knowledge to determine which institutions would benefit the learning experience of Swarthmore students.

Useful student feedback on the suitability of a teaching fellow would consist of a select group of individuals with similar interests to the fellow’s specialty. Normally, when departments send out invitations on prospective faculty’s lectures, they only notify students within the major. The idea is that these students would have the most relevant knowledge to determine the fitness of a prospective faculty member. The same logic should be applied to the Chamberlain Project — the students who are interested in the fellow’s area of specialization should determine whether a fellow would be a good fit for Swarthmore.

Argument No.2: “nation shall not lift up sword against nation.” – SGO letter 

An assumption made about the U.S. Armed Forces is that their involvement automatically leads to wars and instability. The SGO letter asserts that the Project “fails to take an analytical approach to the U.S. military and war.” The MENA student letter calls the military “an organization that has committed a host of war crimes,” and the JVP letter deems the military “responsible for destabilization throughout the world.”

On the empirical decision-making level, although it is common for military personnel to participate in decisions related to military operations, generals are on the lower end of the command chain. Civilian politicians and advisors in Congress and the White House ultimately determine guiding policies for the military. For instance, it was President Obama who determined that Afghanistan should be a higher military priority for the U.S. in 2009. After this change in U.S. policy in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal asked for more forces in the region as tasked by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. If the students want to blame anyone for starting wars, they should first turn to civilian politicians and to the think tanks that advise these politicians. I suspect that if students did this, a number of Swarthmore professors (e.g. Prof. James Kurth and Prof. Dominic Tierney, who both worked with the Foreign Policy Research Institute) would face similar scrutiny since they are involved in the debate of foreign policy of the U.S. which at times leads to wars. 

On the theoretical level, causes of war are not as simple as the students opposing the Project might think. War is the most costly way to resolve conflicts when diplomatic negotiations and bargaining are on the table. In democracies like the U.S. where political leaders could be voted out of office for getting into the wrong fights, decisions to start wars are never easy to make. That is, why does the U.S. decide to enter certain wars, given the high political cost politicians might have to pay, such as being voted out of office? Under what circumstances did the U.S. enter “wrong wars” such as Vietnam or Iraq? If the U.S. military is so strong and U.S. imperialism is so mighty, why would other countries engage in a war with the U.S. in the first place, and why doesn’t the U.S. use diplomatic threats to achieve their goals?

Fortunately, international relations theory provides rich insights into these questions. For instance, James Fearon’s 1995 seminal piece provides a rationalist explanation for the counterintuitiveness of war. Other political scientists focus on domestic politics as the main explaination for war. The point here is that causes of war are extremely complicated and vary in different situations. Scholars have debated about this problem using quantitative, qualitative, and formal methods for decades, and there has not been a consensus on this topic. Instead of blindly accusing the military and “imperialism” for war, it would be more helpful to consult literature by experts on this incredibly puzzling question. 

Deterrence theory tells us that in an anarchic international system, the presence of the military in many cases is the foundation of peace. The anarchic world we live in is much like a kindergarten playground without the presence of the head teacher. If the biggest kid — the US — gives up using force, it would not stop the second biggest kid — China at the moment — from using forces to get the toys they want. Thus, to paraphrase different schools of deterrence theory extremely concisely: forces, especially nuclear ones, keep each nation in check. The world would be a much more chaotic place without the US military, despite its many mistakes and wrongdoings. In fact, it is widely recognized that the relative peace in the Asian-Pacific region and Europe today is partially attributed to the presence of U.S. forces and their cooperation with local armed forces. 

The idea that all wars are wrong is flawed. On the one hand, there are clearly morally just wars such as WWII and the US intervention in Kosovo where the US military may have saved millions of lives. Wars also allow nations to signal their resolve in a costly yet efficient manner. Thus, small regional wars like the Korean War may prevent escalation of conflicts into multi-national or even world wars by demonstrating each party’s resolve and signalling mechanism. 

In short, Argument Two is too simplistic to explain the complicated causes of war and the connection between the US army/ideology and war. Even scholars studying IR theories have not come to a definite conclusion on the problems addressed by this argument. I think if we do take academic rigor seriously, it would be more helpful to read literature on wars, domestic politics, and ideology first, before making a grand verdict on them. Also, if students do care about peace and ways to achieve it, it seems much more valuable to actually learn from ex-military officers who have insights into our political and military system so that we can prevent the same mistakes. 

Argument No.3: “the United States military is a violent imperial force, and The Chamberlain Project appears to be a thinly veiled attempt at proliferating pro-military propaganda at Swarthmore.” – JVP letter 

Also common across articles against The Chamberlain Project is the idea that the U.S. military promotes imperialist ideology, and those who are in leadership positions should be held responsible for the military’s imperialist agenda since they fail to reflect on the questionable mission of the military. In addition, the MENA student letter uses Biden’s bombing of Syria which “murdered civilians” as an example of imperialist war crimes, calling it a reminder of the military-industrial complex’s desire to profit and implement its expansionist agenda. Thus, veterans “who fail to question these harmful systems do not belong in Swarthmore’s community.”

The author’s claim that Biden’s bombing “murdered” 22 “civilians” is inaccurate. All killed were terrorists and fighters backed by Iran who had attacked U.S. Air Force bases before. The airstrike was designed not to provoke a war but to serve as a diplomatic signal to Iran — after all, Biden was the one who pushed hard against direct military intervention in Syria in 2013. In fact, such limited military action can help facilitate diplomatic dialogue between the U.S. and Iran and further preserve the delicate peace in the region. This is because, in the words of Johns Hopkins Professor Vali Nasr, “The Iranians will think if the U.S. gets worried about its mischievous behavior it may get to the table faster, and the Americans want to prevent Iran from doing things that could complicate going back to the table by responding decisively early on.” The larger point here, however, is that diplomatic and military events are complicated — they are not a direct reflection of a unifying ideology, but the result of careful calculation and sophisticated diplomatic dance between the two parties. 

The military is a diverse organization with large personnel who have different opinions coming from different backgrounds. It is factually incorrect to assume everyone involved in the military is linked with an imperialist/militarist agenda or joins with the intent of expanding that agenda. Any policymaker would know that there are neocons in favor of an expansionist military strategy, just like there are defensive realists who’d preserve the status quo and caution against aggression in the military. It is oversimplifying to say that the military is unified under one opinion on expansion or imperialism. 

It is very plausible that generals, commanders, and officers in the U.S. army may have contributed directly a great deal to peace-building via cooperation with civil society. The U.S. army has a significant role in disaster relief around the world: the US army’s response after the 2011 Japan earthquake is a great example. Moreover, the US military contributes personnel, training, and equipment to the UN peace mission on a regular basis. These are just two examples of the U.S. military’s successful involvement in civilian matters, and they showcase the complexity of the U.S. military — it is simply not just a war machine, but an intricate entity with complex missions. 

Conclusion:

Let me clarify my position again: I’m not arguing that students should have a singular, positive opinion on the Chamberlain Project, and I’m certainly not arguing in favor of the U.S. military. What I’m arguing for, however, is integrous arguments in accordance with Swarthmore’s emphasis on academic rigor. Namely, the use of empirical evidence and self-evident logic and the humble understanding that the world is not black and white. These are the very basics of arguments which would cultivate a civic and intellectual discourse culture, rather than the polar opposite of it which we currently have at Swarthmore. 

I argue that the current arguments against The Chamberlain Project are often ignorant of the dynamics of international politics and at times contain misinformation. This is what college can offer us: a chance to challenge our old beliefs and study new and difficult theories across different disciplines. Indeed, there is a breadth of academic literature across social sciences on these complicated topics.

As Swatties who care about intellectual rigor, it would be perhaps more useful to refer back to academic research rather than rootless claims about war and ideology when we form opinions on complicated affairs in the world. As a school, rather than having a fixed position on controversial social issues, Swarthmore should encourage student debates that are based on good logic and academic rigor. It is time for us to turn to what we are used to in hard Swarthmore classes: papers, books, and good research. 

The opinions expressed in this article are solely the author’s and do not reflect the views of The Phoenix Editorial Board. 

4 thoughts on “On the Chamberlain Project Discourse: Intellectual Rigor Matters

  • April 9, 2021 at 5:06 pm
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    I don’t understand how bombing and killing 22 people is “diplomatic”. The US orchestrates wars of aggression. Who are the terrorist here? Countries don’t “choose to engage in war” with the US. The US brings it to them. An analogy for the US’s military action would be a bull getting stung by a bee then going on a rampage and trampling everything. What is the sophisticated diplomatic dance you speak of? It really appears that the US has started huge wars on either side of Iran and has bullied and coerced an entire region. That’s what really happens when the teacher leaves the room.

    You seem to scoff at the idea that the US military does not have an imperial agenda, but what is the end goal of these wars? What is the goal of having “peace” and “stability”? It is to maintain a capitalistic, “free” market system in which US interests are served 1st. To maintain a system in which the global north can continue to extract resources to serve it’s consumer markets and destructive industries. It is to ensure markets can be controlled by the US. There is no altruism here. The US is not maintaining “stability” for anyone but itself, and it comes at the cost of millions and millions of lives. These costs do not justify the status quo for me, and I really question the validity of the power vacuum arguments put forth as well.

    Moreover, there are close ties between the military, arms industries, and our “democratically” elected officials. There is no clean separation between the two. Even in cases of Iraq and Afghanistan, the intelligence agencies and military lied and withheld information in order to start these wars. And professors that work at think tanks SHOULD be questioned and scrutinized! Thank you for pointing that out too.

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  • April 10, 2021 at 12:41 pm
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    This is pathetic. Your hand-waving about the chain of command obfuscates a distressing failure to understand American imperialism. You use US intervention in Kosovo as an example of a “clearly morally just war,” but the March 1999 bombing campaign by the US and NATO allies precipitated the expulsion of 863,000 Kosovar Albanians from Kosovo. It made things WORSE. More heartbreaking—in terms of both the loss of life and your own education—is that you call the Korean war a “small regional war” and argue that it was justified in preventing escalation of conflict. The civilian death toll alone in Korea was on the order of three MILLION (more than the current number of worldwide COVID deaths), and amounted to a civilian casualty rate higher than that in either the Vietnam war or World War II. WWII, meanwhile, is your other example of an American military action whose moral virtue cannot be challenged. It certainly cannot be challenged by the hundreds of thousands of civilian residents of Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed in August 1945, nor by their children and families who died in the following months and years from radiation poisoning, leukemia, and birth defects.

    It makes me sick that you would brush these deaths aside. It makes me sick that I should study alongside someone so entranced by a cursory understanding of already antiquated international relations theory that they they would use some of the greatest tragedies of the twentieth century to tell me why I should pay tuition to imbibe imperialist propaganda.

    I have expressed great disrespect for you. I cannot convey how understated that expression is in comparison to the disrespect I feel.

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    • April 14, 2021 at 5:01 pm
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      The idea that nuking Japan was necessary is so laughably ahistorical.

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  • April 10, 2021 at 5:30 pm
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    What would you say the alternatives were to the Korean War and to nuking Japan? The projected Japanese casualties of Operation Downfall were in the millions owing to the divine cult that had formed around the emperor and their complete hatred of surrendering. I won’t comment on Kosovo because I really don’t know enough about that situation to do so.

    I don’t think Sicheng is arguing that America is 100% good, but just that there is nuance and very few countries are 100% anything. For example, according to Pew 2018, countries like South Korea, Vietnam, Japan and Poland have favorable (> 60) opinions of America while countries in the Arabian Peninsula (justifiably) have unfavorable opinions of America.

    Reply

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