This is the second in a series of opinion pieces about ways to begin reimagining education in the 21st and 22nd centuries. The first, on the need for financial education, was released in last week’s issue. The purpose of this exercise is to jog the minds of those reading, and to begin launching some questions for further study and review. These essays are the general reflections of an alum of this college and this newspaper. They, however, remain my views and mine alone. In some cases, the views offered in this series likely differ from policy I would enact if I myself were writing the rules. That seems natural to me. The desire, here, is for spirited inquiry, discussion, and debate.
Swarthmore should start a War Studies department. By this, I do not mean an expansion of the Peace and Conflict Studies department, but a separate department devoted to the history and theory of war, the study of military strategy, and the analysis of contemporary geopolitics.
Why? Because the U.S. Military has power and money, and it will continue to have power and money. The contemporary leftist critique — that we spend too much on our military — is not likely to go very far, and even if it did, our military would still have the most power and money of any military in the world. Yet, until recently, we have had startlingly few courses at the college devoted to understanding it, or the topic of war broadly.
It is strange, when one considers how much war has shaped human history, that a college as focused on the pursuit of knowledge as Swarthmore does not devote much attention to the topic. War is as central to the study of humankind’s place on earth as the study of art, culture, biology, economics, and language.
The existing Peace and Conflict Studies department, though wonderful, presently serves a different need and takes a different approach than the course of study I advocate for here. Peace and Conflict as it presently exists (judging, at least, from the course descriptions, the few syllabi I have seen, and the expertise of the faculty who teach in it), functions as a department devoted to understanding the human impacts of conflict, and the political histories of conflict negotiation. This approach hews closely to what is traditionally thought of as the civil approach to pursuing peace, one that is in line with Swarthmore’s culture of civic action, activism, and speaking up.
It makes sense, at a place like Swarthmore, to have a department that approaches the study of peace as the present Peace and Conflict department does: after all, Swarthmore holds the Quaker value of peace very close to heart. Swatties were instrumental in the 20th century’s conscientious objector movements, and the college maintains one of the best peace archives in the world.
Yet I want to contend that it is precisely because of this peace-loving heritage that Swarthmore needs to also engage seriously with the discipline of war studies. The reason is simple: the U.S. Military is extraordinarily powerful. It can either be used to enforce peace, as it did when it deterred Nazi Germany, or to destroy it. For Swatties to ensure that our military upholds the former and avoids the latter, they have to understand it. To take the other option, and ignore it because the military is “bad,” risks blindfolding oneself in the name of purity politics. The power will exist anyway.
In Our Lifetimes
In 2003, the Bush Administration decided to take America to war with Iraq because they falsely believed that Iraq had nuclear weapons. Nearly all of civil society at the time — the media, three-fourths of the Senate, the policy-makers and lawyers who occupied the ranks of government — went along with this decision, without, it seems, much critical thought. Iraq did not have nukes, and the subsequent decade in the region was catastrophic. The price of ignorance is high.
Of course our military’s leadership, who do have expertise and training in war studies, also seemed to have approved this decision, so would further civilian knowledge have actually led to a better outcome? To this there are three responses.
First, the military, like anyone else, can be subject to forms of cognitive bias. Being trained as a warrior has a way of overweighting the need and importance of battle as a solution to problems.
Second, even if one believes that our military’s leadership is always excellent at making decisions, diversity of knowledgeable perspectives is nevertheless a further benefit to accurate, deliberative decision making. Any highly-disciplined organization that ensures common training runs the risk of groupthink. This may particularly be the case in institutions, like the military, where obedience is prized and insubordination is not tolerated. To mitigate the risk of herd-mentality, then, it is important to ensure that civilian decision actors are well-versed in how to weigh strategic questions.
Third, in America we prize having civilian control of the military, for good reason. The civilian perspective opens the door to the country’s other concerns, allowing them to measure against the military’s strategic responsibilities.
Perhaps, then, it should be telling that the members of civilian leadership who were most equipped to provide input on Bush’s decision did not agree with him. Bush’s father George H.W. Bush, a former U.S. President himself, and his friend, the former Secretary of State James Baker, were both against the war. They had, in a very real way, sat in the seat that George Jr. then occupied, and drew a different conclusion about the merits of the case. They had the benefit of having studied, through real-life experience, the complexities of war and geopolitics. They were also able, in the post-9/11 milieu of angst and frenzy, to serve as neutral contributors, with no worry about losing elected seats or being painted as un-American.
The Structural Problem
If civilian leaders are trained at the collegiate level to understand war, they would handle decisions better when it comes to the real thing. Though on paper Congress is obligated by the Constitution to vote on wars and military appropriations, in practice, they have outsourced an extraordinary degree of war powers and emergency powers to the White House. The Pentagon, meanwhile, bombs little Afghan children in Kabul and claims no culpability for it. My parents grew up in Kabul. It is but for a quirk of history that I was not one of those children.
Much of the gap in our current civilian knowledge of military affairs rests with how American electoral politics weights domestic concerns over international ones. The unfortunate truth is that very few Americans know or care much about international affairs. Most, for example, believe that Afghanistan is in the Middle East.
Therefore, politicians hoping to get elected to Congress or the Presidency have strong incentives to build up their credentials on domestic issues. There is often little electoral incentive for a politician to take time out of their busy life to engage with questions of military strategy, or even foreign affairs broadly. Their constituents do not care, so why should they?
There does exist a small batch of engaged policy experts who think critically about foreign policy full-time, but we ought to invest at the collegiate level in expanding this base.
The study of war, like most other forms of liberal learning, confers a set of tools with which to think. Studying the practice, history, and theory of war would confer upon students the ability to reason through the lens of strategy, security, game theory, and morality. There is inherent, general value in exposing students to this framework of thinking. In fact, very few other disciplines emphasize these tools of reason. From a liberal learning perspective, there is strong merit to incorporating the study of war into the curriculum.
But even more important than liberal learning, in my view, is the need — for the sake of civic engagement — to give to the broader citizenry a basic sense of the questions at stake in matters of war.
Swarthmore, like other elite colleges, has a unique role to play here. The unfortunate fact of the matter is that the decision-making batch in America is quite small. Swarthmore, by virtue of its reputation, contributes frequently to it. Our alumni serve in the U.S. Senate, edit foreign policy magazines, work as White House Counsel, and make serious bids for the Presidency. The late Honorable Senator Carl Levin ’56, for example, served 36 years as a U.S. Senator from Michigan. During ten of these years, ones which were crucial to American foreign policy, he served as the Chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Given, then, how small these rooms are, and how frequently Swatties contribute to them, it behooves the college to ensure its students have more resources at their disposal to learn about the topic of war, so that we can ensure peace.
The stakes are simply too high. There is a very real possibility we accidentally go to war with China in the next century. Such a war would be devastating. There also remains the perennial possibility of either intentional or accidental nuclear war, with any number of armed actors. Avoiding such violence requires being able to engage knowledgeably with the national security questions that face our country every day. It requires vocal civilian leaders and the electorate to be able to engage substantively in conversations with the Pentagon and the White House. It requires, in other words, a knowledge of war.
Swarthmore, of course, has not abdicated its responsibility on this front. In my view, President Smith was right to commit to a partnership with The Chamberlain Project last year, even as students and faculty were right to debate it. The college, through the Lang Center, has signed up for a partnership with the Pulitzer Center to fund student crisis-reporting initiatives. Occasionally, there are opportunities to learn about war from outside speakers, as when, a few years ago, Professor Emerita Carol Nackenoff brought Daniel Ellsberg, the whistleblower of the Pentagon Papers, to speak to campus about the precarious state of our nuclear arsenal. The lecture hall for this event, it should be noted, was packed.
In the long term, we should formalize this interest into a department, staff it with war historians and military policy experts, and open dialogues with retired, senior members of the Pentagon and others with first-hand knowledge of contemporary events. Though some may argue that War Studies could exist as an extension of Political Science or as an interdisciplinary program, in the long run I think it ought to be a department in its own right. It has a continuous history as a course of study, and it cuts across many disciplines, including engineering and history, philosophy and political science, religion and literature, psychology and ecology.
Additionally, there is value in credentialing our graduates as being knowledgeable about war: it will give them more street credit when they are up for fellowships and will give them credibility when they engage in debates of substance in their professional lives. Swarthmore should survey American universities that excel at teaching the topic of war and global affairs, such as Princeton, Duke, Stanford, Tufts, and Columbia, and discern how to adapt their best practices to fit the setting of a small liberal arts college.
In order to live up to the mission of Swarthmore, this department, when it is made, must have the Quaker value of maximizing peace as one of its tenets. But we must ensure it does so in a way that prioritizes realities over rhetoric. It would be a danger, in a War Studies department, to think of peace and rights without emphasizing humility and practicalities. Otherwise, we will run the risk of letting this nation delude itself into waging another unjust war. Pragmatism is not just a place for hawks.
In the medium term, we can begin by adding another scholar of international relations and security studies to the Political Science department, a war historian to the History department, and a cryptographer to the Computer Science department. We ought to make Afghanistan studies a full-time position in the Peace and Conflict Department and add to Peace and Conflict a specialist in lawfare. Over time, the college can gauge how much interest students display in these topics, and then gradually adjust funding accordingly.
Decisions about academic funding should not be made lightly or with a short-term view. But this need will never go away. The tensions and possibility for war will be with humankind for as long as humans exist. All we can do is to choose to face it, or not.