'Operations other than War': The Politics of Academic Scholarship in the 21st Century

David Nugent, Emory University

Among the many serious concerns raised by the Minerva project is the autonomy and impartiality of the academic domain — and the conditions that variously promote or threaten to undermine that autonomy.[1] In general terms, it is tempting to regard military efforts to shape academic knowledge as a threat to the production of uncompromised, impartial scholarship. It is equally tempting to view the academy as a “realm apart,” in which scholars are free to develop critiques of the military unconstrained by the latter’s concerns and conceptions. Such neat separations, however, do not do justice to the complexity of the relations that obtain between these institutional spheres. Even a cursory review of the history of military-academic relations reveals this to be the case.

One way to chart the changing relations between the military and the academy is in relation to periodic crises in capitalist accumulation practices, and the impact of these crises on strategies of imperial management. Such an approach would seem especially germane at present (the closing months of 2008), as an economic crisis that has been gathering steam for over a decade (Arrighi 1994) hits home with devastating force. But this is not the first time that economic crisis has generated a shift in the relations between the military and the academy. It was an earlier period of crisis — and of recovery and management — that spurred the military’s first major intervention into the social sciences.

The depression of the 1930s, and the World War that followed in its wake, brought military concerns directly into the halls of academia — and vice versa. It was the “area” concept — which dominated pure, disinterested social science for decades after the war, and subsequently became the focus of post-structural critiques of Cold War-era rigidities — which acted as the bridge between military concerns and academic conception and practice. The concept of “area” was a reflection of little more than military expediency. It grew directly out of the heat of WW II. About mid-way through the conflict, when it appeared that the US would eventually win, it dawned on military strategists that they were wholly unprepared for the peace that would follow the war. They realized that they where not ready to administer the vast territories scattered all around the globe that they would soon inherit from the Axis powers.

In an effort to prepare for the administration of these far-flung territories, the US army rapidly assembled a team of distinguished social scientists from all the major disciplines. Their assignment was to design a standardized curriculum that the army could use in training its personnel to establish military government anywhere in the world. Thus did the “area” concept become instrumental to the military.[2] Under the auspices of the Foreign Area and Language Program — which the army used to teach area studies — interdisciplinary teams of social scientists at 55 universities around the country trained thousands of officers in the art of military government (Nugent 2008).

After the war, the area framework was considered useful in transitioning to the peacetime administration of areas formerly under military government. As is well known, during the opening decades of the Cold War the US government and the great Foundations spent vast sums of money to construct an extensive new social science infrastructure. Replete with prominent research centers at prestigious universities, new and reorganized granting agencies (NSF, SSRC, ACLU, etc.) and unprecedented sums to support graduate education, this infrastructure ensured that “area” was the lens through which the world would be viewed. Just as several thousand officers were trained to implement the war-time version of area studies, several thousand civilians (social scientists) were trained in its peace-time iteration. These included some of the most influential scholars of the era (see Szanton 2004; Wallerstein 1997).

The point in reviewing this history is not to rehearse the shortcomings of area studies. The point is rather to indicate how difficult it is to draw any clear boundaries between military and academic concerns. Throughout this entire era, the “relative autonomy” of organizations like the NSF, the SSRC, etc., was deeply compromised by the origins of the area concept in the exigencies of military government, and by the de-militarization of area studies to serve the interests of Cold War stability. That is, for much of the Cold War the geopolitical concerns of the US military were constitutive of the conceptual apparatus used by social scientists to analyze and apprehend the world.

While the assumptions embedded in the area concept certainly played a significant role in limiting the parameters of research, it was not the area studies framework per se that compromised critical enquiry. Indeed, many scholars who were trained in area studies became outspoken critics not only of the notion of “area,” but also of the broader structures of government and military power of which it was a part. Rather, it was the unusually repressive political environment of the era that posed the most serious threat to academic freedom. Ironically, the moral panic that gripped much of the country in the context of McCarthyism was spurred by civilian rather than military institutions — by the US Congress, the Executive and Judicial branches of government and the private sector. Nor was it the breakdown of the area studies framework (which was institutionally strong into the 1970s) that somehow freed scholars to engage in radical critique in the 1960s. Rather, the political fallout from involving significant numbers of middle class youth in the Vietnam War accounts for most of the radical turn in the social sciences.

The US military has changed profoundly since WW II. So too has the global empire that the US seeks to manage. How might we draw on the past to better understand the dilemmas posed by the current Department of Defense offer to fund research? Since the fall of the Soviet Union the US military has taken on a new role in world affairs. While it continues to harass and brutalize on an extensive scale, the military has also become involved in a wide range of seemingly non-military activities (Lutz 2004). Dubbed Operations Other than War (OOW), these range from evacuation operations to disaster relief, from environmental clean-up to election monitoring. They include protecting vulnerable populations from food shortages and endemic disease, safeguarding civil authorities and institutions of government, and promoting peace. OOW even involves building roads and sanitation facilities, and digging wells for drinking water and irrigation (J-7 Joint Staff n.d.; ACT 1995).

Many of the “non-traditional” activities in which the new military is involved are virtually identical to those in which the major Foundations and the US government have intervened in recent decades, and on a truly massive scale. It is interesting to note that these are the very activities and problems that social scientists are increasingly encouraged to investigate by a broad array of non-military research sponsors — governmental and non-governmental alike. Since the end of the Cold War, and especially since 9/11, there has been a real convergence in the strategic concerns of government, foundation and military. From rogue states to the rule of law, from civil society to sustainable development, funders of all shapes and sizes betray a major preoccupation with issues of “security.” Indeed, upon reviewing a description of the MINERVA project what is startling is not how foreign are the research themes the military seeks to advance (authoritarian regimes; religious [especially Islamic] fundamentalism; terrorist organizations) but how familiar they seem. For the most part, one would be hard-pressed to distinguish them from the interests of non-military sponsors of research.

Despite similarities (in particular, a widespread suspicion of political dissent in the context of massive US intervention overseas), the conditions that affect contemporary relations between the military and the academy differ from those of the post WW II era in important ways. The 1950s was a period of recovery from global economic crisis, one that allowed for a major expansion of the social sciences. At present, however, we are well into a period of serious economic and political retrenchment. As many scholars have noted, the last two decades have been witness to a major reorganization of the university.

Until recently, much of this reorganization was a function of the growing impact of the private sector on research. Of late, however, a trend that was developing from the 1980s onward has hit home with great force. For the last several years the financial support for university research and training, especially in the social sciences and the humanities, has crumbled. Funding for NSF, NIH and NEH has been cut significantly — decisions made by civilian, not military decision-makers. Even the most prestigious and well-off public and private universities have been forced to downsize, and to slash budgets.

Some schools have been compelled to combine or even eliminate entire departments. Hiring freezes and salary cuts are the norm. Work speed-ups of many different kinds are almost universal. As many have noted, the entire academic workforce has undergone a major process of restructuring. At the same time, for the fortunate few lucky enough to be in tenure track positions, the research and publishing requirements for attaining tenure are going up.[3] As teaching and service demands escalate, and as resources for scholarship contract, people’s professional survival depends on the ability to access funds for research and writing. In such a context, academics will inevitably look to what are now regarded as “non-traditional” sources of funding (like the Department of Defense). They will also seek out collaborations with scholars working in fields that are receiving the lion’s share of a shrinking resource base (a process already well underway in many disciplines).

None of this is to suggest that MINERVA poses no risk to the social sciences. Rather, it is to argue that the threat of MINERVA does not stem from its origins in the Department of Defense. As we have seen, military planners and academics have an old and venerable tradition of cooperation and mutual support, making it exceptionally difficult to separate scholarly from soldierly concerns. The threat of MINERVA is not dissimilar to that represented by all programs — military and civilian alike — that sponsor “operations [and investigations] other than war.” First, there is the danger that scholars will accept support without a thoroughgoing understanding of why it is offered, and how research results are to be used — and thus will fail to grasp the conditions of possibility of their work. Second, there is the risk that we will fail to draw upon the resources offered to develop trenchant critiques of the power structures out of which the programs emerge — a task at which many academics trained in area studies excelled. Finally, and most importantly, there is the danger that scholars will fail to take a more aggressive stance with respect to all donors and insist on the right to dictate the terms under which we will and will not accept support. The American Anthropological Association took a modest but important step in this direction by insisting that a neutral body of academic experts (in this case, NSF) oversee the evaluation of MINERVA-related research proposals. But much, much more could be done. The kinds of problems we will investigate, when and where we will do so, by what means and why, are issues that scholars should decide. Only in this way will we begin to transform the relations between the academy and its sponsors.


ACT (Center for Advanced Command Concepts and Technology). 1995. Operations Other than War (OOTW): The Technological Dimension. Washington, D.C.: National Defense University Press.

Arrighi, Giovanni. 1994. The Long Twentieth Century: Money, Power and the Origins of our Times. New York: Verso.

J-7 Joint Staff. n.d. Military Operations Other than War. Joint Doctrine. Joint Force Employment (J-7 Operational Plans and Interoperability Directorate). Washington, D.C.

Lutz, Catherine. 2004. “Militarization.” In A Companion to the Anthropology of Politics, David Nugent and Joan Vincent, eds., pp. 318-331. Malden, MA and Oxford, UK: Blackwell.

Nugent, David. 2008. “Social Science Knowledge and Military Intelligence: Global Conflict, Territorial Control and the Birth of Area Studies,” Anu├írio Antropol├│gico 2006: 33-64 (Rio de Janeiro: Tempo Brasileiro).

——-. 2002. “Introduction.” In David Nugent, ed., Locating Capitalism in Time and Space: Global Restructurings, Politics and Identity, pp. 1-59. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Szanton, David. 2004. “Introduction: The Origin, Nature and Challenge of Area Studies in the United States.” In David Szanton, ed., The Politics of Knowledge. Area Studies and the Disciplines, pp. 1-33. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Wallerstein, Immanuel. 1997. “The Unintended Consequences of Cold War Area Studies.” In Noam Chomsky, et al., eds., The Cold War and the University. Toward an Intellectual History of the Postwar Years, pp. 195-231. NY: Free Press.

[1] I would like to thank Chris Krupa for his remarks on an earlier draft of this paper.

[2] In no sense, of course, did the military invent the “area” concept, but rather privileged it over alternative ways of approaching socio-cultural phenomena. Prior to World War II “areas” played a quite marginal role in the social sciences (see Nugent 2008).

[3] In the interest of “fairness,” social science departments at several major universities recently decided to be transparent about the requirements for tenure, and announced that henceforth three books would be required.

2 Responses to “Nugent”

  1. Dylan:

    “The US military has changed profoundly since WW II” – please clarify ‘profoundly’, still seems like a huge entity designed for imperial gain and expanding markets.

    You seem to be saying it does many benevolent deeds when im reading in those same deeds neo-colonialism and cultural hegemony, maybe not by the barrel of a gun, but certainly with threats of some sort be they legal, social, political, economic, that all ultimately can be backed up by the barrel of a gun.

    You also seem to be saying there is much overlap between the research interests of civilian operations and military ones. The militarisation of society, or rather the encouragement of both civil and military society in my humble opinion is a huge red flag warning of danger on the road ahead. The culture turn pursued by the military via minerva is a way to increase the relationship between private contractors and the military, it is the privatization of the research community at the behest of military command.

    I wish people were less accepting of the status quo and more ready to demonstrate against it. Have we given up on the idea of fundamental societal change for good? Are we just going to accept the reach of the military into our universities and research agendas? The funding circuit is already skewed to the interests of the powerful lobbyist groups, why are we adding the most powerful economic lobbyist group itself?

    Your defense that the connections are already there is one i fail to agree with, even if you can prove it with data. In my opinion we should draw the line somewhere, and if not, well then we should just admit were all soldiers of some sort now anyway and stop pretending we’re not.

    thanks for your time…

  2. Sean:

    How was our response to aid and rescue the victims of the tsunami in 2004 an example of neo-colonialism and cultural hegemony? And what is the alternative? Would you rather they have died? The U.S. does not exactly have alternative institutions capable of carrying out operations involving such logistical complexities.

    And what of our weapons? I will admit that there are often far better options than the use of force but there are parts of this world where we could not effectively operate without the protection those weapons provide. There are parts of central Africa where Doctors Without Borders will not go – cannot go – to provide medical care because it is “too dangerous.” But we can. We go with our weapons not to threaten or to force but to establish some semblance of security so that we can provide sufficient care.

    Your assumptions about the military and what it does are reductive and overly simplistic.

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