Should the social sciences contribute to the art of war in the era of securitization? Or to the crafting of peace?

Alain Joxe, École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS)

This paper suggests that one should pause and think before rushing to accept research programs devised by the military, especially in a period of acute strategic crisis. The dubious idea that could come to mind is: “it is always better than nothing, and after all we accept private funds that are oriented by profit-seeking, and that does not affect science, which is oriented by truth-seeking.”

But there is a specificity of the military demand for knowledge that must be acknowledged: it is a question of life and death.

One must therefore assess thoroughly the meaning of a military demand for social science research at two levels: a) on the basis of a political (in the etymological sense) questioning of the reasons for going to war; b) on the basis of an epistemological question about the insertion of social science research within contemporary strategic thinking, and not only in general. We should refine our judgment by working out the strategic meaning of military demand and supply as they are currently reshuffled in the context of the dramatic transformation of the Department of Defense (DoD). Within the confines of this paper, I can only sketch a series of questions.

I start by recalling the Clauswitzian framework of military-civil relationships and its implications — for a republic, for a democracy, for an empire, and for the global economic and military system. Under the aegis of Clausewitz — which is certainly as worthwhile as Minerva — one must play the part of the devil’s advocate, the devil being in this case the deployed military officer who lacks a clear vision of the sociopolitical definition of his mission. Following a series of remarkable analyses of the Minerva documents by American scholars (less so by European ones), I then look more closely at these documents and at what they say or imply. Finally, I offer a conclusion, which is necessarily ethical and, also, necessarily political, at a level that seeks to transcend national differences, since the globalization of securitarian representations has gone dangerously far.

1. Clausewitz and the political in a democracy: it should be possible to trace the Zweck (political goal) all the way back into the Ziel (military objective) in order to return to peace

The worst militarism is always that of civilians who ignore the conditions of war or who believe that it is legitimate to expect that combat might compensate for their lack of political intelligence through commando actions, or reinforce their economic capacity through predatory moves. This is why the military demands to deepen our upstream knowledge in advance of war are fundamentally honest.

In the absence of a political vision, wars become barbarian and endlessly succeed one another, without a purpose, without an end, and in particular without peace. Soldiers become maddened warriors. This disconnect between the political and the military is the precondition for the emergence of a neo-imperialism made of stealthy or permanent expeditions (note that this neo-imperialism no longer has to radiate exclusively from Washington D.C.) Such an empire has a fractal shape, and is based on the consolidation of unequal status quos at all levels. The enemy no longer exists: it has been replaced by a hostile environment. This conception, which dates back to Rumsfeld, is not irreversible, but it is integrated within the dynamics of the organization and the transformation of the DoD.[1]

The Clausewitzian theory no longer applies as a simple fact: it explodes into and along thousands of ramifications, and could get lost in the new complexity of a digitized operational space, in electronic observation and targeting, in flexible coalitions, in the paramilitarization of fighting units. The chaos generated by the disappearance of the old East-West polarity, the erosion of state sovereignties, and the rise of corporate sovereignties does not facilitate military work. A modern definition of war could be: “the unleashing, for the benefit of transnational economic interests, of local conflicts between constituted military units still under the control of state apparatuses, with or without the UN.”

However, when engaged in operations abroad, military commanders continue in general to ask for a good definition of the enemy, of their mission, of the national interests at stake (what Clausewitz calls the popular acceptance of the greatness of the war objectives, as part of the military relation to moral forces) in order to evaluate their chances of success. They tend to translate their requirements in terms of “sufficient means,” although they know that the most serious obstacle is the insufficient definition of the ends. A military war that does not end in defeat can be politically lost, if the citizenry decides so, as the American army has discovered in Vietnam and the French army in Algeria. Any Western country that has possessed and lost a colonial empire knows it and does not fall ill over it: rather, it turns this assumption into the benchmark of Realpolitik.

Hence a first conclusion: the possibility to read the political Zweck in the military Ziel remains an absolute requirement in a democracy. Even today: if war and peace are no longer exclusively orchestrated along the scale of sovereign states, but along blocs on a multitude of scales, then success requires politics. The economic or the techno-military is no longer sufficient. By asking for complete assessments and for upstream knowledge, the military is Promethean and probably criticizes the Epimethean action of governments that put them in the situation of vanquished victors.

2. The demands formulated by the Minerva program

But if the military worries about launching a social science research program with the support of a government in terminal crisis, it means that this demand is ambiguous. It is clear that the Pentagon or its different components may have several expectations, some of them contradictory, from this allocation of financial and intellectual resources.

1) Improving the general culture of the modern soldier

First hypothesis: the military seeks to improve its upstream knowledge of what is likely to constitute the operational field of future wars, in order to act strategically and tactically in the best possible conditions. The works of social scientists are freely sold in bookshops. Are they an easy read for non-specialists? Probably not, but the creation of teaching positions in the social sciences within military training programs, or the compulsory acquisition of Master’s degrees for military officers could for instance solve this problem without having to order new research. These things certainly exist already.

2) Generating new applied knowledge

If the problem does not consist in improving the general social science knowledge among the military, then it is about generating new knowledge, that would provide answers to military questions proper, whether strategic or tactical, which could not be answered by the military without a contribution from the social sciences: because war has become more technical, or more psychological, or planned as it goes and within the short term, or even because of other reasons that would have to do with the philosophical definition of war — why not?

A host of questions are not treated by the social sciences in their current configuration, because few specialists focus on the anthropology of war or the sociology of combat. The social sciences could thus be solicited to provide such answers. The questions are not lacking. In the perspective that is dominant today, these questions naturally focus on the various dimensions of total social war, since the point is to win over evil on chaotic territories, in an unstable global environment. The problem is then to define preemptively the vulnerabilities of potential enemies, to identify the means through which it becomes possible to create or re-create divisions — the adequate impact points, ideological manipulations, the armed propaganda, or police practices.

The social sciences can be useful for targeting enemy societies, not only in the economic or mercantile sense, but in the military sense of the word. This imagery, that is destructive in asymmetrical conflicts, belongs to the Douhetist paradigm only at the micro level (“the destruction of Falluja“). But the question asked would be: how can force be democratized? Contrary to Europe under Nazi or Communist domination, the Asian societies targeted by the US have a hard time believing that they are liberated by the Western expedition.

On these issues, the military demand seeking access to a social science research program has to reveal its real purposes truthfully, and it does. The five items of the Minerva program are heteroclite, but their objects belong to the clear-cut categories that define the unilateralist and imperial “world vision” of the recent US governments (since George W. Bush, but in some respects even since Bill Clinton). In part, this initiative promotes cultural and behavioral research in order to have a handle on possible manipulations of the sensitivities and the public opinion of occupied populations, in order to ensure its submission or its rallying by terrorizing or corrupting it. In France, one knows very well what this means and why it can lead a democracy to violate the human rights of the opponent by criminalizing him and even to rely on torture, in the name of a struggle for the absolute good.

Only the fifth item of Minerva seems to be open to a critical analysis of the aporetical foundations of the Iraqi and Afghan chaos.

3) Organizing a science of security

A third and more systemic objective can be discerned behind the expression that the NSCC has chosen to qualify the long-term aim of this operation (not only the Minerva-DoD, but also the neighboring framework of NSCC), in spite of the monitoring of Minerva funds by the National Science Foundation: the objective is to lead disciplines toward the constitution of a new field of research and of a multidisciplinary community of researchers working on a common set of problems and more precisely to enable scholars “to develop into a community of security science researchers.”[2] The point is to create a new applied science, the science of security. Yet,

  1. The creation of a new science cannot flow from a military decision.
  2. The semantic shift from defense to security is a symptom that is well diagnosed, even in Europe, even in France, in particular with the publication in 2008 of the new Livre Blanc sur la Défense et la Sécurité Nationale.

This lexicon is the vehicle for an ideology that is less military than police-oriented, and that can be considered as a Schmittian doctrine coated in material modernity (laser guns, drones, electronic surveillance) aiming at the maintaining the global urban order. By generating a unified arsenal and mixed missions, it seeks to transform soldiers into policemen, policemen into soldiers and, in the end, private police forces into militias or mercenary elite corps, thus allowing for the building up of a privatized repressive apparatus kept on reserve.

3. Ethical and political conclusions

On the basis of the previous discussion, all the epistemological interrogations regarding the monitoring, the evaluation, and the safeguarding of the independence of research should come after a more concrete and urgent question: in order to win which wars is the Pentagon seeking to mobilize in the long run part of the social science research community?

Answer: the main opponent that is designated remains Islamic terrorism in the Middle-East. However, neither Bush nor even Obama have yet realized that, for the past seven years, the main cause of Islamic terrorism has changed. It is no longer the Bin Laden conspiracy, but American “security” activism itself, in this area placed under the responsibility of CENTCOM, that has become a cause of terrorism and insecurity (including through the swelling of NATO and manipulations in the Caucasus that are teasing the Russians in order to re-create a traditional threat and win Europe’s rallying).

A second change is in the making: the environment defined by new threats and violent social and political behaviors will no longer be fueled exclusively by inequalities caused by growth and interventionism, but by unrest generated by a recession.

The promotion of a broad configuration of research and teaching oriented towards security, repression and preemption, and towards the fine-tuning of strategies aiming at destroying the trouble-makers, should rather be opposed by those researchers who believe that is still possible, in the West, to install a new democratic state, a rational development policy, and an international movement based on the rule of law and the prevention of wars.

What can be done in order to invert the trend, without falling into a purely negative opposition? In the current situation that prevails on both sides of the Atlantic, I can think of three different precautions:

1. Suggest that part of the military funds appropriated for research in the social sciences be transferred to programs sponsored by the State Department or technical departments rather than by the Pentagon, in order to refocus strategic research on peace and negotiation.

2. The transfer of another fraction of the funding toward an analysis of “returns and post-mission experiences” that should be squarely internal to the military apparatus, and based upon the experiences of the army and the marines. This type of analysis could in some cases rely on social scientists in order to better understand combat situations (historians, anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists). In France, it is on the basis of such post-mission analyses imposed by military officers that a new strategic school emerged, oriented toward the return to peace and toward force-deployment doctrines for external operations that are adjusted to UN principles and aimed at securing the reconstruction stage.[3] Troops that are placed under a command that has not made this self-analysis have little chances of distinguishing themselves.

3. The time may be ripe for planning, for the social sciences of the 21st century, the equivalent of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs that Einstein and Russel created in 1955 and whose purpose was to prevent and defuse the threat of nuclear war. To the extent that the current crisis has reached the scale of the Great Depression, it may be time to prevent the outbreak of the asymmetrical Thirty Years War that is in the making and premised on the just-in-time logistics of the permanent modernization of military means and on the deregulation of a free market for violence.

(Translated from French by Nicolas Guilhot)

[1] See Department of Defense, 2008 Army Modernization Strategy, p. 5-7.

[2] Thomas Asher, “Making Sense of the Minerva Controversy and the NSCC,” New York, Social Science Research Council, 2008, p. 5.

[3] Alain Joxe, “La doctrine OPEX du CDEF: adaptation, stabilisation, paix”, Le débat stratégique, n. 93, Sept. 2007.

One Response to “Joxe”

  1. Dylan:

    Very interesting analysis. thank you.

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