Daniel W. Drezner

Oh, so THAT’S the difference between the military and the academy

Mark Bowden has a long profile of CENTCOM commander David Petraeus in the latest issue of Vanity Fair.  There’s a lot of interesting material in there, and I’m sure Tom Ricks will have many interesting things to say about it.  For your humble blogger, this part stood out:  Petraeus went off to Baghdad in early ...

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Mark Bowden has a long profile of CENTCOM commander David Petraeus in the latest issue of Vanity Fair.  There's a lot of interesting material in there, and I'm sure Tom Ricks will have many interesting things to say about it.  For your humble blogger, this part stood out: 

Petraeus went off to Baghdad in early February of 2007 with a mandate from the president to put counter-insurgency into practice. The surge, then, was not just an infusion of new troops. It was an infusion of new ideas. He took with him some of the scholars, military and civilian, who had helped him write the counter-insurgency manual. The assignment was a stark illustration of the difference between academia and the military. In academia you publish and subject your work to criticism and comment, and sometimes your ideas are shot down. It can be a humbling experience. In the military, you publish, and then you arm yourself for battle. If your ideas are wrong, you don’t just suffer criticism. People die (emphasis added).

[Hold on a sec... I need to write this down....important stuff.....OK, I'm good!!--ed.]

Mark Bowden has a long profile of CENTCOM commander David Petraeus in the latest issue of Vanity Fair.  There’s a lot of interesting material in there, and I’m sure Tom Ricks will have many interesting things to say about it.  For your humble blogger, this part stood out: 

Petraeus went off to Baghdad in early February of 2007 with a mandate from the president to put counter-insurgency into practice. The surge, then, was not just an infusion of new troops. It was an infusion of new ideas. He took with him some of the scholars, military and civilian, who had helped him write the counter-insurgency manual. The assignment was a stark illustration of the difference between academia and the military. In academia you publish and subject your work to criticism and comment, and sometimes your ideas are shot down. It can be a humbling experience. In the military, you publish, and then you arm yourself for battle. If your ideas are wrong, you don’t just suffer criticism. People die (emphasis added).

[Hold on a sec… I need to write this down….important stuff…..OK, I’m good!!–ed.]

Not to quibble with Bowden too much, but the difference might have more to do with time than impact.  To repeat a famous observation from John Maynard Keynes:

The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.  Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. 

Perhaps the difference is that the soldier has to witness firsthand the implementation of his or her ideas.  The academic might very well be dead already by the time his or her ideas are in vogue. 

 

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at Tufts University’s Fletcher School. He blogged regularly for Foreign Policy from 2009 to 2014. Twitter: @dandrezner

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