Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Some Future of War thoughts in response to Matt Cavanaugh’s criticisms

Tom Ricks responds to Matt Cavanaugh's views on the Future of War conference.

Screen Shot 2015-02-27 at 10.19.18 AM
Screen Shot 2015-02-27 at 10.19.18 AM

Maj. Matt Cavanaugh, who was a winner in our Future of War essay contest, wrote a provocative piece complaining that there weren’t enough military people, and especially active duty people, speaking at the New America/ASU conference on the Future of War.

Quoth he, “the uniformed military is massively underrepresented at the Future of War Conference.” He suspects, by contrast, that academia and think tanks were was over-represented. On that, I would suggest that he re-categorize participants as “former and likely future policymakers in significant civilian roles”—the numbers would look different.

But more importantly, I disagree with his larger point that this should be all about those “with skin in the game.” As he put it, “They are the critical audience for this event and their minds are truly the decisive point and dominant terrain in the next war.”

Maj. Matt Cavanaugh, who was a winner in our Future of War essay contest, wrote a provocative piece complaining that there weren’t enough military people, and especially active duty people, speaking at the New America/ASU conference on the Future of War.

Quoth he, “the uniformed military is massively underrepresented at the Future of War Conference.” He suspects, by contrast, that academia and think tanks were was over-represented. On that, I would suggest that he re-categorize participants as “former and likely future policymakers in significant civilian roles”—the numbers would look different.

But more importantly, I disagree with his larger point that this should be all about those “with skin in the game.” As he put it, “They are the critical audience for this event and their minds are truly the decisive point and dominant terrain in the next war.”

Are they really?

Think of it this way: If you were holding a conference of the future of major league baseball, who would you want? A panel of pitchers, followed by those of catchers, infielders and outfielders? I suspect you’d get a “Bull Durham” festival—that is, a lot of bland comments like, “I’ve been seeing the ball real well lately. I just want to help the team. I don’t want to get into front office matters. Thanks for the great questions!”

Or, if you want to get into the real factors shaping baseball, would you want a set of participants that looks like this?: A few smart players. Some former players, coaches and managers. A seasoned umpire or two, as well as innovative agents. Someone who scouts in the Dominican Republic but is shifting his focus to Cuba this year. A few people from ESPN, which with other cable networks has re-shaped the nature of baseball over the last 3 decades, for more than anyone “in baseball.” Perhaps some sports journalists, speaking or interviewing. An expert in designing new stadiums. A Wall Streeter who specializes in floating bond issues to build those stadiums. Maybe a mayor of a city fighting for some of that revenue. Someone who understands the changing demographics of the audience. Maybe even a panel from football, basketball, and foreign soccer to discuss changes in their fields. Or an expert on the history of boxing to discuss how a popular sport can lose its fan base.

But yeah, someone might say, Not enough outfielders.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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