Best Defense
Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

A very unequal dialogue: NA/ASU FoW conference and civ-mil relations

Best Defense Correspondent: Tom disagrees with my recent assessment that the recent New America Foundation/Arizona State University Future of War Conference underrepresented the uniformed military, resulting in a stunted, unbalanced product.

Ricks March 3
Ricks March 3

By Major Matt Cavanaugh, U.S. Army

By Major Matt Cavanaugh, U.S. Army

Best Defense guest respondent

Tom disagrees with my recent assessment that the recent New America Foundation/Arizona State University Future of War Conference underrepresented the uniformed military, resulting in a stunted, unbalanced product.

In response, I’ll do three things; first, we’ll look at the numbers. Second, I’ll explain why this is imbalance undermines the conference’s efficacy. Third, I’ll get into some personal anecdotes that describe how these civil-military themes play out at the individual level. What a reader will find is that the civil-military gap is unacceptably wide in the intellectual sphere, and even the kindest expressions of gratitude cannot effectively bridge this expanse. My takeaway from the Future of War Conference: the military is to be thanked and not heard.

If we categorize the panelists according to their current primary occupation (i.e. academia, policy, journalist, military, government), we can see the imbalance most directly. Of 66 total panelists, exactly six (or 9%) were active duty military. Breaking these six down to a more granular level, we find one navy admiral, two army generals, two colonels, and one midshipman from the US Naval Academy intent upon a non-combat role after graduation.  So even in the “military” category, none of these six is likely to see an enemy combatant in the next war.  There was exactly one more NFL player (Donte Stallworth) in attendance than Marines on any panel (zero). The average audience member was closer to retirement than the next battlefield.

Tom’s initial Twitter response: “Why would this be a problem?” He suggests that if I had “re-categorized participants as ‘former and likely future policymakers in significant civilian roles’ – the numbers would look different.” But his emphasis reveals a preference for civilian Washington elites, a preference that divorces policy from action. It is not hard to see the fruits that grow from this poisoned, single branched tree. Think of the split over required troop levels for Operation Iraqi Freedom – the infamous Shinseki/Wolfowitz-Feith testimony battle. Or whenever a policy figure proposes the establishment of a “safe zone” in a conflict. Shouldn’t we consider practical possibilities alongside desired outcomes? When we undermine the agent, we harm the principal. There ought to be a constant dialogue between military expertise and those who ultimately decide the course of strategic affairs for the nation. The Future of War Conference failed to provide this necessary link by systematically undervaluing the military profession’s input.

Tom also describes a wide variety of attendees at a fictional “future of baseball” conference. But diversity is not where we disagree. It’s balance and proportionality. In legal terms (as there were twice as many lawyers as active military at the conference): if war was the conference’s jurisdiction, then the military has the most standing. That is not to say war is exclusively the military’s jurisdiction; I am not advocating a narrow provincialism. Far from it. I have long argued war is too big to fit into one discipline and that war is about much more than warfare. But if we were we to conduct a conference on the future of intellectual property law, would we restrict our invited lawyers to only 9% of the total participant list? Would we ensure that among this 9% representing the legal profession that none were likely to practice future intellectual property law? This is how the Future of War Conference got the balance wrong.

Ultimately, the Future of War Conference objective should be to inform and engage those with the most at stake in the subject matter at hand. Why else would anyone hold such an event? To scan the conference’s audience, one would have found a handful of Naval Academy midshipmen adrift in a sea of older civilians. In short, age was another imbalance, and we should not shortchange the value of demographics in any discussion on the future.

As Peter W. Singer pointed out via Twitter, if this conference was being held in the 1920s, we’d want an Eisenhower in attendance as opposed to a Pershing. To put it in Wayne Gretzky’s classic phrase, we should skate to where the puck is going to be. Young leaders are the critical audience for this event and their minds will be the decisive point and dominant terrain in the next war. The Future of War Conference could have done much more to engage with these generations.

Scholars and warriors have been at odds for quite some time. General Al Gray of the US Marine Corps once grumbled that there were “too many intellectuals” at the top of military and that the remedy was the military needed some “old fashioned gunslingers.” Thomas Schelling looked down on the military and sneered that, “in contrast to almost any other sizeable and respectable profession…[the military does not include] the value system for sustained theoretical thinking.” This essay will not venture into explanation, but instead will describe some of my recent personal experiences with the civil-military gap that ought to provide a fuller exposition than reliance on quantitative data.

The moment I sat down on the Metro after leaving the Future of War Conference to head back to the hotel, an elderly gentleman noticed my dress blue uniform and thanked me for my service. Not five minutes later, I walked into a Starbucks to grab a coffee and snack for the five-hour drive back to West Point. As I pulled my wallet out of my pocket and started to draw a credit card, the woman put up her hand as a football player would stiff-arm an opponent. Semi-stunned, I did not understand what she was doing and sheepishly continued to press my card towards her hand. It took an awkward few seconds but eventually I took the hint and said “thank you.” These two events brightened my mood, made me feel good. They were genuine expressions of gratitude. But as I got in my car, I started to reflect. These kindnesses were just not enough to overcome three recent experiences of mine.

While at the conference, I listened intently to a panel entitled “How Will the Wars of the 21st Century be Fought?” moderated by Dr. Anne-Marie Slaughter. I hold her work in high regard. I actually spent quite a bit of time and effort in 2013 and 2014 to test and, thereafter, support her thinking on the importance of networks. However, when one of her panelists (Professor Brad Allenby) stated he thought the military should lead the effort against what Allenby described as “neo-medieval forces” (like ISIS), Slaughter reflexively responded, “Why the military?” The tone in her voice was combative and suggested Allenby’s comment was not plausible or even appropriate. This was revealing just as much as it was disappointing. Allenby shook it off and quipped, “Which other part of our dysfunctional government would you prefer?” and the matter ended there. Though anecdotal, I think this sentiment reflects the conference’s broadly dismissive approach to the military.

Second, Tom suggested that if the Future of War Conference included more active duty military officers, then “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 all the great questions!’” In short, military officers would provide dumb or boring remarks. From my experience, nothing could be farther from the truth. Consider the source; specifically, that Tom’s books Fiasco and The Gamble greatly benefitted from direct, astute comments from the active duty military. (Full disclosure: I require their reading in my Military Strategy course.) I’d venture to guess that half the citations in these books would trace to the active military. It makes one wonder how war correspondents earn their Pulitzer Prizes, if not often fueled by interviewing thoughtful combatants. Or, for that matter, would The Best Defense exist without contributions from the active military? Though some may actually subscribe to such a fallacies, reasonable judgment should read Tom’s comment as provoking discussion rather than piercing counterargument.

One final experience: in my capacity as an Assistant Professor at West Point, I have recently been invited to participate in a debate later this month at the University of Utah in support of the proposition that “the war in Afghanistan has been worth it.” My debating partner is also affiliated with the military as a reservist. In a preparatory email, the debate’s moderator felt it important to remind my partner and me that we should do our best to avoid turning our speaking time into a “pep rally” and we should aim for a “serious” debate. As if our short haircuts limited us to narrow arguments.

I share these three brief stories, coupled with the numerical imbalance at the Future of War Conference, to describe the message I’ve started to take to heart: “thank you for your service and your silence.”

This unhappy conclusion cuts deeply into the very skin I feel I have in this game. Tom doesn’t like that phrase, but it conveys the essential point. Committing to the military profession is to promise that one’s obligation to the nation supersedes all personal bonds. My officer’s commission is the only document in our house that has the potential to overrule our marriage certificate. I write this with 100 days until I am to spend a year apart from my family on the DMZ in Korea. My three-year-old daughter was recently diagnosed with a seizure disorder; I am the first thing she sees in the morning and the last before she closes her eyes. Being apart from her, my wife, and my younger daughter will literally hurt every waking moment for those 365 days. And then there are those I’m connected to. I have two younger brothers and a sister-in-law in the Army. I’ve left friends on the field in Iraq, one of which had a spouse who was so distraught at the sudden loss, she twice attempted suicide. I know soldiers on full disability as a result of Traumatic Brain Injury and crippled by Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Then there are my cadets in the course I teach, who will surely bear these costs, disproportionately, on some future battlefield. My nightmare is I will have failed to prepare them to understand the broad contours of the conflicts we send them to fight on America’s behalf. For even one to die without knowing why – what it was for – would be a tragedy (Tennyson was wrong on this point).

This intense cauldron of personal commitment can produce excellent scholarship. Dr. Samuel Johnson famously alluded to the mental concentration one might achieve in the face of impending violence. This is part of the reason retired military figures are not effective stand-ins for active members of the profession. All the gains in experience are ultimately overwhelmed by the twin facts that they no longer face these issues directly and that the retired military no longer represents the best interest of the American public exclusively. With other media and financial interests, they cannot expect to have the best of both worlds.

The direct study of war also has a strong scholarly tradition. The three most cited texts on the subject of war come from practitioners: Thucydides, Sun Tzu, and Carl von Clausewitz. Clausewitz in particular, Donald Stoker has found, fought in 36 separate engagements in his 38 years from first combat at age 13 to death at age 51. Battles were his lessons. War was his teacher. This represents the best of the warrior-scholar tradition. We should think of that as we reach for ideas from these great books.

The Future of War Conference ought to aspire to the same ideal. This event should make every effort to bridge the gap between scholars and warriors. Practice informs thought just as much as theory shapes practice, and so both communities have much to learn from each other. Failing to achieve a reasonable balance leaves critical constituencies feeling alienated and disconnected.

My experience represents this; if my profession’s voice does not matter in a conversation on the future of war, then why would I stay? I signed up for an unequal dialogue but not an entirely submissive and silent profession.

Major Matt Cavanaugh is an Army Strategist, teaches Military Strategy at West Point, and is a proud founding member of the Military Writers Guild. Matt writes regularly at and tweets occasionally @TheWarCouncil. The views expressed here are unofficial expressions of opinion and not necessarily the views of the US Military Academy, Department of the Army, or any other agency of the US government.

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 Twitter: @tomricks1

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