Object, Subject, Bullets

Metrics, metrics, metrics. Three out of the six pointers in this rather good Foreign Policy article concern the ability of military organisations to figure out their impact on the world around them. Surprisingly, the concept doesn’t appear (by name) in Robert C. Jones’ advice on the revision of the FM 3-24 manual.

My considered response to the Army’s revision request (which may or may not get put together into a formal submission) is “send in the continental philosophers”

I know that a) this response would go down like a lead balloon and b) that from the way the military appears to think about knowledge and metrics, it would do them the world of good to encounter some people that would politely point out that the empirical realist assumptions they make about knowledge are roughly a hundred years out of date, and that even the hard sciences don’t tend to think in such terms since the advent of quantum physics.

The problem, as I see it, is that military types probably wouldn’t want to be seen dead lifting ideas from post-marxists, or people that proclaim the gulf war never happened (sort of). Likewise Foucauldians and other types don’t tend to want to translate their grand attacks on rationality, hierarchy and power for, well, the armed agents of hierarchical power structures. Or, like Agamben, they can make the claim that Foucault’s work on sovereignty constitutes an ‘unprejudiced analysis’ with a straight face, presumably because it is believed to be true.

While I can understand the reticence of generally left wing philosophers to get involved with the military, the other side of the coin (ahem) strikes me as a slight dereliction of duty. After all, when you’re grappling with problems of communication, semiotics and signification, like it’s a new thing,* a military type might pick up Baudrillard and note that he was writing on the topic thirty five years ago, and, while the military is stumbling around looking for methods of analysis, his four logics might just be the ticket to constructing a crude framework for thinking about the role/production of violent acts in a war. I read many hazily worded pieces on ‘strategic communication’, I haven’t yet found a course on military semiotics.

The oddest part of all this is that the military are one of the few organisations that tend to accept chaos and subjectivity as an inherent part of their business, yet the thinkers studying precisely these problems aren’t widely read or cited within these circles. For Clausewitz, war is friction, for Michel Serres, ‘noise’ is the system. I’d bet good money that the majority of people who’ve read Clausewitz haven’t read Serres, and vice-versa. Now that militaries are asking ‘big’ questions like ‘how can we know what we want to know?’ concurrent with the expansion of the types of knowledge that military organisations are seeking, it might be the time for them to also engage with the ‘big guns’ on the subject.

*I think there’s now a curious ‘imagined past’ where the communicative aspects of violent activity never existed, or weren’t important to military affairs. One wonders how these folk integrate thousands of years of military ‘demonstrations of force’ into this worldview.


3 thoughts on “Object, Subject, Bullets

  1. Mengpeide says:

    You probably have done more to identify the real academic-policy divide with this post than any of the other ruminations on the subject elsewhere. The purely positivist approach to knowledge often disregards important social elements of the nature of power, authority, and influence in favor of more easily observable metrics. Experienced military officers and policymakers (elected, appointed, and bureaucratic) implicitly understand the social and communicative aspects of their work and knowledge-building within their communities. This understanding leads them disregard rationalist approaches to research as not covering variables that they deal with on a daily basis—-either as an object of their work or their interactions with other policy actors.

    Unfortunately, the scholars with the social toolkit do not always present their research or their findings in ways that are easily accessible or digestible to someone who has time for personal reading between midnight and 1:00am. Additionally, this research often is cloaked in jargon as inaccessible to the novitiate as the jargon of military/defense bureaucracies. The rationalist scholars win out, because their grant proposals and op-eds are more easily understood and seem to get at the key questions. The practically-minded policymaker and military officer has little time for the language of social analysis and wants fact-based, hard-nosed information. Only when the research is paid for and digested does the policymaker realize it is insufficient to inform the tasks at hand. Yet, because policymakers and military officers are rarely educated in social/communicative concepts and knowledge buidling, they cannot articulate clearly what is wrong with rational-choice approaches to social science…nor can they articulate a call for a different kind of research.

    For one of the best descriptions of how painful the results of this can be, Colonel Gregory Daddis’ book, No Sure Victory, on U.S. metrics during the Vietnam War offers a sobering and tragic look at the rationalist approach to strategy.

  2. This is an excellent article. Please see my recent book on COIN assessment, Embracing the Fog of War: Assessment and Metrics in Counterinsurgency, published by RAND and free for download from the RAND website in PDF form. I propose an alternative to the current process.

  3. Neil says:

    jack: just read this post. great.

    i just finished a writing a chapter-length piece on the fantasy of COIN-types reading Foucault and current biopower/biopolitics literature. indeed, left-theoretical humanities have been doing critical military semiotics for some time…see brad evans’ excellent essay over at South Atlantic Quarterly (Summer 2011), as well as great pieces by michael dillon & julian reid.

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