Why Isn’t There More Scholarly Evaluation of U.S. Wars? — Introduction

March 4, 2016 • Commentary
This article appeared on International Security Studies Forum on March 4, 2016.

Our panel at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association (APSA) in San Francisco in 2015 was organized around the question “Why isn’t there more scholarly evaluation of war?” I’m grateful to the editors at H‐​Diplo for their interest in this topic, and for the invitation to continue our discussion online.

Not all of the APSA panelists agreed with the premise – at least one argued that there has, in fact, been quite a bit of study of U.S. wars. But while the respondents here concede that there have been somescholarly evaluations, there is still reason to be concerned about the volume, quality, and character of that scholarship. These three essays focus on each of these problems. Jon Lindsay explains the relative low volume of scholarly war studies. Alan Kuperman argues that there have been many studies of war, but too few scholarly ones. Lastly, Benjamin Friedman critiques the character of these studies, specifically their tendency to focus on the conduct of warfare, not the rationales for going to war.

I tend to agree with my Cato colleague Friedman, but the points he raises also connect with some of Lindsay and Kuperman’s observations.

Among the civilians who are willing to study all aspects of the nation’s foreign policy, many are drawn from think tanks, not from the academy. These think tanks reflect the interventionist consensus, which tends to skip over the ‘whethers’ and ‘whys’ of the nation’s wars, and goes instead directly to questions of ‘how’ and ‘when.’

This ‘operational mindset’ is reflected across the board, regardless of the presumed ideological or partisan inclinations of various think tanks. It is generally true, for example, that think tanks have become more ideologically affiliated over the years, with the Heritage Foundation and the Center for American Progress being perhaps the most dramatic examples of this phenomenon on either side of the ideological/​partisan spectrum. But one would be hard pressed to identify the ideological bias of the Council on Foreign Relations, or the Atlantic Council, or the Center for Strategic and International Studies. And, in the end, these non‐​ideological/​non‐​partisan organizations also tend to focus on the operational aspects of wars. You are less likely to see think‐​tank scholars questioning the rationales for going to war than you would find in the typical political science department at a university. Recall that in the run‐​up to the Iraq War, most IR scholars in the academy opposed it,1 while the vast majority of think‐​tank scholars either supported it, or were silent.2 Subsequent analysis of the nation’s wars, Kuperman explains, is heavily biased by one’s hawkish or dovish tendencies.

Another reason why scholars might avoid studying war is a general sense of futility. Up and coming academics are advised to avoid writing about policy‐​relevant matters (notwithstanding several noble efforts to counter that state of affairs)3, especially if such work comes at the expense of ‘serious’ study, usually involving lots of numbers and Greek symbols. And, as Lindsay notes, “Large‐​n datasets are hard if not impossible to find or compile for relevant activity, so quantitative empiricists tend to ignore intelligence operations and covert action.” To properly evaluate the nation’s wars, and the lesser conflicts that do not rise to that exalted classification, “scholars must get outside of their field, where the data is a mess, and study something their peers do not reward. These are bad incentives for good scholarship.”

Scholars are also likely to run up against a generally hawkish bias4 among the public at large, or, as Kuperman observes, the many doves within academia. And, lastly, even if scholars could convince their professional colleagues that an article studying war was important (and tenure‐​worthy), all that hard work might still elicit barely a ripple within the policy community, or the public at large.

And this is the third major factor why there might not be enough scholarly studies of war: there is, I am afraid, a general lack of interest in America’s wars. But that doesn’t mean we will not fight them. “Because the United States is relatively rich, safe and powerful,” Friedman explains, “many wars are possible and few will seem costly. That is a recipe for having continual, ill‐​considered wars.”

It is also a reason why the scholarly study of war is so important. It is a credit to the contributors to this forum that they have bucked these trends and have chosen to comment on this vital topic.

1 See, for example, James D Long, Daniel Maliniak, Susan M Peterson, and Michael J Tierney, “Knowledge without Power: International Relations Scholars and the U.S. War in Iraq” International Politics (2015) 52: 20–44.

2 Stefan Halper and Jonathan Clarke, The Silence of the Rational Center: Why American Foreign Policy Is Failing (New York: Basic Books, 2007).

3 See, especially, Bridging the Gap, http://​bridg​ingth​e​gap​pro​ject​.org/​a​bout/; and also an online symposium hosted by International Studies Quarterly,http://​www​.isanet​.org/​P​u​b​l​i​c​a​t​i​o​n​s​/​I​S​Q​/​P​o​s​t​s​/​I​D​/​1​4​8​4​/​B​u​t​-​I​f​-​Y​o​u​-​T​r​y​-​S​o​m​e​t​i​m​e​-​Y​o​u​-​M​i​g​h​t​-​G​e​t​-​S​o​m​e​-​o​f​-​W​h​a​t​-​Y​o​u​-​N​e​e​d​-​A​-​R​e​s​p​o​n​s​e​-​t​o​-​G​o​l​d​g​e​i​e​r​-​W​e​a​v​e​r​-​a​n​d​-​P​e​t​erson; and the proceedings from a conference held at Tufts University, April 29, 2014,http://​fletch​er​.tufts​.edu/​I​d​e​a​s​_​I​n​d​u​s​t​r​y​/​M​a​r​k​e​t​place.

4 Daniel Kahneman and Jonathan Renshon, “Why Hawks Win,” Foreign Policy, October 13, 2009,http://​for​eign​pol​i​cy​.com/​2​0​0​9​/​1​0​/​1​3​/​w​h​y​-​h​a​w​k​s​-win/.

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