Inside the Army
January 19, 2004
reposted with permission

Military Academics Entertain Intellectual Freedom, To a Point

By Anne Plummer

Since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began, the military's academic institutions have found a devoted, if unintended, audience for their "lessons learned" studies -- the national media.

The independent reviews are funded with service dollars but penned by personnel outside the traditional rank and file. Frank critiques on war tactics and U.S. defense policy are frequently picked up by reporters and defense observers craving an insider's perspective.

These studies routinely contain disclaimers that state they are not "official" Defense Department positions. But how objective are they? And how much "academic freedom" do their authors really have?

One former senior official at a military academic institution, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the pressure to report findings favorable to service leaders can be substantial. Writers who repeatedly challenge the party line can often find themselves ostracized and not asked by top brass to conduct follow-on studies.

While "academic freedom says you can publish what you want, that doesn't mean people are going to love you for it," the former official said. And some scholars can appear as "mavericks" even though their positions often do not differ substantially from those espoused by service leaders, the former official said.

Two military studies have attracted national attention in recent months.

The latest, published on an Army Web site, became the focus of articles last week in The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times. Rather than debate military tactics used by Army generals or question the effectiveness of certain weapon systems, Jeffrey Record, a visiting professor at the Army War College's Strategic Studies Institute (SSI), chose a loftier target. In his December 2003 report, Record takes President Bush to task for going to war with Iraq in the first place, calling Operation Iraqi Freedom a "detour" in the global war on terrorism.

The anti-terrorism war is "strategically unfocused, promises more than it can deliver, and threatens to dissipate U.S. military resources in an endless and hopeless search for absolute security," Record wrote.

Sensitivities stemming from Record's affiliation with the Army soon emerged.

Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy, cited Record's report, along with the Post and Times articles, in his Jan. 12 edition of Secrecy News. Within days, Aftergood, who had used the title, "Army Study Critiques War on Terrorism," received several e-mails -- "with varying degrees of politeness" -- correcting him on the semantics, he said.

Aftergood later ran a correction stating that he "probably should not have referred to it as an 'Army study,'" even though it was sponsored and published by the Army War College, about a two-hour drive north of the Pentagon in Carlisle, PA. The difference, to some, lay in the disclaimer on Record's report: "The views expressed in this report are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government."

Another study conducted by SSI last year that generated sparks was scholar Stephen Biddle's assessment of lessons learned in Iraq. The study, titled "Iraq and the Future of Warfare: Implications for Army and Defense Study," was conducted around the same time U.S. Joint Forces Command was leading its own review of lessons learned on the war, at the behest of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

Biddle had been asked by Army headquarters to conduct the review as a follow-on to his earlier work on Afghanistan. Consistent with Defense Department policy, Biddle's work would be reviewed for classification purposes and accuracy, if necessary. But because Biddle was being asked by Army leadership -- the programs office, or "G-8," and the operations and plans office, or "G-3" -- to complete the study, it would also be up to Army headquarters to determine whether it should be released.

(In fall 2002, the Army released Biddle's assessment of Afghanistan, which concluded large numbers of ground maneuver forces will be required in future combat.)

In October 2003, the press obtained draft briefing charts outlining Biddle's finding on Iraq. He also testified before the House Armed Services Committee on his preliminary findings.

The initial study made for good headlines -- most of which said the study suggested the coalition force won the war because the enemy was hopelessly inept. Had Iraqi forces been more skilled at concealing targets and fighting in cities, or simply taken advantage of more opportunities, the coalition ground force would not have been large enough to gain control of the country. Other factors, such as the swiftness with which the operation was conducted, were not as much of a factor in the victory, Biddle said.

Meanwhile, JFCOM had decided that superior knowledge, speed, lethality and precision were the primary factors that had shaped the modern battlespace, command chief Adm. Edmund Giambastiani told the House panel three weeks prior to Biddle's testimony.

JFCOM's conclusion fit nicely with Rumsfeld's policy. The defense secretary had long advocated investing in a future force that would win wars because of its technology prowess, not huge numbers of ground forces.

JFCOM has not released an unclassified version of its report. Likewise, Biddle's study remains under "peer review" and has not been finalized or released.

Col. John Martin, deputy director of the SSI, told Inside the Army last week that he is aware of concerns within the department that Biddle's study appears at odds with JFCOM's findings. However, the institute has not been asked to alter the conclusions in the report, he said; any changes will be up to Biddle.

Still, Martin and several others interviewed by ITA acknowledge a kind of "self-policing" climate within the military's academic institutions that can affect the outcome of a study. Scholars usually circulate their work for feedback, which opens them up to the possibility of internal pressure.

"There is a self-regulating part to what we're doing," Martin said. But while scholars are rarely directed to "change what you're saying," military academics are often told to "change how you're saying it," he said.

For example, the tone of a report can be changed so it does not clash with other studies or policies. According to Martin, this is not necessarily a bad thing.

"I don't want our papers to be dismissed because they are unnecessarily provocative," Martin said.

Nevertheless, "intellectual freedom" is something Martin said he takes extremely seriously. The role of SSI is to provide the Army with "clean, unvarnished" opinions that may challenge official Army or Defense Department policy, he said. As part of the SSI management team, Martin said he repeatedly reminds scholars like Biddle that they have the final say in their studies.

"Our job is to tell the emperor he has no clothes," he said. "But there are ways of doing it."

Biddle agreed. In a Jan. 15 interview with ITA, he said a critical component of writing persuasive studies is learning what "hot buttons" exist among members of his audience. This he does by vetting his work first. If words or phrases spark negative reactions, the piece can be reworded so long as its accuracy is not compromised, he said.

"It's not good policy to put sticks in people's eyes for the sheer enjoyment of it," Biddle said.

"I would like my studies to make a difference, which means someone has to keep reading, rather than get angry," he later added.

While Biddle's study may not become a chapter in the Defense Department's book of official lessons learned, his findings are not considered by many within the service to be an affront to senior Army leadership. For example, Biddle's study suggested that had the enemy in Iraq or Afghanistan been more competent, a bigger ground force might have been needed to claim victory -- a position several retired and active Army officers have reportedly taken.

"There's a difference between challenging the generals and challenging the administration," one source said.

To some, no better example of the tension between those who exercise their academic freedom and those who write policy is Col. Douglas MacGregor, the Army officer at NDU whose radical ideas on reform and tell-it-like-it-is personality has rankled service leaders.

While MacGregor has written several pieces critical of Army transformation efforts, including the 1997 book "Breaking the Phalanx," he has done so independently. The Army's generals are unlikely to knock on his door and commission a formal study.

In 2001, MacGregor was a candidate to join the defense secretary's new Office of Force Transformation -- a position that would have given him access to joint leadership and a chance to affect Pentagon policy. Army leaders, however, intervened, eventually redirecting him to the service's own transformation office, where he spent about three months before returning to the NDU.

MacGregor plans to retire June 1.

Since joining the War College in June 2001, Biddle said, he has not felt any pressure to write what anyone else wants to read; nor has he published anything he did not believe was accurate.

He chooses his topics by picking a question he thinks is important, conducting research and drafting initial conclusions that he tries to circulate as widely as possible, he said. Through this coordination process he is often able to shape most of his conclusions, he said.

"The key though is I would never . . . say anything I believed to be false," Biddle said. "That's a rock-bottom, hard requirement here."

Likewise, Mike Hanpeter, vice president for university relations at NDU, said he believes academic freedom is alive and well. Hanpeter said he has seen "very little" written by university staff that is turned down for public release. Studies that are held back are usually thought to contain information that is a threat to security interests, not ideas inimical to official department policy.

Reports at NDU are also edited for personal "attacks" on individuals, he said. Writers are allowed to argue against official Defense Department policy so long as they correctly describe that policy and do not attempt to disparage a person's character, according to Hanpeter.

Outsiders continue to rely on these studies as some of the more honest assessments available on the state of military affairs.

The scholars are given access few reporters have. In Biddle's case, he interviewed 176 personnel from the Army, Air Force, Marine Corps, special operations forces and United Kingdom personnel as well as Iraqi prisoners of war. Feedback was given from three- and four-star Army generals with firsthand experience in the war. And unlike JFCOM's assessment of the war, Biddle's study does not have to be scrubbed by Rumsfeld or others beholden to White House policy.

Further, these studies are much more likely to wind up within the public domain than internal assessments conducted by military units and commands. One study, which detailed the challenges in providing intelligence to units in the field, was posted online last October only to be yanked after a Post article reported its findings. The study, compiled by the Center for Army Lessons Learned at Ft. Leavenworth, KS, showed in rare detail the problems that plague soldiers trying to find "actionable" information on small enemy forces spread throughout a country with 25 million people.

A spokeswoman for the center said at the time officials were conducting maintenance on the site (ITA, Nov. 3, p7). The public Web site is back online, but the report is gone.

According to Aftergood of Secrecy News, the value of such studies remains immeasurable because of the "intellectual vitality" it lends the military.

"It's obvious that if you want a vibrant core of strategic thinkers, intellectual freedom is a prerequisite," Aftergood said -- even if the price is an occasional headline suggesting the Army disagrees with the president. -- Anne Plummer

Copyright 2004 Inside Washington Publications