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Posts Tagged ‘Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife’

Recently, I had the chance to read Martin Evans’ Afghanistan: A Short History of Its People and Politics for the first time. One of the things that struck me most was  it struck me how education (specifically, the philosophies of education) was a marked fissure in the rise of the Taliban. According to Evan’s account, a divide opened up between those who received a secular education from institutions such as the Law Faculty of Kabul University and members of the Taliban who have their roots in Deobandi madrassas. As Evans writes, “[i]t is not merely the ethnic or tribal divide that separates the Taliban from such ‘Islamists’ as Rabbani, Hekmatyar and Massoud, but also the fact that the latter were educated in ‘modern’, rather than ‘traditional’, educational institutions” (204-205).

As I thought about it more, I began to see education as a significant thread throughout the Long War.  Indeed, the theory and doctrine of counterinsurgency is intertwined with the notion of education. COIN, so says FM3-24, “is not just thinking man’s warfare—it is the graduate level of war.” More important, it is a difficult, ongoing, and perhaps impossible education. One of the most widely read books on the subject, John Nagl’s Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam says so much in its title, borrowed from the writings of COIN icon T. E. Lawrence. Lawrence himself was a practicing archeologist before he found his way into the Arab Revolt to promote British interests. He was a warrior-intellectual in a time when, as documented by Fussell and others, British commanders’ lack of creativity lead to the needless slaughter of tens of thousands.

As embodied by the likes of General David Petraeus, the warrior-intellectual is the new vogue. Among them is Craig Mullaney, author The Unforgiving Minute: A Soldier’s Education.  On his website, he remarks on the difficulties of educating counterinsurgents:

The ideal soldier would be a micro-financier with a doctorate in anthropology, speak Dari and Pashto, be an expert marksman, and have served as a mayor in a farming community. The military doesn’t have the resources or time to produce this bionic counterinsurgent, but it can do a better job educating soldiers so that they’re faster at learning and adapting in unfamiliar environments. We do a great job of making sure units have the weapons they need to fight, but in a counterinsurgency, often the best weapons don’t shoot. The challenge is to fertilize units with the right mix of additional specialties so that they’ve got the right “weapons” for this kind of fight.

Indeed, this fact that the best weapon does not shoot complicates the the education of the soldier who must yet rely on weapons that do shoot. As Dave Grossman wrote in On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, overcoming the resistance to killing involves a number of factors including the creation of cultural distance between the warfighter and the enemy. At the same time, counterinsurgents promote collapsing that distance through ever-greater cultural awareness.

The way we think about education our fighting men and women has been challenged in a number of other ways.  Tom Ricks has opened the debate on the closing of the military academies. Others like Gian Gentile have argued against the increasingly dominant position of COIN, making the case manuals such as FM3-24 have divorced the actual fighting of war from doctrine. Others still debate our focus on training for counterinsurgencies and whether it has diminished our capacity to fight conventional “peer competitors” and hybrid threats.

This is by no means an exhaustive list how education plays a role in our current conflicts, but I intend to follow this thread again in the future.

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