Ideas and Warriors


George Packer details the ways in which there’s been a bit of a rapprochement between military people and intellectual sorts in the 21st century, bred, primarily, by the exigencies of counterinsurgency: “The soldiers whose reputations have been made and not destroyed in Iraq—General David Petraeus, Colonel H. R. McMaster, Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl—have doctorates in the humanities.”

“Desperate times,” as he writes “breed desperate measures,” including McMaster bringing an anti-war British political scientist to Iraq because he’s knowledgeable about the country. Packer says that he’s under “no illusion that this rapprochement between guns and brains is widespread or guaranteed to last” but one should probably be more pessimistic than that. As he pointed out, this has largely come about as a result of an Iraq-driven desperation. The trouble is that it hasn’t worked. If hawkish intellectuals had understood more about military matters, if understanding of counterinsurgency had been wider-spread inside the military, if US elites had understood Iraqi history and culture better this misguided war never would have come to pass. Instead, this learning has all taken place in the futile context of a mission doomed to failure. The resulting experience is going to be an unpleasant one, and I think the odds favor a return to the post-Vietnam environment where academics deem the military too distasteful to contemplate and the military decides to borrow more deeply into the warrens of conventional firepower-oriented warfare.