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Why We Need Philosophers in the Pentagon

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The Debate

Why We Need Philosophers in the Pentagon

In our ‘post-truth’ world we need to rediscover the urgency of philosophical inquiry.

Why We Need Philosophers in the Pentagon

The Death of Socrates (Jacques-Louis David, 1786)

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Since I started covering the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan in 2010, I have been fed the same three boilerplates by the U.S. military about the war and the purported gradual destruction of the Taliban insurgency: Progress is slow but steady; We have to expect setbacks as the Afghans assume responsibility for their own security; Next year’s fighting season—in a twist to Nietzsche’s concept of the eternal return of the same—will be crucial in determining the fate of the country.

The fact that the dynamics on the battlefield in 2010 were not the same as in 2016 (as a simple Google search will confirm), but the modus operandi of U.S. Army Public Affairs Officers petrified, should not be surprising to anyone familiar with a military bureaucracy and how the military deals with the media. However, in a larger sense, the boilerplates serve as a reminder of a malaise not only plaguing the U.S. military but the entire U.S. political system related to the rise of “post-truth” politicians like Donald Trump and Great Britain’s Boris Johnson: Reality and the truth are up for grabs.

Notwithstanding that it is the duty of a public affairs officer to put a positive spin on practically anything (after all optimism is seen as a standalone virtue in American society) and by doing so attempt to influence a journalist’s reporting on the war, the danger inherent to this approach is that the officer herself will lose sight of the meaning—the “truth”— of the war. As Hawthorne said: “No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself, and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true.”

The result of this bewilderment on a macro-scale is the neglect by U.S. defense policy makers and engaged soldiers of the telos of any war per se,while touting smaller (often data driven) truths such as gauging strategic victory by how many miles of paved roads have been constructed (or how many enemies killed) without reconsidering the larger picture of a conflict and posing simple philosophical questions such as: Why are we here? In other words, by denying the very possibility of truth in a post-truth world, we often sacrifice synoptic vision for more easily discernable statistical realities. This is where a Philosopher in Chief at the Pentagon might come in handy.

The philosopher’s job—true to the Socratic tradition—would be to ask “simple” questions. However, instead of focusing on essential issues such as the nature of Justice or the Good, the Pentagon philosopher would repeatedly pose questions such as, “What is a military?” or “What is victory?” His/Her job in a nutshell, would be a professional gadfly beyond anything red teaming bureaucrats and military analysts in the Office of Net Assessment could fathom.

Like Socrates, he/she would identify and question sophistry (much of Plato’s writing is a critique of intellectuals who promote and capitalize on the “truth”). He/she would subject conceptual dogma such as the Third Offset Strategy, AirSea Battle, Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) to the skeptical examination of philosophical inquiry (e.g., if the Third Offset Strategy tries to offset the advantages of all of our adversaries, is it not also logically true that we will never be able to offset any one adversary in particular?).  He/she would move beyond the confined analytical space of the Pentagon in which rules and ideas are applied to fit senior policy makers’ thinking. In short, he/she would rigorously apply critical thinking free from bureaucratic confines to examine what is best for the military and the country beyond conventionally accepted norms.

Would not a philosopher have helped the sophist General David Petraeus—who famously mused in 2003: “Tell me how this ends?” and like Pontius Pilate, did not stay for an answer—during the days of the so-called surge in Iraq in 2007. In the post-truth world, victory is a delusional fancy, as was the case in Iraq, but the philosopher would have insisted on defining a military victory in war in clear and delimited terms predicated upon immediate and enduring peace as the only logical metric for defining success on the battlefield. In other words, he/she would have made clear that in war there is no substitute for victory whether fighting insurgents in Iraq or the Japanese Navy in the Pacific during World War II. And if victory could not be obtained on those terms, then the regulative conclusion would be that it was not worth fighting and dying for at all.

Through his/her inquiry, a philosopher would also cut through the multi-layered and convoluted military bureaucracy and the military-industrial complex often blocking innovation and progress. By asking, “What is a military?” he/she would be able to deduce that despite the manifold euphemisms of equivocation, the true purpose of the U.S. military—if it cannot deter an adversary—is to kill as quickly and effectively as many adversarial young men and women as possible, while minimizing its own casualties. He/she would emphasize the truth that every military, first and foremost, is a killing machine. The philosopher would help clarify what a military should and should not get involved in (e.g., nation building), and what it should and should not procure, despite congressional pressure.

Of course, he/she would encounter opposition by those who think that they know the (classified) truth, and accused of failing to understand the complexities of defense policy and modern war. However, he/she would understand that those who oppose him are ensconced inside and love their bureaucratic cave, as Plato might say, and attempt to confront them with an understanding derived from a vantage point beyond the cave. The insight that the natural light of the sun is a more true illumination of things than the reflected shadows of the cave moves him to convey a more accurate image of the phenomena to the generals and policy makers inside the cave—a reality beyond the Pentagon’s E-Ring—and offer a guided excursion beyond the cave that will augment  their spelunky skill set and spur innovative thinking.

The Pentagon’s Philosopher in Chief would be a professional outsider who would mentor the insiders by means of his trans-historical vision and his dedication to the possibility of truth. He/she will admit that his ignorance trumps his wisdom but that there is still the hope and necessity of obtaining an objective standard of the truth in a post-truth world (or any “world”) upon which policy makers can make informed policy decisions of war and peace.

While a general can never be a philosopher, as the German Field Marshall Erich von Manstein said in his apologia Lost Victories, he can be philosophic: He/she can acquire the ability to take a step back and gaze at himself and his “world” from an elevated position, a bird’s eye perspective, and look at the larger reality of a conflict before embarking upon a course that may bring victory in his and his cadres eyes, but ultimately spells defeat for him and his country in the long run. Exposing the generals to this new perspective would be the philosopher’s purpose and day job, even if our Pentagonic Plato would still be moonlighting under the Sun.