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Roundtables: Life of the Mind

Last week, there were two roundtables on two different projects that both have something in common.  Both point to the way that the US military serves to harness the minds of America's true "best and brightest" to create good in the world.

The first was with Dr. Thomas Mahnken, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Policy Planning,  on the Minerva Project.  This project offers to rebuild some of the ties between the military and academia.  The military would provide funding and access to research materials; in return, they would appreciate aid in understanding the world's cultures, so that counterinsurgency efforts are both more likely to succeed, and better able to reach out to and protect the people among whom terrorists or guerrillas might try to hide. 

The other was on regenerative medicine.  We spoke with COL Robert Vandre, who shows the intense and almost boyish joy of the scientist at the progress his team is making in helping injured soldiers.

He's missing ears and the end of his nose. And, of course, that's -- we really expect to be able to do something about that in a couple of years, you know, because that's -- you saw the picture with the mouse with the ear on his back. And that technology just needs -- I mean, essentially we've just got to refine it a little bit more, and we should be able to give it a go.

Take a look at some of what they've been doing.

This is a point we've made here at BlackFive, and elsewhere, from time to time.  The military, its internal schools, DARPA, the defense contractors' research labs, these have served as a parallel structure to academia for the life of the mind.  It's a place of those who want to put that life into practice, making a difference in defense of their nation and to better the world. 

It makes sense that this should be so.  No matter what good you want to accomplish -- whether disaster relief or to prevent a genocidal war, whether at home or in some faraway land -- the US military is the single greatest instrument for good in the world.  It is the key element in many of the solutions to those problems, worldwide.

I asked Dr. Mahnken about the challenges involved in trying to rejoin the military thinkers with the academics.

This is Grim at We've talked occasionally about the U.S. military as an alternative way of pursuing the life of the mind, just the way that it has become that -- things like DARPA and whatnot. Military science is not taught outside of ROTC programs in most of academia. There's really nothing like the War College. ROTC is less and less often offered. Military recruiting is increasingly banned on what were once elite colleges. We've seen that there is a sort of deep suspicion, by some members of the anthropology community, to your efforts. How do you plan to address these cultural differences? Will you be sending officers more often to school maybe in academia instead of internal military schools? Or will you detach military officers who are scholars to teach? Will you do things like that as part of this program?

MR. MAHNKEN: Oh, boy. How much time do we have? (Laughter.)

First, in terms of, you know, full disclosure, look, I mean, I taught at the Naval War College. I taught in the Strategic Studies Program at Johns Hopkins SAIS. And so while you're right that military, you know, quote-unquote, "military science" is, I mean, that's taught as part of ROTC programs. There are a number of first-class graduate-level programs that teach strategic studies. As a matter of fact, you know, David -- that's not limited to the United States. David is part of a first-class program at King's.

And that includes strategic studies and that includes familiarizing graduate students with national security and how the military works. And these are graduate students, you know, who go into the State Department, who go into the Defense Department, the intelligence community as well as Wall Street, NGOs, you name it. So there are those programs, you know, there are those programs out there.

As far as ROTC is concerned, I mean, the secretary is on the record, you know, saying we need to get, you know, ROTC back on campus. And you know, I think there are -- I think there are some, you know, there are some encouraging signs there.

Certainly you know, more broadly you know, we are looking for opportunities to get officers out more in civilian graduate schools.

We're also -- about a year ago now the president signed and executive order on national security professional development, which envisions really building a cadre of national security professionals; bringing in civilians, folks in uniform, from across the national security community; getting them a graduate-level education in specifically the instruments of national security; and certifying them as national security professionals, much as Goldwater- Nichols 21 years ago set us on the path to have a, you know, joint officer corps. We're just wrapping up the first -- the first pilot program of that over at National Defense University. And it involves a couple dozen people, and next year there will be more, and there will be another pilot program. And so, you know, those initiatives are going on.

I think Secretary Gates -- again, as a former university president, he's quite attuned, you know, to the intellectual health of the institution and very much wants to build the intellectual capital of the officer corps with the department as a whole, and Minerva is part of that effort. I mean, it's -- if you think about it, certainly our hope is that not just the research from these consortia will enrich the government and enrich academia, but, you know, those who perform that research, you know, some percent of them may decide to go into public service, and that will benefit the country as a whole.

Zenpundit recently wrote an article on the decline of the remaining military history programs.  Lexington Green at the Chicago Boyz responded by saying, essentially, that the private market is making up for what academia isn't doing.  This is a good thing, he said:

In fact, I don’t know how much good it would do to have the current population of academia teaching this history. They may well do more harm than good. I got a kick out of the story of the history professor who knew only two things about the American role in World War II: The internment of the Japanese and the atomic bombings, both of course presented as American crimes.

With a nod to his point about the market, the fact is that the anti-military culture that has settled in much of academia has consequences.  There has been sharp opposition to the Minerva Project and similar initiatives from academics who are being trained by those same history professors.

Similarly, Catherine Lutz, a professor of anthropology at Brown University, said that the impact of military funding is significant and troubling. Fields like physics, she said, have been shaped since World War II by military priorities “and we don’t need the same thing in the social sciences.”... While Lutz acknowledged that some people view the military as protecting citizens from violence, she said that she takes another view, based on history, and that makes her deeply skeptical of this program.

Emphasis added. 

The problem is clear:  if your sense of the history is based on the teachings that nothing happened in WWII except Japanese internment and the nuking of civilians, without other context, no wonder you'd oppose having a partnership with the Pentagon.  It is very important to provide balance to that view, so that we can benefit from "the life of the mind" both among scientists funded by the government, and the independent academic world.

A few years ago, I wrote:

The military is one of the last bastions where at least a smattering of Latin is usually understood. The Army has a school of heraldry. The Navy and especially the Marine Corps have their own traditions, some building on foundations inherited from the Royal Navy and Royal Marine Corps. The effect is to foster a felt, a lived connection to the sweep of Western civilization: back through our American history to British roots, back from there through the Middle Ages, to Rome, and to Athens.

Marine Corps University at Quantico, VA (motto: Ductus Exemplo!) maintains a professional reading list for all Marines. Marine Corps HQ maintains another, large enough to be broken out into sections: Commandant's favorites, Heritage series, Leadership & Biography, Theory, Nature & History, Strategy, Policy, Operations, and on and on. Headquarters also posts lists to "over 2,500 free e-books" on the same page: classics, poetry, drama, literature.

Late last year, I argued that the military exists as a parallel structure to academia for the life of the mind. At its best, it is at least the equal of the Ivy Leagues at the real business of education -- the creation of capable men and women, schooled in both the liberal and the practical arts. I've known a fair number of both sorts of alumni, both Harvard men and servicemen. I've known plenty of military men who could discuss Homer and opera, as well as the pleasures of good whisky and a fine cigar. I've met one whose training enabled him to serve successfully as the provisional governor of an Iraqi province suffering from the ravages of war.

Over the last several months I served as a civilian advisor in Iraq, and watched soldiers pursuing distance-learning degrees in things like comparative mythology -- during their "spare time," after fifteen hour days, seven days a week.  I met men who were successful businessmen and also reservists, spending a year away from their business to help the people of Iraq find their way out of darkness and poverty.  I met chaplains whose lives had been spent in study of scripture, who had volunteered in order to minister to young men and women far from home.

They deserve better than they often get in the halls of academia.  Academics in training deserve better, for that matter:  they deserve a more honest view of what their military is really like.  They would benefit from a part of a sense of that connection from ourselves 'back through the Middle Ages, and from there to Rome and Greece.'  They would benefit from the alliance, which would give them a chance to help do good for many people in the far arms of the world.

The military intends no irony in calling it the Minerva project.  Minerva was the Latin name for the Greek goddess Athena, at once the goddess of wisdom and success in war. 

The whole truth of the project is written in the name.