Posted by: Christian | August 5, 2010

The Problem With Military Writing on Afghanistan

…is that it is not very good. And at times it is quite bad. Now please hold your indignation – if that applies to you – until the end of this blog entry. This is hopefully heading somewhere constructive. What I’m about to say applies – with varying degrees of severity – to both official and independent military journals, military theses, as well as to reports written elsewhere by members of the military.

Why do I feel justified in saying this? Well, aside from whatever ‘Afghanistan’ qualifications you may wish to assign/concede to me as a PhD student who specializes in the region and who semi-professionally fixes/grades essays, there is the large amount of work I do related to the Afghanistan bibliography that I compile. And yes, up until the beginning of this year I did read the majority of the articles and books in the bibliography (admittedly not so much the technical agriculture reports). In particular, I take a special interest in the sources I put into the military and security sections (sec. 10 & 11) and I did read them.

So what are my problems with reports/articles written by members the military? I’m not talking about grammar and writing style and stuff like that cuz my blog is full of bad writing like that and stuff as well as writing that could use some fixing and is not good enough for publication plus maybe a few run-on sentences. Maybe.

But seriously, these are the main issues:

1. Very poor knowledge of Afghan history, including very recent history.

This is not unique to military writing. It’s a plague on the field of Afghanistan analysis. And I’m not referring to the lack of insight into the Kushan empire. I’m referring to even very recent and relevant history such as 20th century Afghan history, including state-society relations, the Soviet-Afghan war and the civil war. History matters, and recent history even more so. If you are backing up your assertions and/or conclusions with historical precedents, you should really get it right. Few in the military do so.

2. Terrible use of sources.

It’s clear that most authors have no idea about what sources are available. Often when I’m reading military publications I continuously note to myself how much better it could be if the writer was aware of work that had already been done on the subject at hand. In addition, many authors unknowingly cite some terrible sources. The end result is that military writing on Afghanistan is an unfortunate example of analysis being written in isolation from the most authoritative literature in the field.

3. Advocacy far too many times prevails over analysis.

Some really great scholars join thinks tanks or get ideologically motivated and their works plummets in quality as they start to write advocacy pieces, so this is hardly unique to military writing. But nonetheless, military writing seems extra-prone to read like one-sided analysis designed to sell a product (i.e., a strategy or tactic). It’s as if an unfortunately high percentage of military writers working on Afghanistan start with a conclusion and then go hunting for supporting evidence only.

4. Too much emphasis on personal experience while neglecting broader trends.

Writing based on personal experience is great – but it has limitations. Personal experience is not a sufficient base for analysis; other members of the military may have had a completely opposite experience. Additionally, analysis from this perspective has the usual limitations of being from the perspective of an armed combatant in a war zone.  A decent number of publications acknowledge this, but others write as if their personal experiences are the norm – and even universal. You and your guys are not a sufficient sample size.

5. Weak editing.

It’s clear that whoever is editing/vetting military writing is weak in regards to Afghanistan. Not much can be done about this. There is very little civilian expertise on Afghanistan, and even less so in the military.

6. Overconfidence.

Confidence is fine, but overconfidence on the part of anybody attempting to analyze Afghanistan is more than a little disconcerting, especially considering that Afghanistan is such a complex and rapidly changing environment. Many academics spend years working on a very specific issues and end up despairing at how they can not adequately analyze/explain the question, despite having started with a reasonable degree of confidence in their initial hypothesis. Military writing could use a dose of self-skepticism and self-criticism.

The problem is NOT because of any ‘unique intellectual flaws’ in the individuals. I’ve studied with enough former military in university to know that they are, on average, better students than their usually younger college counterparts. In fact, one of my committee members from my MA thesis (a liberal democrat all the way) remarked that the military types in grad school that came through her polisci program were excellent students with great analytical skills. Plus, there are a few good examples of military writers who write about Afghanistan and who are respected beyond the military sphere, such as Lester Grau and Robert Baumann. But that being said, the military is – on average – failing to produce useful quality analysis on Afghanistan for public release (and yes, I’ve heard/read the criticisms of how bad the classified analysis is as well).

When I read the articles/reports/theses that concern me in the ways stated above, I usually do look at the work as salvageable. Sometimes the writer just needs a nudge in the right direction. And I think, under certain circumstances, I may be qualified to offer that “nudge.” And I’ve done so in the past. I’ve helped – within my set of limitations – refugee boards, students, anti-war types, journalists, and, yes, even the military (I’m all for everybody getting a better understanding of Afghanistan). Despite what a select few of my commenters (overwhelmingly angry civilians) may think, when I’ve picked on the military in the past it is not because I’m writing from under a flag of Che Guevara while raging against the military-industrial complex. It’s because I honestly thought I was reading bad analysis.

Of course, I’ll admit when I’m the wrong person to speak to. Many technical military issues are beyond my “expertise.” But….if you are in the military (any military but that of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan) and you are working on anything for publication or school, feel free to contact me here. [Note added: university email system is being ornery, contact me here instead]. I can suggest sources, share hard-to-find publications from my hard drive, check research proposals and outlines, read drafts, and be generally a grumpy academic. I’m being paid to sit around and help students who never show up to ask for help, so I might as well be doing something productive. Plus, I’ll be reading the work when it becomes publicly available anyways. +Plus, people use me as a free consultant via The Afghanistan Analyst anyways…

However, if you are that rare military creature that is unable to take criticism and you are angered by this blog post, just imagine me trying to lead men in a war zone. It will probably make you feel better.

Too long; didn’t read version: Military writing on Afghanistan is ‘broken.’ I can’t fix that system but I might be able to offer a bandage here and there for individuals. And I won’t charge for it…


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