When War and Academia Collide

Academics in all subfields of political science often lament that policy and military failures arise from the lack of communication between policy-makers and the academic community.  The recent tragic death of Michael Bhatia highlights some of the issues involved with the tenuous collaboration between those who analyze data and those who generate them, and the sometimes unfortunate consequences.  Bhatia was killed on May 7 in an explosion that targeted the American soldiers with whom he had been embedded in Afghanistan.

Bhatia had been teaching at Brown University’s Watson Institute for
International Studies as well as working on a doctoral degree from
Oxford University when he decided to enroll with the military’s Human
Terrain System. The program, run by the U.S. Army’s Training and
Doctrine Command, hires social scientists to collect and share
information abut Afghani culture with U.S. troops. Bhatia is the first
civilian in the program to die.

More after the jump. . .

Aside from the clear safety concerns for those untrained in combat spending time in war zones, there exists an uneasiness among academics over the way in which their skills will be used by military leaders.  As NPR reports and outlined by Wired blogger Sharon Weinberger, the American Anthropological Association has officially aired its concerns over the specific Army program in which Bhatia was enrolled.  Primarily, its concern is that the information collected and analyzed by anthropologists will be used for counterinsurgency operations which may ultimately harm the people from whom the information was collected.

The argument in favor of such collaboration has strong appeal, though.  Many political scientists were initially motivated to pursue their academic interests by normative concerns about good governance, respect for human rights, or the peaceful resolution of conflict.  While this is certainly not always the case, much of the research we do that sheds light on the interactions among governments or between governments and those they govern sits patiently in academic journals waiting for policy-makers to stumble upon it and use the information in the way in which we think best.  Perhaps more programs like the Army’s Human Terrain Program can be developed in order to place the research we do directly into the hands of those in the most immediate position to make use of it. 

How much control do or should scholars have over the research they produce?  We can imagine the most extremely negative and positive consequences of collaborations between academics and military personnel, but are these really the most likely outcomes?  What kinds of policy outcomes are the most likely to result from a tightening relationship between scholars and policy-makers and the military, and do they make scholars’ participation in such relationships worthwhile?

The NPR program, Talk of the Nation, hosted an interesting discussion of this topic last October.

Information on where to send condolences and donations to Bhatia’s family can be found on The Watson Institute’s webpage.

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