August 19, 2007

Professors On The Battlefield?

Academics and warfare--and no, we're not talking about Ward Churchill's fragging suggestion--have taken up a startling but profound new relationship in the current war:
Marcus Griffin is not a soldier. But now that he cuts his hair "high and tight" like a drill sergeant's, he understands why he is being mistaken for one. Mr. Griffin is actually a professor of anthropology at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Va. His austere grooming habits stem from his enrollment in a new Pentagon initiative, the Human Terrain System. It embeds social scientists with brigades in Afghanistan and Iraq, where they serve as cultural advisers to brigade commanders.

Mr. Griffin, a bespectacled 39-year-old who speaks in a methodical monotone, believes that by shedding some light on the local culture-- thereby diminishing the risk that U.S. forces unwittingly offend Iraqi sensibilities--he can improve Iraqi and American lives. On the phone from Fort Benning, two weeks shy of boarding a plane bound for Baghdad, he describes his mission as "using knowledge in the service of human freedom."

The Human Terrain System is part of a larger trend: Nearly six years into the war on terror, there is reason to believe that the Vietnam-era legacy of mistrust--even hostility--between academe and the military may be eroding.
. . .
So will these instances of cooperation be enduring? Do they represent the harbinger of a more pervasive reconsideration of Vietnam-era pieties in academe? Hard to say. But it somehow seems significant that no less an archetype of Vietnam-era agitation than Tom Hayden emerged last month to raise the dusty banner of anti-military antagonism. In an essay posted on the Web site of the Nation magazine, he attacked Ms. Sewall for collaborating with Gen. Petraeus on the new manual, which he dismissed as "an academic formulation to buttress and justify a permanent engagement in counter-terrorism wars" that "runs counter to the historic freedom of university life."

Mr. Hayden's article suggests a bizarre conception of the role of scholars in American life: that they should be held to a priestly standard of ethical purity. "Are academics so much purer than anybody else that we can't ever be in situations where we are confronting tough ethical choices?" asks Noah Feldman, a professor of law at Harvard who briefly, in 2003, was an adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority. "If academics didn't get involved with these kinds of difficult questions, maybe all that would be left is a department of Kantian philosophy," he jokes. "Then we would be pure, but we would be irrelevant."
Some academics think that their purity (ideological, identity, etc.) precludes them from things like criticism--"how dare the unwashed, uneducated masses question our authority?"

Irrelevant? No.

Irresponsible? Well, you know the answer to that one.

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