Thursday, January 2, 2014


Dr. Simons may indirectly make the case for a revitalized Special Operations Research Office (SORO) as we had at American University back in the 1950's and 1960's.  Not only did it produce the Assessing Revolution and Insurgent Strategies casebook (since updated in 2012 by USASOC and Johns Hopkins) it also produced country studies for the military.  With Dr. Simons advice such an office could provide a valuable capability for DOD and DOS by compiling and updating resources for study and not simply producing the traditional country studies.

I would also add to this as important as country studies and area studies are (especially the way that Dr Simons describes how they should be done) to pre-mission preparation, area assessment conducted by actual personnel on the ground is critically important to deep understanding of the country and the region.  

Please see the entire article on the War on the Rocks web site.


Rebooting Country Studies


December 31, 2013 · in 
For all the talk about “big data,” what about deep understanding?  Surely in the wake of Iraq and Afghanistan—and faced with other conflicts burbling all over the place—some enterprising office in the Department of Defense or Department of State is busy re-conceptualizing the nature of what constitutes a good country study for those deploying abroad in the 21st  century.  And surely that office is being run by individuals with ample experience both in  non-Western countries and with the U.S. military.  Right?
I ask because the field grade officers I know and teach at the Naval Postgraduate School need more than just data (facts), information (assemblages of facts), and knowledge (cumulative information).  Until the pendulum swings back and Congress proves willing to issue declarations of war in circumstances that permit no-holds-barred fighting, the military will continue to be asked to act with finesse.  Yet, one problem with finesse is that it requires more than just being able to populate databases with names, dates, and information about who’s connected to whom.  Data, information, and knowledge certainly matter.  But, what they can’t do—ever—is make what others do make sense.  They can’t explain how others perceive events, conditions, their predicament, or you.
Meanwhile, there are two ways to gain a sense of what makes others tick.  You can either acquire understanding experientially, which is sometimes hard to come by.  Alternatively, you can acquire understanding second-hand.  In a perfect world, both methods should be iterative.  Arguably, great drama—and television series, like The Wire—can help convey a “sense of” and “appreciation for.”  Maybe, too, someone will be able to convince me someday that simulations can likewise build understanding.  But, for now I want to extol books.
The kinds of books I have in mind are narratives, non-fiction accounts that tell a literal story (with a beginning, a middle, and an end)—books that are just long enough that they can’t be read in a single sitting, and books that can’t effectively be skimmed.  The kinds of books I have in mind impel the reader to want to come back to them for more.  They are also books that educate, in the sense that they rearrange their readers’ point(s) of view.
For years, I have contended that the best journalists do a better job than most of the rest of us at evoking the principles that underpin life in foreign places and foreign systems. Twenty years ago, David Remnick (Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire), Tom Friedman (From Beirut to Jerusalem), and Joseph Lelyveld (Move Your Shadow: South Africa, Black and White) topped my list.  This wasn’t just because these reporters wrote fluidly about complicated situations, but because at some point during the 1970s and 1980s academics started to indulge in truly awful writing.  In fact, to earn tenure you were given little choice, but to learn to write tortured prose.
Consequently, I still prefer to assign journalists’ accounts, since at least then there’s a greater chance students will actually read them.  Current favorites include Andrew Rice’s The Teeth May Smile but the Heart Does Not Forget set in Uganda, Peter Godwin’s When the Crocodile Eats the Sun and The Fearboth set in Zimbabwe, and Douglas Rogers’ The Last Resort (also set in Zimbabwe).  What makes these works resonate is that they zoom in and out from past to present, and from micro to macro levels, which means they educate as well as inform.  They are also written in the first person and each does an excellent job of humanizing the otherwise incomprehensible.
But, I have also discovered that even when I come across what I consider to be the best single overviews of other countries, these books don’t always work for students.  For instance, Richard Cockett’s  Sudan: Darfur and the Failure of an African State  is probably the single most insightful recent book about both Sudans.  But, when I assigned it a couple of years ago, students were overwhelmed.  Despite all of Cockett’s skill as a correspondent, students came away convinced of the complexity, but feeling nothing for the place or the people.  No one in the book grabbed them, which meant they walked away with no “sticky” principles for how either of the two Sudans worked.  Thus, I didn’t dare assign the next single country book I liked, Daniel Branch’s Kenya: Between Hope and Despair, 1963-2011. I worried that the very thing that most impressed me about Branch’s account would be the very thing to turn the students off; there would be too much that couldn’t be familiar to people who had never been to Kenya.  This brings me to Tamim Ansary.
Unlike Branch (a professor) and Cockett (a correspondent), Tamim Ansary is an author who, until 9/11, specialized in children’s books.  He is also half Afghan and half American and happened to grow up both in Afghanistan (until the age of 16) and in the U.S.  I came across West of Kabul, East of New York, Ansary’s first adult book, in the public library right after it was published in 2002. As soon as I read the first few chapters I knew: here was someone who could do a better job than I could at transmitting the very things I was trying to teach, whether about the strength of extended families or the significance of faith.  Even better, Ansary could do so in such a way that even students who had already served in Afghanistan put down his book wishing they had read it before they deployed.  A significant number also passed it on to their wives, just because.
During the ten years I assigned West of Kabul, it always had this same effect.  It opened eyes.  It gave even the most cynical officers a new appreciation for Afghans and for that country’s rich, but tormented history.  Of course, Ansary is a gifted writer.  But, even more important, he understands what most Americans have such a hard time understanding, which he is perfectly positioned to do since he is one of us.
(Continued at the link below)

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