IN THE NEWS
For the last several months, I've been taking detours into discussions of the philosophy of science. That's not too far afield from this blog's main topic, for two important reasons:
- The Bush Administration's discomfort with (or on some days, naked hostility to) experts often betrays an underlying misunderstanding or indifference about science.
- Political science, as a proto-science still getting its bearings, needs to follow the same rules that the "hard" sciences like chemistry and physics obey.
One of the important parts of the scientific method is the notion of a critical test. You never try to prove your hypothesis; instead, as an honest researcher, you conceive of ways to disprove it. You'll never run out of ways to color data the way you'd like, or just discard the inconvenient bits that challenge your theory. If you want to believe that demons, not microorganisms, cause disease, you can keep finding signs and portents that you're correct. This version of medicine has "worked" for many societies, including Western civilization during its most superstitious moments. The invisible world of spirits and devils is, in many crucial ways, easier to accept than the anonymous, complex, and challenging universe of bacteria and viruses.
Scientific researchers, therefore, are required by their professional ethics to look wherever possible for the critical test, the experiment that will definitively disprove your own hypothesis, if it turns out to be incorrect. No playing around with the data. No creative number-crunching. No coughing, no shuffling of feet, no claims of how from another perspective, you might still have a good idea. The critical test is the real acid test, in the truest sense of the term. If it works, your pet theory dissolves into nothingness. A critical test for the Newtonian model of physics involved measuring the speed of light, which turned out to be constant no matter where you are, in what direction you're moving, and in what direction light is moving relative to you. Since Newton's model of physics couldn't account for this odd result, poof! the Newtonian model went out the window, and in came Einstein's theory.
One of the foibles of commenting on public affairs is the ease with which you can keep grasping for the factoids that support your worldview, while batting aside the ones that challenge it. It's one of the reasons why journalists fall into an accepted script (Kerry is a plutocrat, Bush is a boob, etc.), regardless of all evidence to the contrary. During the Vietnam War, many journalists missed the successes of the American effort, the occasions when we really were making progress, because after a certain point (most significantly, the Tet Offensive), the press corps had written off any effort in Vietnam as a complete waste. Victories, such as the defeat of the National Liberation Front, just didn't fit the script.
This week as I was catching up on the news, I found this article about the reservists from a supply and logistics unit who disobeyed orders to drive a convoy of fuel to their assigned destination in Iraq. (Click here for another account of the incident) The reservists believed it was a suicide mission, driving unarmored trucks full of fuel through extremely dangerous stretches of road. The fuel was already contaminated with diesel, so the whole mission seemed pointless anyway.
People who are skeptical of the US strategy in Iraq are likely to conclude that this is yet another sign of a disintegrating US war effort. People who are more supportive are likely to slap the label "Typical moment of military inefficiency" on the incident, give the reservists a silent moment of sympathy or condemnation, and file this under "The right way, the wrong way, and the Army way."
It's tough to think of a critical test for either hypothesis. The only one I can imagine runs as follows:
- Find a standard definition for incidents of insubordination used during other wars. (Blatantly refusing orders? Fragging officers? Being slower than average to respond?)
- Use the frequency of mutiny in the ranks in these conflicts as empirical points of reference.
- Apply the same definition of insubordination to incidents that have happened since the United States invaded Iraq. (Of course, these will be tough to find, but the Internet does make it easier.)
- Then, compare these incidents to the toughest, messiest, nastiest war like Iraq in which we've found ourselves. The more fouled up, the better. This war will be our "baseline" conflict.
- If the frequency of insubordination is substantially higher in the Iraq war than in the "baseline" conflict, then there's definitely a serious problem afoot.
The critical part of the test is in step #4. If we're doing worse than, say, the counterinsurgency war in Vietnam, we're definitely facing a real crisis. There was more success in the counterinsurgency facet of the Vietnam War, as I mentioned above. However, it was a nasty mess, for two major reasons:
- The United States made years of mistakes before hitting on an effective formula. Sadly, many of the mistakes undercut these later successes. For example, the chronic political instability in South Vietnam didn't just vanish; nor did the outrage and skepticism that governmental corruption, incompetence, and brutality bred.
- Other aspects of the war also undermined the successes against the Viet Cong. The "credibility gap" eventually led to the collapse of American will to stay in the war. The truly conventional part of the war—the NVA fighting ARVN and US forces—regularly disrupted programs at the village and hamlet level. Counterinsurgency was one of several items in a finite budget for Vietnam, and Pentagon decision-makers often looked own on the work of "snake eaters" in the Special Forces and others involved in the counterinsurgency campaign.
Mental exercises like this one can make your head hurt, most of the information you need to make an informed judgment is already available. It's not always easy to find, but it's almost all available. Vietnam is a good choice for a baseline conflict because, unlike US involvement in insurgencies in other countries (El Salvador, the Philippines, etc.), there are thousands of books and articles about the Vietnam War. This massive corpus covers nearly all aspects of the counterinsurgency war, as recorded in first-person accounts, narrative histories, statistical analyses, and even documents and interviews from the enemy's side of the war.
Researching the Vietnam War as a baseline would be a challenge. Anyone already familiar with the available documentation, however, could distill the information needed to identify just the rates of insubordination in just the counterinsurgency side of the war (the part comparable to the current US campaign in Iraq). The press could be doing a better job of covering the war in Iraq, but it's possible to track down incidents of insubordination through not just the mainstream press, but military blogs, web sites like Soldiers for the Truth, and other sources.
Impressionistic data are not encouraging. Whenever I read about how US forces are using tanks, helicopters, fixed-wing aircraft, and artillery against insurgents in cities like Karbala, Fallujah, and Najaf, I cringe. For reasons I'll discuss in greater detail in later postings, the operational sine qua non of conventional warfare—bring to bear the maximum firepower against the enemy—is the worst way to fight a counterinsurgency war imaginable. But that's just an impression, based on impressionistic data. If we wanted to address this question seriously enough for a critical test, we would need to suspend our judgments until we had all the data collected and analyzed.
It's comforting to know that we are not without the means to measure how well things are really going in Iraq. It's frustrating beyond words to see all too few people in the press and academia interested in doing the work.
I'd love to do take on this project myself, by the way. Just give me the salary of the journalist or researcher who's not performing this vital service, and I'm all over it.