SWAMOS 2011 Ho!

I’m attending Columbia’s Summer Workshop On Military Operations and Strategy (SWAMOS 2011) at Cornell University. Summers in upstate NY are notoriously hot, and Ithaca is certainly living up to its billing. It’s 90 degrees outside and pretty close to full humidity, which is a huge change from Santa Monica.

Luckily we will be spending much of the next two weeks indoors in an air-conditioned conference center, receiving a full-scale info dump on the latest and greatest in the political science sub-subfield known as Strategic Studies.

I tell most people that I concentrate in International Relations and Comparative Politics, which fits in nicely with the Poli Sci Department’s schema at UCLA, but I consider myself a Security Studies person at heart. Classically, Security Studies as a field has dealt with diplomatic (and not-so-diplomatic) interactions between Great Powers; its chief tenets and theories are derived from the Cold War, the global game of chess between two glowering superpowers.

That is the 20th century conception. I love learning about Great Power politics, the era of modern industrialized warfare, the grand ideological crusades of the past century. These topics are the foundation of my education. In fact, my most recent paper discusses the rationality of Japanese strategy and operations leading up to World War 2. Now that  is old school!

However, while there is still much to examine in the diplomatic record that is of great scholarly worth, I have personally become more interested in the new era of warfare and political violence. To really earn analytical traction on what our future is going to look like, we need to sort areas of continuity from areas of change.

This is where Strategic Studies comes in to the picture. It is the subsection of the study of political violence that discusses the use of military force at various levels of resolution–the political, grand strategic, strategic, operational, and tactical levels, in descending order of complexity.

It provides us with the “microfoundational” analytical tools we need to understand how military engagements are won, in the greatest possible detail. I’ve done about a thousand pages of advance reading to prepare for the workshop, starting with the illustrious Clausewitz (one of the most lucid and efficient political theorists I’ve ever had the pleasure to read… perhaps not surprising given his Prussian military background!)

The syllabus has proceeded through Stephen Biddle’s magisterial Military Power, and then burrowed into tactical recreations of famous battles from the World Wars, command training manuals from the U.S. military, and even touched on military modeling and operations research.

It is exactly the kind of stuff that the vast majority of work in International Relations and Security Studies glosses over and/or stuffs into footnotes. And it is hugely important and interesting.

Part of my interest stems from my background in game design; I have had some ideas about creating new simulation methods through interactive games, and this reading has driven home the point that similar techniques are already a very big deal in military and government circles.

Another part of my interest derives from the fact that our theories about what is likely to happen in our political and military future need to be informed by actual military mechanisms. Political scientists may have a good understanding of the political side of the equation, in the abstract, but such understanding isn’t much good without a corresponding knowledge of the limits imposed by technological, operational, tactical, physical, and command factors.

Obviously nothing beats actual military experience for learning this stuff. But without major efforts to make up for this shortfall in experience, we will quite literally have no idea what we are talking about.