Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Service Does Not an Expert Make...

...in and of itself. I have done more than my fair share of time in Iraq as a soldier, but that does not make me an expert on all of Iraq or Afghanistan or national defense strategy or even counterinsurgency for that matter. Service, at any level or location, is a lens - like education or other life experiences - through which one gains a unique perspective. But let us not confuse that with "expertise."

There are a large number of bloggers and commentators who are veterans who look down upon those that have not served as not being qualified to speak on matters of the conflicts in which we are fighting. Those non-veteran commentors could, however, be just as or more qualified to speak on these issues than most uniformed personnel who ever served due to whatever their life experiences may be. Those life experiences provide a lens as well and may end up being of more value to the general populace than a soldier who spent 15 months on a FOB guarding the local national workers sweeping the latrines.

Before you all start writing letters (comments, on the other hand, are welcome), I am not saying that that soldier's service wasn't important. I am saying that his performing that function does not make him an expert on theater- or strategic-level issues in Iraq even if he does get to wear a patch on his right shoulder. I would conjecture that below the Corps level, being a veteran of Iraq provides a lens and not expertise (with the caveat that only certain positions at the Corps level provide true "expertise"). My Army career culminated as a brigade planner in Iraq which caused my expertise to culminate at operations conducted within my brigade's battlespace and no further. My expertise is limited by my experiences.

I'll use a historical example: Tammy Duckworth. Ms. Duckworth is a fine American who served, and continues to serve, her nation well - both in and out of uniform. She has certainly sacrificied much because of her tour in Iraq. But during her run for the House in 2006 she made a lot of statements about the strategic history and direction of Iraq that was given validity in the media because she was a wounded Iraq veteran. The reality is that as UH-60 pilot, she had gleaned no more expertise on Iraq because of her service than the LN guard mentioned above. That expertise was given to her because of her service and it was unwarranted. She knew as much about Iraq outside of a FOB as anyone else who read the NY Times or Fiasco. I'll also say that I don't believe that she tried to say that she was an expert because of her experiences, but that mantle was certainly given to her by others because of it.

This is not to say that her opinion didn't matter, even through the lens of her experiences. She should be listened to as a vet, but not given the credence of an expert commensurate with an academic who has spent years studying either U.S. defense policy or Iraq specifically. Her experiences as a wounded vet give her much more validity to warrant her positions in the Illinois and U.S. Veterans Affairs departments, but not that alone. That would suggest that any of the millions of citizens that are dependant upon VA hospitals are qualified to run VA directorates, and I'm pretty sure no one here believes that.

No one's opinion should be dismissed out of hand because they did not (or did for that matter) serve in the military. That fact alone does not make anyone an expert on anything and merely provides a lens through which to view the world. This lens can be significant (it has certainly defined much of my world outlook), but it does not equate to expertise. Expertise is limited to an individual's experiences. Arguments, on the other hand, are based on elements derived from facts or views seen through the author's lens. And they should be weighed on those elements, not on some ordained or self-described expertise that extends beyond that person's experiences.

20 comments:

  1. I just went through all of the comments on this blog. I didn't find one that ever expressed the notion that non-vets have zero credibility when it comes to discussing OIF or OEF.

    The closest came from my limericks, for which I take a literary exemption.

    You're tilting at windmills, dude.

    SNLII

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  2. I don't want to speak for Gunslinger here, but I don't think his argument is really that people who haven't served are having their views dismissed, but rather that there's a sort of sudden-expertism among people who have served (and are often bereft of any other qualifications).

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  3. I don't think Gunslinger necessarily meant on the blog. I think he was being more general. It hasn't happened here, fair enough.

    Still, I have had people tell me that women don't know anything about weapons so I couldn't possibly have anything intelligent to say about acquisitions, rationale for the F22 etc. I think I've even had someone say "You're a girl (which in and of itself makes the feminist hackles go up but that's a story for a different day) how do you know that there's even such a thing as an A10 and an F22? You're not supposed to know they're different and girls never know how they're not used for the same purpose."

    Umm, I've been to Pope Air Force Base, I've had the A10 briefing and seen the demo flight. I've been to Lockheed offices in DC, again had the briefing, and I got to play in the simulator for the F16 and the F22 (I know, now I'm showing off)...and I read and talk to people. Of course, that means I know little more than the basics but I can learn more.

    And in the think tank world, I've seen people get told that, yes, maybe they had on the ground experience, but that without a graduate degree their experience wasn't sufficient to warrant listening to them.

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  4. The catalyst for this post was not from the comments on this blog. Gulliver and Lil are both right about what I'm getting at (apparently not all that articulately, though). I will say that in other fora there are people who's views are dismissed because they weren't in the service by those who were, and for that reason alone. A reading of the comments on other blogs at which we used to haunt fairly often would show, in my opinion, these two phenomena.

    Apparently our readers are much more rational and open minded. Good work folks! So I'm not tilting at windmills, I'm preaching to the choir.

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  5. I'm still digesting the notion that SNLII's limericks would qualify for a "literary exemption" ...

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  6. Are you questioning that they could possibly considered literature or that they are exempt? Either question is valid...

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  7. RB, the limericks (and a few haikus) were written from the perspective of an avatar. They weren't my personal feelings. This is so with any literature, even when it's little more (in my case) than doggerel.

    This is a point that often comes up in hip-hop lyrics, too: They are a voice, but a fictional voice. The "person" who is making the argument in a rap song or a very bad limerick here is doing so without necessarily being autobiographical.

    As the gathered might tell you, my unleashing of (fairly provocative) limericks was designed to drive traffic here.

    Crass? Well, I'll plead to that. But I won't willingly plead to the felony of dissing the non-vet.

    That's not me, and you know that.

    SNLII

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  8. "She should be listened to as a vet, but not given the credence of an expert commensurate with an academic who has spent years studying either U.S. defense policy or Iraq specifically"

    Yeah. They got OIF perfectly, didn't they?

    SNLII

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  9. I didn't say they did. I am saying that she isn't qualified as an "expert" because she was a Blackhawk pilot in country for a year. Obviously there are people we thought were experts who proved us quite wrong.

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  10. I think the point of all this is just that experience =/= credibility. Or more to the point, plz know WTF you're talking about before you offer your opinion, no matter what you do/did for a living.

    (All opinions expressed on this blog excepted, of course.)

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  11. It's not about the PHD.
    Nor the soldier's CIB.
    Each is a credential,
    And neither is essential,
    For knowing your ass from your knee.

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  12. That was me, RB. You know, the one to whom you wouldn't give a waiver.

    SNLII

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  13. There once was a "chickenhawk" debate
    that started just north of Kuwait
    Like most gripes I'm sure
    this'll outlast the war
    Result: unsatisfact'ry endstate

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  14. Now I've got Greyhawk doing limericks.


    Try one, RB.

    SNLII

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  15. Tammy Duckworth might not be a pro
    On Iraq, Afghanistan or Oslo,
    But when I need a dustoff
    I'm not ringing her prof
    Brookings, RAND or UNESCO.

    SNLII

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  16. "I've got Greyhawk doing limericks..."

    Mine aren't very good. You have to be Irish to really do limericks right. ;)

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  17. I wrote a limerick about RB, but he hasn't given me approval to print it here.

    SNLII

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  18. - well said, I like the lens metaphor - the common sense and experience of say farming or running a business can go a long ways across cultural lines (goesh)

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  19. the common sense and experience of say farming or running a business can go a long ways across cultural lines

    I had this exact conversation over the weekend with a couple of people who spent the last three years down in Central America doing humanitarian work, except we were talking about the Peace Corps.

    One of the real limitations that we're facing in counterinsurgency efforts is bringing enough civilian expertise to bear when trying to reconstitute governmental authority. It's the whole security/development chicken/egg thing that the SWJ guys hope to address in their essay contest: optimally you have non-military agricultural, banking, and governance experts providing specific guidance in their field to host-nation personnel, but it's difficult to pull this off (often for personnel reasons) in non-permissive environments. So we end up using military to perform these tasks, which is really not what you'd hope for.

    This is why all the talk of a "civilian surge" is so important, and why the extremely low probability of such a thing taking place is so depressing. The military has tried to cope, and there are ways to do this better: particularly through the identification of "real-world" civilian expertise among reservists and National Guard types, which can then be applied to the civil aspects of the COIN fight. One challenge you face here is that a lot of folks sign up for the reserves to be combat soldiers -- not to reprise their civilian gigs in policing or forestry or plant genetics or whatever else -- and are reluctant to volunteer information about their civilian skills. So again, it's a work in progress.

    (I think I sort of went off on a somewhat unrelated tangent there, but whatever.)

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