The JFSC Islam course and the role of “experts” in military education: Comment by John Schindler

The Joint Forces Staff College

Over the past year, there’s been a flap over a course that was taught at the Joint Forces Staff College in Norfolk, VA, in which an Army lieutenant colonel (with no background in Islamic studies) urged “total war” against Islam. The story was broken by Wired’s “Danger Room,” which showed slides from the course advocating the ditching of the Geneva Conventions and going after civilian populations in the Middle East using Hiroshima or Dresden as the models for such attacks. It was, of course, soon picked up in the international press.

The Joint Staff has since concluded its investigation into the “elective” course at the JFSC, and clearly, it was not happy with what it found. But how did this happen? How could people without any expertise be teaching such subjects for the military?

I found all this especially puzzling, because I come from a scholarly tribe — professional Soviet experts — who were well-funded and deeply involved in government policy for over 40 years. Their work may not always have been the best, but there was at least real education and expertise being brought to bear on the problem.

John Schindler

Since I am not an expert on that region, or on counter-terrorism operations, I asked my friend and colleague, John Schindler, an historian, author, and former National Security Agency officer who is well-known to readers of the War Room, to comment on the JFSC scandal and the issue of counter-terrorism studies in PME.

His answer is below (and as always, John, like the rest of us, speaks only for himself and does not represent the views of the War College or the U.S. government).

THE JFSC ISLAM COURSE: WHAT HAPPENED? WHY?

 John R. Schindler

After looking at the problem — which was raised by military officers who had taken the course — at the Joint Forces Staff College (JFSC) in Norfolk, VA,  the Joint Chiefs of Staff has concluded that there is a larger issue with poor education about Islam inside U.S. Professional Military Education (PME). This, according to the report, is attributable to “institutional failures in oversight and judgment.”

This ruling , which applies to all PME but focuses particularly JFSC,  on seems fair – and will lead to reforms, one hopes – yet it still doesn’t zero in on the bigger question: How did PME faculty without bona fide scholarly backgrounds in complex issues like Islamic politics and theology manage to pass themselves off as experts in such matters?

As I’ve written elsewhere, it’s critical that the Defense Department, given the Pentagon’s occasional proclivity to overreaction, not simply ban discussion of Islamism as a political challenge; that really would be a cure worse than the original malady. But in order to get this important matter right, we must first understand what went so wrong in recent years.

The answer, to which the JCS study only alludes, cannot be considered surprising to anyone familiar with our war and staff colleges. At JFSC — which is frankly an institution on the lowers rungs of PME — an Army lieutenant colonel took it upon himself to teach an elective on Islam. This devolved into discussions of how to solve the “problem” of Islam via nuclear weapons against cities.

A slide from the JSFC course in question. Subtle, it’s not.

This is more than just one officer undertaking an elective he knew little about. It reflects, in microcosm, a problem at all our PME institutions, which is that the teaching of electives is in the hands of individuals who sometimes have more passion for a topic than knowledge. The really disturbing question is whether there was anyone at at JFSC competent to judge if this Army officer was capable of teaching a graduate-level course on Islam.

To be fair to PME (and to answer Tom’s question), oft-cited analogies with Soviet Studies in the 1950s fail us here because of the way that Islam and the Middle East are generally taught in American higher education.

[Note from Tom: readers can find an excellent history of the government’s early funding of Soviet studies here.]

It’s not a figment of the right-wing imagination that the Middle East Studies Association, the lead professional organization on the region, is deeply mired in the scholarly babble of postmodern discourses; more to the point, many of its members really are reflexively and ideologically hostile to DoD and U.S. policies and the Middle East.

Thus, for the military, finding partners in academia has been difficult since 9/11, unlike how academia greeted Pentagon outreach and dollars to look into the Soviets in past generations. While some scholars (including me) have striven in recent years to build a rival academic organization which is less enthralled with left-wing approaches to Islam and Islamism, these efforts are still in the building phase.

Due to this this lack of sufficient academic partners not just in Middle Eastern studies, but in many areas of security and military affairs, DoD has too often relied on homegrown “experts” without either a scholarly background or serious training or experience.

It probably sounded like a better idea in class.

This is not just an arrow pointed at the JFSC: this unfortunate tendency exists across PME, especially relating to au courant subjects. Some years ago, for example, my own institution, the Naval War College, created a center to study the then-trendy matter of “irregular warfare”, despite a local lack of genuine experts in its subject matter. (To its credit, that center has since brought experts to Newport under its aegis to discuss such matters — although that is something the Naval War College does anyway.)

The bigger problem, of course, is that too many self-proclaimed “experts” across PME mean only that they are “experts” in the building where they work, and not actually recognized authorities on the subject in the outside world of scholarship, where their work would have be recognized and vetted by their peers.

In any case, the JFSC fumble was only one such instance. Since 9/11, DoD and PME have repeatedly embraced individuals who have made up in emotion about Islam what they lacked in deep knowledge.

Here, the case of an Islam “expert” named Stephen Coughlin is instructive. Coughlin is an Army Reserve officer and attorney without any academic background in Islam or the Middle East. He had carved out a niche for himself in Washington, DC, as a radical “truth-teller” on Islam, earning praise from an Army staffer at the Air Command and Staff College who described Coughlin as, “to my knowledge, the only Islamic Law scholar on the Joint Staff.” (The obvious question, of course, when someone says “to my knowledge” is just how broad that knowledge is to begin with.)

Coughlin’s claim to expertise was his 2007 master’s thesis at the National Defense Intelligence College (since renamed the National Intelligence University) about how Americans allegedly “Ignore What Extremists Say About Jihad.”  The National Defense Intelligence College is an in-house program in the Intelligence Community which is one of the lowest rungs of PME (full disclosure: I used to adjunct there, I should know) and is now undergoing scrutiny of its own standards.

Coughlin’s massive, 300-page-plus work, which can kindly be called turgid, is Coughlin’s personal interpretation of Islam based on his reading of basic religious texts. But here’s the kicker: Coughlin knows no Arabic – and the Koran cannot truly be analyzed in any other language, no more than would-be experts can plumb — or should trash-talk — Judaism or Christianity without working knowledge of Biblical Hebrew or koine Greek. But this did not deter him from standing by his findings, nor did it bother his many defenders inside and outside DoD.

Coughlin presented his views at many PME institutions — including, regrettably, my own. In 2008, he was released from his Pentagon position as an advisor on Islam when some of his more controversial assertions came to light. His dismissal from the Joint Staff was greeted with howls of indignation from the professional anti-jihadist cohort, especially in the blogosphere, but Coughlin has since continued to present his unique take on Islam to various audiences, including those from the U.S. Government, and he continues to sell himself as “The leading expert in the United States on Islamic Doctrine” (whatever that means).

The Coughlin case is only unique in the amount of eventual attention it garnered in the media. The fact of the matter is that PME and DoD have long overindulged – and overpaid – self-styled “experts” who lack any real scholarly background in what they are talking about, however controversial or esoteric the subject. Fixing this knotty problem is important, and thankfully, solving it now has the imprimatur of the JCS. But it will take time and effort, as it cuts to the heart of academic quality control issues which are burrowed deeply in the entire PME community.

Thanks, John.

The collapse of cooperation between scholars and soldiers is worrisome, not just because the military, in the absence of expertise, will wing it in PME, but because it’s just too easy for dodgy or irrelevant scholarship from the civilian world to fill the void.

Plenty of experts from these fine civilian schools, too.

I can think of several similar experts who have unfortunately caught the attention of the military over the years. The defense community’s fascination a few years back with Robert Pape’s book on terrorism comes to mind, for example, even though Pape likewise has no background in the languages or cultures of the region, and bases his argument on a flawed quantitative model that no doubt appealed to metric-hungry military audiences.

I myself recently had something of a dustup on the H-DIPLO network with a young scholar named Jennifer Lind from my own former stomping ground up at Dartmouth, who (along with RAND analyst Bruce Bennett) produced a study of the requirements for occupying North Korea that was so formal and arid it could not — I argued — be of much practical use.

Prof. Lind objected that the paper had been widely briefed to the military. I could only say that I was not surprised, but I reminded her that briefing something to a lot of people does not then validate the research: it just means a lot of people heard it (for better or worse).

Any other nominees out there? Comments and questions for Dr. Schindler, as ever, are welcome.

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16 comments

  1. The discussion brings to mind my brief experience with the African Studies Association in the 1980s. I was working on a dissertation on Soviet policy in Angola and thought it would be worthwhile to join. But I soon found too many instances in which members expressed attitudes showing reflexive opposition to the policies of the American government and automatic suspicion of anyone in any way associated with said government. That was not true of all scholars of Africa, of course. But it points out the difficulties that the United States government faced, then and now, in getting the expertise it needs.
    Then there is the academic bias against regional studies. But that’s a different tirade.

    • Jim – I always thought the Slavic Association avoided much of that nonsense in MESA and LASA, except that it avoided it by ignoring politics almost completely. APSA, on the other hand, is still a complete mess, and my birthday present to myself last year was to quit. The bias against regional studies is, I think, one of the reasons we’re in this pickle now: we don’t really have regional experts anymore, partly because you can’t become a Middle East expert by “placing out” in Spanish in college. The collapse of language requirements — part of the client-servicing mentality of liberal arts schools — is an unspoken intellectual disaster in this country.

  2. This discussion does remind me so much of Prof Martin Cook’s comments in the AF Times article, “Air Force struggles to find balance on religion” by Markeshia Ricks, posted Sunday, 11 Mar 2012:

    “He [Prof Cook] said there also is too much reliance on chaplains to explain the boundaries when they really are a matter of law. ‘I’ve always said one of the mistakes we make is that we assume that chaplains are subject matter [experts] about this issue [i.e., legal dimensions of religious expression] and they’re not,’ he said. ‘I’ve never heard a JAG give what I thought was a wrong opinion about this, but I have heard a lot of chaplains go off the reservation.’”

    The article goes on to state that “it’s important for service members to talk to military lawyers rather than chaplains when it comes to maintaining boundaries between church and state.”

    It is like, too, the original JP1-05, employing chaplains as “advisers” to Joint Commanders in ways that risk making chaplains military operation planners.

    Is the problem with those setting themselves as SMEs when, in reality, they are not? Is the problem with individuals looking to the wrong “experts”?

    Whatever the problem, it seems as though this onion is being peeled to ever-deepening layers. Perhaps a DoD-wide stand-down on the employment of SMEs is in order.

    • Generally, military chaplains are not good SMEs on topics like Islam, particularly its political aspects, since they usually do not have specialized knowledge of religions other than their own. They all have biases; moreover, trying to explain Islam and Islamism is not their job. While chaplains should at least be able to explain that discussing things like religion ought to be handled with tact and precision, that is not always the case, in my experience.

      My point was that PME, and DoD generally, have quite a few “SMEs” who really are not experts, at least not by the scholarly standards we should expect.

      It also bears noting that certain groups have relied on suspect “SMEs” because they further political agendas.

    • The problem isn’t SMEs, it’s that in the DoD system, and PME especially, anybody can claim to be an expert in anything.

      There’s a great anecdote, for example, in Joan Johnson-Freese’s upcoming book on PME, where she talks about how she asked her faculty, when she was a new chair, to fill out a matrix and choose their areas of expertise. The matrix was a couple dozen options that covered pretty much any subject you could think of in international affairs and security studies, and she expected that people would check off two or three areas. Many people checked off a bunch of areas in which they clearly had no background, and one guy, a former military officer, checked off every single area. As John points out, people do it all the time, even establishing entire centers with no expertise whatsoever.

      Civilian academics pull this stunt too; I mentioned Bob Pape’s book (which has now been proven wrong, repeatedly, by actual events) as an example. But in the civilian academic world, peer review is a backstop, however imperfect, to egregious bullshittery. If you write a book on Russia, you’d better know your beans, because a bunch of guys who know what they’re talking about are going to read it before it sees the light of day. That’s how it works.

      PME and the DoD have no such system. Instead, some guy walks in, gives a snazzy powerpoint, dazzles a few officers (or, more importantly, dazzles just one general or admiral), and in turn those officers say: “Hey, you should see this presentation” — even if they have no clue whether it was any good or not.

      The next thing you know, the “expert” is confirmed as an “expert” because he’s raked in enough checks and presented the brief enough times. Pretty soon, the person who wrote the brief comes to believe in it because so many colonels have nodded thoughtfully while listening to it, even if it’s just gibberish. This is the phenomenon about which I was trying to warn Professor Lind, and would caution any young academic who’s been asked to brief anything.

      Until the DoD actually starts vetting “experts” with other experts according to real criteria — like “have you actually done any research in this field?” — we’re going to have all kinds of this foolishness going on.

  3. There is tension in what you say between regional experts and generalists, which Comparative Politics is supposed to resolve, although the latter sometimes insist on having an existential argument that the Regionalists accept as to “Is there generalizable knowledge in this field or not?”
    It would seem that since Ibn Khaldun has a theory as to power elite cohesion which is useful in understanding the loss thereof by America in Vietnam that generated among other things the military-scholarly divide you speak of that the answer and the fall of Mubarak as a loss of belief in Arab nationalism over time as with the Baath too, or the nature of the rule of the Sudayri Seven in Saudi Arabia that the answer is a qualified yes, for applications purposes. Pape is of course a nuclear weapons and air power guy, and your half bird half baked Col. went too far with too literal presentation of Islam that misses a lot of nuance and more importantly hypocrisy: “We’re supposed to believe that, but shh the people who really think that are bs. crazy.”

  4. You’re quite right that there are too many self-generated “experts” in the DOD system. But I’ll bet we’d all agree the solution isn’t just to do more checking on the background of these “experts.” There is a danger here of coming up with broad conclusions from the Coughlin case, and I certainly agree with what John and others have said.

    Ironically, Tom, the caveat could be phrased with the scholar you mention: Bob Pape. If one were to ask “Is this man actually a person of knowledge regarding suicide terrorism?” and look for his bio, academic credentials, etc. online, the casual answer would have to be: yes. His article in APSR (that in itself would probably pass muster in many circles) was the second most cited APSR article after Fearon and Laitin’s work on civil wars. (That statistic is from a few years ago, but I’ll wager it’s held where international security articles in the APSR are concerned.) He runs a suicide terrorism center-of-sorts at the University of Chicago. He’s tenured there. You know the accolades his book has received.

    But everything he says on suicide terrorism is transparently false, as you know. You’re kind to only cite Freedman’s gentle review of the book. I’ve been to APSA panels where the topic of discussion was Pape’s book (with Pape and Mia Bloom there), and it was clear that the entire purpose was to show how wrong he was. To be candid, the fact that his paper was published in the APSR, with the transparent selective use of quotations and jiggering of campaign outcomes, is an indictment of the journal itself.

    But regarding the topic at hand, he would seem like an outside expert. So isn’t the more important solution to arm military officers with better tools to detect bad political science, bad recommendations, and the like? This is also an aspect of education that those going through PME are likely to never have an opportunity to encounter again. Anyone going into acquisitions will get a serious run-up on acquisitions before they start their job; not so regarding critical analysis and you’re sent to the staff of the NSC.

    When I first read Pape’s APSR piece on suicide terrorism, I didn’t know much more about suicide terrorism than the average interested person would. But I could see the analytical biases in the piece right off the bat. Instead of focusing on the caliber of experts – which is an important issue – shouldn’t the focus be on improving the tools military officers have available to assess the analyses they encounter? That would be a tool that would be enduring use.

    • Andy – I do see the irony here: that compared to Coughlin, Pape would seem to pass muster. As I said, this kind of tomfoolery happens in universities too. But I guess we have to start somewhere, and I would take it as encouraging that there are at least other scholars who are doing their job and exposing Pape’s stuff for what it is.

      At the least, if you were going to invite someone to talk about suicide bombers, even a cursory look into Pape’s background would tell you several things: (1) he was not trained in that area, (2) he has critics who are serious people in their own right, and (3) there has been plenty written about why his stuff isn’t any good.

      I grant you that the imprimatur of the U. of Chicago also matters. But at least this is all evidence and background available if you look for it: in other words, if you invite Pape to come talk, you can’t say you weren’t warned.

      With the DoD SME insta-experts, however, they’re like the David Souters of the defense world: no paper trail, no peer review, no serious publications or alternative views, no clarity about their background or abilities, nothing but some sparkly powerpoints and word of mouth.

      There’s always a risk that a casual reading of the CV of someone like Pape will mislead; but at least there’s something actually to read.

  5. I re-read the Pape piece, and think it’s interesting, although it probably goes too far as to implying the rationality of those who do that on the sharp end, as opposed to the manipulators of that. If you carry rational choice theory far enough, anything can be rationalized after the fact, if you grant premises as to accepting a world view, say 72 virgins, or just a notion of Dar al Islam versus Dar al Gharb. It is true that suicide missions are not unique to the Muslim world, which he correctly points out in the case of the Tigers, although, a lot of people think the Tigers are equivalent of Jim Jones too. I also think it implies a case of Israeli casualty aversion that wouldn’t apply in other circumstances. One could also argue that he may have misstated the Israeli reaction function to that, as that would need much more micro-level details to know, although I think the conclusion that follows of a Berlin Wall arrangement made sense, if not necessarily the point about occupying countries being a bad idea. That depends on a lot of variables, although suicide bombing per his point is a potentially effective tactic for the reasons identified, although in the Christian tradition, to do such a thing in a cold blooded offensive fashion would be intrinsically evil, as opposed to someone falling on a grenade spontaneously to save fellow soldiers, or accepting a mission with a low probability of survival to be close to suicide.

  6. Pingback: Countering the Jihad: Agendas and Interests « The XX Committee

    • Notice it says threatens a lawsuit. I’d like to see that lawsuit, because (as a non-lawyer, but a reasonable man possessed, I hope of common sense), I cannot imagine the grounds. You’d think that Dooley would hardly want more attention drawn to that JFSC course, but some officers, like Mick Jagger once said of his fellow rock stars, don’t embarrass easy.

  7. Who said this, to whom, when, why and what have we ever done about it? Would you consider this statement to be contrary to our Constitution, our way of life, a danger to our National and Homeland Security? Would you think these are words of an enemy? Surely, our government has studied this but where is the reports? Here is a statement that needs to be explored: “The Ambassador answered us that it was founded on the Laws of their prophet, that it was written in their Koran, that all nations who should not have acknowledged their authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon them wherever they could be found, and to make slaves of all they could take as Prisoners, and that every musselman [muslim] who should be slain in battle was sure to go to Paradise.”
    This statement was a part of a March 28, 1786, letter from John Adams and Thomas Jefferson to John Jay, the United States Secretary of Foreign Affairs, Continental Congress, concerning their conversation with the Tripoli ambassador as to why his pirates/terrorists hijacked our merchant ships, stole the ships and cargo while holding the sailors for ransom. (Thomas Jefferson:
    Why are we failing to mention the obvious in the letter? Here are the main points:
    a. “it was founded on the Laws of their prophet”;
    b. “that it was written in their Koran”;
    c. “that all nations who should not have acknowledged their authority were sinners”;
    d. “that it was their right and duty to make war upon them wherever they could be found, and”;
    e. “to make slaves of all they could take as Prisoners, and”;
    f. “that every musselman [muslim] who should be slain in battle was sure to go to Paradise.”
    Has our government studied this and if they have, where are the published reports?

    See actual letter here: http://memory.loc.gov/master/mss/mtj/mtj1/005/0400/0430.jpg

    This is the typed version: http://freepages.misc.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~argyll/From%20JOHN%20ADAMS%20And%20THOMAS%20JEFFERSON.pdf

    Please take the time to read an article by Gerard W. Gawalt, a manuscript specialist for early American history in the Manuscript Division, Library of Congress titled, “America and the Barbary Pirates : An International Battle Against an Unconventional Foe. It can be found at: http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/collections/jefferson_papers/mtjprece.html

    I suggest you go to YouTube and watch the briefings by Coughlin and others on Shariah/Islamic law. I ask you to review UN Resolution 16/18 to see if it violates the First amendment of our Constitution.