Image created by ML Cavanaugh.
By Major Matt Cavanaugh
There’s only one thing wrong with the New America Foundation’s Future of War Conference – not one participant has skin in the next game. There’s exactly one more NFL player (Donte Stallworth) in attendance than there are likely future combatants. The average audience member is closer to retirement than the next battlefield. This oversight matters because those with the most at stake in future war ought to have a voice in deliberations on the subject.
Now, this is the inaugural event and the sessions have been insightful thus far. And there is one neat wrinkle here: the host mentioned in the welcoming remarks that an effort had been made to include a more diverse audience than what is usual at a security conference – the result is that 14 of the 66 panelists are women. That’s encouraging to see. So I want to state clearly that I offer this short note in the spirit of genuinely constructive criticism. But I feel like I can’t turn away, as this is an issue I anticipated and raised a full 10 months ago: the uniformed military is massively underrepresented at the Future of War Conference.
If we categorize the official participants biographies according to five areas (See above image: academia, policy, journalist, military, and government), we can see that only 6 of the 66 participants listed are currently serving in the military. Breaking these six down to a more granular level: one navy admiral, two army generals, two colonels, and one midshipman from the US Naval Academy. Bottom line: even in the “military” category, none of these six is likely to see an enemy combatant in the next war.
The larger issue is that academia (and the legal profession) are overrepresented at the expense of the professional military. Should academia have over five times the participants as the military? Should one subset of academia – lawyers currently in teaching roles – have twice as many participants as the military?
This omission may have been unintentional; yet, even if done subconsciously, it still falls under the “war is too important to be left to the generals” category. It contributes to the misconception that thinking about war should be done by scholars while participating in war is to be done by soldiers, and never the twain shall meet. This conference ought to bridge the scholar/warrior gap instead of widening it. Practice informs thought just as much as theory shapes practice, and so both communities have much to learn from each other.
Recommendation for next year’s event: Include more actively serving military panelists, highlighting their recent war experiences and reflections. The conduct of war ought to be central to the conference, and military practitioners merit more than the paltry 9% they’ve been allotted. Also, if at all possible, find a venue where a greater mass of (future) junior officers and mid-career non-commissioned officers can attend. They are the the critical audience for this event and their minds are truly the decisive point and dominant terrain in the next war.