Theory and practice-- do they represent different kinds of knowledge? Theory traditionally represents knowledge that is generalized from observation for the purpose of explaining other observations. Its principal purpose lies in the constant perfection of its own explanatory power. (Hans Weiler, Stanford, 2005) On the other hand, contends Weiler, practice is predicated on a more instrumental conception of knowledge that helps to accomplish things, and that proves its worth by how well it does help to accomplish whatever needs to be accomplished.
Practical knowledge is more particular and situational while theoretical knowledge is more general and abstract. Sometimes, theory is taught in the near ideal circumstances of an academic environment. As this academic theory is applied in practice and exposed to a complexity of external constraints, it may meet with less than satisfactory success. Thus, the experience of practice has stimulated, questioned, or enriched the progression of much theoretical knowledge.
The armed forces have always been presented with many important questions about the interaction of theory and practice. Today, the role of an American soldier has changed in theory as the country is presented with the task of combating terrorism in foreign lands. As soldiers struggle with relatively new roles, the practice of counterinsurgency has presented tough, new challenges.
America's war with the Taliban Sunni Islamists is a war of counterinsurgency. Here, photojournalist John D McHugh juxtaposes the theory of the US Counterinsurgency Field Manual with the way it is practiced by US soldiers fighting in Afghanistan:
After spending time with U.S. troops, McHugh contends,"[General] Petraus says America now expects its soldiers to be nation builders as well as warriors. But is too much being asked of them? This is, after all, still a war. I spent nearly two months with the men of Charlie Company. They are all fine soldiers doing their best. They made me laugh, they protected me in times of danger. But are they natural diplomats or nation builders?"
In The Civil War, Caesar wrote that "a good commander should be able to gain as much by policy as by the sword". But, according to McHugh, Roman commanders were first and foremost political leaders. Little distinction was made between civil and military spheres - as is customary now - and oratory, diplomacy and negotiating came naturally Caesar.
Western commanders, first and foremost, are soldiers. They may gain some of the skills of the politician in pretty hit and miss fashion. Add to this, the pressures of battle seem to be very different from the pressures of diplomacy. Yet, as foreign wars are fought with nation building in mind, commanders must address many non-combat issues.
Is there a place, in counterinsurgency, for much greater use of political officers - civilians with expertise in civil administration, policing, and intercultural negotiation - to advise and represent field commanders in political dealings? Or going further, should there be a role for a new type of civil organization that deals with nation building and frontier diplomacy, freeing the military to fight the enemy?
Perhaps the time has come to examine the current theory and practice of strategies to win conflicts with terrorists. In the ever-changing world, better communication gains prominence, even in the face of extreme danger. Whatever the ideal situation, the government must protect our service personnel while implementing successful operations. If that means civilian involvement, let it be so.
Take the time to watch McHugh's video and decide for yourself. Please comment on your reactions.