Why the US Military Values a PhD in Political Science

US Military

By Lieutenant Colonel Nerea M. Cal

In the summer of 2021, reports of the chaotic and rushed withdrawal from Afghanistan dominated the news, with harrowing images of Afghans – desperate to escape what would surely be oppressive rule by a Taliban government – clinging to the landing gear of U.S. Air Force cargo aircraft as they departed Kabul Airport. I watched with a mix of horror, sadness, and disappointment as twenty years’ worth of American foreign policy and the blood, sweat, tears, and treasure of thousands of Americans and Afghans ended in debacle.  Ten years earlier, as a young Army captain and Blackhawk helicopter pilot, I flew through those very skies and landed at that airport dozens of times. This was not how any of us thought it would end, though perhaps we should have seen it coming.

My military service included combat tours in both Afghanistan and Iraq. These experiences motivate me to try to understand how wars end. Wars are only worth fighting if one wins, or at least improves the conditions present at its outset. Winning wars means knowing how to bring them to constructive ends.  Although distinctly different conflicts, unsatisfactory “ends” to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have catalyzed my thinking on related questions: How can external actors – whether countries, inter-governmental organizations, or non-state actors – plan for and successfully manage the transition from war to peace? How can they help achieve enduring stability without becoming mired in protracted conflicts? What types of interventions are most successful in negotiating and securing an enduring peace? And what contextual factors should be considered when crafting an intervention policy and the third party’s eventual withdrawal?

As the withdrawal from Afghanistan demonstrated, these questions are critical for military leaders, policymakers, and civilians (especially those in the conflict country). Over the past year, I have had the opportunity to pursue doctoral studies in political science at Yale University. Upon completing my studies, I will teach International Affairs at the United States Military Academy at West Point. It is my hope that my research will in some small way help prevent future foreign policy failures of this kind.

The rationale for pursuing a PhD is that it will enhance my effectiveness in future Army assignments.   Entrusted with educating, training, and inspiring future Army leaders, I will bear an immense responsibility and opportunity to help shape the minds of those who will be confronted with unimaginable foreign policy challenges in the coming decades. Our Army’s leadership takes this task so seriously that it sends faculty to the best institutions in the most rigorous graduate programs. Beyond teaching the cadets information, I will be expected to show them how to think – how to parse through the noise, extract the important questions, consider the relevant context, and critically analyze the complex world around them to make the best decisions possible. In a strategic environment of increasing uncertainty and complexity, these critical thinking skills will prove more useful than military equipment and training. It is, I would argue, what sets our military apart from the rest of the world: that we expect our leaders to be able to think for themselves and make difficult decisions in ambiguous situations within their commander’s intent.

A third benefit to my participation in a civilian doctoral program is that it contributes to the effort to bridge the civil-military gap that is present and widening in our society. While the military currently enjoys a place of respect in this country, those who join are limited to an increasingly small pool of citizens not necessarily well-represented in academia. While at Yale, I am in a sense serving as an ambassador of my service, helping educate and expose students and faculty, many of whom are not originally from the United States, about our military. Many of these individuals will go on to influential roles in and out of academia where this knowledge may prove important. Likewise, I am being enriched by my relationships with a diverse and talented group of people and will surely, both consciously and unconsciously, incorporate their perspectives into my way of thinking. Attending graduate school is therefore not just about acquiring skills or producing research; it also serves a valuable social function with possible political implications.

Ultimately, my reasons for pursuing a PhD very much mirror what motivated me to join the military: I hope to serve my country as part of something important that gives me an opportunity to challenge myself, grow as a person and scholar, and make a constructive contribution to my organization and community that could lead to better informed and more successful foreign policy decisions. Certainly, neither path is easy or straightforward, but I believe the reward will be well worth the effort.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not represent the official policy or position of the U.S. Army, Department of Defense, or U.S. Government.

About the Author

Nerea Cal served for sixteen years of military service as an Army Blackhawk helicopter pilot with overseas assignments in Iraq, Afghanistan, and South Korea. From 2016 – 2018, she served as an Assistant Professor in the Social Sciences Department at the United States Military Academy and Resident Fellow at the Modern War Institute, teaching courses on international relations theory and conflict negotiation and settlement. She has published work relating to post-conflict reconstruction in Kosovo and the application of international law in cyberspace. She is a doctoral student at Yale University studying international relations and comparative politics. Her research interests focus on the role of third parties in conflict termination and post-conflict reconstruction.

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