With the war in Afghanistan possibly winding down, at least when it comes to U.S. involvement, but the situation in Syria remaining in question, the timing of a recent conference at the University of South Florida on the nature of warfare was impeccable.
Retired U.S. Army Colonel Derek Harvey is Director of Research and Strategy for USF’s Citizenship Initiative, which organized the conference, “Modern Warfare’s Complexity and the Human Dimension.”
“The purpose of the conference is to bring academics, think tanks, military officials, non-governmental organizations and others together who deal with conflicted societies where conflict exists or might exist, and make sure that we are learning the right lessons from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq,” Harvey said.
By bringing so many experts together, Harvey said participants didn't just have a a chance to hear from each other, but were also exposed to a variety of ‘real life’ knowledge from those working on the front lines.
“They know what it’s like to really have to make something happen—what is doable," Harvey said. "Theory is one thing, doing it is something else; and when you bring everyone together, it will help us distill down to maybe what are the core issues we need to focus on and what are the things we can actually accomplish.”
One of those core issues is contained right in the conference’s title: “the human dimension.”
"The human dimension is taking into consideration the social, cultural, historical, ethnic, sectarian factors that drive people, as individuals or as groups—the way that they identify—and it is a mobilizing element within society in which people filter information and make decisions," Harvey said.
Even in the days of cyber-terrorism and drone warfare, keynote speaker, Major General John Nicholson Jr., said this human component of war is always going to exist.
“Anywhere we go that’s of importance to the U.S. is most likely going to include the human element there," said the Commanding General of the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division. "Whether it’s interfacing with the local population, with our U.S. partners that are going to be there, or our coalition partners that are going to be there, if we are not effective in the human dimension, then we are not going to be effective in achieving the outcomes we need as a nation.”
Nicholson, the former head of operations for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said there's something else today's fighting men and women need to have to be successful - humility.
"Humility’s essential to learning, so if we have intellectual humility, it means we enter a relationship with an understanding that this other person may know more about this subject that I’m inquiring about than I do," Nicholson said. "(It) doesn’t mean I will necessarily agree with everything, but the point is that I am engaging in an honest open dialog that increases my level of understanding of the environment I’m operating in."
“This is extremely important for us in the military because we are always operating in someone else’s environment," he added. "So, the humility dimension is what enables learning. Learning enables us to adapt faster than our opponents in that environment. So, in my view, this is all necessary.”
Nicholson also said that one of the biggest challenges for today's military leadership is balancing all the demands they face: dealing with current combat conditions, handling developing crises, and caring for our military and their loved ones.
"I have different units focused on these different problems. One unit that’s going to Afghanistan, they are very focused on the war. And the next unit that’s getting ready for a crisis response, and they're very focused on that," Nicholson said. "The resiliency of our families and our paratroopers is extremely important, because this is the investment in the force that we’ve got to make If we are going to have the quality and the human dimension, the intellectual curiosity, the intelligence, the stamina to do this, we need a high caliber person. We have to sustain them; we have to help them with that. So that’s a significant part of our effort as well."
With new hotspots emerging around the globe that could threaten U.S. interests, looking at the deeper issues of war is vital. Oubai Shahbandar pointed to Syria, where he’s serving as a senior adviser to the opposition forces that want to depose President Bashar al-Assad.
“It’s an issue of such complex dimension that it will impact American national security interests, and so as we discussed today issues on how small conflicts in the Middle East ultimately evolve into much wider conflicts, the role of the United States military in any policy decision weighs heavily in the discussions today here in this conference,” Shahbandar said.
Other issues covered during the two day conference included the future of Iraq and Afghanistan, lessons learned from those two wars, and how social change can take place in crisis-torn societies.
Gregg Jaffe, who moderated one of the panel discussions, is the military correspondent for the Washington Post.
“You know, the best thing about this conference is in Washington the debate seems to be fairly narrow; it’s a political debate, so it’s held within political poles," Jaffee said. "And the nice thing about a panel like this one is that you get a debate that’s sort of unconstrained by politics, that just kind of flows with ideas and it challenges the way I see the world and the way I think.”