THE HUMAN FACTOR
Solving the political, cultural, and economic dimensions of global issues


Interview: Political theorist John Tirman on the unmeasured costs of war
 

"The academy rewards burrowing down rather than cultivating across fields of inquiry. Everyone knows this is a liability, and yet few have tried to remedy this narrowness. To counter this tendency, one might take MIT’s great strength — problem-solving — and purposefully tackle problems (as MIT has done with energy) that must involve many different disciplines."

— John Tirman, Executive Director, MIT Center for International Studies


 

The executive director of MIT's Center for International Studies (CIS), John Tirman is author, or coauthor and editor, of 14 books on international affairs, including Dream Chasers: Immigration and the American Backlash (MIT Press, 2015) and The Deaths of Others: The Fate of Civilians in America’s Wars (Oxford University Press, 2011). Earlier work includes The Fallacy of Star Wars (1984) and Spoils of War: The Human Cost of America's Arms Trade (1997). MIT SHASS Communications recently asked him to share how political science research can contribute to national debates on security, immigration, and the ethics of warfare. 
 

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Q: As an expert in security studies, your research has revealed many long-term and sometimes hidden costs of war — including impacts on human health, the health of the planet, innovation, and education. In your view, what are the best ways to approach both revealing and reducing these hidden costs of military conflicts?

Tirman: It is remarkable that we do not measure the costs of war in any meaningful way. The costs come in many shapes and sizes: mortality and disability, loss of livelihoods and homes, displacement, the destruction of clean water resources and sanitation facilities, the disruption of education for children, ecological devastation, and many others. All wars produce these results, yet no country, including the United States, has the will to understand and calculate these costs. One long-term effect of that indifference is that problems fester in the destruction and sometimes yield new forms of violence — as has happened with ISIS in Iraq. And, of course, there’s the sheer human misery caused by war, and the moral debt that incurs.

It’s worth noting that private actors — universities, NGOs, coalitions of governments, and the like — could take up the tasks of measuring the human costs of war. MIT CIS for example commissioned a household survey in Iraq in 2006 that measured mortality. Surveys, crowd-sourcing, and satellite imagery can all provide data that cn help fill the knowledge deficit.

The U.S. military attempts to minimize civilian hardship during war — it is obligated to do so by the Geneva Conventions — but war is an exercise of destructiveness, and contemporary war has few or no fronts where militaries alone clash.  So, we can’t expect the military to take care of this problem, although it does have an incentive to understand the extent of the destruction caused (to measure the effectiveness of military tactics, for example). 

I suggest that Congress establish a “conflict impact assessment” during or after each war to bring home the true costs of armed conflict. With an independent agency responsible for such an assessment, and congressional hearings to discuss the results, the public would learn the full extent of destruction. Other organizations, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, could do the same. Sunlight may be the best disinfectant.
 

 


"It is remarkable that we do not measure the costs of war in any meaningful way. I suggest that Congress establish a conflict impact assessment during or after each war to bring home the true costs of armed conflict...It’s worth noting that private actors — universities, NGOs, coalitions of governments, and the like — could take up the tasks of measuring the human costs of war."

— John Tirman, Executive Director, MIT Center for International Studies


 

Q: You have also written extensively on immigration. Is there a relationship between America's immigration policies and the nation's ability to innovate, prosper, and thrive? How related are current anti-immigration views to American economic distress in some pockets of the US economy, and how much do these views reflect anxieties and uncertainty about the accelerated pace of change?  


Tirman: No one can doubt the economic vitality infused into American society by immigrants. Between one-fifth and one-third of new business ventures are started by immigrants. At the same time, unauthorized immigrants contribute to the U.S. economy by taking jobs native-born Americans are reluctant to do. 

Economic anxiety is often cited as a key to anti-immigrant sentiment, but my study of the backlash against immigrants (legal or not) suggests that cultural factors are much stronger. The use of Spanish is one irritant, even though Hispanic immigrant families assimilate linguistically at the same rate as any other non-English-speaking immigrants (that is, by the third generation, English is used almost exclusively). Another cultural factor is “legality” — the fact that unauthorized immigrants are not present in the United States legally is a status that marks them as “the Other.” A form of racism is at work here, and illegality is a proxy for that sentiment. 
 


"Economic anxiety is often cited as a key to anti-immigrant sentiment, but my study of the backlash against immigrants (legal or not) suggests that cultural factors are much stronger...These cultural anxieties reflect an identity crisis for white men and women, particularly those who have not received an education."

— John Tirman, Executive Director, MIT Center for International Studies



These cultural anxieties reflect an identity crisis for white men and women, particularly those who have not received an education. The now-famous 2015 study by Anne Case and Angus Deaton showing rising morbidity among white people due to “self-poisoning” confirms the view that American whites are despairing about a lost ideal of perhaps 50 years ago or more in which white, heterosexual men were socially, politically, and economically dominant. Non-whites of low educational achievement are not experiencing increased morbidity, so the sociocultural factors seem clearly to be more relevant. 

At the same time, remarkably, the public as a whole is more and more accepting of unauthorized immigrants, supporting legalization, including citizenship, for those who have been working, paying taxes, and obeying the law. This approval has long been at 60-70 percent and is gradually rising. So the backlash seems to be confined to a relatively small group that has managed, with the prompting of some in the news media, to create a narrative of widespread outrage at those who illegally cross the border or overstay visas. 
 



Q: As President Reif has said, solving the great challenges of our time will require multidisciplinary problem-solving  bringing together expertise and ideas from science, technology, the humanities, and social sciences. Can you share why you believe it is critical for any effort to address the well-being of human populations to incorporate insights from political science and security studies? Also, what do you see as the main barrier to more multi-disciplinary collaboration  and how do you think we can overcome it?


Tirman: Problem-solving at its best involves many ways of seeing, sources of knowledge, and ideas about how to apply knowledge. Law, politics, social dynamics, history — these viewpoints and reservoirs of knowledge are necessary to address any public policy question. And, increasingly, the natural sciences and engineering are equally necessary to address issues such as climate change, health policies, and security.

When my colleagues and I undertook our study of mortality in Iraq, I was very impressed with the public health professionals we were working with because of their innate interdisciplinarity. Even so, I took the results of that work further to derive its meaning for security, strategy, and the social dimensions (of compassion); to do so required borrowing from history, sociology, and social psychology, among other fields.

In explaining U.S. foreign policy behavior, I find a cultural theorist like Richard Slotkin to be as important as anyone.  In explaining communal conflict today, Isaiah Berlin’s intellectual history of the rise of fascism is entirely relevant and most insightful.  I could cite several other examples of stepping out of one’s typical frames of reference to gain new knowledge and be able to reconsider the questions at hand.

The academy rewards burrowing down rather than cultivating across fields of inquiry. Everyone knows this is a liability, and yet few have tried to remedy this narrowness. To counter this tendency, one might take MIT’s great strength — problem-solving — and purposefully tackle problems (as the Institute has done with energy) that must involve many different disciplines. Along the way, it might prove useful to undertake an investigation of how such collaborations optimally work, and, importantly, to reward junior faculty who participate in such endeavors. 

 

Suggested links

John Tirman's website

MIT Center for International Studies

Election Insights 2016: Tirman on Immigration
Research-based perspectives from MIT

MIT News Archive: Culture clash - Tirman on immigration debates 

MIT News Archive: 3 Questions: John Tirman on the U.S.-Iran relationship

 


Interview prepared by MIT SHASS Communications
Editorial team: Kathryn O'Neill and Emily Hiestand (series editor)