The men and women in the Corps [of Cadets] live and study under a classical military system … About a third of the graduating classes accept military commissions.
—from The Citadel website

Since 1842, The Citadel has been training men (and now women) for business, science, politics, and other fields, but most famously, for war. It is, after all, the Military College of South Carolina, and takes its Sword Drills, Summerall Guards, and Long Gray Line Parades quite seriously. Its cadets and graduates have fought in every American war since 1861.

That’s why I found it curious that Dr. Will Johnson of The Citadel’s Department of Psychology would be teaching an honors-level course called “The Psychology of War and Peace” — with the operative word being peace.

“I had the idea a couple of years ago,” Johnson says. “I wanted to explore what the field of psychology can offer in terms of topics beyond straight military training. Peacemaking is touched on in political science, but there is no study of the subject based on human nature … I wanted to look into that nature and ask if we are just aggressive machines and built to fight.”

Johnson thinks he is alone among teachers at the nation’s military schools in studying the psychology of war and peace. He has found nothing like it in the curricula of the Army, Navy, or Air Force academies.

Yet he is in good company within the field of academic psychology. Since 1990, the Society for the Study of Peace, Conflict, and Violence has been a division of the American Psychological Association and, according to its website, is “a home for psychologists who work to promote peace within nations, communities, and families.”

The study of peace and conflict is relatively new and its application within a military environment is groundbreaking. Yet, the need is clearly there. History and current U.S. military policy are strewn with examples of how military force and diplomacy were used wisely and wastefully.

“The purpose of our military is to promote our national interest,” Johnson says. “But what is the national interest?”

After World War II, our interest lay not in further crushing Germany and Japan, but in rebuilding them economically and installing democratic governments. The result has been one of the most remarkable transformations in history, assuring more than 60 years of relative peace and stability. Likewise, Western Europe was secured against Soviet Communism by the aid and goodwill of the Marshall Plan and the Berlin Airlift, as much as the presence of the Third Army and the Strategic Air Command.

Those lessons seem to have been lost 20 years later, as America blundered into Vietnam, fighting an enemy we never understood. The mistake cost us 58,000 lives and untold wealth and prestige.

There is the expression that when the only tool in your box is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. If America’s military leaders had more tools in their collective box, perhaps they would have more ways of promoting American interests in an increasingly complex world. Many observers feel that too many times in recent decades U.S. leaders have reached for the hammer in making critical strategic decisions when a more subtle tool might have served better.

Right now the CIA and the Army are engaged in a program to peel off layers of Taliban resistance in Afghanistan through economic and political initiatives. Of course, such an approach requires seeing the Islamic militia not as a monolithic enemy, but as a collection of groups and individuals who come to the cause out of different motives and with different levels of commitment.

This is not the kind of thinking that some political and military blowhards like to engage in, but sometimes asking questions first can prevent shooting later. Understanding why people fight and why they cooperate could be a valuable part of military training, Johnson says.

“We are beginning to understand that sometimes success is not so much survival of the fittest,” he says, “but survival of the fittest within a helping and cooperative scenario.”

Considered in that light, the problem of promoting national interest may be one of identifying and framing the right scenario, rather than identifying and bombing targets. Johnson understands that not all challenges can have a peaceful resolution, but none will have a peaceful resolution unless it is sought. It may take a special sensitivity and training to see that possibility.

There are three students in Johnson’s trial class, and he is pleased with the results as the semester winds down. There are no immediate plans to teach the class again, but he hopes to have another chance to teach it in the future. It would be a good investment for The Citadel and for the U.S. military.

See Will Moredock’s blog at charlestoncitypaper.com/blogs/thegoodfight.