A Certain Kind of Bravery

Published by Katy Kelleher
In her research and in her teaching, Associate Professor of Government Barbara Elias focuses on a complex, thoughtful answer to any question rather than finding the “right” one.

POWER HUNGRY. Rise to power. Power structure. Balance of power. These are expressions that are widely used, but according to Barbara Elias, power is a poorly understood concept in the world of politics. “Believe it or not, even though power is central to politics, we don’t have a straightforward definition for what power is,” she says. Especially in the US, she argues, where we tend to use “power” as a shorthand for both resources and influence. “But resources don’t always lead to influence. That’s what brings me to the field of insurgencies and counterinsurgencies: thinking through the fundamental ideas of power and politics, and where influence comes from on and off the battlefield.”

Elias has built her career asking, and attempting to answer, some of the hardest and most pertinent questions of our time. She came to her field of study—Elias is an expert in counterinsurgency warfare—after witnessing the September 11 attacks while she was still a college student at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. “I was a US history major, not a political science major,” she clarifies. She had hoped to work for the intelligence community or the US State Department, and she thought it would be beneficial to understand the mistakes made in twentieth-century conflicts. When she began her honors thesis, she was focused on researching the US war in Vietnam. To her, this was “so obviously a case where US strategy was terribly wrong.” Although there were brilliant minds in charge of dictating policy and directing troops in Vietnam, America still failed, thanks to a series of decisions that Elias calls “ineffective and irresponsible.” She says, “I wanted to understand, from start to finish, how this would happen. Then, Osama [Bin Laden] attacked the United States and my thesis became lessons from Vietnam for the war that was coming.”

Associate Professor of Government Barbara Elias, photo by Fred Field
Associate Professor of Government Barbara Elias, photos by Fred Field

At the time, her classmates thought it was crazy what Elias was doing. “A lot of people in 2001 thought, ‘Why are you forcing Afghanistan into the lens of Vietnam?’ But it was unfortunately prescient,” she says now. This feels like an understatement given current events, but it’s also typical of Elias. She’s a careful speaker and writer, someone who wades into deep water slowly but sure-footedly. She knows that even revealing her field of study can lead to emotional responses in conversation. After all, many people in America and abroad have had their lives altered by war and its ripple effects. “I tell my students on their first day of class that it will be contentious,” she says. “It should be contentious if we are building the kind of community that we want here at Bowdoin, where there is open space for debate, where there isn’t a fear of saying the wrong thing, where intellectual curiosity and nerve are valued.” She would rather that students become emotionally invested, would rather they speak up and venture opinions that differ from the crowd, would rather they challenge one another and her too than see the opposite. A classroom full of nodding heads wouldn’t serve anyone in the long run. Not considering every angle of an issue, even the improbable and unpopular stances—that’s just another way mistakes have been made in the past.

While Elias chose not to pursue a career in politics herself, she’s spent years studying how people at various levels of government come to execute a course of action. She has been teaching at Bowdoin since 2013, and received tenure this year, though a job in academia wasn’t always her dream. After graduating from college in 2002, she went to work at the National Security Archive at George Washington University, where she received “an invaluable education” in how to get declassified documents, the strengths and weaknesses of national security records, and how best to utilize both for research. She met with congressional figures like Republican senator from Texas John Cornyn and former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. In 2006, Elias took over as the director of the Afghanistan/Pakistan/Taliban Documentation Project at the National Security Archive in Washington, DC. Ultimately, she left to attend graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania because, she explains, “I was becoming a regular source of information for several journalists writing about Afghanistan but did not feel I knew enough to be in that position. I needed a deeper knowledge set, so I decided to get a PhD in politics.” It was at UPenn that Elias discovered her aptitude for teaching and her love of university life. She also realized that she didn’t need to be a policy maker to effect change. Research had a role to play, too.

While human stories have shaped how she understands warfare and how American actions affect conflict abroad, Elias prefers to glean these stories not from people directly, but through official reports, summaries, budgets, and memos. For the past two decades, Elias has been attempting to understand the complexities of the Taliban insurgency and the US government’s failure to contain it. She uses US government documents that have either been declassified or leaked (including the now-famous Donald Rumsfeld “snowflake” memos) to study the decisions that ultimately led to the Taliban’s taking of Kabul and declaration of victory in August 2021. 

“Who am I, or who is anybody, to comment on these really complicated things that are life and death when they make their way into policy? But in my own tiny way, if I could nudge things one way or the other, what a tremendous opportunity that would be.”

While her work has put her across the table from war veterans and US, Afghan, Iraqi, Syrian, Pakistani, Indian, and Iranian policy makers, and while she describes current events as “heart-breaking,” she does try to stay impartial—even apolitical. She wants understanding first; influence can come later. “When you’re working with people in politics, they try to pull you to see their side. I listen intently and am grateful to have the chance to hear them out—they always know things I don’t,” Elias says, “while also relishing the space offered to me as an academic to question their claims from multiple angles and to equally consider competing perspectives.

“I also deeply appreciate working with professionals in foreign policy who serve all administrations, who serve the American public no matter who is in the White House,” Elias continues.

“The best information I’ve found is often in intelligence and diplomatic documents that were created by those professionals.” This, she says, has always helped her “to stay a bit above the fray” of current Washington power struggles. “Relying on primary source documents helps me reach for a more objective perspective. They are not only date-stamped, but time-stamped,” she says. Documents are similar to statistics—they are most useful when examined in bulk. Unlike human memory, which is colored by feelings about the outcome of an event, a document provides a snapshot of the moment. It can tell you who was there at a meeting, what was recorded in the moment, and even who was silent at the table.

Those years spent in the archives helped Elias to craft her award-winning book, Why Allies Rebel: Defiant Local Partners in Counterinsurgency Wars. Using thousands of documents as her source material, Why Allies Rebel analyzes post–World War II conflicts in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, Sri Lanka, Yemen, Lebanon, Cambodia, and Angola—examining how large-scale counterinsurgency interventions can answer high-stakes, complex questions about history and human behavior. When it seems like it would be in their best interest to cooperate, why do some small allies defect? Why do alliances fail? What can be done to better anticipate these problems before they arise? “Given the current accumulation of unresolved subnational wars, this volume deserves careful consideration by policy makers and scholars,” wrote Eli Berman, professor of economics at the University of California–San Diego in his review of Why Allies Rebel. It’s Elias’s hope that her writing on history might aid policy makers in arriving at more considered choices in the future. After all, there was a window of time in the US war where there could have been a more positive outcome for both American interests and Afghan civilians. The Taliban was unpopular and oppressive; the US could have taken different approaches and potentially secured different outcomes. “I feel humbled to have a position and time that lets me think through really important issues in world politics. That is a privilege,” Elias says. “Who am I, or who is anybody, to comment on these really complicated things that are life and death when they make their way into policy? But in my own tiny way, if I could nudge things one way or the other, what a tremendous opportunity that would be.”

Elias walks on the Bowdoin quad with a student.
Ailish O’Brien ’22 (left) says that studying with Professor Elias has given her a new personal confidence and a greater ability to “form nuanced opinions.”

Elias brings this same combination of humility and ambition to her work in the classroom, where she asks her students to take part in discussions and simulations that challenge their preconceived notions about American history as well as their own personal sense of ethics. One of the more basic tools in her arsenal is the “prisoner’s dilemma,” which she’s been using since her days at the University of Pennsylvania. A well-known example in the field of game theory, this situation involves two prisoners, both of whom have been imprisoned for their role in a crime. Prosecutors have given them both the same incentive to betray each other. If they work with the prosecution (i.e., “defect”) they will go free while the other prisoner is condemned to three years in jail. If both prisoners defect, they will each receive two years. But if both prisoners refuse (i.e., they “cooperate” with each other by remaining silent), they will have to serve just one year. Under this scenario, it would make rational sense for players to pick betrayal over loyalty. “I use this as a way of demonstrating why cooperation can be hard to achieve,” she says. Yet, at Bowdoin, Elias admits she sometimes has difficulty getting anyone to snitch. “At UPenn, I had no problem, but I think Bowdoin students tend to be really community-minded,” she says.

“For someone who studies coercion, this is an amazingly encouraging testament to Bowdoin, the world, and the future.”

Of course, as the semester wears on, the simulations get more complicated, and the discussions become more fraught. Pretending to be mob members singing to the cops can feel like acting in an old Hollywood film, but taking on the role of the Taliban is a heavier task. In the early months of 2020, John Seider ’22 remembers going into his counterinsurgency class and being assigned to a group that had to represent the best interests of the Taliban. Another group was assigned to think about how the United States could best achieve their goals, and a third group was tasked to represent Afghan civilians caught in between the two. Through the course of the exercise, Seider’s group began to realize that, although the Taliban group had fewer resources, they also had “almost no rules” about how they had to behave. “Whereas the US group had to juggle domestic political popularity and international combat norms,” he explains, the Taliban could “leverage” their non-state status to gain the upper hand. He spent hours with his group, thinking about how to gain strategic and tactical advantages. “It is with these creative, engaging activities that Professor Elias makes the class challenge its initial assumptions and think critically about these complex scenarios,” he says.

In the months since, Seider has had the opportunity to reflect on the course and his brief stint role-playing as the Taliban. “One of the big lessons I learned from Professor Elias was that the turnover in US political regimes, because of the time frame on our election cycles, complicates lengthy counterinsurgency missions,” he says. “Following the withdrawal from Afghanistan is a good example of how complex these missions can be when they span multiple administrations with different understandings of the conflict.” Like his professor, Seider focuses not on condemning one administration or praising the other, but recognizing how long-term wars can be lost, inch by inch, by the wealthier, more “powerful” nation.

This fall, Elias is teaching a first-year seminar called Weapons of the Weak, a class that changed senior Ailish O’Brien’s course of study when she took it. “I was somewhat interested in the topic but had no intention of being a government and legal studies major. I came into Bowdoin wanting to do premed,” she says. “But the seminar was fascinating, and I loved going to the class.” Not only did Elias’s engaging teaching style help O’Brien overcome her “impostor syndrome,” it also inspired her to switch fields of study. This fall, she (and Seider) are taking Islam and Politics with Elias. Over the course of her studies, O’Brien has gained personal confidence in her writing, intellect, and arguments, as well as a greater ability to “form nuanced opinions.” She came to Bowdoin worried about being incorrect, but through her classwork, she discovered that being wrong wasn’t the worst thing you could be. “The way Professor Elias created a space where I felt okay speaking up—and being corrected when I was wrong or misinformed—was incredibly helpful to my growth as a student and a speaker,” she says. “I knew it was okay to make a mistake in her class and that I would receive better information.” Now, she’s focused on having complex, thoughtful answers to questions rather than finding the “right” one. “I think it’s a better way to solve problems,” she says.

This might be the only thing Elias actively wants to hear from her students. She says you should “always be suspicious” of a simple answer in international politics: “You don’t have to know a whole lot about the specific topic, but you should know that anything very simplified is almost certainly misleading.” She works hard to create a space where students can share their thoughts on a subject without fear of “cancellation” or academic reprisal, where students of all backgrounds are welcome—because, when you’re dealing with life-or-death scenarios, people need to hear every voice. Even the unpopular ones. Perhaps especially the unpopular ones.

“I often voice a variety of argumentative opinions in the classroom in order to push students to do the same, assuring them that I often say things in our work that I do not personally believe, but I am poking them to think critically for themselves, not trying to get them to think what I think,” she says. “What’s important is asking these questions together.” Every now and again she’s become frustrated with students—not because of what they’re saying, but because of what they’re not saying. “Once, in my counterinsurgency class, I slapped the table and said, ‘The men and women on the ground don’t have the option not to come up with an answer. You can’t hide in the ivory tower. People are dying in these wars; we owe it to them to do the work understanding why.’” She doesn’t want students to opt out of caring, even after they’ve left the classroom, because that’s how forever wars are forgotten and pushed to the back of a nation’s consciousness. “All Americans have to take the application of violence in US foreign policy seriously,” she says.

“... I am poking them to think critically for themselves, not trying to get them to think what I think. What’s important is asking these questions together.”

This fall, things will be a bit different in Weapons of the Weak. Elias plans to focus on her specialty: the US war in Afghanistan. “Instead of holding it in the back of my head while teaching about Syria and Iraq, I’m going to be able to teach about Afghanistan as a successful insurgency, unfortunately,” she says. She’s looking forward to this shift, because it will allow her to engage with a group of young people on a subject that feels both long-ago and incredibly recent. For much of their childhood, Elias points out, the war was in the back of the American consciousness. “I think they come in highly skeptical of elder statesmen and their choices, perhaps a similar place that I was in when I started studying Vietnam,” she says. She hopes her classroom will be a space where they can process some of these “really difficult, heartbreaking moments in international politics, where they can think through some of the kinds of questions that should have been asked before, that should always be asked.”

Although she knows there’s a “narrative about the fragility of this generation,” she has yet to witness it. Instead, she sees a group of young people who are ready to make their own decisions, adhere to their own system of values. Her role is to further complicate matters. To ask them to think like their parents’ generation, their parents’ parents’ generation, like insurgents, like soldiers, like civilians and college students in other countries, like politicians, like terrorists.

In this way, the classroom is a safe space, one where students can try out new ideas, embody different perspectives, and work to challenge their own beliefs. “I think of people like George Ball, Undersecretary of State in Vietnam who issued warning after warning for US policy in Vietnam against prevailing opinions of escalation, and Representative Barbara Lee from California, a Democrat who was the one vote against the Authorization for the Use of Military Force that set off the sweeping war on terrorism in response to 9/11,” she says. “In explaining her single dissenting ‘no’ vote, Representative Lee quoted a sermon, ‘As we act, let us not be the evil that we deplore.’ She saw both sides, even in her grief as an American days after 9/11, fearing terrorism, but also fearing the impending US wars, and she voiced something very unpopular and very smart.”

It’s a certain kind of bravery, one that can be practiced and sharpened. She wants her students to learn how to go against consensus, because those are the voices that can change the course of history.

“I always tell students about the one person in the room, the individual who asked the cutting-edge question. What does it take to do that?”

Katy Kelleher is a freelance writer and editor living in Buxton, Maine. She’s currently working on a book, The Ugly History of Beautiful Things, due out in 2023 from Simon and Schuster.

Bowdoin Magazine, Spring/Summer 2021


This story first appeared in the Fall 2021 issue of Bowdoin Magazine. Manage your subscription and see other stories from the magazine on the Bowdoin Magazine website.