A unique component of any master’s degree program is the ability to pave your own path, tailored to your own interests and ambitions. Nonproliferation and Terrorism Studies student Chuck Woodson MANPTS ’18 took this to heart in pursuing an ambitious directed study project: the creation of Middlebury’s very own Special Operations Research Database, or SORD. Together with Dr. Orion Lewis of Middlebury College, Chuck created this project to better document the experiences of the special operations community in order to draw analysis and lessons for future counterterrorism policy.
So, what exactly is SORD? Woodson and Lewis say the project was inspired by challenges that arise out of the counterterrorism landscape today. In a post-9/11 world, the concept of asymmetric conflict (also known as fourth-generation warfare) has raised a lot of questions about the role of counterinsurgency and counterterrorism, the adaptability of military doctrine and the role of Special Operations Forces (SOF) in this unique environment. For example, one of these questions is the lack of integration of conventional and unconventional forces (like SOF) in counterterrorism strategy. Because SOF has increasingly become the primary tool to address these security challenges, this historical background provides a robust foundation for the project as a dynamic entity. This development over time was re-emphasized by Lewis, who described the database as “a source of independent, third-party data collection and analysis for looking at all of the policy challenges related to the growth of a hybrid conflict environment.”
As a deliverable, the database is meant to serve as a “publicly facing database for researchers working on issues of asymmetric conflict,” said Lewis about the future of the project. “These are folks in government agencies, public policy think tanks, academic institutions and nongovernmental organizations who have interest in access to data and making policy.” The database focuses on several SOF policy dimensions, including direct action, foreign internal defense, surveillance and reconnaissance, countering weapons of mass destruction, civilian affairs operations, military information support operations, and hostage rescue and recovery. Using these dimensions to frame policy and interview questions, the database utilizes research methods and skills including literature review, data collection, mixed methods analysis, and policy analysis. The methodology presented by Woodson and Lewis provides a valuable opportunity for students to gain hands-on experience in fieldwork research, project management, and policy analysis.
Having already approached key members of the SOF community, Lewis also explained that the project has already received a great amount of positive feedback from the SOF community. “I think if you asked the special operations community why they think this is important, they would say that there are a lot of misunderstandings and misconceptions about what they actually do. The common public perception is all about direct action and Zero Dark Thirty, and nothing about the institution-building, government affairs, and population-centric aspects of what they do.”
Combined with a research practicum course first offered in the Spring of 2018, SORD has become a key development in counterterrorism research on the Middlebury Institute campus because of its multi-faceted approach. The database was first presented to students as a project with four primary goals: 1) to provide a data-collection mechanism to evaluate key policy questions; 2) to facilitate research on key topics within the military, academia and broader policy community; 3) to use the project as a platform to develop student skills; and 4) to develop the project as a pillar of the Institute’s Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism (CTEC).
When asked about the origins of this project, Lewis said it was presented as the product of Woodson’s training and experiences in special operations, as well as his experience in filmmaking. Along with his own expertise in building datasets and facilitating research projects, Lewis framed the project as an opportunity for partnership in fieldwork and methodology training. “We thought about merging this as a long-term project for his directed study and as a vehicle for student learning and experience,” he explained. Noting that the project also created the foundation for the research practicum course, Lewis stressed the importance of student involvement and student-led interviews in the research process. In addition, he and Woodson both emphasized the necessity of preserving the stories and experiences of the SOF community.
“I think that SORD is important because there isn’t a clear understanding throughout the defense community about what unconventional warfare is or what things need to be in place in order to be successful in unconventional warfare. And I think that there are distinct differences in military doctrine that shapes unconventional warfare versus the kind of military doctrine that shapes conventional warfare. This is really a doctrinal debate, or division within the military and within the broader policy community,” says Lewis.
This semester, a newer development has been their blossoming partnership with CTEC Director Jason Blazakis. “We anticipate SORD will become one of the three pillars of CTEC,” Lewis confirmed. “Think of CTEC as the long-term institutional home for this project.” While acknowledging that the database is primarily an Institute product, Lewis also notes the institutional significance of the fact that he and Woodson head the project from two different campuses of the Middlebury community. He hopes the database will become a platform for student learning both with graduate students at the Institute and undergraduate students at Middlebury College. From his experience helping students create their research projects and also managing his own research projects abroad, Lewis said that this would be an excellent mechanism for student collaboration across campuses and could generate further opportunities for peer learning, research projects, and skill development.
“This project helps with intangible things we can’t simulate as well in a traditional classroom environment; things like working in groups, project management, working on a team, doing community outreach, etc. That’s the sort of thing I didn’t anticipate at all when we started the course. I intended for students mostly to think about research and we ended up doing a little bit more on communication that I anticipated; which was still useful for students.”
Currently, the project is focused on equipping students with the right standards and certifications to complete fieldwork interviews. “As far as I’m concerned, SORD is transitioning from an idea that we have been working for a year and a half, to something that we’re starting to make a reality,” says Lewis, expressing his excitement for this particular stage of the process. On the ground, this means that students will have the opportunity to go out into the community and conduct interviews with members of the SOF community, including retired veterans in the foreign service, defense and intelligence communities from all over the United States. “Now that this project is operational, we’ve got some really great potential interviews lined up,” he explained, pointing out the networking aspect of working with individuals like Blazakis, who has extensive experience in the broader policy community. With the CTEC partnership and the involvement of students across campuses, the database has the potential to include interviews with some very high-profile members of the SOF community.
The Special Operations and Counterterrorism Research Practicum will be offered as a course in the Spring of 2019.
MIIS Students and CTEC Director Interview Retired General and Former Ambassador for Counterterrorism at the State Department
Middlebury Institute students Shailene Pimentel, Cierra Horsting, Chuck Woodson, and CTEC Director Jason Blazakis interviewed retired general and Ambassador Dell Daily at the Birnam Golf Club in Santa Barbara.
Jason Blazakis will head the newly revitalized center dedicated to terrorism research at the Middlebury Institute, renamed the Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism (CTEC).
Incoming student Jaewon Oh learned recently that she has been awarded a highly competitive Pickering Fellowship.