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Meet Professor Crawford

We continue the series in which we ask a Political Science professor to tell us how they became interested in their subject and what motivates them in their research. Neta Crawford specializes in International Relations and her work on the Costs of War project has attracted huge interest from U.S. and international media. She partnered with Professor Doug Kriner in Fall 2011 to teach a special course marking the tenth anniversary of 9/11. Here is how Professor Crawford explains her work and interests.


I became interested in questions of war and peace at a young age. Perhaps it was growing up during the Vietnam War and knowing Vietnam War veterans who were experiencing what was not yet widely known as post-traumatic stress disorder. Or perhaps it was because my great-grand uncle had been gassed in World War I. Or maybe it was the threat of nuclear war—a threat of global annihilation that seemed quite vivid to me as a kid.

As I grew older, I realized that the choices that are made to go to war or not have big consequences at home—whether resources are available for education, the arts, or even roads and bridges. I also saw that not using force could mean that bullies literally got away with murder.

I asked the naïve questions of why and why not. I went to college and asked more. And then, though I had intended to either be a photojournalist (I had worked for a local newspaper in high school) or a nuclear chemist (I loved the math of it), I realized I was drawn to trying to do something more directly about making war less likely. I was an activist.

And then I went to graduate school at MIT and studied with the late Hayward Alker. He was a relentlessly curious intellectual. He taught me to look everywhere for answers and not be afraid of what I found. The questions should be something I was genuinely curious to understand. The methods simply had to be the ones to help me gain insight.

Along the way, over the last 30 years, I have studied aircraft, nuclear weapons, and learned how to think through the issues of planning nuclear war. I also turned to less-technical questions and more toward ethics and political theory, which I think of as much harder than the why questions, as if those aren't hard enough.

My goal in teaching is to help students learn how to think through the challenges in the real world. So I teach science fiction and world politics because the estrangement of science fiction and utopia can help us see where we are with fresh eyes. I teach the ethics of war because it matters very much what we think is right when force is on the table. I teach a course on abolition in comparative perspective because I want to help students understand how one of the most normal, persistent, and ubiquitous institutions of social life—slavery—was gradually denormalized and delegitimized.

And I try to write both scholarly books and articles and more popular works which can make very complex issues both more accessible and compelling to people with very busy and self-oriented lives. So, recently, I worked on to make the human, social, and economic costs of the United States' recent wars vivid in a comprehensive way.

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