Department or Program

Political Science

Primary Wellesley Thesis Advisor

Professor Paul K. MacDonald

Additional Advisor(s)

Professor Nadya Hajj


How does the military learn in disaster relief operations? The American military has long played a critical role in international responses to natural disasters. Its forward-deployed resources, manpower, and other unique capabilities make it a critical asset for the larger disaster relief community. While the U.S. military and scholars alike have poured considerable resources into understanding how the military learns in traditional operations, this literature fails to provide a compelling explanation for how and why the military learns in non-combat operations. Interviews with involved officials and primary source evidence of learning suggests that the military is better at learning in these operations than the current literature would predict. This project relies heavily on interviews with military and civilian personnel, military after action reviews, and authoritative secondary sources. The current literature on military learning predicts low levels of learning to occur in non-combat operations. Nevertheless, the U.S. military in the Asia Pacific has consistently learned from disaster relief operations and has, in fact, significantly improved its formal and informal processes of learning during these operations. To put it simply, the military has actively improved its capacity to learn how to learn. This finding upends the current literature on military learning and calls for a reevaluation of the potential value of non-combat operations in the future.