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It’s a paradox: Dominic Tierney’s political platitudes

Screen Shot 2015-06-08 at 6.06.20 PMI can only hope Dominic Tierney’s book, The Right Way to Lose a War, is more persuasive and useful than his latest missive for The Atlantic. Published last week, Tierney’s 2,400 words, cribbing quotes from the usual political suspects, advanced a largely unenlightened and pulseless addition to current debates on America’s military machine.

His thesis, that America continues to lose wars because it is a “superpower in a more peaceful world,” offers little in the way of remarkable thinking. Not only because his assertions are staid, but also because they are not particularly original. Even the low-appetite consumer of political news will recognize the arguments below:

1) Modern warfare has shifted from interstate to intra-state conflicts.

2) Intra-state conflicts (i.e. civil wars, etc…) are messier, and waged in territories where Americans seed the “home-field advantage.”* 

3) Overlapping American security commitments ensure each individual contest is a “limited war” for America, while it is a “total war” for those fighting America.

4) Americans don’t have doggedness to see out campaigns where the “prize on offer is less valuable” and where the consequences are less threatening than previous “trials of national survival like the (U.S) Civil War and World War II.”

In addition, Tierney’s “essay” is gummed up with over-used political euphemism. Terms like “collateral damage” and “hearts and minds,” ought now be banished from any political writing which aspires to be intrepid. To use these line-items, so bled of meaning, betrays reality and makes cogent analysis impossible. Tierney deploys them both in the same sentence.

But this clumsy writing allows Tierney to glue together his battalion of straw men, as they wait to be mowed down by a series of banal circularities (“Once the United States was drawn into the quagmire, it couldn’t get out”) or overwrought assertions that gesture towards substance without isolating it (“Armed conflict is an expression of American identity and a trial of national vitality.”) These constructions might appear profound, but offer little to dwell upon. What I want to know is just why such quagmires present, whether there is sound justification for engaging in complex conflicts in the first place, and why —given the abysmal modern history Tierney sketches— armed conflict remains some measure of American “national vitality”? Maybe they are in his book. Maybe not.

One can almost picture him offering platitudes to undergraduates at Swarthmore as he scribbles dates and quotes on the whiteboard, asking “Can America return to victory?” But one yearns for the best-read, historically-sensitive and most-curious in his class to raise their hand. “By whose measure, and for what cause, should the United States return to victory?” they might ask.

America’s poor record in conflicts since WWII shouldn’t only prompt queries of American war-fighting mechanics (or strategy, for that matter), it should inspire meaningful debates about the principles —those bowling alley bumpers— that might guide reasons for war itself.

Where and when the United States decides to enter a conflict, there ought to be a considered and compelling justification. But that justification cannot and should not be pegged to whether America is likely to prevail. The question should be whether America (and the many other states of this world) can afford not to try.

As Tierney rightly points out, “[g]lobal warfare is mainly relegated to a few dozen failed or failing states that are breeding grounds for warlords, insurgents, and criminals.” But his globe appears to have only one superpower and a blank slate. Lost in the space between these sentences are these “few dozen” countries, home to a remarkable number of potential political “collateral damage.”  And if America is ill-equipped to wage these wars, should the political leadership abandon the project entirely? I’m not sure what Tierney thinks, but I do know what he wrote: “It’s time to reckon with the hard truths of conflict.”

I just wish he had tried.

*Given that the US has never been “home” to a major international war (save the attack on Pearl Harbor, which —at best— was an instigation and not permanent location of hostilities), there is no use speaking of “home-field advantage.” If Tierney is trying to suggest that this home-field advantage is gained by improving American service people’s knowledge of the “theatre of battle” then I would agree. But that isn’t an original contribution either.

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We Get What We Want: Nepal Coverage in Context

I suppose all things must end. #offassignment #exit

A photo posted by adammccauley (@adammccauley) on


Yesterday, Kunda Dixit, editor of the Nepali Times, tore into foreign news coverage of April’s earthquake in Nepal.

The international media arrives in herds and hunts in packs. Everything has to conform to a preordained script: you parachute in and immediately find good visuals of ‘utter devastation’; recruit an English-speaking local who doesn’t need subtitling; trail the rescue teams with sniffer dogs you flew in with as they pull someone out alive, after 12 hours (the rescuers need their logos on TV as much as you need them in the picture).

His words are sharp, burnished —it seems— by his frustration at the sight of equipment-laden voyeurs who shadow disasters. However, Dixit loses his ferocity within paragraphs, his vigor replaced by a wariness that the story of Nepal —what the 7.8 earthquake wrought, other than a surplus of media— will be forgotten as the media cycle ticks stubbornly on.

Dixit is right, of course. We privilege those moments of crisis. These are the shortened seconds and sustained shock where journalistic imperative is often felt strongest. And yes, we left as quickly as we arrived.

But no one I met there, tasked with writing, filming, or photographing a disaster Dixit knows is “too big to comprehend” thought that Nepal (as a story) could be exhausted in a week. Most of us packed our bags because the economics of empathy —at least as expressed in the world of journalism— made it impossible to remain any longer.

There is nothing cheap about covering crisis: hotel rates spike, the demand curve for translators and fixers stretches skyward, access to electricity and Internet are expensive at best. These effects aren’t surprising. But they exist.

This means that every minute on the ground, those necessary moments exploring what Dixit calls “stereotypical coverage,” limits our ability to “catch a deeper understanding of what’s really happening.” You cover your bases first, then you start brushing the dust away. If you still have the finances to do it. But Dixit knows this. “There is a formula for news and it’s hard to file a story that doesn’t fit it” he writes.

And so his charges —well-intentioned and worth considering, seriously — struggle with same question that haunts the reporter: What are we (journalists) to do when the audience signals it’s ready to move on?

To care everywhere and always and to cover that everything in real time, is —in part— to report on nothing. Priorities must be set. Today, those priorities are increasingly shaped by scarcity and our growing knowledge of audience interests. As a result, we live at a time where “comprehensive coverage” can appear more aspirational than practical.

But even sustained attention, if you can arrange it, comes at a cost. If Nepal played home to a bumper crop of reporters for months on end, one might imagine Dixit writing stories of local fatigue: calls to leave the Nepalis alone as they rebuild.

Dixit is stuck with media coverage as necessary evil: the tedious, too-predictable peering eyes and pointed pens, effect (and affect) relief efforts. They write the “headlines [that] keep the crisis alive.”

None of this excuses any damage inflicted by journalism done wrong: the irresponsible reporting of fear-inducing rumors (i.e. “predicted” aftershocks, etc…) did much to erase any sense of security and stability just days after disaster. But Dixit struggles to differentiate the system of journalism from the journalists themselves.

I can’t speak for all the reporters who covered those first days in April, as the dusty afternoons stretched into unsettled evenings, as media teams sat bleary-eyed in the small hours of the morning trying to arrange logistics to cover the stories outside the bubble of Kathmandu, but I would bet many would have stayed longer and traded horror stories for those of revival and triumph.

The latter are more satisfying than stunning, more humble than haunting, and they are probably the ones Dixit wants to read. Most of us just didn’t get the time to write them.

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Reporter's Notebook

To Make It Matter

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We linger on the flesh.

The “we” in that sentence is the journalist, of course. But it’s also you — or the version of “you” that “we” might be writing for.

On my last day in Kathmandu, six days after a 7.8 magnitude earthquake shook 7,500* people to death in this small, landlocked country, I decided to return to the waters of the Bhagwati. This river slows to a trickle as it passes one of the country’s treasures, the Pashupatinath Temple.

I had been here before — my first day in Nepal — and had stood watching grieving family members cremate loved ones. Flecks of ash, particles of the once-living, floated across the warm winds, catching in the fine hairs of my arm. Acrid smoke stung the back of my dry throat.

Looking back, my notebook seems chaotic. The words are mere triggers for observations, fragments of sights each straining to fit a story I might tell.

Goats walk the riverside
Spare bricks crowd the footbridge
Bodies wait in garbage bags
They [the men tasked with cremating] drop the fire into the mouth first.

Arriving in the hangover of a natural disaster encourages this kind of struggling. There is a searching for sense amid signals too broad and significant. The stories one longs to find, to record and mark as their own, seem instead to linger, trapped somewhere just beyond touch.

So I was there, my final afternoon, at the river. My sleepless body wired to failure on caffeine, the sun’s scratching heat on my bare neck. I just wanted to sit. I wanted to feel still in a place made nervous by sudden movement. I wanted to understand, through mere presence, what grievous loss might feel like.

I wanted to be more heart rate monitor, less tape recorder.

Some say death is supposed to tell us something about this life. That, perhaps, these stories of the living are only complete when coupled with stories of the lost. To avoid this would be like trying to trace a circle with only half the ink you need.

But I worry. I worry that true artifice lives in a misheld belief: that we might understand tragedy through broad and ill-timed questions asked of the agrieved.

We forget that questions are always easier. They are the hard-shelled armor we shelter behind. Questions are what make our world stop shaking. Not theirs.

I tried to remember this.

I did.

But my eyes drifted downstream to the scurried activity, the cooing of an amassing crowd, and the shimmer of light as it reflected off strange, new, naked bodies.

So I went.

I lingered.

I bled news from this flesh.


*The Times of India has reported casualties in excess of 8,000 (as of Friday, May 8, 2015)

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Published, Reporter's Notebook

Half Century

For the last two weeks, I’ve been in Vietnam reporting on the 40th anniversary of the Vietnam War. The product of this trip will be apparent in the days and weeks to come, but I wanted to mark an important anniversary today. On March 8, 1965, the US 9th Marine Expeditionary Brigade landed on Red Beach, a crescent-shaped stretch of land in Danang, Vietnam. The date is somewhat arbitrary, of course, as US “Advisors” had been humping through Vietnam since at least 1959, but the marine landing signaled a clear escalation in the use of American power —an escalation that would lead America and Vietnam into a decade-long cycle of violence.

For this generation (and my generation) Vietnam has become little more than an anecdote —a reference, often trite, used to highlight a government’s penchant for military and political mistakes (i.e. Iraq or Afghanistan). Over the past weeks, and with the help of countless sources, guides, historians, and witnesses of this history, I have tried to color in that crude outline of the war in Vietnam. Not just because anniversaries demand reflection, but because wars linger long after the final shots are fired. For the two men pictured below (and for millions more) the war continues to shape their lives.

In the coming weeks, I’ll try and explain why.

Tan Hau, 17, was born both physically and mentally disabled, complications attributed to his father’s exposure to Agent Orange —the chemical defoliant sprayed by the US military across Vietnam.© Adam McCauley

Tan Hau, 17, was born both physically and mentally disabled, complications attributed to his father’s exposure to Agent Orange —the chemical defoliant sprayed by the US military across Vietnam. © Adam McCauley

Tuan, 29, lost his right arm and damaged his left hand at age 16 when a cluster bomb, dropped by the US military between 1965 and 1975, exploded.© Adam McCauley

Tuan, 29, lost his right arm and damaged his left hand at age 16 when a cluster bomb, dropped by the US military between 1965 and 1975, exploded. © Adam McCauley

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Amid a terrible week for journalism, The New York Times has confirmed David Carr, the newspaper’s media critic, has died. Carr was a critical voice in the journalism landscape, one that cut across medium and media offering candid, and sometimes harsh, takes on the latest, greatest and worst that our discipline generates. While the details of his death have not been confirmed, one fact is known: David Carr collapsed in The New York Times newsroom before being rushed to St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital. For the many readers who awaited his byline each week, it is small consolation to know he left us doing what he (and we) loved most.

The irreplaceable David Carr, dead at 58

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Reporter's Notebook

While I’m traveling at the moment, I wanted to send a quick update on one of 2015’s steadily developing stories.

As Boko Haram gobbles up more airtime and political talking points, interested readers should keep their eyes in the upcoming AU Summit in Addis Ababa. Defense One has a helpful overview here.

For context on point three (AU efforts to address Boko Haram) Defense One also has a recent discussion with AFRICOM’s commander on the potential role for US forces in the battle to contain the regional terrorist group, with leadership calling for a full counterinsurgency plan.

This, however, comes just two weeks since my last piece tackling the changing role of US engagement in West Africa. Read the full treatment here.

With the Nigerian elections just over two weeks away, there is much more to come.

FTR: Updates on West Africa

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Reporter's Notebook

The Good Fight

In defense of liberty, all battles appear worthy. As the world reacts to last week’s mass murder in the office of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical magazine based in Paris, questions of “what next?” abound. News today, reported in TIME, suggests the politics of security have transmuted France’s official narrative:

Yves Trotignon, a former top counter-terrorism official in DGSE, France’s equivalent to the CIA, told TIME on Monday, “There is a strong feeling that this is not over.” Trotignon, now a private terrorism consultant, says he was in close contact with French intelligence officials investigating last week’s attacks. He says most believe that although the instigators of last week’s attacks might all now be dead, “there is a strong feeling that maybe something more dangerous is ahead.”

A shift from grief to vigilance is only predictable. But as British authorities framed the Paris attacks against the background of expected terrorist operations, specifically “a group of core al-Qaeda terrorists in Syria … planning mass-casualty attacks against the West“, one gets the sense that “Je suis Charlie” might become the means instead of the end.

“Emergencies demand rapid action,” wrote Michael Ignatieff, in his book The Lesser Evil, which explores the challenges for democracies in responding to terrorism. “Presidents and prime ministers have to take action first and submit to questions later. But too much prerogative can be bad for democracy itself.”

In emergencies, we have no alternative but to trust our leaders to act quickly, when our lives may be in danger, but it would be wrong to trust them to decide the larger question of how to balance liberty and security over the long term. For these larger questions, we ought to trust to democratic deliberation through our institutions.

But in the aftermath of a terrorist attack, government actions often leave the citizen fearful of enemies unknown and unknowable, and unable to discern just what is being done in his or her name. At the very moment when a state should engage its demos directly, it appears least likely to do so. Sadly, that nagging sense of being ignored stirs the very marginalization that makes violence—as nihilistic and destructive as its expression can be— more likely. For France, Europe and the rest of the world, let’s hope our support for the liberties of speech and expression do not hasten actions that curtail those same liberties for others.

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Photography

Next stop: Taipei

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