“A mighty force slumbers in the heat, mighty and —should it explode anywhere near us— deadly. It is the force of a mountain avalanche, only inflamed, frenzied, driven by foaming blood,” wrote Ryszard Kapuściński, the famed Polish journalist, stopped by a herd of buffalo while traveling overland by car between Tanganyika (now Tanzania) and the soon-to-be independent Uganda.
Worried about spooking the large beasts, Kapuściński remembered a discussion with a biologist who noticed that even the sound of their research helicopter failed to stir buffalo grazing alone. But when it flew over a large herd, “it sufficed for there to be among them a single overly sensitive one, a hysteric, a hothouse flower, who at the sound of the engine would start to thrash around waiting to flee. The entire herd would immediately panic and, in terror, begin to move.”
With Kapuściński’s sensitivity for narrative tension, his passage captured not just the potential for danger, but might rightly have rendered the aim of foreign reporters: To be agitated and aware and to move the masses. For Kapuściński, this message would have resonated personally.
In the months after his trip Uganda, Kapuściński suffered with a bout of cerebral malaria which so depressed his immune system he then contracted tuberculosis. As the diagnosis threatened his stay in the region, he told his doctor that “Poland had never before had a permanent correspondent in sub-Saharan Africa.” Kapuściński believed his illness, if ever shared with his editors, would force him back home, “and that thing that had been a lifelong dream… to work in Africa—will vanish forever.”
Taking the buffalo as metaphor, Kapuściński would certainly have been the loner — the “hysteric” — who sought to move his herd (the readers and the reticent) with news from far-off places. And for years, he did just that —drawing out stories that textured a continent, that explored the unknown and that laid the foundation for a generation of journalists.
This is where Pirates, Poachers and Palm Oil comes in.
The project will report, unsurprisingly, on the practice that once threatened those buffalo: poaching. But the goal is also to draw connections between issues well known to residents of Nigeria and Cameroon, and poorly covered from afar. From Faro National Park in Cameroon to that country’s expansive fields of palm, and even to Nigeria’s coast and the boys who could be pirates, Pirates, Poachers and Palm Oil seeks to provoke, through sheer force of reporting, a stir from the masses.
With less than a week left before deadline, though, I need your help. For as little as five dollars, you can pledge your support and join me on the front lines. With updates from the field, original photographs, and behind-the-scenes video, you’ll be closer to the action than ever before.
As Kapuściński knew, “the [African] continent … is a veritable ocean, a separate planet, a varied, immensely rich cosmos.” With your help, Pirates, Poachers and Palm Oil will provide just a few of its stories. The stoic and stubborn be damned.
**Author’s note: In recent years, the veracity of Kapuściński’s reporting has been questioned. In his 2012 biography of Poland’s most celebrated journalist, author Artur Domoslawski asserts that much of Kapuściński’s nonfiction/reportage was —damningly— imagined. While this post draws on his work (and perhaps even more on his lyricism and knack for literary construction), it is not to be taken as endorsement of practice. There is no substitute for accurate and balanced reporting.**
As many of you might know, I recently launched a new editorial project with the help of Beacon. “Pirates, Poachers and Palm Oil” is an investigative project that will take me to Nigeria and Cameroon this spring reporting on three issues I believe are both critical and importantly inter-related in the region.
The support I’ve received over the last six days has been incredible —not to mention humbling. In my project pitch I stressed that these types of projects cannot be completed alone, and that (freelance) international reporting is perhaps the hardest gig in the journalism world right now. The many kind donations and messages of support demonstrate that there is still an interested readership for some of today’s most complicated and compelling stories.
Unlike Kickstarter, which fixes a numerical goal for crowdsourced projects, Beacon focuses on the number of “Backers”. For a project to secure funding, 50 “Backers” have to pledge their support before the project deadline. To date, I’ve been honored to accept pledges from 20 different sources, but remain eager to add to this tally with just 13 days remaining.
For those who haven’t visited the project page, please do so here. For the cost of two coffees (in NYC, of course) you can add your name to the list. For those who might know friends and family members interested in these topics, feel free to pass the information along. And finally, check back here for updates as the project progresses.
This week I tackled the plight of Ali Mohamed Ali, the one-time pirate negotiator arrested in a FBI sting operation in 2011. While the piece, published on Beacon, is largely a response to Politico’s tragicomedy of a story on the consequences of prosecuting international criminals on American soil, the story of “Mr. Ali” is compelling in its own right.
The former Director-General of Education in Somaliland, Mr. Ali spent nearly 25 years of his life in the United States —time that furnished him with fluent English and a better understanding of Western culture, he said. Below, an excerpt from the article explains how Mr. Ali was caught in the 2008 crisis surrounding the hijacking of Danish vessel, CEC Future, off the Somali coast:
Mr. Ali’s own recruitment by the pirates —one of chance given his role in negotiating the release of a German couple held at sea— was fueled by compassion for anyone held by the pirates he described as a “crazed bunch … surly and unpredictable.”
After speaking at length with Mr. Ali’s lawyer, Matthew J. Peed, what became clear was not merely the aggressive prosecutorial stance (“the accused was the victim of “overzealous prosecutors” in an “apparent turf battle” driven to pounce as “FBI investigators, eager for a high-profile arrest, lured Mr. Ali to the U.S.”, Mr. Peed wrote) but also what these actions had cost Mr. Ali, summed up deftly by a statement from his lawyer below:
Despite spending untold millions of taxpayer dollars in this cynical pursuit, the government was unable to convict Mr. Ali of any wrongdoing. Its thin case relied on conjecture regarding Mr. Ali’s intent that contradicted both his long history of fighting piracy and the testimony of several hostages, who stated that Mr. Ali protected and comforted them during their harrowing ordeal. Nevertheless, the government managed to inflict a substantial punishment on an innocent man in the form of nearly three years of pretrial detention—an unconscionable result in a country devoted to the rule of law.
Today, Mr. Ali awaits a Department of Immigration determination of his political asylum claim. And this is the unfortunate catch-22: While his connections to pirate gangs in Somalia gave him the standing to negotiate, his disclosures (of names and operational details) to the United States government mean it is no longer safe for him to return to his native Somalia. Where much is taken, something is owed. Only time will tell if Mr. Ali is rewarded for his sacrifice.
For the last few months I’ve been sketching out a project intended (in so far as possible) to capture the zeitgeist of an American generation after war. Unlike the “long boom” that followed World War II, America in 2014 lacks a modern conception of the once-all-powerful dream. To predict where we’re going, though, depends on knowing where the country actually is. This year, starting in May 2014, a short collection of multimedia rich stories will try and capture just this.
A teaser (or placeholder) is now posted on Medium.
This week on Beacon, I tackle terrorism through the lens of epidemiology. Inspired by a critical work from the academy (Stares / Yacoubian), I use Boko Haram as a case study for re-thinking the fight against terrorism. While the full-text is only for subscribers, I wanted to tease a couple of sections below:
The piece starts by opposing the knee-jerk reactions committed by some academics eager to conflate the presence of a failed states (the vacuum of power) with the birth and growth of terrorism.
The authors assert that all regions —even perceived vacuums— are governed by a variety of actors with interlocking and overlapping claims to power. Ignoring these informal structures leaves policymakers and practitioners reliant on pithy press statements and poorly-oriented policies, instead of actual strategies for confronting groups who react violently towards those who oppose their authority.
In the decade since America first declared its “Global War on Terror”, violence in terror’s name has defined our coverage of conflict, framed our understanding of ‘the enemy’ and pervaded our conversations about security.
Faced with the threat of Boko Haram, now labeled by the United States as a “terrorist organization”, perhaps it is time to to rethink how we address the cause, persistence and spread of modern terrorism.
The piece continues through the three phases of the epidemiological approach (Contain, Protect, Remedy) , before adding a final thought:
Finding a balance between securing territory and engaging with disillusioned communities lies at the heart of today’s fight against terrorism: Even the smallest steps towards improving the provision of basic services (between the government and its people) will knit individuals into the political landscape instead of marooning them outside of it. Expanding this kind of participation will likely open the well-spring of political dissent, but neither Goodluck Jonathan’s administration nor neighboring countries can afford the cost of Nigeria’s violent descent.
Read the full story here.
While working through a number of projects at the moment —from fellowship applications to magazine pitches— I’m awash with material and ideas, and yet one theme keeps bubbling up: The theory of feral cities.
In 2003, Richard J. Norton published a journal article in the Naval War College Review which dealt with security challenges in complex urban environments he loosely defined as “a metropolis with a population of more than a million people in a state the government of which has lost the ability to maintain the rule of law within the city’s boundaries yet remains a functioning actor in the greater international system.” This, he claimed, should be known as a “feral city”.
Norton’s concerns stems from his assertion that, despite modern military might, current capabilities are insufficient to deal with the myriad challenges of densely populated urban environments in which law enforcement cannot patrol, residents/citizens are unregistered, and informal power structures come to dominate how the city lives and breathes.
The article, now more than a decade old, has inspired a few security experts (such as the inimitable David Kilcullen) to think broadly about the military capacities/capabilities for addressing feral cities, but I wonder why the theory hasn’t been more effectively explored given its potential applicability in places like Lagos, Mexico City, Rio, or Dhaka.
Any reader come across the use of this term more recently?
In the summer of 2012, mere months after graduating from Columbia, I was honored to publish my first story —in print— for The New York Times. The piece, Soccer’s Lost Boys, which looks at the award-winning photography series by Jason Andrew, ran full page in the Saturday sports section with a longer article published on the New York Times’ Lens Blog.
In January 2014, nearly a year and a half later, Andrew’s work will be published in LFI Magazine, an imprint run by Leica. For the updated spread, the editors asked if I would expand the text version of the piece. At nearly 3,000 words, the story —and never-before-seen photographs— tries to provide additional detail to what has now been a four-year battle by a small group of Nigerian soccer players in pursuit of a dream that, each day, slips further and further away. I’ve posted a short excerpt below:
As the plane’s landing gear struck the smooth runway of Istanbul’s Ataturk airport in August 2010, Akeem looked around the cabin at the 60 other young African players, dressed in matching adidas track suits and toting their cleats. Akeem had paid for his flight, visa, and – more importantly – the opportunity to try out for Turkey’s professional clubs. As he glanced out of the plane’s small, fogged window onto a city which has served as the heart to four world empires, Akeem wanted to believe that his future started here.
*The January issue is available for download or purchase here.
My latest piece, the first in a series of three, addresses Boko Haram’s evolution (and persistence) in Nigeria. Full article on Beacon.
The photographs by Marcus Bleasdale, which accompany the FP article, deftly capture the country’s disintegration through the people shredded by it.
“My government views recent events in the Central Africa Republic with anguish at the horrific degree of suffering, and we are deeply angered by the atrocities perpetrated by Séléka rebels against innocent civilians, including many children. We are also deeply alarmed by the prospect of CAR becoming a safe haven for violent extremists.”
Washington-bound for Defense One Summit, just a few developments I’ll be charting today:
- Implications of U.S. State Departments classification of Nigeria-based Boko Haram / Ansaru as terrorist organizations. While Defense One reported on the importance of the action, citing increased US policy tools to confront and erode these group’s power, The New York Times’ Eric Schmidt warned that the designation might further legitimize both groups who are allegedly tied to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
- Boko Haram’s latest kidnapping victim might be a French priest taken from northern Cameroon, according to Reuters.
- Questions re: the future of asymmetrical warfare (by land, air, and sea). Reflections from the summit.
Finally, I wanted to draw attention to the latest New York Times update on the Chevron/Ecuador case. Nearly two years ago, I wrote about the impact of Chevron’s investment in Ecuador in a long-form narrative piece (published on this site.) Given the consequences of this case for environmental litigation in the global north and south, the article is worth a read.
I nearly missed Gino Bachman’s phone call as I pulled off the highway and into an IHOP parking lot. My cellphone, which I thought I’d stashed somewhere on the passenger seat, was lost amongst a scarf, camera bag, and an escaped notebook. As I searched the interior of the car, everything was cast in the dull blue glow of the IHOP sign.
“Don’t go in the restaurant,” Gino said, as I answered my phone on the last ring. “John just got off the 75 and should be there in 25 minutes. I’ll meet you there in 15.”
“There” was the parking lot of a neighboring Home Depot. After I inched my rental car into one of the many open spaces, I looked at the clock —5:56 am.
A little after 6:12 am, Gino pulled in beside me—the engine of his Chevy Silverado vibrating the Blount County SPCA decals that adorned both the driver and passenger side doors. He nodded a quiet welcome as I climbed into the cabin of the truck.
By 6:20, Gino and I arrived at Weigal gas station just outside of Maryville. There, under garish industrial floodlights, sat a 44-foot long white trailer towed by a heavy-duty black pick-up. Inside, ‘John’ and his assistant, ‘Audrey’, greeted Gino with tired smiles (The couple refused to provide their real names).
Their trailer held the five remaining Tennessee Walking Horses, which had been seized from Larry Wheelon’s barn the previous April. During the first return —of seven horses the previous weekend— John was confronted by some of the horses’ owners at the IHOP in town. This morning, he’d stopped to remove the vehicle’s license plates and identifying stickers — an attempt to preserve the anonymity required to safeguard the animals they often transported for the Human Society of the United States (HSUS).
Within minutes, Gino and I had pulled in lead of the large trailer on the highway, joined moments later by a county sheriff’s department cruiser, which would serve as escort. I looked down at my phone, our small convoy creeping closer to the point of exchange, I noticed the digital clock read 6:43. I then typed: “I can’t believe the hassle over a couple of horses.”
I’d written that sentence before, more than three months earlier, after receiving an email from a good friend, fellow Columbia alumnus and astounding writer, Addie Berard. She asked if I interested in an animal cruelty investigation. I said, “It depends,” but mentioned I’d be happy to make the connection and discuss details with her contact.
The story, which was published last Saturday, focused on a case brought against a celebrated horse trainer and subsequently dismissed in Maryville, Tennessee. Since then, government officials, lawyers, community supporters, and industry critics have been locked in battle: over culture, law, and how we should treat the animals caught in the middle.
Two weeks later, around midnight, I was looking out a dark, fogged plane window as it taxied into the McGhee Tyson Airport in Knoxville, Tennessee. I was destined for a small town I’d never visited, in a state I’d never travelled to, in a region I knew little about.
Less than 20 miles from Knoxville, the small town of Maryville lies on the foothills of the Great Smokey Mountains, surrounded by vast tracts of pasture and farmland. Here, in a town of 27,000, Tennessee walking horses have a rich history: School teachers provide inexpensive riding lessons on their own farms, show horses take the field during half-time celebrations at high school football games and children often visit Walking Horse stables on class field trips. Visitors don’t have to look hard to find license plates plastered with the rearing silhouette of a horse, the Walking Horse icon, or overhear residents who eagerly divide the town into two types of people: “horse people” and the others. It was here that Larry Wheelon’s case came before a county judge.
Larry Wheelon is a 68-year-old horse trainer who operated a stable (above) in Maryville. One morning last April, a federal agent, posing undercover, entered the premises looking for evidence that would corroborate a series of tips she’d collected over the previous year. The agent, a 23-year veteran of the service named Julie McMillan, found enough information that morning to file an affidavit with the county judge, gaining approval for a subsequent search of the premise, and then —a week after that— a seizure of 19 horses from the location.
The seizure set off alarms throughout the industry. Wheelon, who has had between eight and 15 previous citations for alleged abuse, was well connected throughout the walking horse community. At the time of the seizure, he was serving as a director of the Tennessee Walking Horse Trainer’s Association and —perhaps most worryingly— on the association’s ethics committee.
But the history of the Tennessee walking horse is suffuse with instances of abuse dealt to the celebrated animals. Specifically, Larry Wheelon was alleged to have “sored” some of the horses under his care —an act in violation of a federal statute. Soring involves the application of chemicals or action devices to the legs and feet of the animal. The chemicals, which are often caustic, are used to burn and sensitize the horses’ legs. A trainer can then use this associated pain to modify the way the horse walks. When trained in this fashion, the walking horses’ smooth gait is morphed into a high-stepping stride, known in the industry as “The Big Lick.”
At competitions this hectic-looking prance is associated with higher scores and, throughout the competition’s history, greater likelihood of victory. For more than 30 years starting in 1939, the incentives for trainers were clear: if you could sore an animal effectively, you could win both money and prestige. According to some, it was always in trainer’s interest to abuse the animals he was charged to care for.
In 1970, regulations in the industry began to change. In a bill, authored by Maryland’s Senator Joseph Tydings, “soring” was classified a federal offense under the Horse Protection Act. The bill empowered the USDA to investigate instances of abuse within the Tennessee walking horse, and other gaited horse, communities throughout the country.
But enforcement was always the challenge for the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), which lacked the resources to properly investigate all allegations of abuse. In response, the USDA outsourced some of the regulation to individuals denoted as Qualified Designated Persons, or QDPs, that could be hired directly by SHOW organizations to police the entrants at their events. Outsourcing responsibility to these regulators quickly led to conflicts of interest.
These SHOW organizations were private companies contracted by organizers of horse competitions. In an internal USDA audit in 2010, SHOW-sponsored regulators were found to have recorded lower rates of violations when compared to USDA investigators working the same events. The USDA’s internal investigators noted that the “conflicts of interest” between these QDPs and show organizers led to institutionalized willful blindness.
As described to me, the following situation could easily occur: Trainer A brings their horse in for final inspection before taking the field at a competition. Fellow trainer B, who is also horse breeder, is charged with conducting the examination. Trainer B knows that Trainer A has purchased Trainer B’s colts each season, and will likely continue to do so, provided there aren’t any untoward developments over the remaining shows. Perhaps Trainer B notices something strange about the look or feel of one of Trainer A’s horses —perhaps the legs are a little tender. What are the chances Trainer B will void an upcoming sale by reporting the details of this discovery?
These steady drips of corruption slowly wore away the legitimacy of the SHOW system, and led the USDA auditors to recommend the program be suspended. It wasn’t.
Over time, the low rumbling of continuing abuses became louder. But allegations could only get investigators so far. With the number of people involved and the amount of money at stake, there were few witnesses or participants willing to talk publicly about the industry. Unless, of course, they got caught first.
That’s why the stories of Barney Davis and Jackie McConnell were so critical. Davis, who ended up serving jail time for violating the terms of his parole, has since spoken publicly about the practice of “soring” among trainers today. Jackie McConnell, who was secretly videotaped by The Humane Society of the United States abusing his horses in 2012, pled guilty to 22 counts of animal cruelty—and avoiding prison time as a result. Their message: the abuse continues.
When I arrived in Maryville, my goal was to understand the case against Wheelon. Among the many I spoke to, attempted to speak to, cornered at road-side restaurants, or interrupted outside the local court house, the audience seemed divided: The case against Wheelon was either a conspiracy brought by the USDA, HSUS and the SPCA in order to set a precedent, or it was the just deserts for a man who had made his career abusing animals for personal benefit. There seemed to be no middle ground.
What I learned, however, was how a story can so quickly be lost to the so-called “talking heads” and that the reporter, often, can do little to avoid it. For instance, my strategy in Maryville was to speak with everyone who might have a comment on the case —from the county’s district attorney to the server at the local Huddle House, a road-side diner. What became clear, however, was a fundamental miscommunication between those involved in the case, and the reporter (me).
On one side, Wheelon’s supporters presumed that my presence in Maryville was, in fact, a product of my bias. They believed that I had shown up at the behest of the HSUS and USDA to try and proverbially hang Wheelon before a jury could. I was, to them, an outsider who had already taken sides. For Wheelon’s critics —which included the USDA, HSUS, SPCA and a number of other organizations and individuals— my interest in the case was a mixed blessing: publicity might be valuable in the fight to bring Wheelon to justice, but there was a hesitation about being open and honest with a member of the press. Recognizing that both sides were so polarized —and acting line with their own interests— my role was defined for me, and not by me.
My attempt to offset the imbalance often bore little fruit: calls, messages, notes, and impromptu arrivals among Wheelon supporters were not often welcome. Most of my attempts at contact were rebuffed, or met with “no comment” —and in some cases a clear charge that I was in some way “working for the enemy.” It was that charge that angered me most.
And throughout the reporting process, I was —with few alternatives— forced to rely on many sources who had a clear interest in seeing Wheelon found guilty. I recognized the challenges for both parties battling in the press, but the experience only affirmed my belief in the strength of openness and disclosure: a reporter can provide a clearer evocation of a situation only if both parties are willing to share what they know, how they know it, and why others (outsiders who might read such an article) should know it.
For that reason, if the article for Al Jazeera America seems weighted in favor of the prosecution, of the critics of Wheelon and what he allegedly represents (i.e. abuse towards horses in the industry), it is due to the countless questions I asked of others that went unanswered.
In the trips I made to Tennessee, I consulted the court record, interviewed a wide range of sources, and tried to corroborate testimony from sources I knew had lied to me in the past. I worked to tease out the small details —whether the gate to Wheelon’s barn was open or latched the day Julie McMillan, posing undercover, entered— from the more polarized testimonies of “He’s a guilty man” or “They’ve got the wrong man.” These comments were offered in knee-jerk fashion by most people I spoke with.
I even tracked down Wheelon personally, asking for his own thoughts or feelings on the conduct and practice of the USDA. The response: I don’t want to be quoted. I don’t want to talk. But I’m being persecuted by over-reaching federal organizations.
What I failed to include in the article, and this is largely the result of editorial taste and space, were the challenges in cooperation between members of the prosecution. Wheelon’s case was originally handled by Assistant D.A. Ellen Berez and, since the dismissal in August, is now being handled by another assistant —a young and, according to some, more “aggressive” lawyer.
My reporting also unearthed differences in opinion, and outright tension, between the USDA special investigator Julie McMillan and D.A. Berez. Some of these issues seemed to typify the challenges between federal and local authorities: territory, leadership, latitude and the willingness to take risks are all a function of an individual’s position. These two women appeared to have different theories as to how this case should have been handled.
In fairness, some of the blame for continued confusion or unrest in the case, also lies with the USDA. Their policy, to abstain from commenting on in-progress cases, was a liability for anyone trying to carefully account for the charges against Wheelon. Because the initial hearing had been dismissed, it was —in theory— a closed case, and some of the vague claims and allegations required evidence that the USDA was simply unwilling to provide.
Without disclosing some of the most basic facts, the USDA missed an opportunity to disarm critics who used this absence of information as signs of a conspiracy. Amid silence, it was possible to suggest the USDA was out on a witch-hunt, that they were creating evidence instead of compiling it, and that their case had no merit.
Personally, it was only in the last three days before publication that I, finally gaining access to details omitted from the public record, felt comfortable committing my accounting of the events to the page.
On November 7, at the Hooters restaurant in Maryville, I met with a source who, for their own safety and interest, I will not name. We spoke at length about a wide range of subjects —life, work, and, in so far as we could, the Wheelon case.
This individual asked me about my own job: what it was like to arrive at a place as a relative stranger, trying to piece together puzzles like this. I told him, quite confidently, that reporters, in the field (wherever that field may be), have to rely on the edifying role of truth (or the sum of all people’s version of truth, perhaps) to make headway on the most complex issues.
I told them that the persistent lie is one of the most stubborn things to control —that the decision to remain party to a fallacious account is what usually undoes a source or a subject.
As the conversation continued, this individual shared seemingly new information —information that surprised me in its freshness. In the moment, I felt something akin to joy, having turned the latest page in a book of untold length.
But after leaving the restaurant that evening, I sat in my car with the heat cranked, trying hard to stay warm in the bitter cold fall evening. The more I thought about it, the less sure I was about the latest round of admissions. I wrote a few notes, adding additional question marks, and then headed back to my hotel. I was struggling with what might be the reporter’s true responsibility: to find consistency amid myriad allegations; to find some acceptable “truth” in the maelstrom of suggestion. (*I did not include this information in the final piece.)
For those who read the piece, and more importantly the comments, it is obvious that a single feature (even at 2,500 words) cannot capture the extent of an issue.
You’ll also notice that, in Wheelon’s case, no verdict —judicial, that is— has been cast. For the few who took issue with some particulars of the piece, I appreciate your interest, attention and candor. For the Tennessee Walking Horse trainers who have eschewed the practice of soring, who have decided to raise their animals with the respect and care outlined by the statues of this country and by the moral compass of any responsible animal owner, I apologize for lumping you in with anyone alleged to be practicing otherwise. But for the vast majority of readers —either casual or committed— I do ask for patience.
Today, Congress will hear arguments on the Whitfield Amendment (noted in the piece) in Washington, D.C. For the first time in more than 40 years, individuals on both sides of the aisle will take the stand to describe, in detail, their stance on stricter regulation within the industry. I feel confident stating that petty banter has stood in for reasoned debate for too long, and I can only hope that this hearing provides a venue for sound arguments based on facts —and facts alone.
For a writer who knew little about this world before taking it on last August, I have learned much from my experiences in Tennessee and even more from those who stand against the mistreatment of animals. Regardless of one’s view on the Wheelon case, however, we should be able to agree on one thing: We owe it to those 19 horses to figure out what really happened in Maryville.
For the last three months, I’ve been looking at allegations of abuse in the Tennessee Walking Horse industry. In August, a case brought against celebrated horse trainer, Larry Wheelon, was dismissed in county court in Maryville, Tennessee. Since then, government officials, lawyers, community supporters, and industry critics have been locked in battle: over culture, law, and how we should treat the animals caught in the middle.
Above: Shades of Cash, one of the 19 horses seized from Larry Wheelon’s stables last spring, stands in a pen at McNutt Farm after being returned on November 8, 2013. (Photo: Adam McCauley)
My first dispatch for Al Jazeera America, while lacking a wealth of material compiled still locked in my notebooks, was published this morning.
Along a snaking, pot-holed, mud road that leads away from Douala’s international airport, motorists pass road-side food carts, motor repair stores and —more recently— Chinese-operated boutiques selling everything from food stuffs to beauty products. As a young boy struggles with the rusty chain on his bicycle, the afternoon’s traffic hurries past.
From the first line: “The war tried to kill us in the spring” to the final stanza, The Yellow Birds is an astounding work of literary fiction. Authored by soldier-turned-poet Kevin Powers, the novel traces the relationship between two men in arms (one of whom dies while serving in Iraq, the reader quickly learns) in life and death, into war, out of childhood, and throughout the troubling spaces in-between.
The novel’s prose, at once heartbreaking and captivating, allows The Yellow Birds to surprise the reader with the sharp beauty of a soldier’s fear, of their pretend fearlessness, and of the Middle Eastern terrain upon which the nightmare’s of our generation (and many others) have been borne. Where the book succeeds is not in its idolization of conflict, but its honest look at how violence defines the lives of those it courts.
“I was not surprised by the cruelty of my ambivalence then. Nothing seemed more natural than someone getting killed,” Private Bartle, the book’s main character, says in an early passage after watching the platoon’s translator fall victim to a mortar strike. “I had to see the world with clear eyes, to focus on the essential. We only pay attention to rare things, and death was not rare.”
These moments, told with the earnestness of youth so exposed to the elements, is what gives Powers’ short novel such gravity —a force that pulls the audience in, towards, and dangerously close, to a conflict rarely spoken of in American households. Yet family, or the struggle to sustain family through wartime, is exactly where this book’s tension emanates.
For instance, a brief encounter between Bartle and Murphy’s mother leaves the reader to ponder how significant some passing words and sentiments can be. A promise to keep a friend safe spawns a sense of responsibility that only grows throughout the course of the novel. For Powers, though, building up and out of this promise (largely impossible to keep) gives the story legs —legs that limp towards the inevitable conclusion.
In an interview about the book, Powers discusses the power of fiction in the context of war. While straining to assert the book’s neutrality (it isn’t to be read as indictment or endorsement of the war in Iraq, simply a testament to the existence of that war), he said that fiction does have a unique ability to relate the details of conflict in a unconventional way.
“It is perfectly understandable that people become inured to the violence when it is presented to them in the same way for ten years or more,” Powers said. “Art will sometimes allow you to see the same thing in a new way.”
However, Powers’ deftest touch is saved for the inner monologues of Private Bartle. The intermittent reflections are presented as if to suggest some eternal convergence with the grand soliloquy of war.
“Maybe if things happened a little differently…” Private Bartle reflects. “But things happened the way they happened without regard for our desire for them to have happened another way.”
What bleeds from these passages are not the musings of a stubborn and hungry war-machine created by the world’s most powerful military, it’s the seething helplessness felt by those tasked with responsibilities most colossal: to feign power when positioned as pawn.
This admission of powerlessness is what military leaders cover up with badges and stripes, it’s the sense they physically shake loose when smacking their soldiers awake before each firefight. None of this takes away from the soldiers bravery, though. In fact, Powers’ words only strengthen that: to be courageous is to be afraid and commit yourself to duty in spite of that fear.
As the details of the Private Murphy’s death arise —late in the novel— the narrative twists, keeping the viewer enraptured as war forces its way into life at home. When Murphy’s death is deemed criminally curious to military investigators, Private Bartle is trapped under the final consequence of that small, passing promise made to Murphy’s mother.
The reader follows Bartle as he bears this punishment with steady control and calmness —as if the routine of prison pleasantly reminds him of combat boots and body armor, when his minutes and meals, miles and memories weren’t truly his own, either.
But the impact on the reader (or at least me) was profound: that justice (in some principled, practiced, way) doesn’t, and perhaps cannot, exist when war is involved. It wasn’t judicious that Bartle’s and Murphy’s translator was murdered (or that helping the US troops required the translator to wear a mask to obscure his identity and protect his family). It wasn’t judicious when the soldiers fired their bullets into the body of an old woman who drove a car down the wrong street at the wrong moment. It wasn’t judicious that, in seeking to protect the feelings of a friend’s mother, Private Bartle surely damaged the feelings and relations with his own. Powers show us that there is little, if anything, judicious about war and the places it touches.
But as the book pulls to a close, Powers leaves the reader with the final image: A body, now lost to time, being swept into the vast expanse of a Middle Eastern waterway. It is the return to the elemental, in the same way that the book’s title embraces the natural world, that strikes as most profound.
War, like the systems that it corrupts, seems a natural and composite element of our world. What it takes away, it never fully replaces. War shows no remorse, utters no apology, and strives only to satisfy itself. For in taking the lives of men (and women), it proves to be the ultimate predator.
In an op-ed penned last week, Prof. Anne-Marie Slaughter took square aim at President Obama regarding his administration’s reaction (or lack thereof) to new evidence that the Syrian government is using chemical weapons against it’s own people.
Invoking memories of Former President Clinton’s ill-handled response to reports of genocide in Rwanda, Slaughter is quick to warn readers about the cost of inaction:
The reason the Obama administration does not want to recognize that chemical weapons are being used in Syria is because Obama warned the Syrian regime clearly and sharply in August against using such weapons. “There would be enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical-weapons front or the use of chemical weapons,” he said. “That would change my calculations significantly.”
But while I would like to (and often do) agree that action is not only necessary, but also required in situations of human suffering, the 10-year anniversary of George Bush’s infamous “Mission Accomplished” speech —and a reflection written by James Wright, yesterday— suggests that the situation presents something more akin to a ‘do and die’ situation
Unabashedly, Wright is quick to note that when a country chooses to fight in war, that country must also accept that they will die in that war. Wright’s suggestion, then, is that the true cost of conflict is not only greater that anticipated, but it is also exacerbated when the mission or outcome (these “goalposts” as Wright calls them) morph over time:
President Bush is correct that it will take time for history to judge the consequences for Iraq of the American military involvement. It is not too soon to acknowledge the costs of that involvement. Nor is it premature to recognize that wars with shifting objectives, wars that pursue values rather than tangible targets, are far harder to reconcile against the costs.
But that is why dualities (to intervene or not) posed by Slaughter should strike the reader as too simplified, too… hell… Hawkish.
In a country like Syria, we’re only just beginning to understand the ways the impact of conflict has deformed our measures of right and wrong, how long-term hostilities, and the people who suffer them, only complicate our understanding of enemy and ally, and how instability that threatens one actor is liable to compel responses from another (i.e. Iran).
To avoid repeated (error-ridden) forays internationally, Wright calls for cooler heads, rational and tested analysis, and clear objectives when intervention is necessary. In this light, it is difficult to adopt (blindly) the clarion call of Slaughter.
In fact, in Slaughter’s own words, intervention should take place regardless of challenges that could create even further complexity and suffering in the long term:
The world does not see the complex calculations inside the White House — the difficulty of achieving any positive outcomes in Syria even with intervention, the possible harm to Obama’s domestic agenda if he plunges into the morass of another conflict in the Middle East.
Opting to challenge Obama’s administration on the basis of populism:
The world would see Syrian civilians rolling on the ground, foaming at the mouth, dying by the thousands while the United States stands by.
With there respective pedigrees, both academics surely understand the immense cost and consequence of the issues they tackle. But behind their arguments, are two radically different assumptions; assumptions that —if correct, and by this I mean in-keeping with the personal philosophies of each academic— follow logically from their worldviews.
For Wright, acts of war or intervention must be informed, or perhaps even derived from, accounting of costs and benefits: providing force for the purpose of principle may well jeopardize any positive “end game.”
For Slaughter, the act of intervention appears as American duty, owed to others given the values espoused by the United States. While Slaughter is not agnostic about the cost of intervention, “the decision to do nothing” violates a far more essential moral code. [It may also have to do with Slaughter’s privileging of US “soft power,” but that is a story for another post].
Thus, the challenge is overcoming a “level of analysis” problem: the granularities of why war is ‘bad’ are tough to reconcile with an ideological argument that asserts wars of justice, or on principle, as necessary for their own sake. Either way, the distinction in approach should prod a reader towards the ultimate question: On what grounds should the international community (or even The United States) risk the lives of their own for others?
If the answer to that question is limited, our expectations for success should be too.
Publishing an article is a little like pushing send on a really important email —to millions of people. You hope the spelling is correct and the grammar passable, and that each and every carefully crafted anecdote or event is factually sound. Like an email, the material included is turned over to others for scrutiny, from all corners of the globe.
Last Thursday at 7:17 in the morning, my 16-month project came to an end with the publication (and that dreaded sent-email feeling) of Overexposed: A Photographer’s War with PTSD. For nearly a year an a half, I’d been harassing photographers, editors, leaders in the field, and families of those affected, about the realities of mental illness in the world of conflict photography.
This spring, Gilbertson will release his latest book, Bedrooms of the Fallen, published by Chicago University Press. Information about this project can be found at his website, here.
Throughout this period, I often felt like the proverbial ghost of forgotten (or long-to-be-forgotten) pasts: I would present myself as a professional, curious and fascinated by one’s experience of trauma, only to force the subject to recount some of the most traumatic and haunting moments of their life.
This is exactly how I met the man, Ashley Gilbertson, who would play a most important role in this story.
The first time I saw Ash, he was sipping an espresso in Third Rail Coffee in Manhattan’s West Village. With wild hair, untamed, sporting his customary white shirt with black pants, Ashley kept one eye on me and the other on his young son, playing with a pair of toy cars in the small, busy coffee shop.
I was hesitant to ask the first question —the first of thousands that, at that time, neither of use knew would follow— but found his answers intelligent, considered… almost too perfect —Like a man who’d prided himself on knowing what to say, and to whom to say it.
His aptitude didn’t strike me as fake. In fact, it felt exceedingly honest. However clean the answers had become, the edges had been softened through repetition. The routine response illustrated the problem: mental illness wasn’t just a topic of interest or curiosity for Ashley, it was his way of life.
One of my favorite quotes from this encounter never made it into the article. When I asked about the long-term consequences of covering conflict, he said: ”While conflict has a clear start and end point, war lives with families for generation.”
It would take months to recognize just how apt that comment was.
By mid-fall 2011, I had offered to help Ashley as an unofficial photography intern. There wasn’t any money in the post (and whatever remains of modern journalistic ethics would certainly not permit any payment for these purposes), but the position allowed me to learn more about Ashley, his work, and his family.
In the weeks and months that followed, I asked about everything, from the harsh “What did L. Cpl. Miller look like when he was carried down the stairs? to the intimate: “When does Ashley feel safe?” (asked of Joanna, in the final interview for the article).
There was no telling if the questions asked would yield an important (or includable) response, but as I grew to understand both Joanna and Ashley better (a privilege for which I have only the article as return payment) I grew more confident that the story I would eventually tell would be more representative of their own specific struggle than any trend piece on the subject, the ones often written from 50,000 feet with conclusions too neat and tidy.
Heeding advice of a former instructor —something I loath to admit given her penchant, also, to condemn cliché— the the specifics of this story made the piece more universal. Buried in these small details, wider lessons are hidden, and in a world where PTSD is still stigmatized, the most personal anecdotes might inspire others to share their experiences: personal, embarrassing, or otherwise alienating.
This isn’t to say there weren’t hiccups. Crises on both sides (issues too sensitive to speak about, concerns over the veracity of some facts and how they were remembered, the consideration of professional integrity) did give me pause a number of times, but it was the Gilbertson’s unrelenting acceptance, of me and this project, that kept this project alive. The result, at least as far as I could have hoped and have humbly been told, was a story both readable and engaging, that forces the reader to reflect on the facts of the world of mental illness.
Last Thursday, hours after the piece was live, I sent Gilbertson an email to thank him and Joanna (again) for being so patient and supportive during the writing and editing process. I told them that the story was online, and I’d love to hear if they get any response. That afternoon, I received an email from Ash, who was out of the country on vacation but monitoring the story on Facebook and Twitter. After a brief introduction, and a kind thank you for the piece, he added the following line:
“I always joke about hating being the PTSD guy but today it seems as though I was the hash tag for the condition. How embarrassing!” (*He would later tweet: “I’m so embarrassed” in response to The Atlantic’s tweet about the story)
But this response, alone, says more about who Ashley is than anything else. While few people would choose to be the poster child, or “hash tag,” for a condition, Ash’s willingness to share the story belays an important personal grand incentive: to raise awareness.
“PTSD is still not a recognized wound of war,” Ashley often told me throughout the reporting process.
As proof, he often cited a particular example: While working on Bedrooms of the Fallen, Ash met the mother of an American military veteran. Distraught by her own family experience with the condition, she talked about the realities of PTSD: If a soldier comes back without an arm or leg, he is praised for his sacrifice and treated like a hero, she told him. “But when her son returned home suffering with mental illness, “people would cross the street to avoid him.”
For those asked to make the ultimate sacrifice, ignorance of, or uncaring silence regarding, the costs and consequences of PTSD is no longer an option. While it affects soldiers predominantly, trauma exerts a toll across a wide array of actors, and the sooner we understand this breadth of impact, the better (or more likely) we’ll be —as a community, country, society— at addressing it.
For being a small part this story, I’m eternally thankful. For everyone that took the time to comment, share, Tweet, or email me about the piece, I am honored you shared those moments with me.
For those who missed the short documentary, published with the article on The Atlantic, I’ve embedded the clip below.
I am only a spectator for today’s United States election. As a Canadian, I can merely suggest how I, were I given the responsibility, might vote in what some have called the “election of a generation.”
For the past few months I’ve listened to arguments —the forthright, the ill-informed, the wistful, the impassioned and the politically naive— about whether this country should be run by a black, former community organizer from Chicago who once stridently preached “Change,” or a white, corporate juggernaut, with a (self-professed) business acumen superior to the current, and aforementioned, Commander-in-Chief, who wants to make America great (again?).
In the land of perpetual political campaign, these two men have set out across the 50 states hoping to capture, if only for a moment and a ballot, the essence of what Americans want.
But behind the scenes, in the darker corners of campaign headquarters, in the holding areas where both candidates take deep breaths before mounting another stage, shaking another hand, one has to believe the sense of melancholy —of promises impossibly proffered— must be overwhelming. If 2008 was the year for change, 2012 is certainly the year for patience.
Back in November 2008, in a dusty beige-walled business office at a six-room hostel in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile, I watched Obama accept what appeared to be the world’s worst job offer —President-elect of the United States.
As the global economy teetered in response (at least in part) to the economic stress created by runaway banks and the “toxic debt” amassed over years with insufficient financial regulation, President Obama had to take the reins of a country at war (two, actually) that also sported an ailing international reputation.
Yet somehow, as I sat on that worn couch, talking politics with other curious and engaged non-Americans, there was a sense that the United States would be stronger, smarter, more productive and more worthy of respect with Obama in charge.
Four years later, I still think we were right. Unfortunately, without a vote that doesn’t matter much.
In world where I can watch breaking news on my phone and scroll through countless 140-character Tweets that wash over my computer screen, citizens (and importantly voters) have come to demand a government so responsive that even a reasonably timely solution is open for critique. And it was that very Obama-inspired “Hope” —plastered on campaign materials, stencilled on the country’s crumbling highway overpasses, and graffitied on public spaces across a nation— that has become Obama’s stiffest opponent during the 2012 campaign.
Obama hasn’t made good on every promise, but one has to think it’s because there was so much to fix. To solve a decade-long crisis of leadership, he was going to need more than four years.
Even as the viciousness of the 2012 campaign reached crescendo, the country was still climbing back to pre-crash conditions; a country stewarded out of the spiral by economic bandaids and political emergency measures, despite continued obstruction from the Red side of the aisle —a fact apparently forgotten among Republicans/Tea Party-ites. (Sidenote: I wonder how many Democrats from the Cold War era imagined the most significant threat to America’s future would be the “Reds” at home?)
In fairness, Obama has made his mistakes. His vision —or at least his voiced opinions— have not always been followed by the necessary conviction to make good on those promises. He knows perhaps more clearly than his critics that rhetoric alone cannot create policies, and that promises rarely look the same after they’ve been fed through the political machine.
But a vote for Romney (or worse, simply against Obama) is not just a rejection of the “new America” —that near-utopian, post-partisan political playground of compromise and cooperation. It is vote in favor of the tired, broken, polarized, ‘winner-take-all’ political environment that breeds the very animosity seen in the vitriol of this campaign. It is a vote in favor of an American political landscape imbued with a simple and destructive creed: humiliate-or-destroy-thy-opponent-at-all-cost.
This ethos praises political victory over tolerance and personal privilege over pragmatic politicking. The system it spawns is neither reflective of democratic ideals nor the oft-voiced principles that Americans believe make their country so strong. Instead, it is a system based on division, of special interest couched in an American narrative. It is a political system destined to leave the many behind.
While this post comes late on election day, it shouldn’t be construed as a last-minute appeal to sway the fervent and stiff-necked from their positions. This piece is merely intended as record:
Four years ago, on this day, I made a bet: that the impatience our generation would limit Obama’s time in office to a single term, that the real cost of “Change” was patience our generation didn’t have.
Today —despite the money on the line— I desperately hope I lose that bet.
I’m thinking about writing a short story about a journalist who, while waiting for a break with a number of skittish sources, spends days sitting in a largely empty Subway (the “restaurant”) in small-town Oklahoma, looking forlorn —his eyes peering unfocused through the front window.
The president of the strife-torn Central African Republic quit under pressure on Friday after regional leaders held him responsible for failing to halt the continuing sectarian violence in the country.
Full report via The New York Times
A handful of our favorites: Foxing Quarterly, n+1, The White Review (founded by a former Paris Review intern), The New York Review of Books, The Public Domain Review, The New York Tyrant, to name just a few.