To Catch a Pirate

After five months of work, and some careful legal pruning, TIME has published my latest long-read: The Most Dangerous Waters in the World.  According to the UN’s latest study (spanning 1995-2013) the high seas and commercial channels of Southeast Asia are home to the world’s most active pirates. While the location might surprise some (What about Captain Phillips?) piracy’s persistence shouldn’t.  Piracy is the world’s oldest international crime and has confounded even the world’s strongest (and most adept) navies for more than 500 years.

In June, I spent time with the Indonesian marine police. Based on the northern edge of Batam Island, the police outfit was tasked with patrolling a seemingly endless coastline —stretching from the Port of Singapore out into the deep waters of the South China Sea.

Towards the end of one patrol, the crew spotted a wooden skiff angling across our intended path, headed to Belakang Padang. In the 1980s, that small group of islands was a pirate haven. On sight of the vessel, however, the second in command, an officer named Borish, decide to investigate.

Indonesia's marine police stop a vessel during their afternoon patrol off the coast of Batam Island. When asked why, officers noted the ship "looked wrong" and wanted to investigate. Beyond piracy, marine authorities contend with high rates of international smuggling in Southeast Asia. (Photo: Adam McCauley)
Indonesia’s marine police stop a vessel during their afternoon patrol off the coast of Batam Island. When asked why, officers noted the ship “looked wrong” and wanted to investigate. Beyond piracy, marine authorities contend with high rates of international smuggling in Southeast Asia. (Photo: Adam McCauley)

As we pulled alongside the ship, Borish walked to the bow of the police vessel, tossed an anchor rope across the void and called out to the captain. With the boats steadied, captain of the skiff, carrying a small, dust-worn backpack, climbed aboard. He pulled out a series of permits —required by Indonesian law for any vessel transporting cargo— for Borish to review. The documents checked out, but Borish wasn’t convinced. “It just looks wrong,” he said, as he walked out of the cabin.

Indonesia's marine police stop a vessel during their afternoon patrol off the coast of Batam Island. When asked why, officers noted the ship "looked wrong" and wanted to investigate. Beyond piracy, marine authorities contend with high rates of international smuggling in Southeast Asia. (Photo: Adam McCauley)
Before leaving the ship, officers uncovered a hidden compartment in the bow of the ship. It was empty —on this day. (Photo: Adam McCauley)

The skiff was crudely crafted out of raw wood, sporting multiple cracks. The crew’s wet laundry was hung to dry over a taut, rusty wire strung between two wooden pillars that propped up the boat’s slanting roof. Making his way past a stack bagged cement sand, Borish checked the engine hold, looked at the motor, and then rooted through various storage compartments. These were the easy locations to hide contraband, he later said. Finding little of interest, Borish walked to the bow of the boat, shifting empty crates to reveal a large, concealed stowage area —empty, save some residual sand and paper refuse. “Not today,” he said, as he stepped back onto the police vessel.

A member of the Indonesian marine police jumps from the deck of a moored, confiscated, Thai-registered fishing boat to the dock outside police headquarters in Sekupang, Batam Island in Indonesia. (Photo: Adam McCauley)
A member of the Indonesian marine police jumps from the deck of a moored, confiscated, Thai-registered fishing boat to the dock outside police headquarters in Sekupang, Batam Island in Indonesia. (Photo: Adam McCauley)

On each patrol, Indonesian officers estimate they stop between two and five boats —few registering anything more exciting than some expired permits. But traveling for hours, transfixed by the crystal blue of the open water, I tried to comprehend just how difficult the search for pirates is. Even months later, I’m left with a clumsy metaphor:

Pretend you are in the middle of a pitch-black football (soccer) stadium. Hundreds of people are walking in various directions, silently, around you. Among them are a handful of criminals, largely indistinguishable, who intend to rob others on the field. Your job is to track and stop them. But instead of a flashlight, you carry a lantern, casting weak light in all directions.

How many could you catch?


The Art of Reading

Interesting post by Christopher Beha (for The New Yorker) on Henry James, Young Adult Fiction, and how we value the art of the novel.

While the post runs long —perhaps too long— with some esoteric specifics of James’ conception of the novel, and the necessary foundations of good fiction, the essay also tackles the West’s (I’m not sure, even now, whether North America and Europe are equally implicated) cultural slide away from the serious —a fetishizing of Y.A. fiction’s simplified view of the world.

While I am not a literary critic, the sensibility of today’s reader is always of interest. Does it matter than Harry Potter was a runaway success? Maybe not. But if these trends inform the larger universe of the reading world —if they indicate a growing hesitation to engage deeply with the messiness of real life— then we might be reading more while learning less.


The Trouble with Titles: On Perspective and Opinion

On Friday afternoon, I published an op-ed highlighting *some* of the challenges associated with international peacekeeping. Specifically, the piece tackled the unequal troop contributions when comparing the members of the U.N. Security Council (US, UK, Russia, China and France) and countries such as India, Pakistan, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Philippines, Bangladesh and Fiji. Troops contributions from the former group now constitutes only four percent of all U.N. troops, while the latter provide nearly 40 percent of UN personnel. This imbalance comes at a moment where conflicts are both increasingly asymmetrical and involve actors who pledge no allegiance to compacts of international law.

After the story made its rounds on social media, I received a few comments and critiques. While perhaps unnecessary to tackle them directly, I believe the topic is important enough —and chronically under-discussed— to warrant a short follow up.

On the title: For those familiar with the journalism world, titles are far more important and infinitely more hazardous than they might appear. But they are often the choice of an editor, not the author. In fairness, compelling readers with clickable, cogent, and captivating story titles requires a little bit of dark magic. But sometimes, the compelling can be compromising. In this case, when I submitted my final text to TIME, the story was titled: Prisoners of Peace. An hour later, readers saw this:

This headline ruffled some feathers:

For what it is worth (and this is clear for those who read the story), you’ll notice that I never use “poor” as a descriptor in the piece. Instead, I opt for terms like “developing countries” or the “global south” to broker the difference between the groups of countries I compare. These terms are not perfect and will (no doubt) upset those who, parsing language instead of intention, take offense for their own reasons. But to respond to @sallyyui directly: I agree.

“Poor” does not best describe the countries listed in the article. Few would (or should) argue that the differences between India and Rwanda, for instance, aren’t as significant as those between the United States and India. In addition, “poor” suggests that finance is the only measure of importance. Economics are part of the argument: poorer countries will have relatively less money to invest in military training, leaving their troops relatively less prepared than their counterparts. But money isn’t everything. Insofar as we’ve endorsed peacekeeping as a collective action with “international responsibility”, the burden of peacekeeping ought to be more equitably shared. This is an argument from principle.

On the question of agency: A friend/colleague suggested the piece may have sidestepped the question of agency. I agree. Posited as an op-ed, the story was intended to condemn. In this case, the indictment looked something like this: The West/developed countries is/are sitting back on its/their laurels while the hard work of peace is foisted upon the less fortunate in conflicts that are only growing more dangerous. This narrative shrinks the voice of these “victim” countries: it suggests the current imbalance is one where the less fortunate are merely “put upon” by the powerful — the cattle led towards the slaughter. This isn’t accurate.

For one, contributing troops has clear financial benefits for member states. Writing in African Affairs this spring, Danielle Beswick found that Rwanda’s 2010 participation in peace operations earned “reimbursements from the U.N. worth more than two-thirds of its defense budget” that year. These financial motivations complicate any “argument from principle” and belay the unfortunate moral architecture of international peacekeeping: states, regardless of their status, often look out for their own interests first —and opt to pull the levers of power at their disposal. After all, while Rwanda might contribute a greater number of peacekeeping troops than the United States, the Rwandan government also armed and directed factions of the M23 rebels in neighboring DRC —a group that U.N. troops (Rwandans included) were specifically deployed to pacify.

More to the point, just because Rwanda chooses to contribute troops, does not explain why their contribution (and the contribution of similar countries) must outstrip that of the West.  Inequality does not negate agency, inequality shapes agency. In the case of the United Nations, the inequality is clear.

On the question of understanding: A few hours after the story was published, I received the following response:

When I asked for elaboration, @DarcyPenrhyn responded with the following:

In fairness, @DarcyPenrhyn’s assertions are credible. A UN commander, often the most thankless job, must navigate the physical minefields of combat, as well as the metaphorical minefields of politics. These commanders are bound to the UN-issued mandate —and they are present thanks only to the grace of the host government and international backing (troops, money, etc…). These commanders also oversee troops from myriad countries, and these various groups arrive with specific restrictions on how they are allowed to be used. Some troops might not be permitted to patrol at night, others restricted to specific tasks in particular regions. In short, the logistics of a multinational peacekeeping operation can be crushing.

But @DarcyPenrhyn’s critiques pertain to a separate charge: that peacekeeping is, itself, an ineffective tool.
This is the most vital debate of all, and it is not without baggage. More importantly, though, it isn’t the central argument in my article.

But on that count, I’ll share a single thought: From Suez in 1956 to Rwanda in 1994, from 1960 Katanga (Congo) to this month’s mission in the Central African Republic, peacekeeping has been (and will continue to be) a half-measure —an expensive and increasingly risky band-aid hastily applied to slow the flow of blood while the staff seeks desperately for a competent doctor. Peacekeeping isn’t pretty, and it isn’t getting prettier. But so long as it persists, we ought not overlook it.

My op-ed was not intended —in a meager 800 words— to clearly render the entire landscape of U.N. peacekeeping. The goal was to illustrate how responsibility —and the empty rhetoric that follows its invocation— demands accounting. For what it is worth, today’s balance sheet —on the measure of troop contributions (among others)— reveals an increasingly worrisome debt.

Prisoners of Peace

Screen Shot 2014-09-12 at 4.49.34 PMToday, I published a short op-ed on last month’s kidnapping of 45 Fijian peacekeepers in the Golan Heights by the Al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front. Thankfully, the Fijian peacekeepers were released yesterday, but their two week ordeal illustrates a worrying symptom of a broken system: today, peacekeepers are more apt to serve in regions where there is “no peace to keep”; where the potential belligerents are non-state actors (rebels, extremist groups, etc…) to whom the rules of international law —and the logic of deterrence— matter little; and where Western (or developed countries) loathe to donate their own troops.

As a result, these blue helmets in the world’s most vulnerable conditions are primarily culled from the developing world.

While you can read the full article here, I’ve included the compiled UN data below.

One additional note, of course, is China’s increased contribution to the UN ranks, particularly during the last decade. The UN missions in Mali and South Sudan, for instance, have seen the Chinese don blue helmets with increasing frequency. For some, this willingness to deploy troops signals a growing “militarization” of their role in Africa. For others, however, their contributions note a shift in political rhetoric: once a strict proponent of state sovereignty with an acute allergy towards principles of foreign intervention, China has become more dependent on their international connections. Measures to ensure stability, then, are in line with their own political interests. But we’ll leave that debate for another day.

Soldiers From Developing Countries Have Become the World’s Peacekeepers

In the fight to preserve stability, who shoulders the burden? My latest @TIME


On Aug. 27, rebels from the al-Qaeda-allied al-Nusra Front stormed the Golan Heights border crossing between Syria and Israel, home to one of the oldest U.N. peacekeeping operations. While two contingents of Philippine peacekeepers managed to flee the rebel attack, 45 Fijian troops were captured and taken away by the rebels to parts unknown.

The Fijians were finally released on Sept. 11, but the two-week crisis crystallized a persistent yet under-reported fact: while the U.N. calls upon the international community to act in times of crises, it is often soldiers from developing nations who shoulder the stiffest burden.

In 1994, on the heels of the Rwandan genocide, the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council (China, Russia, France, the U.K. and the U.S.) provided 20% of all U.N. peacekeeping personnel.

But by 2004, Security Council nations contributed only 5% of U.N. personnel. This July, amid a tumultuous summer of violent…

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Whose History?

Image via: The New York Times

In an important op-ed on teaching history in America, James R. Grossman —Executive Director of the American History Association— discusses how curricula in the United States has, and will continue, to change over time. Grossman writes:

This fall, whites will constitute a minority of public-school students in the United States. “Our” past is now more diverse than we once thought, whether we like it or not.

This stat might shock some, but Grossman’s intention is to widen the perspective of the American public. He asserts that “history” as we know it today is irreducible to the simple scripts of American exceptionalism or the “American Dream”, and that the teaching of history ought not be attacked as it tackles the nuance of accumulated “facts” over time.

…Fewer and fewer college professors are teaching the United States history our grandparents learned — memorizing a litany of names, dates and facts — and this upsets some people. “College-level work” now requires attention to context, and change over time; includes greater use of primary sources; and reassesses traditional narratives. This is work that requires and builds empathy, an essential aspect of historical thinking.

This, too, is an established and evolving perspective, but one that armchair critics of the College Board’s new curriculum framework —to whom the op-ed is targeted— seem to have forgotten. In 1960, E.H. Carr delivered a series of lectures titled, “What Is History?” and tackled the tricky (and trying) relationship between historians and their facts.

It used to be said that facts speak for themselves. This is, of course, untrue. The facts speak only when the historian calls on them: it is he who decides to which facts to give the floor, and it what order or context.

This does not condemn history as listless, so much as it demands a historian’s carefully justification for the conclusions he or she might assert. More to the point, Grossman proposes that the field of history is necessarily revisionist —not for the purpose of politics or privilege, but those of posterity and practice. Meaningful scholarship breeds careful, sensitive scholars —and the world is far too complex to give American students an easy pass.