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

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I suppose all things must end. #offassignment #exit

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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.

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

The irreplaceable David Carr, dead at 58

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 pain we will not see

In August, The Atlantic published as piece titled: The War Photo No One Would Publish. The story looks at the fate of a single photograph taken by Kenneth Jarecke back in 1991. At the time, Jarecke was on assignment with TIME, corralled (as most journalists and photographers were) in the “pool” system, established by the Public Affairs Office of the US military. These protective outfits were designed to provide members of the media a “front-row seat” to Operation Desert Storm. In late February, as the Iraqi military signaled retreat, hightailing it across the Kuwaiti desert for the border, US air forces struck one of these Iraqi convoys leaving a mess of mechanical and human remains strewn across the wind-blown sands. This was the landscape Jarecke stumbled upon on February 28, 1991.

That afternoon, Jarecke did what any photographer would do: he worked the scene, documenting a discrete moment in time —archiving, visually, an event that owed its arrangement to war’s consequence. One photograph was particularly striking. Jarecke captured the charred upper body, arms and head of an Iraqi soldier, trapped inside a bombed out truck. While Jarecke filed his images soon after, American audiences wouldn’t see the photograph for nearly a month —a delay owed, among other things, to editorial disputes and myriad interpretations of decency or suitability.

While many of the sources interviewed in the piece believed censorship was a mistake, the article’s main meditation on civic education, media and our relationship to war draws out important debates on the public’s need for information, and the consequence of getting that equation wrong.

Time and technology play a role, of course. Towards the end of piece, the author discusses how the gatekeepers of yesteryear are not as capable of keeping an image (jarring or not) from the wider public. But the question of censorship —from the battlefield to the photo desk— should not be shirked too quickly. Today, censorship has a younger but worrying sibling —content overload. Because of the wealth of visual content, images that ought to matter might be missed entirely if not highlighted by major outlets. This suggests, at its core, the so called “mainstream media” retains responsibility to prioritize in service of truth, to inform in proportion to importance, and —in the case of war photography— to render the full color and cost of conflict.

Our current media landscape (that sleepless circle of revolving “information”) creates space for pundits to fire away with half truths and misconceptions. “Analysis”, broadly defined, has become so varied as to render meaningful debate nearly impossible. But this is where photographs, and the intrinsic value of what I’ll call “the moment presented”, can break the cycle.

This doesn’t mean that photographs cannot be wielded in service of specific interests —even the photographer, in selecting one of endless scenes around him/her, has edited the world of experience. But photographs provide the basic foundation upon which debate (and engaged conversation) might occur.¹

War, especially today, is murky enough. But how we come to see it —to experience it— ought to be informed by actual events, made public and debated. Jarecke knows this better than most. In The Atlantic piece, his 1991 interview with American Photo provides the final quote: “If we’re big enough to fight a war, we should be big enough to look at it.”

 


 

¹For example: Bag News Notes, run by Michael Shaw, tackles the “visual politics” of photographs, providing both a critical reading of context, which frames discussion of the image’s content.

Perpetual Protest: Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution

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

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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