The Wake of Creative Madness

For a man often loathed by purists for his latitude with facts and their fictions, Hunter recognized the strictures and responsibilities of journalism-as-craft

Recently The New York Times reviewed “Stories I Tell Myself”, a memoir by Juan Thompson, son of the manic and mythic Hunter S. Thompson. As an avid Thompson fan (particularly in the early years of my journalistic life), I approach this particular tome with care: Thompson the younger was harmed greatly by the presence (and absence) of Hunter, and his scars from a childhood under duress demonstrate that creative energy —unbound— can leave splinters in lives lived close to such explosions. Thinking through my own relationship —albeit literary— with HST, I found an earlier post (written nearly five years ago) citing some valuable lessons Hunter offered to the next generation of journalists.

For a man often loathed by purists for his latitude with facts and their fictions, Hunter recognized the strictures and responsibilities of journalism-as-craft. You just had to look for the evidence. I’ve reposted that original article (in full) below.

Whittling away the travel hours this week, I found – and subsequently devoured (again) – Hunter S. Thompson’s The Rum Diary. For those that haven’t read it, the novel tells the ‘fictional’ story of Paul Kemp; a vagabond journalist who, after covering beats in New York and Rome, sets upon Puerto Rico in search of profits and the exotic. The novel is quite short and interestingly it borders on the autobiographical. Indeed, both Paul Kemp and Hunter Thompson hail from ‘small-town’ America, express a propensity for embracing escapism and the drink; and each hold an unsettled view of their own place in the world.

Importantly, this short book contains a critical lesson for aspiring journalists or writers alike. While discussing satisfaction in life with a nubile and naïve lover (companion to his ‘man of the times’ newspaper colleague), Kemp mutters that, “Most people who deal in words don’t have much faith in them and I am no exception – especially the big ones like Happy and Love and Honest and Strong.” For Kemp, and by extension Thompson, a journalist should foremost be concerned with the clarity of their message. For Kemp, these billowy words are not deft enough.

While authenticity and accuracy are surely comparable pillars of any journalistic code, the ability to convey facts, stories and events in a manner clear to all readers, should not be overlooked. For Kemp, the issue with Happy or Love is not that they are vacant of meaning, but merely that they are imprecise (in fact they mean too many things). These words are the layperson’s vernacular of the everyday which, while intentioned enough for random conversation, fails to impart the specifics needed when written. The critique hinges on this relativity (that happy must have an antithesis, yes (sadness) but that it is also a function of degree (happier today than yesterday etc…). According to Kemp, it is the “priest or the fool [who] use them (these words) with any confidence.”

In the end, if these relative descriptors are not made viciously clear, the value of theses words is diminished and the accuracy of the story is reduced. If we consider that the journalist–reader relationship is one of trust, earned through the cagey application of razor sharp nouns and verbs, then any sacrifice relating to the language used will leave the reader with doubt – potentially one that will linger.

For aspiring writers the world over (and I count myself within this group) our lives will always be an expedition to find the perfect collection of letters, lest our own language take away from the power of our thought.


Our “fight” against terrorism is being shaped by modernity’s perfect storm: urbanization, economic inequality, corruption, political fragility, historical grievance and even climate change have seeded the grounds for an unwanted harvest. The topic seemed paradoxically too big to be, and not to be, a story. So, after months of reflection, I decided to be, and not to be, a “journalist”.

I arrived in the United Kingdom —the first flight into Heathrow that day— on a cool (early) morning in late September. My destination, two suitcases in hand, was the town of Oxford, and my new home at the Department of Politics and International Relations.

As many readers will know, I’ve worked as a journalist for the last five years —a period which has seen stories (or the search for stories) take me from the jungles of Ecuador to the temblor-crumbled streets of Nepal. Between these assignments and adventures, like message heard in static, was a deepening interest among a suite of issues both increasingly relevant and difficult to tackle. One of these was the apparent rise in insurgent (or “terrorist”) groups in West Africa.

For me, this topic was being shaped by modernity’s perfect storm: urbanization, economic inequality, corruption, political fragility, historical grievance and even climate change were seeding the grounds for an unwanted harvest. Moreover, the topic seemed paradoxically too big to be, and not to be, a story. So, after months of reflection, I decided to be, and not to be, a “journalist”.

My return to the academy has been tricky. One of journalism’s great traits is its vitality —its steady, often straining, pulse that signals to readers that this world is alive. But my impatience is mitigated by a steadily increasing gravity in purpose. By this, I really mean a growing confidence in my own ability to identify (and commit) to a story I believe will demand tellers for the rest of my life’s years.

And today, re-checking the The New York Times site before signing off, I caught the following headline:

Screen Shot 2016-01-02 at 11.20.11 PM
Source: The New York Times

The piece, strongly reported by Carlotta Gall, makes clear a range of growing security concerns about the expansion and sustainability of insurgent groups across West and North Africa. It might not be a “scoop” in the traditional sense, but it ought to be read as a clarion call. The editors, deciding to put the piece on A1 (front page) ostensibly felt the same.

For now, however, I’ll leave the story link here for readers to explore on their own. And I will be addressing particular conclusions/assumptions/suggestions of this in an upcoming series of posts. In these upcoming installments, I will outline my present work —its potential value and its weaknesses, in the hopes of engaging readers to comment and converse. Above all, this is a (re-)commitment to this online web space so often ignored amid the noisy chambers of the internet.

So, finally, this site —which has served as home for more than four years— might soon shift to meet my current demands, and will ideally serve as a platform to stimulate a new set of conversations. These are tricky conversations to begin, but essential conversations to attempt. I’m also keen to experiment with new ways to engage with readers (and their significant questions). And, of course, it’s 2016. So we better get started.

Whose History?

Meaningful scholarship breeds careful, sensitive scholars —and the world is far too complex to give American students an easy pass.

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.

Exceptionally American: The uncomfortable relationship with human rights

On Thursday, the Obama administration asserted the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights did not extend to military and intelligence officials working abroad. By repeating a script well-rehearsed by former presidents Bush and Clinton, Obama endorsed the very sentiment that has led to military abuses in the past.

When he was found by officers of the Canadian military, Shidane Abukar Arone —a Somali citizen— said he was searching for a lost child. It was 1993 and Arone’s country was broken by famine and conflict —circumstances that would lead, seven months later, to a botched U.S. military operation and the deaths of 18 Delta Force rangers.

Detained on suspicion of trespassing, Arone was taken into custody on the evening of March 16, 1993. Sometime that evening, allegedly uttering the words “Canada, Canada, Canada,” Arone succumbed to grievous injuries sustained at the hands of the Canadian military. In the hours prior to Arone’s death, members of a highly-trained commando team subjected him to senseless beatings and, while restrained, sexual abuse. One of the team members, Master Cpl. Giasson, found the badly-beaten detainee semi-conscious and bleeding. “In Canada we cannot do this,” he told a fellow officer. “But here…”

“The Somali Affair” was one of Canada’s most embarrassing and deplorable cases of detainee abuse. From My Lai to Abu Ghraib, however, these stories are disturbingly (historically) common. With such a somber backdrop, yesterday’s US declaration on the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights is even more damning.

The treaty was designed to extend human rights responsibilities (and protections) to a country’s military and intelligence forces stationed overseas. Previously, both the Clinton and Bush administrations rejected the UN’s interpretation of the treaty’s scope, claiming the covenant only applied to US territories under formal jurisdiction. Yesterday in Geneva, the Obama administration agreed.

Intended to ban arbitrary killings, torture, unfair trials and imprisonments without judicial review, the treaty  —ratified by the U.S. Senate in 1992— continues to create tension between legal advisors who say ignoring global implications of the treaty is  “not legally tenable” and military officers who say the treaty will complicate future U.S. military operations.

The military argument, now, is party line: The United States has too many responsibilities abroad to be subject to such restrictions. Full stop. For others, the treaty is simply unnecessary as American moral fiber remains superior to any document canonized by the United Nations. (This is, I’m afraid, the legacy of American Exceptionalism in a post-9/11 world). But proposing that a military’s expansive scope should be met with the shrinking of its responsibility seems inexcusable. And presuming protection will be guaranteed by enlightened leadership is a most dangerous game.

These positions ignore what we —the public— already know about the military at war and under stress: Traumatic environments alter one’s views of what is right, wrong, and the grey area between. The acts captured in Abu Ghraib’s debasing pictures —taken by men and women who willingly degraded the value of human life— were imagined by Americans committed to their country’s cause. The “War on Terror” carved lines into Middle Eastern sand that eventually obscured the boundaries drawn by law. Sure, there was a failure in leadership, and individual decisions are never a reflection of one’s environment alone, but the soldier’s willingness to take part in abuse is born out of the very fraternity needed to stay alive far from home.

In the end, social psychology might be a blunt tool to explain, exactly, why one Canadian soldier burned Mr. Arone’s genitals with lighted cigarettes. But research does explain why people, who would otherwise object to such treatment, or intervene against such acts, decided —in these cases— not to. That’s why yesterday’s decision by US officials serves as the highest order abdication of responsibility  —it echoes the twisted logic of permissibility: “not at home, but here…” And that, of course, is particularly exceptional.

Medical science and the war against terrorism

This week on Beacon, I use Boko Haram as a test case for re-thinking the fight against terrorism.

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.

Stranded in Istanbul: An update on Soccer’s Lost Boys

In January 2014, Jason Andrew’s work (and my text), on Nigerian soccer players stranded in Istanbul, will be published in LFI Magazine —an imprint run by Leica.

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.

LFI Cover

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.

A Product of Chance

Joan couldn’t help but think of the sheer number of bombs, the profusion of bullets and the scourge of illness the couple had dodged over the last five years. Barely a quarter century old, Joan and John were members of a new generation —their lives the product of chance.

Author’s Note: Today, December 15, 2013, would have been my grandfather’s 91st birthday. The story below, a piece I wrote while still at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, stands as testament, not only to the importance of memory, but so that of my grandfather —his knowledge, guidance as a role model— who still, to me, appears larger than life. For the years that I knew him —he passed away when I was just 12—he certainly left his mark. It is in celebration, not memoriam, that I’ve published the work below.


“Are you ok?” Joan asked, straightening her calf-length skirt and brushing dust off the shoulder of her coat.

“I’m fine,” Vera replied, standing slowly and unfolding her arms, which just minutes ago were tightly wrapped around her head, she scrambled up the crumbling dirt wall of the ditch and onto the road.

The night air was cool, the sky clear and the girls’ shawls kept the chill from their necks. With the pulsing air raid siren fading softly into dark, the danger was gone.

“We’re going to be late for the dance,” Joan said, breaking the brief silence, as they walked with quickening steps down the hedge-lined streets of Aldershot, a small town in rural England.

Following the drifting Big Band melodies that poured from the town’s hall, the two women entered the main room, the air warmed by bodies in military uniform. Joan wondered if the soldiers had even noticed, let alone taken cover, from the German bomber caught in the searchlights that had just passed overhead.

Doubtful, she thought to herself, as she removed her coat and scanned the hall. Everywhere British, American, and Canadian soldiers lost their inhibitions to passing drinks—offering dances and promises to local women. It may have been wartime, but every Friday and Saturday night seemed to be their time.

Before long, Joan spotted a dark-haired soldier leering in her direction from the opposite corner of the room. In a double-breasted, dark khaki coat  —a size too large, she thought— with pale blue emblems on the shoulders, John McCulloch kept pace with the music and closed the space between them with his long strides.

“Hey Red, can I have the next dance?” he asked confidently, searching Joan’s eyes for a reaction. Registering her subtle nod, and her offered hand, he led her onto the dance floor.

“Why did it take you guys so long to get here?” Joan asked him, after noticing his uniform’s flag and markings.

John, a member of the 3rd Infantry of the Canadian Military, was supposed to have arrived a month earlier, but their entire division had been struck by Scarlet Fever while training in the Canadian Prairies. The illness had cost John two weeks in hospital and nearly 20 pounds. His once-fitted military uniform now hung loosely around the neck and waist.

Before he could answer her, however, another soldier jutted in, sweeping Joan away and into the mass of swaying bodies. John watched as Joan traded one uniformed soldier for another, before the evening ran out of songs. Joan and Vera left the hall with two soldiers by their side.


John McCulloch was a first generation Canadian, born in 1922 in the small town of Drumheller, Alberta —founded by a colonel-turned-miner, in the mineral rich valley in the Canadian west. John’s father, Jack McCulloch, had been a successful Scottish businessman who wisely invested in a series of mines soon connected by the new Canadian railroad. With his profits, Jack retired at the comfortable age of 40, moving the family of four to Comox, a small, seaside town on the northwest of Vancouver Island, when John was 14 years old.

By age 17, in 1939, John watched as his peers suited up for war. Driven by a love of his country, and, in no small measure, a desire to get out of his small town, John travelled three hours south to Victoria in the hopes of enlisting. He had never travelled outside of Canada, much less North America, but he told his friends that he’d longed to be an air force pilot. But after presenting himself to the recruiting officers and filling out the necessary forms at the street-side booth, officials told him he wasn’t old enough to serve.

Despite his pleading, the air force’s refusal was final. Undeterred, John walked two blocks down the street into the Canadian Army recruitment office and quickly signed new forms. In the field for age, John wrote “18,” adding his signature to the dotted line. Eight months later, Aldershot was his first outpost.


The war was nothing new for Joan Poulter. Aldershot had always been a military town and she had always lived in it. She’d watched the British soldiers march in full-dress —khaki-green wool, adorned with gold, silver or bronze shoulder badges— for as long as she could remember. As a child, she recalled the excitement of watching soldiers gallup through town on horseback. She could still remember the sound of the steeds’ huffing breathes and the choreographed movements of soldiers in tight formation. Even inside her house, where Joan once found her father’s British battle dress hanging in his bedroom closet, war’s fingerprints were everywhere.

Frederick Poulter, Joan’s father, had studied to be a teacher at Winchester College before the First World War took him to India. A bad case of malaria kept him from returning when his battalion was recalled in 1918. After recovering, Fredrick accepted a job with an Indian tea merchant, falling in love with the country he stayed for nearly a year until his waiting wife called him home.

Born two years after his homecoming, Joan would grow to idolize her studious father —a man who seemed to have limitless stories about the world outside of Aldershot. With a curiosity cultivated from such a young age, Joan grew to love history deeply, along with the man who taught it to her.

Her mother, Nellie Poulter, was neither interested in the numerous “historical journeys” father and daughter would take, nor the tales they would giddily share upon their return. It was Frederick who taught Joan the importance of asking questions, prodding  her to speak up for herself —even as a young girl. And her small town had many answers to give.

Aldershot was a village before the military made it a town. Caught between the rolling farmlands and pine forests of Hampshire County, it sits nearly 40 miles southwest of London. A small network of Roman-paved streets connected the town’s farm homes; those lumpy rocks, smoothed by use, were tarred each spring to keep the dust down. Aldershot had four schools and a main street that connected the surrounding homes with the luxuries of downtown: a butcher, a shoemaker, seamstress and a baker.

During wartime, however, those small luxuries were no match for the parade of soldiers.

Residents of Aldershot, like Joan’s mother Nellie, would open their homes to service men. Thousands of miles from their families, the young men found comfort and much-needed sustenance in these residences. Soldiers would bring portions of their military-issued rations for Nellie to heat up. Joan, and her friend Vera, would share tea and biscuits with the soldiers, listening to them share stories of their latest tours, their hometowns and their families.

The soldiers came for the company, but they made for a busy home. As the war grew, the small Poulter house added nephews, nieces and cousins who fled a besieged London for the safety of the countryside.

Nellie always felt sorry for the boys, though, most of whom were from Canada, and began flooding through town three months after the war began. There were “men from the cities and the prairies; the lakes; the forests; the ranches and the factories,” remembered Town Clerk D. Llewellyn Griffiths, addressing the departing soldiers after the end of the war. They were “farmers and lawyers, factors and clerks, lumbermen and scientists, trappers and doctors.” But for Nellie, the one that stuck out most, was a young man named John McCulloch.

John started visiting not long after his first dance with Joan, and quickly grew close to the family. Even Frederick, who was distrustful of many young soldiers, warmed to him. But like most soldiers in town, John could be—and often was— whisked away without warning. Time after time, however, he always found his way back to Joan and her family.

It wasn’t surprising then, months later, when John asked for Joan’s hand in marriage. Eighteen-years-old and awoken by war, the young offers of marriage were numerous, but the many who made such promises knew it was a commitment difficult to keep.

While Nellie and Fredrick liked John just fine, they felt the couple wasn’t ready for marriage. They hardly knew anything about their proposed son-in-law beyond the Canadian patches on his shoulders and the stories he’d chosen to share. So Joan’s parents wrote to John’s family in Canada. After extensive correspondence, both families agreed that the two could marry when they turned 22. They just had to survive the next four years.


The German air raids started with a flurry on September 7, 1940. Darkening the afternoon skies over London. That day, 300 German bombers dropped their explosive cargo on the city, christening a siege that would continue for 76 consecutive days.

In Aldershot, Joan’s father accepted a position as a night constable, often riding his bicycle around town in search of bombs and other incendiary devices that would often fall under the cover of darkness. Each evening, guards scanned the night sky with spotlights in search of Jerries (German aircrafts like the Dornier Do and Heinkel He) on attack from on-high. The comfort found in spotting a plane was immediately followed by pitched fear: discovered pilots would indiscriminently drop their their explosive cargo on whatever happened to lie below.

On the battlefield, John McCulloch worked as a dispatch rider for the Canadian Army Service Corps. He was responsible for traveling to the front lines to gather information and to return with it to headquarters. This data helped commanding officers deploy medical personnel were they were needed most.

John canvassed the tattered landscapes of combat, crunching empty shell casings under his feet and stepping carefully around the unexploded ordinances and dead bodies that littered the fields. He counted corpses as he went, breathing through his nose to avoid the fetor of death. When he could count no more, he made his way to the commanding officer, asking quickly for a tally of the wounded.

He knew the ambulance battalion would arrive too late for most, but he’d commit their conditions carefully to a writing pad he kept in his right jacket pocket. Then, often with a cacophony of gunfire overhead, he would mount his motorcycle, revving the engine loudly as he sped away.

He often hoped that the cool winds —so sharp they burned his cheeks— might force the rotten air out of his lungs and that the tear-inducing breeze would wash the images from his mind. Instead, however, he rode each trip —his head down— wondering whether one of the day’s bullets had his name on it.


By 1941, the war had swallowed everyone in Aldershot. Surrounded by soldiers in constant movement, the locals had felt the cost of the war. German attacks had erased the homes and lives of a number of families. Patrols, like the one Frederick Poulter made each night, were constantly on the lookout for potential German paratroopers —enemies that might slip into the small town unknown.

Each evening, donning tin hats and mounting bicycles, safety brigades would circle the town, making sure that homes had extinguished all lights —beacons that might inspire attacks from above. But the days, too, inspired their own brand of anxiety.

One morning, Joan’s mother Nellie was walking down Aldershot’s main street when German bombers opened strafing fire, flying at low altitude, over the town. She was saved when a quick-thinking butcher pulled her inside his shop, just as bullets pockmarked the street.

Another afternoon, Joan was tidying the upper floor of the family home when her four-year-old cousin burst through the front door.

“Buzz bomb coming” Janet said, calling Joan “Nana”, as she was known to her family.

Buzz bombs emitted a high-pitched whir, like a mechanical mosquito, and were often first heard by younger, more sensitive ears. The noise, however, was not the most worrisome part. It was when the noise stopped that the bomb would detonate. That day, Joan and Janet quickly crawled under the table as the bomb landed some distance away, exploding without casualties. Life in war would always be unpredictable, but many people refused to let fear take over. If they ceased to live as they had, the saying went, the war was already lost.

Eventually, necessity pulled Joan out of Aldershot, as she joined British Ministry of Agriculture in London.  There, swept up into the fervor of wartime England, she assisted scientists testing samples of animal blood for potential toxins. Officials were concerned about possible anthrax attacks after rumors that German planes has been spotted dusting animal feeding grounds with unknown substances.

While the war expanded in Europe, the cause demanded more of everyone, even those in Aldershot. In addition to his nightly patrols, Joan’s father continued to grow flowers, vegetables and raised rabbits for stew. With the country’s food shortage, farms, farmers or the hunger with land, produced whatever they could. Nothing could go to waste. In Aldershot, Fredrick donated rabbit pelts to school children who made mittens for soldiers departing to the frontlines.


By May 1944, John and Joan had finalized plans for their wedding, to be held on April 15th. John spent the weeks leading up to the date deployed in the south of England. But after losing contact with him as the date grew nearer, Joan and Nellie began to worry he wouldn’t make it back in time. With 14 hours to go before the ceremony, John finally arrived with his cousin, David Figgins, and his best man Archie Rattray —a trek which saw the three men jump from town to town on various military supply trains.

Nearly four years from the night they met, with John’s collar still hanging loose, the young couple placed two crude gold bands on each other’s hands. But war had a way of keeping celebrations short. Within days, John was gone again.

In November, shortly after the D-Day invasion, Joan received word that John had been wounded on the battlefield and was being treated at a military hospital in Nijmegen, Holland.

John, she learned, had been riding from headquarters to the front lines, a few miles inside the German territory, when he was shot in the leg, sustaining a number of subsequent injuries before he could make it to safety. After the incident, John had lost vision in his left eye. Doctors later discovered a small piece of shrapnel lodged inside, but struggled to treat it. After days of medical mistakes and an improperly applied chemical bandage, John’s face was disfigured and his left eye irreparably lost.

John was livid with his doctors. He’d been lucky during most of the war, avoiding the bullets that undid the lives of 45,000 Canadian soldiers, but John worried that the jarring reality of the war’s physical cost —his scarred face— might send Joan running. He hadn’t seen his wife since their marriage the previous spring. His worries were quickly staid by Joan’s reaction. Scarred or not, she loved a man who happened to fight, and by being wounded, might finally get to go home.

John and Joan McCulloch on their 50th wedding anniversary.
John and Joan McCulloch on their 50th wedding anniversary in 1994.

In December 1944, John McCulloch was granted a medical release the army. Within weeks he was shipped back to Canada on a transatlantic medical ship. Joan would follow, becoming one of World War II’s 64,000 brides who came to Canada from Europe.

On the seven-day voyage across the ocean, Joan McCulloch —24-years-old and pregnant— had time to reflect. She’d left all she knew back in England to start over in Canada. But as much as she wanted to leave the war behind her, she couldn’t help but think of the sheer number of bombs, the profusion of bullets and the scourge of illness that the couple had dodged over the last five years. At any time, just one could have ended her, or John’s, young life. Barely a quarter century old, she was part of a new generation —their lives the product of chance.


Twenty years after the war, Joan’s father Fredrick decided to expand the large, English garden adjacent their Aldershot house. Lined with the deep purple-blue of blossoming Delphiniums, scarlet-red Petunias and the tangled vines of cream-white Honeysuckle, the garden was a point of personal pride, a reminder that beauty in nature always returned.

While turning over the soil that morning, however, Fredrick’s shovel struck something metal, a couple of feet deep in the rich, dark-brown earth. On his hands and knees, he swept aside the loose soil with his bare hands. After exposing the object’s burnished edge, Fredrick leaned in closer. He could just make out the markings of a faded, unexploded German buzz bomb, one of the many that fell, stealing young lives in a war now twenty years passed. He paused, only for a moment, before turning his shovel on an untouched patch of earth.

Joan and John McCulloch walking in Midland, Michigan. A fan of the outdoors, John retired in the mid-1980s, spending most of the year fishing off British Columbia's west coast.
Joan and John McCulloch walking in Midland, Michigan. A fan of the outdoors, John retired in the mid-1980s, spending most of the year fishing off British Columbia’s west coast.

Fact-Checking Knoxville’s ABC News affiliate: Tennessee Walking Horses

I can excuse subjects for stating their interests with conviction. But I won’t excuse journalists who fail to understand the topic, or take the time to ask the right questions.

When I started reporting my latest AJAM story on allegations of horse abuse in a little town of Maryville, Tenn., I told people I was “agnostic about horses.” This usually prompted a laugh, but it was true: I certainly didn’t want to see any animals abused —horse or otherwise— but my life had afforded only a few —random— opportunities to see these animals up close.

Now, three months after starting the story, I usually receive a few emails a week from concerned readers on the topic of horse abuse. I wish I could respond to all of them —and in this format— but I will take a stab at one message I received this morning. Lacking any text, the email included a link to this piece, written by a reporter for an ABC News affiliate out of Knoxville, Tennessee.

While I could talk in the abstract about the writing of this piece, and the struggle this reporter seemed to have with particular facts about pending bill, H.R. 1518, or the PAST Act, I figured I’d copy and paste it below and annotate my way through. My additions are noted in bold.


MORRISTOWN (WATE) – Tennessee walking horses are at the center of a major debate on Capitol Hill.

AM – Agreed.

A Kentucky congressman has proposed a bill making some major changes to how the horses are handled.

AM – The proposed bill will restrict the use of particular “action devices” commonly used on Tennessee Walking Horses.

According to the president of the East Tennessee Walking Horse Association, Ken Estes, the bill would mean a hit of millions of dollars to the local agricultural economy.

AM – As a point of privilege, I think this quote can stand. As a point of reportorial professionalism, I’d like to see documents that would indicate the amount and extent of money that might be lost.

He says most of the tools they use to get the horses to walk the way they do would be eliminated. Without their signature walk, the walking horse industry would be eliminated.

AM – I’ve heard this charge time and again. While I’m no trainer, I have heard from many trainers that the TWH industry would not disappear with the new Federal restrictions, just that the individuals who have used abusive tactics to make their horses profitable in the circuit would be forced out of the industry. 

“I’m going to put a 6 inch chain on him. This is called an action device and the bill would eliminate it totally. It would eliminate any type of boot or action device,” Estes said, as he put a small chain around the horses lower leg.

AM – The reporter fails to ask about soring at all. Sure, the action devices are specifically noted in the bill, but the context of the proposed amendment has been shaped by generations of trainers who have used —and continue to use— caustic chemicals to abrade or sensitize the skin. The “action devices”, in this context, are used to exacerbate the pain.

He also showed us how a heavier horse shoe used on the horses now, would be replaced with a much lighter one.

On Capitol Hill, lawmakers played a story done by ABC’s Nightline in May 2012. It features a Humane Society expose that shows the animals being tortured to walk the way they do.

AM – Lawmakers showed the 2012 video highlighting the case of Jackie McConnell. 

The proposed bill was a response to that publicity.

AM – The proposed bill was a response to ABUSE IN THE WALKING HORSE INDUSTRY —abuse that was captured on film in the McConnell case, but has been a feature of the TWH community for many years. 

“The Humane Society has used us as a fundraiser to get people to send in money. They have made a whipping boy out of us, so to speak,” Estes explained.

AM – Should have prompted a direct question to HSUS. The reporter either didn’t ask, or didn’t include HSUS’s response.

He worries that misconceptions about what they do could end a million dollar industry.

AM – Fair statement. Misconceptions certainly abound in this story.

“Well most of the horses that people pay millions of dollars for, when they take their equipment off, they are worthless. They become just a horse and they drop in value to $300-400,” he said.

AM – Ancillary concern. Estes doesn’t speak to why horses would not be valuable if, save the action devices, they still took part in TWH competitions.

“It’s just money. When you hurt an animal, it has feelings too,” said Stacy Jordan with the Hamblen County Humane Society. The Humane Society of the United States has come out saying the ones who oppose the legislation are the ones making money from the abuse.

AM – I think this is an overly simplified quote, too. Don’t know if it really cuts to the heart of the matter. 

Estes says that for an 1,100lb horse, chains and heavy shoes don’t qualify as abuse.

AM – For individuals who watched the testimony on Capitol Hill (and if you didn’t here is a summary), the question was not whether chains or heavy shoes qualified as abuse, but that the industry has been poorly policed, abuse (soring and otherwise) has persisted, and that action devices have been used to hide some instances of abuse from horse show investigators.  

He worries that misconceptions about what they do could now end a $1 million industry.

“I can’t imagine the financial repercussions of this to the horse industry in the area,” Estes said.

AM – Neither can I. Because I’ve never seen the numbers. 

The bill would also increase the number of inspections by the USDA.

AM – And a series of other things:


I can excuse subjects for stating their interests with conviction. But I won’t excuse journalists who fail to understand the topic, or take the time to ask the right questions.

Continued Erosion: The Central African Republic

Others are quick to note that all parties have avowed violence, and that using the genocide label (for political purposes or otherwise) isn’t as important as preventing it all together.

Hour-long drives through series of empty villages; an abandoned baby, left by parents who fled too quickly in fear of rebels: these are just two of the observations from the deteriorating Central African Republic. In a Foreign Policy article by Peter Bouckaert, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, CAR appears lost to violent rebel forces —known by their name, Séléka— since their overflow of the government last spring.

The photographs by Marcus Bleasdale, which accompany the FP article, deftly capture the country’s disintegration through the people shredded by it.

According to UN Dispatch, the violence has left 1.1 million struggling to meet basic needs (30 percent of the total population), 400,000 people waging the war of survival in the CAR’s dense forest, and have stewarded instances of “genocide talk” from a number of observers. The genocide tag, grows out of concern that Séléka —whose members are Muslim— has aggressively targeted civilians (Christian or otherwise). Others are quick to note that all parties have avowed violence, and that using the genocide label (for political purposes or otherwise) isn’t as important as preventing it all together.
Throughout the slow-burning conflict, many prominent talking heads have called for international response —Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, Former Sec. General Kofi Annan, French President François Hollande, and US Ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, have all expressed impatience with the continued instability in the country. Ambassador Power, speaking in September, discussed the potential consequence of inaction:
“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.”
In light of the recent US Department of State designation of Boko Haram and Ansaru, Nigerian-based extremist groups, as “terrorist organizations,” the crisis in the CARis even more important. With Boko Haram inciting “states of emergency” in Nigeria’s north, bleeding instability over into Chad, which is currently being affected by continued conflict in The CAR and Sudan, as Mali appears to serve as “safe haven” for violent, non-state actors in West Africa, we might be watching the dominos fall.
The question that remains, is what the US/Western response will be, given an tentative rapprochement with Iran (which is sucking-up valuable diplomatic resources), and the stale human disaster of Syria (which continues to generate little more than Tweets from Ambassador Samantha Power).

Morning Brief: November 14, 2013

What I’m reading/thinking/writing about today. November 14, 2013.

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.