On the Road: Detangling ISIS (Updated)

An important review, by an unidentified author, in this week’s New York Review of Books, argues that ISIS’s resurgence cannot be explained by much more than the availability, suddenly, of “a territory available to attract and house” it’s motivated members. That ISIS exists because it can exist is a tautology the author admits, but their otherwise competent description and analysis leaves few other explanations of ISIS’s rise.

Lacking adequate information/rationales about/for ISIS’s causes/rise -as a group or phenomenon- the author believes “Nothing since the triumph of the Vandals in Roman North Africa has seemed so sudden, incomprehensible, and difficult to reverse as the rise of ISIS” and that this won’t necessarily be rectified by “the accumulation of more facts.” 

Unsatisfying as his/her conclusion is — that “we should admit that we are not only horrified but baffled”— it is crucial to accept what isn’t known, instead of hiding behind “theories and concepts that do not bear deep investigation.”

This shouldn’t preclude the important work of investigation and analysis, but inspire a commitment to the lengthy and laborious task of understanding modern extremism (in all the corners of the world it now mars.)

UPDATE: Pankaj Mishra has written his own riveting and riotous review (in The Guardian) of our current historical moment —one dealing with marginalization and disappointment colored with violence and vitriol. He tackles both ISIS and the shootings in Charleston —not as counterpoints, per se, but as diodes across a network of international actors as they deal with the erosion belief systems, particularly as it relates to future prosperity (or their expectations of such prosperity). As always, Mishra builds his commentary with uncommon depth. Agree or disagree? You should read it. 

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

One can almost picture Tierney offering platitudes to undergraduates at Swarthmore as he scribbles dates and quotes on the whiteboard, asking “Can America return to victory?” But by whose measure, and for what cause, should the United States return to victory?

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.

The war tried to kill us… The majesty of The Yellow Birds

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.

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.

Resisting Resistance: Why Syria isn’t Rwanda…. Or Iraq.

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?

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.

Postmortem: PTSD and Conflict Photographers

Reflecting on Overexposed: A Photographer’s War with PTSD.

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.

Overexposed: A Photographer’s War Against PTSD from Adam McCauley on Vimeo.

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 FallenAsh 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.

 

A Night Talking Terrorists

The book traces the development of United States policy in the fight against terrorism, taking the reader from the first confused moments of that Tuesday morning, to the orchestrated strike against Osama bin Laden’s fortified compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan which took the Al Qaeda leader’s life.

Eric Schmitt’s signature graces the inside cover of Counterstrike, a 2011 publication with New York Times colleague Thom Shanker.

“We need to be lucky and good everyday,” said Thom Shanker, a reporter for the New York Times. Even though the United States hasn’t had a terrorist attack in 10 years, doesn’t mean we’ll be safe forever.

Mr. Shanker and co-author Eric Schmitt, also from the New York Times’ Washington bureau, discussed their book, Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America’s Secret Campaign Against Al Qaeda, at the New York Society for Ethical Culture in Midtown Manhattan on Monday September 12, 2011 – one day removed from the 10th anniversary memorial ceremony of the Sept. 11 attack.

The book traces the development of United States policy in the fight against terrorism, taking the reader from the first confused moments of that Tuesday morning, to the orchestrated strike against Osama bin Laden’s fortified compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan which took the Al Qaeda leader’s life.

While the book contains insider notes on the workings and workers of the American intelligence and security community, it also paints a stark picture of U.S. preparedness on September 11.

“There were people in the Pentagon who were asking ‘al Who’?” said Mr. Shanker, who was shocked that state officials were unaware of  Al Qaeda in the aftermath of the 9-11 attack. This fact is made worse given that Al Qaeda claimed responsibility for the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.

Mr. Schmitt and Mr. Shanker also discussed the propensity for President George Bush’s “capture of kill” anti-terrorism strategy to feed Al Qaeda recruiting networks, citing concerns expressed by then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that the US approach was increasing, not reducing, the ranks in terrorist organizations.

In response, the authors argued that a new deterrence strategy took form in 2003-2004 which focused on attacking what terrorists hold dear – issues of reputation, financial restitution and the security of terrorist networks.

To deter terrorists Shanker and Schmitt said that the new strategy demanded spreading responsibility across the government more broadly, while simultaneously stressing inter-operabililty between intelligence (and I.T.) frameworks, transparency amongst government branches and cooperation between sectors of the national security apparatus – most noticeably the CIA and the FBI.

The night’s more animated conversation and debate surrounded warrantless wire-tapping which prompted questions on liberty and security. However, this line of questioning led the Timesmen to recite persuasive evasions, instead of measured answers.

However, Mr. Schmitt and Mr. Shanker did highlight technology as both a progenitor and salve of modern terrorism.

“The Internet is the ultimate safe haven for terrorism,” said Mr. Schmitt, as websites or forums provide the space for extremists to indoctrinate others, while the Internet’s online gaming communities, replete with its anonymous and atomized user experience,  are penetrated by terrorists transmitting coded information without detection.

The Internet also provides an opportunity for law enforcement to lay in wait for extremists to expose themselves, leading to identification and potential capture.

In writing this book, Mr. Shanker and Mr. Schmitt said they intended bring the challenges of anti-terrorism policy and practice into relief. It isn’t easy to quell the fires of extremism, but Mr. Schmitt admits that it is possible over time.

One method is attacking the narrative used by terrorist organizations.

As terrorism derives its strength from others sympathetic to their cause, this support is a function of controlling the narrative, (i.e. the way actors’ roles are understood in the world),

“The United States struggles with the ‘say-do’ gap,” said Mr. Shanker. By this, Mr. Shanker means that regardless of national security concerns which necessitate the presence of American troops abroad, their deployment – almost exclusively – in regions like Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq, and Libya makes them vulnerable to Al Qaeda’s argument: the West has waged war against Islam.

“The American narrative is hard to defend,” said Mr. Shanker.

Finally, as the discussion opened up to audience questions, Mr. Shanker’s expertise on the Washingston/Pentagon beat was put to use in the discussion of new Defense Secretary, Leon Panetta.

Mr. Shanker reminded the audience that former Defense Secretary Robert Gates was selected to deal with Iraq, and stayed on to handle Afghanistan. Mr. Panetta, however, will have to wage war with the budget, said Mr. Shanker.

As economic trends have the potential to erode U.S. capacity fight terrorism, the question becomes, “how much security do you want to pay for?” said Mr. Shanker

In the night’s final response, the Times’ reporters took delicate jabs at the state of  U.S. politics.

“Washington can’t take two big ideas at the same time,” said Mr. Schmitt.

Unfortunately, and as Counterstrike demonstrates, the ‘big ideas’ do not have simple solutions. Particularly when national security is the subject of debate.