25 August, 2021
I reported for a month or so, then passed off to Steve Inskeep, now Morning Edition host. Within another couple of months, I was back, not as a reporter this time, but to try actually to do something. I stayed for a decade. I ran two non-profits in Kandahar, living in an ordinary house and speaking Pashtu, and eventually went to work for two commanders of the international troops, and then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. (You can read about that time, and its lessons, in my first two books, The Punishment of Virtue and Thieves of State.)
From that standpoint — speaking as an American, as an adoptive Kandahari, and as a former senior U.S. government official — here are the key factors I see in today’s climax of a two-decade long fiasco:
24 August, 2021
Now, China being a totalitarian state controlled by a one-party mafia, they are particular about what gets seen in their country. If you offend them, they don’t just ban your film, they ban your slate of films for the next five years as they did to Disney for releasing Kundun.
Every American studio makes their films now understanding that reality. You no longer celebrate the Dali Llama. You go out of your way to genuflect to the Chinese Communist Party.
A foreign government is having their way with American movies and you the movie goer barely notice it
Remember when the British actress Tilda Swinton was cast as The Ancient One in Doctor Strange (2016) and woke Twitter was up in arms about Hollywood white-washing a role meant for an Asian?
Well, the actual reality was more insidious. The Ancient One was a Tibetan male which was offensive to the Chinese censors (you are not supposed to acknowledge that Tibet is a thing). The studio made her a white woman to avoid any controversy (see here).
Red Dawn (2012) was originally made to depict a Chinese invasion given they are our current major geopolitical adversary (the original made in the 80s depicted a Soviet invasion). Upon seeing the final product, the studio had a panic attack and did an extensive series of post-production digital edits to change the villain to North Korea (see here). You were none the wiser when you watched the film.
The Biden Administration’s rapid withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan has spurred a debate over the moral responsibility that America bears to its partners in a failed foreign intervention. Deciding who receives help getting out and why will only grow more urgent as the completion of the U.S. withdrawal approaches, on August 31st. Across Afghanistan, thousands of local civilians have participated in one of the largest efforts to rebuild a nation since the Second World War, establishing thousands of schools and health clinics, along with hundreds of human-rights groups and local-language news outlets. What once was a well-paying, steady job contributing to the nation’s future has now become a dangerous liability. Younger Afghans embraced the use of new technologies to help modernize their society; cell phones, social media and cable television—from “American Idol”-like singing competitions to twenty-four-hour news channels—exploded in popularity. But now that online visibility makes it easier for the Taliban to track and find those who embraced the American-led effort. “We are just a Google away,” an Afghan working at a European embassy told me. “Search, everybody can find you.”
21 August, 2021
When your teacher says that slave owners were "nice", he means that they used the whip less, or perhaps that when they did feel it necessary, they allowed the wounds to be dressed immediately. What he doesn't mean is that they recognized their enslaved persons as full human beings. The mere fact that they owned another person at all gives that the lie, as in doing so they inherently participated in a system that was perpetuated the dehumanization of their human property.And to be sure, the slaves themselves were aware of this, even if the enslavers might be oblivious. In the recollections of his period of enslavement, Frederick Douglass remembered how his owner would occasionally give him a penny or two (I've written more here on slaves and property), but as Douglass relates:
I always felt worse for having received any thing; for I feared that the giving me a few cents would ease his conscience, and make him feel himself to be a pretty honourable sort of robber.
18 August, 2021
Since the Taliban was never the internationally recognized government of Afghanistan, one totally plausible approach to 9/11 would have been a fast military action aimed at killing top al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders, putting the Afghan opposition coalition back in charge of Kabul, and then basically leaving them to figure things out.
Another approach would have been to try to really commit wholeheartedly to the U.S.-led reconstruction of Afghanistan — to go all-in on what was called at the time “nation-building.”
The Bush administration didn’t want to take what was behind door number two for basically two reasons. One was that they were skeptical of the odds of success in a massive rebuilding effort. But the second and more important reason is that they wanted to invade Iraq. When 9/11 happened, American military preparedness was based around the 1-4-2-1 doctrine. The first 1 was the defense of the homeland. The 4 is to deter enemies in four key regional theaters. Then the 2-1 meant, to quote Fred Kaplan, that “the U.S. armed forces must have the strength to win swiftly in two near-simultaneous conflicts in those regions. The final 1 means that we must win one of those conflicts ‘decisively,’ toppling the enemy’s regime.”
So basically do a regime change operation in Iraq while also helping South Korea win a war against North Korea.
In other words, Bush had to choose. Either Iraq or Afghanistan could be War Number One, but they couldn’t both be. He chose Iraq. That should have implied taking the quick-and-dirty approach to the war in Afghanistan. But Osama bin Laden got away at Tora Bora, so the quick-and-dirty war lacked an emotionally and politically satisfying endpoint.
Given that context, he made a very fateful choice that has haunted us ever since. He adopted the expansive nation-building goal but deliberately turned the war into an economy of resources effort in order to devote maximum resources to War Number One against Saddam Hussein. But then of course he didn’t level with the public that this is what he was doing. And even though the war was sidelined in terms of American resources, it nevertheless was shot-through with maximalist goals.
15 August, 2021
There’s plenty of blame to go around for the 20-year debacle in Afghanistan—enough to fill a library of books. Perhaps the effort to rebuild the country was doomed from the start. But our abandonment of the Afghans who helped us, counted on us, staked their lives on us, is a final, gratuitous shame that we could have avoided. The Biden administration failed to heed the warnings on Afghanistan, failed to act with urgency—and its failure has left tens of thousands of Afghans to a terrible fate. This betrayal will live in infamy. The burden of shame falls on President Joe Biden.
14 August, 2021
Of all the pretense and hubris that regularly spools forth from the social justice crowd, probably the most deluded is their dogged belief that if some new laws restricting speech were to be passed, they would inevitably be the ones to choose who gets silenced and what they don’t get to say. This is from a group that constantly self-identifies as marginalized and othered, and yet they are certain that they will be the ones left on the throne to decide who gets to say what. Why? I have no idea. The cops like you as little as you like them, lefties. You really think they’re gonna enforce the hate speech law the way you want them to? You want to defund the police, you think they’re irredeemably racist, you think they’re all fascists at heart, but you also want to give them sweeping new powers to limit what people say? That’s… strange.
I can tell you where it all started because I remember the moment exactly. It was late and I’d just finished the novel I’d been reading. A few more pages would send me off to sleep, so I went in search of a short story. They aren’t hard to come by around here; my office is made up of piles of books, mostly advance-reader copies that have been sent to me in hopes I’ll write a quote for the jacket. They arrive daily in padded mailers—novels, memoirs, essays, histories—things I never requested and in most cases will never get to. On this summer night in 2017, I picked up a collection called Uncommon Type, by Tom Hanks. It had been languishing in a pile by the dresser for a while, and I’d left it there because of an unarticulated belief that actors should stick to acting. Now for no particular reason I changed my mind. Why shouldn’t Tom Hanks write short stories? Why shouldn’t I read one? Off we went to bed, the book and I, and in doing so put the chain of events into motion. The story has started without my realizing it. The first door opened and I walked through.
Yet for all of these advantages, the right cannot stop the left, they can only hope to contain them. Sure, the right might win a skirmish here or a battle there. They might even string together a series of victories. But the left always wins the war. Always. Young people are collectively more open to change than older folks, more likely to embrace new ideas. It’s true that most people drift rightward as they age. But the shift is rarely total — some portion of one’s views are usually carried from their youth. As the generations change, conservatives die of old age, to be replaced by young leftists who retain some of their progressive views throughout their life. Most of the left’s ideas permeate and percolate through society in this way until time has laundered them of their unfamiliarity, complexity, and radicalism — at which point they become mainstream.
The left endeavors to speed this process along with political activism and by leveraging their cultural dominance. Left thinking naturally aligns with art and creativity, and every generation’s storytellers and cultural influencers end up doing more than political activists to advance left-leaning ideas and sentiments. The task then falls to the right to either hold the line or attempt the roll back the clocks if they can, and to obstruct and stymie the left if they cannot. As the left (and the right, for that matter) rarely controls majorities of political power or public opinion commanding enough to unilaterally pass their agenda, the right, even when in the minority, can successfully stand in the way of change. The ensuing war of ideas, cultural back and forth, and political negotiations serve to moderate and soften change. This is the ebb and flow, the give and take, that is needed for the stable, sustainable, long-term health of a society.
The head of the high school responded to me that “people like Loury’s lived experience—and therefore his derived social philosophy” made him an exception to the rule that black thinkers acknowledge structural racism as the paramount impediment in society. He added that “the moment we are in institutionally and culturally, does not lend itself to dispassionate discussion and debate,” and discussing Loury’s ideas would “only confuse and/or enflame students, both those in the class and others that hear about it outside of the class.” He preferred I assign “mainstream white conservatives,” effectively denying black students the opportunity to hear from a black professor who holds views that diverge from the orthodoxy pushed on them.
The need for intelligent, creative and courageous general officers is self-evident. An understanding of the larger aspects of war is essential to great generalship. However, a survey of Army three- and four-star generals shows that only 25 percent hold advanced degrees from civilian institutions in the social sciences or humanities. Counterinsurgency theory holds that proficiency in foreign languages is essential to success, yet only one in four of the Army’s senior generals speaks another language. While the physical courage of America’s generals is not in doubt, there is less certainty regarding their moral courage. In almost surreal language, professional military men blame their recent lack of candor on the intimidating management style of their civilian masters. Now that the public is immediately concerned with the crisis in Iraq, some of our generals are finding their voices. They may have waited too long.
Neither the executive branch nor the services themselves are likely to remedy the shortcomings in America’s general officer corps. Indeed, the tendency of the executive branch to seek out mild-mannered team players to serve as senior generals is part of the problem. The services themselves are equally to blame. The system that produces our generals does little to reward creativity and moral courage. Officers rise to flag rank by following remarkably similar career patterns. Senior generals, both active and retired, are the most important figures in determining an officer’s potential for flag rank. The views of subordinates and peers play no role in an officer’s advancement; to move up he must only please his superiors. In a system in which senior officers select for promotion those like themselves, there are powerful incentives for conformity. It is unreasonable to expect that an officer who spends 25 years conforming to institutional expectations will emerge as an innovator in his late forties.
If America desires creative intelligence and moral courage in its general officer corps, it must create a system that rewards these qualities. Congress can create such incentives by exercising its proper oversight function in three areas. First, Congress must change the system for selecting general officers. Second, oversight committees must apply increased scrutiny over generating the necessary means and pursuing appropriate ways for applying America’s military power. Third, the Senate must hold accountable through its confirmation powers those officers who fail to achieve the aims of policy at an acceptable cost in blood and treasure.
Every facet, every thread of every fabric of what once comprised Lebanon, has been torn asunder, crumbling conspicuously beneath our feet. Parents had been looking forward to schools reopening this autumn, thanks to the en-masse vaccination of teachers and personnel. But how can any institution hope to prop open its doors when there are long power outages? Even virtual learning is not viable. So what recourse, if any?
Have I managed to horrify you? Are you feeling the injustice, the rage, the terror, the curse of what it means to be in Lebanon at this day and age? Lebanon has become infernal. Nothing affords pleasure anymore. We’ve been plunged into a sea of suffering, of sadness, of destitution, and we are inconsolable. I kept hearing things would get exponentially worse. Well, the cynics were spot-on. With every new low we attained, we naively thought we’d hit rock bottom. The worst is that we probably still have not.
Silly me. Did I fail to mention that the entire population has, to add to all the foregoing woes, been robbed of their bank deposits? In a span of two weeks during October 2019, when banks closed unprecedentedly, we were forcibly untethered from our life savings, our hard-earned livelihoods, our pensions, our “rainy day” cushions. Today, they are siphoned to us in tiny capped amounts. And if you hold foreign currency deposits (e.g., USD), they are exchanged at a fixed rate of 3,900 LBP, whereas the market rate is at least five times that. Alas, that’s the haircut our state leaders promised we’d never be subjected to. But it’s more than just a haircut. It’s us balding. We have been stripped naked, thrown into the pothole-ridden unlit streets, and left to the hyenas.
God help Lebanon. For it is evident at present that nobody else can.
13 August, 2021
The most practical thread in this literature proposes reforms. Really untangling the college plot—for students and for schools—will require reaching beyond education to reduce social and economic inequalities writ large. Although reforms can’t end with schools, they might start there. The top schools can’t just admit a few more underprivileged students, as if a small number of exceptions might launder a dirty rule. Instead, they can vindicate their core educational values only by becoming, simply, less elite. I have proposed that exclusive schools—from preschool through graduate school—should double or even triple their enrollments, and diversify them, on pain of losing their tax exemptions. This would immediately dampen admissions and rankings competition and soon, by increasing the supply of graduates, reduce the competitive value of “elite” degrees. Others have suggested that once candidates’ credentials cross a relatively modest threshold, keyed to the capacity to do the academic work, schools should admit them by lottery. These ideas have in common the desire to save education’s true value from its competitive role.
09 August, 2021
Grief, conspiracy theories, and one family’s search for meaning in the two decades since 9/11
08 August, 2021
I’ve written a considerable amount about the secular war against so-called “toxic masculinity,” and while I recognize that toxic masculinity does exist, its definition often sweeps way too broadly. As I wrote in one of my first Sunday French Press essays, the American Psychological Association’s 2019 declaration that “traditional masculinity—marked by stoicism, competitiveness, dominance, and aggression—is, on the whole, harmful” represented a formal manifestation of a misguided cultural trend.
Look at the list of characteristics above. Aside from “dominance,” the characteristics above can be vices or virtues depending on the context. Stoicism can be harmful, yes, but (as I’ve argued before) it can be indispensable to helping a man “navigate the storms of life with a calm, steady hand.”
Aggression seems like a vice, right up until the moment when you need a good man to stop an evil man in his tracks. A competitive spirit can be harmful, but it can also build companies, institutions, and even nations. It can inspire extraordinary innovation.
No, you don’t want to jam any person into the masculine stereotype and demand that they exhibit the characteristics above, but when those characteristics are present—and they are in many, many men—the challenge is to channel them into virtue, temper them away from excess, and ultimately subordinate them to the way of the cross.