On Moving On

Every once in a while I get an alert that some­thing I wrote many years ago has been cit­ed in a book or a mono­graph on the fail­ures of coun­terin­sur­gency. It reflects an era of my life that I have deeply mixed emo­tions about, and prompt­ed some think­ing.

I remem­ber, when I wrote research papers for the Human Ter­rain Sys­tem in Afghanistan sev­en years ago, won­der­ing what­ev­er hap­pened to the peo­ple whose work I would cite from a cer­tain era but who seemed to have dis­ap­peared after­ward. Some of that work seemed incan­des­cent: ground­ed in long-term field research, elo­quent, rev­e­la­to­ry and sur­pris­ing in its con­clu­sions and insight, or even just a tiny glimpse of a most­ly van­ished land. You can get an idea of what I mean if you hap­pen to be near a library with access to this out-of-print book from 1979: Nuris­tan by Lennart Edel­berg, or the dig­i­tized archive of the the Arthur Paul Afghanistan Col­lec­tion at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Nebras­ka-Oma­ha.

These works con­tain what is essen­tial­ly a van­ished his­to­ry, cap­tur­ing a cul­ture at a moment in time that can nev­er be recov­ered again. And much like that cul­ture, the peo­ple who wrote these arti­cles, dis­ser­ta­tions, and books, have large­ly fad­ed into obscu­ri­ty or anonymi­ty.

I guess I am becom­ing one of them now: some­one who, for a time, wrote some­thing some peo­ple found inter­est­ing, and every once in a while an archival search turns up a turn of phrase or an obser­va­tion that proves use­ful to an argu­ment. It is how writ­ers get treat­ed, ulti­mate­ly: unless you’re one of the greats, at best some­thing you said once can be cit­ed a lit­tle lat­er as evi­dence of its valid­i­ty.

I was prompt­ed into this line of thought by this Adam Elkus essay.

When I start­ed out as a blog­ger on defense issues, I lived in fear of Joshua Foust… I did not always agree with Foust, but I also knew that he was remark­ably effec­tive at “Foust­ing” a slop­py oppo­nent that ven­tured into the areas that Foust had both aca­d­e­m­ic and exper­en­tial knowl­edge of. Foust’s skill at find­ing elab­o­rate ways to demol­ish oppo­nents on, say, Af-Pak or Horn of Africa counter-ter­ror­ism sug­gest­ed that I should pay atten­tion to what he said even if I dis­agreed vehe­ment­ly — if only so that if I wrote on those sub­jects in the future I could antic­i­pate a poten­tial weak­ness in my argu­ment by see­ing in which areas Foust was most suc­cess­ful at attack­ing his debat­ing part­ners.

That’s very kind of Adam to say, and he and I are now friends who enjoy debat­ing pol­i­cy, tech­nol­o­gy, cod­ing, ethics, and every­thing else. But it was a reminder of an era in my life where­by mag­a­zines would call me “iras­ci­ble” and I was known more for pick­ing fights with gen­er­als, Deputy Assis­tant Sec­re­taries of Defense, and hack polemi­cists than cre­at­ing any­thing unique of my own.

There is cer­tain­ly a role for such crit­i­cism (as CJ Chivers put it in a very kind write-up of my book for the New York Times, I “did not play nice”). But a crit­ic can only go so far. One regret I have from this time of my life is being so per­son­al­ly crit­i­cal: not just call­ing peo­ple wrong and their argu­ments lazy, but rou­tine­ly say­ing that such lazi­ness rep­re­sents a moral fail­ing on the part of my tar­get.

Who knows, maybe that is a moral fail­ing. I still don’t see how advo­cat­ing some of those poli­cies (or imple­ment­ing them, as the more neo­con­ser­v­a­tive pun­dits were able to do under Gen­er­als McChrys­tal and Petraeus) can be a moral act. And espe­cial­ly in hind­sight, see­ing the incred­i­ble destruc­tive­ness both in human­i­ty and infra­struc­ture that they wrought, I can­not see what they did as a moral act. So per­haps they real­ly are immoral, and I was right to have iden­ti­fied them as such.

But still. I regret being so vicious. Peo­ple used to joke, as Adam does, that they were ter­ri­fied of me, and I used to think that was fun­ny and awe­some. Now I think of it as sad. Being destruc­tive because you’re angry, how­ev­er jus­ti­fi­ably (or not: did I real­ly change any­thing by call­ing Stephen Walt names?), is sim­ply anoth­er form of destruc­tive­ness. I saw, dur­ing the NSA debates of 2013–14, that destruc­tive­ness from the oth­er side, across from the crit­ics, and it was actu­al­ly upset­ting. Often, I thought, these peo­ple have no idea what they’re try­ing to tear down or who they’re enabling by doing so. I imag­ine many of the peo­ple I squared off against felt the same way toward me.

Destroy­ing some­thing is easy; con­struct­ing some­thing is vast­ly hard­er, and more like­ly to make you look fool­ish. Doing both at the same time is the sweet spot, where crit­i­cism hits its mark and it is both per­sua­sive toward an alter­na­tive; that sweet spot is not a require­ment for sound crit­i­cism, but it is the gold stan­dard. And if there is no con­struc­tive alter­na­tive, as is often the case, then crit­i­cism should be far less per­son­al and vicious than mine was. It is still impor­tant to under­stand the down­sides and neg­a­tive con­se­quences of a pol­i­cy even if no one has a fea­si­ble alter­na­tive to it.

Some­times, the pieces of my writ­ing that peo­ple will cite are con­struc­tive. When I worked at a think tank, I cre­at­ed an index of met­rics to mea­sure pol­i­cy suc­cess­es in Afghanistan; that has had a good shelf life. I’ve writ­ten detailed legal and pol­i­cy analy­ses of admin­is­tra­tion mem­o­ran­da about tar­get­ed killings, and those too have been cit­ed to a degree I think any­one would be hap­py with.

But when I think back to a sev­en-year span of my life, say from 2007 to 2014, I strug­gle to see what I did that has had any last­ing sig­nif­i­cance. I am sad that it did not have more of an effect. Many of the peo­ple who advo­cat­ed immoral, fatal­ly destruc­tive ideas are still lav­ish­ly reward­ed for their intel­lec­tu­al pur­suits in a way I am not. It is dif­fi­cult to come to grips with, to real­ize that, despite being prov­ably wrong, they still won.

And so, the vast major­i­ty of my work has become obscure. At times, I think this is a shame — after all, the pol­i­cy com­mu­ni­ty here in Wash­ing­ton has still not yet come to grips with the mass hys­te­ria that prompt­ed it to begin two wars so reck­less­ly, and then to dou­ble down on both when they showed ear­ly signs of fail­ure. And by and large, the heady boos­t­er­ism that made con­cepts like coun­terin­sur­gency or derad­i­cal­iza­tion through devel­op­ment, so pop­u­lar, are van­ish­ing down the mem­o­ry hole. The pun­dits and advis­ers have moved on, the jour­nal­ists have for­got­ten, the politi­cians nev­er payed atten­tion. The whole sys­tem is reset­ting itself with lit­tle change.

Maybe in a few more years, when his­to­ri­ans feel more com­fort­able the­o­riz­ing and research­ing the archives on this stuff, those works will be remem­bered for the hor­ror they inflict­ed on an entire region of peo­ple. But I hon­est­ly have my doubt it will be any­time soon.

And while I have moved on to less imme­di­ate­ly angry things, try­ing to recon­fig­ure my skill set to be more con­struc­tive than sim­ply crit­i­cal, I still get the occa­sion­al pang of nos­tal­gia for the time where I felt like I could walk into a room of peo­ple, call them jerks, and receive (in some small way) praise for doing so. I don’t want to relive that peri­od of my life — when I’m hon­est with myself, I real­ize it was a time of stress, con­stant­ly burn­ing fury, and a some­times-crip­pling infe­ri­or­i­ty com­plex. But I’m glad I got to expe­ri­ence it, and I hope the destruc­tion I myself cre­at­ed maybe had an inkling of good down the line.

But in the mean­time, I’m learn­ing new ways to enjoy my obscu­ri­ty.

Joshua Foust used to be a foreign policy maven. Now he helps organizations communicate strategically and build audiences.