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.

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