Appearing in Volume 26, Number 1 of Mobius: the Journal of Social Change. Link here
“Are you able to really quickly talk with us today about the Salahudeen assassination?”
The woman’s voice on the other side of the phone was desperate, pleading. It was 4:30 in the morning.
“I— I guess so,” I slurred. My girlfriend rolled over to give me her back and grunted. I rolled away from her and cleared my throat. “Umm, you mean he died?”
“This morning, someone killed him. Can you come in and talk to us about it?”
“Sure. When will the car get here?”
“Is 5:30 okay?”
“Sure,” I said, and hit the End Call button on my phone. It was going to be one of those days.
I stubbed my toe getting out of bed. Turning on the light seemed rude. I tripped over a pair of sweatpants, then the dog. He normally was so happy to get up and go run around outside, but he just sort of huffed at me. I whispered toward the bed, “Can you take care of him today?”
“Mmmhmmm,” she moaned. Her eyes stayed closed but her mouth formed a frown. She’d be cranky the rest of the day.
I don’t even remember showering, though I clearly did that morning. I also know I shaved in some fashion, because when I looked back at myself, a small patch of stubble was visible on the underside of my face. I’d missed it while shaving. The unevenness inching down from my jaw was embarrassing.
My phone buzzed after I got into the back of the Lincoln MKX.
“Are you on your way?” the voice on the phone inquired. I answered yes.
“Okay good, are you a bit more awake now? Can we go over the interview?”
“Sure. So what happened?”
“Sayeed Salahudeen died. He was killed in a car bomb, we think. Or maybe a drone. It’s unclear right now.”
“Huh.” I had to scramble my head to remember who this guy was. “So, he was a pretty important figure. This is going to be a big deal.”
“Yes, it is particularly going to have repercussions in Kashmir.” That’s who he was! Okay. I could fake this. She continued, “We’d like to get from you your sense of what this means for the war on terror.”
“Oh.” I had no idea what it meant for the war on terror. Who really could? People got killed off all the time; it never seemed to kill off the appeal of these groups. “Well, I’m sure it will cause a temporary disruption amongst the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen leadership. If the Indian government uses this as an excuse to crackdown in Jammu or Kashmir it could pose big questions for their rapprochement with Pakistan.”
“This is excellent, Michael.” She sounded relieved, now. “We’ll want to talk about where this group came from and how it will affect the U.S.”
“Hmm. Okay.” This wouldn’t affect the U.S. one bit. Hizb-ul-Mujahideen is a Kashmiri issue. They’re terrorists and everything but it’s really India’s problem and Pakistan’s for supporting it. I began to pull up Wikipedia pages on my phone. Maybe there was a New York Times article or something I could repeat. “Well, it does demonstrate that Pakistan’s support for Kashmiri militant groups can have really bad effects on its neighbors. I’m sure there will be some ripple effects in Afghanistan.”
“Perfect!” she said.
“And, it’s a big deal that India might have used a drone to kill him. I think that’s the first time it’s happened.”
“Thank you, Michael. This interview will be excellent. We’ll be waiting for you in the studio.”
I desperately began reading. My head ached, pounded like a lancet through my eyes. I had too many gins and tonic last night at the young professionals in foreign policy happy hour.
Twenty minutes later, I had a Wikipedia understanding of terrorism in Kashmir: it was perfect. Everything at the studio was a blur. It wasn’t even six in the morning. No one who mattered was going to watch this. It was international; my boss would hardly care. I got my face pancaked with makeup and delicately wiped off the insertive end of the earpiece with a sanitary wipe. God knows what other ears it had been inside. The coffee wasn’t just bitter, it was sour. I sucked in my gut and buttoned my jacket.
The producer faffed around the tiny closet of a room, adjusting the camera through someone in her ear piece, a distant whisper of English accent drifting through her greasy hair. Was this the BBC or Al Jazeera English? I forget. I could never remember which building was which.
The interview was nonsense, as they always were. My mind was wandering, so I tried to focus on my flipped-over reflection in the lens of the camera. It was my only companion, unless you counted the poorly lit projection of the U.S. Capitol behind me. If a piece of Washington, DC, kitsch was not in the same frame, people might not realize I was based in Washington, DC.
I said something about how terrorists are bad and how America doesn’t like bad terrorists and that Kashmiri terrorism was also bad. And drones, of course; people love to hear about how drones are scary, and everything is going to suck because of drones. Within four minutes it was over, and I didn’t need to be into my office for another 45 minutes. It was time to go to a nearby Starbucks.
I sat down with my skinny latte and pulled up my phone to read up more about Kashmir. Maybe I could score an op-ed out of this. The reality was, I hadn’t the first clue what to make of this incident. I don’t know a thing about India, and I hardly know much about Pakistan. The closest I ever came to Kashmir was a helicopter tour of Afghanistan a few years ago, following some general with stars on his shoulder as he flew from army base to army base, watching PowerPoint presentations and listening to troops crisply yell “Sir!” as they went about their daily routines. I’ve only seen a drone once, even though I read a lot of papers about them.
I am an ignoramus, in other words. A hanger-on. An expert. I value myself, and my work, based on how close I can get to people in power, and I drop hints of that closeness to people I think will get me onto TV, and so I can feel important. If I’m really lucky, some of those important people might listen to me, and a very tiny piece of the American government will shift almost imperceptibly to match up with one of my flights of fancy.
I work at a think tank. And this is my confession.
I first encountered think tanks in high school. I was Googling around for some help in writing a paper for American History, and I found a long report about the long term legacies of mechanization on American farms. It was unspeakably boring, so I plagiarized it. I got a B+.
In college, think tank reports took on a different patina for me. They were more readable, more accessible than the academic papers we had to read for class. Made it simple to mine them for facts and figures to pad out my term papers. I assumed that it was because the think tankers were smarter, more in tune with boiling down complicated ideas into an easily-digested form. It was like instant celebrity with none of the work of doing to grad school.
So the first thing I did when I graduated from college was to try to get a low-level job at one. On the advice of my professor, who had worked at a think tank before getting his PhD and becoming an academic, I applied to every internship I could find. Sure, they were all unpaid, and I didn’t know how I would live in DC without income, but I figured I could burn that bridge when I got to it.
I barely even got acknowledgement from a fourth of them, and those were all rejections. I didn’t know what to do, so I began applying for entry level jobs at defense contractors. One agreed to hire me as an entry level facility security officer, where I spent six months processing forms for people trying to get clearances. It got my foot in the door. I was able to do a late application to a local grad school in northern Virginia, and my company agreed to pay for part of it.
It took years: working all day processing the many administrative tailings that go into making a hefty profit off of the national security state, then working all evening and night to go to class and get all my readings done. I burned out several times, almost dropped out once. Whatever, that’s normal.
Then, at 25, I had my moment: an entry-level research assistant job opened up at the Center for National Security Priorities, or CNSP. The pay was abysmal, so low I actually had to apply for housing assistance from the District of Columbia. But it was my toe in the door.
I was lucky: I managed to escape the hell of an unpaid internship. But then I learned that there was another angle to think tanks: booze. This town runs on the stuff, and seemingly nothing happens without it. I also wonder, sometimes, if it flows so freely because of what people have to do to thrive. Needless to say, it made a big portion of my monthly expenses.
“Michael, I have to know: is Egypt going to implode again?”
I stared mutely at her. Delayed responding by swirling the scotch in my glass: a Glenlivet 12, nothing too ostentatious but enough to signal that I knew my craft. Danielle was a booking producer; she was the girl who got me on TV. I had to impress her. But I had no idea what was going on in Egypt.
That morning, the Financial Times had run a story about some political machinations in the country. The Muslim Brotherhood was being pressured for something. “Well,” I began. “I mean, the Brotherhood is really under the gun right now.”
“That’s true,” Danielle said. “I dunno, it seems just like Tahrir all over again.”
“It easily could be,” I said back, trying to remember what Tahrir referred to. “The current government just never felt very secure, politically.” Ah hah! Egypt. The Square, the revolution and the Muslim Brotherhood. God, it’s been years. “And, I think, the M.B. is an easy punching bag for them.”
“Mmmhmm,” she said and sipped her white wine. You could hear Thievery Corporation playing from the speakers. Someone behind us was having a pretentious conversation about the plate of free cheese the bar had put out. I shifted in my seat.
“So, Danielle, what do I have to do to get on Jason Peacock’s show?”
She grinned. She knew she was in control of the conversation. “Oh come on, now, Michael,” she began. “You know I can’t promise anything.”
I giggled. It usually put people at ease. “I know. I’m just desperate, you know? I’ve never been on your network, and I want to make an inroad.”
She smirked. “We’ll see. I can at least keep you in mind.”
I smirked back and made eye contact. I downed the glass and ordered another.
One morning I was catching up on my email newsletters from all the blogs and magazines that hire 23-year olds for unpaid internships that maKe them wake up at 5 am to read the day’s news and summarize titles into Constant Contact on the off chance that someone else might read it, and it will drive a fraction of a percent more readership to their websites. Sometimes it had genuinely useful tidbits, and it sure as hell saved me time from reading it all myself.
But something was wrong: nothing was happening. There was the usual maritime nonsense in the South China Sea, Russia was saying nasty things about Ukraine again, Afghanistan was a mess, Syria was a mess, Iraq was a mess, Mali was a mess, Libya was a mess, Yemen was a mess, Chad was a mess, CAR was a mess, Pakistan was a mess… even when completely split apart at the seams, like a baseball stitched in blood, the world had a depressing regularity to it. Regularity did not generate news. And no news meant no media hits for me.
Everyone at a think tank is funded by a grant. Think tanks don’t generate their own income, not even the really established ones with $150 million endowments. Their operating budgets, rents, staff salaries, travel budgets, office supplies, booze, and catering all comes from the money they raise from rich people, foundations, corporations and governments. Nothing is ever free, especially at a think tank.
My grant was running out in four months. I needed to be seen as an important media figure so I could sell “shifting the conversation” as one of the big “gets” my funders would get if they decided to give me money. No real crisis in the world—at least no novel crisis—meant I had no easy way of getting on TV. I had to write an opinion article and see how high up in the pubs I could run it.
While I was pondering what sort of angle I could take on the same old conflicts—I was out of ideas so I couldn’t float a new “opportunity;” no one wanted to talk about diplomacy at the moment so I couldn’t call for more engagement; there had already been three other op-eds that week about adding more troops to this insurgency or that civil war so it was getting played out; maybe nuclear security? I could talk about nukes somehow?
My boss poked his head into my office.
“I have an opportunity for you.”
I paused typing. “What’s that?”
“Let’s go grab lunch with Van Louen. He will want to hear about it too.”
I grabbed my wallet and stuffed my shirt into my pants, smoothed out the wrinkles around the curve of my stomach and slid my belt buckle so I would have a perfect gig line down my front.
We hailed an Uber and drove to a brand-new restaurant. The floor was covered in some sort of progressive glass mosaic design, the menu filled with words like slow and seasonal and local and paleo. I think that one was a sandwich of some sort. I had become a bit dizzy and fatigued by this point; last night’s happy hour had become four and my late arrival home made my girlfriend angry. I slept poorly on the couch.
Van Louen was there, sitting at a table already, solid as mashed potatoes. “Hello Michael,” he intoned. “I hear you’re onto something really interesting.”
My boss cleared his throat. “Yes we are,” he said, instinctively flicking his tongue across his lower lip. “But first let’s get lunch started.”
Glasses of scotch all around. My stomach felt better. I ordered a pretzel bread sandwich with extra mustard and a side of smoked salmon with crème fraîche and dill cucumbers. Van Louen ordered a steak au poivre, and my boss got another scotch and a pumpkin ravioli.
“So, Van Louen,” my boss began. “We think we can keep the stealth UCAV afloat.” Van Louen paused mid-sip at hearing this. “Michael has an ‘in’ with someone on the Armed Services Committee, and he thinks he can get full funding restored to the plane.”
Van Louen’s company built UCAVs. Drones. They had designed, but not sold, a stealthy UCAV. And no one in Congress had yet made a law requiring the military to buy one. That is how you get things done in this city: you trick a 30-year old staffer on the Hill to include a rider on a random bill that requires the gigantic machinery of the U.S. government to shift two degrees your direction, and the sliver of a percent of the budget that represents will make an entire company profitable for a decade.
“Every loves talking about drones,” I said, trying to keep up with the pitch. “And it’s true we should be able to save some cash for yours.” This will be a stretch: I knew two guys who had asked me to give them private briefings on drones before, but it was not at the top of anyone’s agenda.
I continued. “I can create a public messaging campaign: get op-eds going, hold discussion panels, probably even get a journalist or two to cover your tech in a way that makes Congress take notice. I can also arrange meetings with the Appropriations people to sit down and consider your planes for this year’s budget negotiations.”
“That’s great!” Van Louen reached into his bag and pulled out a checkbook. “How long do you need? Six months?”
My boss raised his eye brows and took a sip of his scotch. “Give us twelve. And two hundred thousand. We can hire four staff to do all the background work while Michael works the Hill and the C‑ring to get us meetings with the acquisition officers and staffers.”
Van Louen looked pleased. He had just hired the CNSP to do unregistered lobbying on behalf of a weapons platform. Business as usual. Grinning, he began scribbling onto a check. “I’ll get lunch, too.”
It wasn’t until the fourth weeknight in a row of coming home swaying from booze that my girlfriend confronted me. “You have spent the last two months drinking every single night,” she said. “You need to take a break.”
I squished my face. “No I don’t. It’s fine. It’s just a few here and there. I need them to get work.”
“But you have work.”
I ignored her, then shrugged off my undershirt, then kicked off my shoes and lay back, flat on the bed. She came over and put her face over mine. My face tickled from her hair brushing my nose. “If I can nudge these hill rats into adding a budget line, we are in solid. I’ll have us set up for years.”
“Mike, I really need you to take a step back.”
I tried to smile genuinely. “I will. I promise.” I reached up to touch the side of her head. Her brow knitted. I tried to run my fingers through her hair but she pulled back.
“Not now, baby.”
“You were making my face itch!”
“Go drink some water.”
I did. I then poured myself two fingers of Dewars. Might as well push all the way off tonight.
My life as a think tanker is filled with meetings: conference tables, lunches, dinners, receptions, happy hours, phone calls, one-on-one conversations, interviews and lectures. It is a never-ending path of sitting at tables, being clever. There are boundaries to this cleverness—one cannot joke about the wrong thing, and one cannot be too sexual or vulgar—but it is a community with awfully low standards for humor. I find it remarkably easy to sound engaged with half my brain shut down.
But not this day. This day I had to be convincing that I was making progress on promoting those drones. It was a lunch meeting. In our conference room. Dry.
I sipped my Diet Coke. “So, Mister Van Louen, how are you?”
He offered a wan smile. “It’s been six months, Michael. How are you coming along?”
“I’m coming along just fine. When I started, no one wanted to talk about increasing the drone budget. Now we might get a line item in the next Authorization bill.”
I leaned my head to the side. “Yes, might. A lot is up in the air right now, and frankly no one wants to talk about it. I’ve had to be very persistent.”
“What does persistent mean?”
I leafed through the stack of papers I had next to my sandwich. “These are the op-eds I have written about increasing drone funding in the last five months. I’ve written fifteen of them in thirteen publications. Some have let me write one twice, which is rare. I’ve had those op-eds cited by journalists twenty-five times and have given four speeches about this as well.”
Van Louen accepted the short stack and began thumbing through them. His jaw receded into his chin fat as his lower lip raised. It was how he read through his transitions bifocals. “These are great,” he said, pausing to take a sip of his Perrier, “but it’s just talk. What are you actually doing?”
“I’m almost there,” I stammered. I could really use a glass in my hand. Swigging from a plastic soda bottle just wasn’t the same sort of punctuation I needed for this pause. “You’ll have a line item by the time appropes finishes up.”
Van Louen smiled. “Good.”
I guess I did something right: the email seemed glowing.
“Michael: I am thrilled to be able to offer you a seat on our next educational tour to the UCAV manufacturing plant. Please be at the Signature private terminal at Dulles airport Thursday morning at 7 am.”
So that’s neat: I got to fly in Van Louen’s corporate jet to see drones get built. My girlfriend saw my smile lit up by my iPhone. “Good news?”
I said yes and showed her. “So, you’ll be gone Thursday?” I nodded. “Will you be back in time for dinner?”
Shit. I had to hang out with her friends. “I should be,” I promised. “They said we’ll be landing by seven. I will just be a little late.” She thinned her lips. I knew I’d be late.
Take off was fun. We walked our bags out to the plane, a sleek but not new Gulfstream V, and a man in a silly hat hoisted them into the luggage compartment. A woman in a stewardess costume invited us up the stairs. Inside was all leather, burnished walnut and plasma screens. The seats hugged your ass, and the windows were large. It was beautiful.
Soon as we were in the air, the stewardess folded out the tables, covered them in white linen and served drinks. “Who would like shrimp and bourbon?” I raised my hand, to giggles from my cabin mates.
I was sloshy by the time we landed, somewhere near Dallas. They took us into the factory, made us put on hard hats and pushed us hard with corporate propaganda about this drone, why it’s so important, stuff about Russia and China, and terrorists, gave us gift bags with drone-branded stationery and ball-point pens, USB drives full of their PowerPoints and maybe some sort of malware, who knew really, and lots of colorful brochures.
I squished this into my purse and asked when we would get to see the drones. “Soon, Michael, we’ll tour the floor soon.” I got up and went to the bathroom, paused to drink some water, and by the time I came back the human drone had finished his presentation and was gathering us to head onto the factory floor.
It wasn’t that interesting: just a bunch of metal and creative posters about keeping the floor free of debris. It wasn’t even as big as I thought: I’ve been to other airplane factories before, and they are colossal, so big they seem like they should have their own weather. This was just a warehouse. I’d been to dance clubs bigger.
By the time dinner came around we were being plied with alcohol, as very personable corporate flacks pretended to be interested in our research projects. A black woman with just a hint of belly fat touched my arm. “Michael, what are you working on these days?”
I sipped my bourbon. I probably shouldn’t brag about my illegal lobbying on behalf of her company. “I’m trying to work on some budgetary issues, seeing how to fit in some disputed acquisitions projects with the counterterrorism stuff on the Hill.” Nice and vague.
She arched an eyebrow. “‘Acquisitions stuff?’ Intriguing. Enjoying your trip so far?”
I smiled and swirled my glass for her to see. “When does the food get here?”
Her eyes darted to my gut. “Any minute now.”
I don’t remember the rest of the night. When I woke up the next morning, my girlfriend wouldn’t talk to me. There was a note on the kitchen table telling me to take an Uber out to Dulles to pick up my car. My stomach was upset, and there was a lancing pain in my sinuses.
Around lunch that day, I got an email from her.
“I am so mad at you for missing dinner last night and demanding I pick you up from the airport. You’re a fucking alcoholic, Michael. Get some help.”
I tried to call her. No response. I texted her. After an hour of no response I wrote back.
“Look, I’m sorry, okay? I fucked up. I can’t lose this project from Van Louen. I need the funding to keep my job here. It’s the only thing keeping me, keeping us afloat. I’ll make it up to you, I promise.”
My boss was happy with the trip. “You really made them like you,” he said. “When are you writing again about this drone funding?”
I made up an answer to him. I couldn’t think straight. I didn’t want to do unregistered lobbying anymore. It felt dirty—it was dirty. I needed to think.
By the time I got home that night, she was gone: her books, her CD collection, the eleven Blu-rays she had received as random Christmas presents over the years, the wireless router, her bedsheets and throw pillows, the perfumes and skin care products, the toilet paper, the fucking ice cub trays in the freezer, her sacks of whole wheat and almond flour, the shoe rack, the prints purchased at the Hirshorn museum, even the bowl of loose change—all of it was gone.
I went to the cabinet. She left my lowball glasses. I put a single cube of ice in one and poured some mid-grade whiskey atop. Maybe the fumes would calm me down.
They didn’t. I took a sip. Still not calm.
Danielle texted me. Time for a quick chat?
I texted her back. Yeah. Want to meet at The Atoll? It’s tiki night.
She send a smile emoji. 9 pm?
I sent a thumbs-up.
When we clinked our glasses, she asked if I’d consider being a regular contributor to the Jason Peacock show. “What made you offer me that?”
She raised a corner of her mouth. “You’ve done really great work on the drone stuff, and all the people we have on oppose them. We need a foil, someone who can keep pushing back on it whenever it’s in the news.”
I grinned. “Well I think I can do that.”
She ordered us another round.
I woke up the next morning with my hand asleep, her shoulder digging into the crook of my elbow. I tried to flex my hand but I couldn’t feel the fingers move, just a gentle sense of a fingernail digging into my palm.
“Danielle.” Moaning, her hair rustled. “Danielle, I have to pee.” No response.
I yanked my arm back. She yelped and opened a puffy eye. “What the fuck, Michael?”
“I said I have to pee.” Standing up that lancing pain struck my occipital lobe again. Too much, too much. In the bathroom, I cupped my hand under the running faucet and gulped water. Gulped again. God, it wasn’t enough, and my head was pounding. More gulping.
There was a thud on the door. “Michael are you okay? The water is running.”
I pulled my head to the side, letting the water run over my fingers. “I’m fine, just washing my face.”
I shut off the water and sat on the bathroom floor. Was I single? What just happened?
My phone buzzed. It was low on battery, and a new email had come in.
“Michael, can you talk to us about the synagogue riots in Germany last night?”
It was that TV producer. I guess I needed to find a tie.
“Sure, I’d love to,” I wrote back. “Can you send a car?”
I smiled at Danielle as I left the bathroom and pulled on my pants. She had the door closed. I think she vomited. I loaded the New York Times app on my phone and began reading.