Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Last Magazine -- A Subversive, Inventive, Electrifying Debut

When Michael Hastings died at 33, almost exactly a year ago, everyone who followed his work knew the world had lost one of its most fearless, uncompromising journalists.

What we didn’t know was that we had lost an outstanding novelist, as well.

The Last Magazine is so many things:  a horrifying and hilarious parody; a you-are-there corporate thriller; a strange and touching love story.  Most of all, it’s a gripping bildungsroman (always wanted to break that word out in a review, and I couldn’t have asked for a better opportunity).  Hastings nails it all:  the confusion and terror of combat; the funhouse-distorted ambivalence of sexual addiction; the grubby machinations of office politics in the corridors of a major weekly news magazine.  The shallowness, the self-centeredness, the soullessness of the crabs-in-a-barrel culture Hastings deftly and scathingly depicts reminded me of the dark comedy In The Loop — these are people whose only care about the world catching fire is whether their profiles will be attractively lit by the flames.

If you've read The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan, you know that part of what always set Hastings apart was his voice (at times in The Operators he almost seems to be channeling James Elroy).  That voice informs everything he does in The Last Magazine, including a wonderful series of breaking-the-fourth-wall “interludes” such as, “Why I Write” (the narrator — or is it the author?  Both are named Michael Hastings — explains that his magazine’s no-outside-reporting policies necessitate that he disguise this true tale as a novel) and “I’m Very Sorry” (an apology to his colleagues, and again you don’t know whether this is coming from the narrator or the author) and “How a Magazine Story Gets Written” (shades of Moby Dick!).  The result is that from the first sentence you’re caught up in the meta and you don’t know where to look for the line between fiction and fact, between Hastings the narrator and Hastings the author.

But I think the location of that line is of secondary importance.  Because wherever the line lies, it animates truth.  Over and over again as I read this story, the thing that struck me most was how searingly honest it is.  Honest in its portrayal of human frailties; honest in its portrayal of what’s rotten and corrupt in journalism; most of all, honest in its portrayal of its young narrator, Michael Hastings, and of the other major character, veteran foreign correspondent A.E. Peoria (some version of an older Hastings?), both of whom suffer from many of the same weaknesses that afflict the characters around them.

This is just a great, great book, and a fitting testament to the talent and drive of an exceptional person who left the world much too soon.  I can’t help but be sad right now at the thought of all the other novels Hastings might have written, but now never will.  But at the same time, damn, I’m just glad he wrote this one.  It’s that good.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Iraq, Vietnam, and Why US Foreign Policy Elites Won't STFU

With Iraq splitting into three (eight years ago, I explained why this was going to happen and why the US should get behind it), I wondered whether any establishment media outlets would refer to a civil war there.  I did a search for the applicable terms, and came up with… not much.  Apparently, if it’s happening in a Designated Enemy Country like Syria it immediately gets called a civil war.  But if it’s happening in a country we ourselves destroyed, we can't bear to be overly accurate and descriptive in our nomenclature, so it’s just "militants."

I also searched for “Iraq Vietnam.”  Because you don’t have to be a historian to remember that this sounds an awful lot like the endgame in Vietnam:
White House officials said the president did not envision any circumstances in which ground troops could return to the country. Air strikes, however, are under active consideration. On Thursday the US began airlifting planeloads of its citizens from Iraq.

Here, I was intrigued to see that my search returned one big hit:  a Daily Beast article by the ultimate foreign policy insider:  Leslie Gelb.  According to the headline, "Iraq Is Vietnam 2.0 And U.S. Drones Won’t Solve The Problem."  I thought, “Huh? That sounds reasonably insightful and even minimally sane.  What’s going on?”

And then I read the article.  Really, it is remarkable.  Not for anything it intended.  But rather as a perfect microcosm of the horrific failings of America’s inbred, immoral, ineducable foreign policy elite.

It starts immediately after the headline, when Gelb explains that “The problem is the Iraqi government.”  I thought, “Holy shit, that is exactly what the foreign policy establishment kept saying about Vietnam, all the way to the bitter end!  Is Gelb channeling Colbert?  Demonstrating why Iraq is like Vietnam by saying the same incredibly stupid and self-serving things insiders once said about Vietnam?  A kind of performance art, maybe?"

And then I read on and realized that no, Gelb really is this blind.  He’s not playing parody.  He is parody.

So what’s the problem? The problem is not that these Iraqis weren’t well trained and equipped, it was they did not have a government worth fighting for. The Maliki government is Shiite, exclusionary and anti-Sunni. It is corrupt and inefficient. In sum, like most of these great freedom-fighting government we’ve backed over the decades—corrupt and inefficient. And certainly non-inclusive in its politics, certainly not welcoming of potential opponents, certainly ill-disposed to give non-Shiites a legitimate share of power. So the Iraqi troops throw down their arms and run away.

Look, Gelb supported the war in Iraq.  He was part of it.  He lent it triple-distilled establishment cred.  So how incredibly psychologically convenient for him that “the problem” isn’t the war he supported, the war that killed up to 500,000 Iraqis and turned another 4,000,000 into refugees (in a population about 20% the size of America’s), the war that destroyed whatever infrastructure was holding the country together.

No, the only problem is the Iraqi government.

And it actually gets worse from there.

The U.S. fights in Iraq and Afghanistan and Libya and Vietnam and other places (maybe next in Syria), provides billions of dollars in arms, trains the friendly soldiers, then begins to pull out—and what happens? Our good allies on whom we’ve squandered our sacred lives and our wealth fall apart.

Our lives are sacred.  But those far-away, brown-skinned lives?  The hundreds of thousands of them in Iraq?  Not only are they not “sacred,” they’re so meaningless they’re not even worthy of mention in a magazine article.

And this notion that when America “squanders” (rare moment of honest nomenclature there) the lives of its soldiers in foreign wars, we’re doing it for the good of the people of the countries we invade, rather than for our own selfish ends?  It’s the psychological gift that keeps on giving, enabling people like Gelb to go on supporting America’s wars because America’s wars really aren’t wars at all, no, America's wars are in fact simply the magnanimous gifting of freedom and democracy to poor benighted peoples overseas, bestowed in beneficence by a generous, loving, enlightened people.  Gelb’s subtext is right there, though it would be considered uncouth in his circles to say it plainly:  You're welcome, Iraq, you fucking ingrates.  Now no more freedom gifts for you until you show us you’re mature enough to use them responsibly.

Actually, I think Lyndon Johnson said it better:  "We are not about to send American boys nine or ten thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.”  Another unintentional bit of ironic Gelb performance art, doing his part to cement the parallels between America's premier foreign policy disasters.

Either our super foreign policy elite hasn’t read Reinhold Neibuhr, or they can’t understand him:

Perhaps the most significant moral characteristic of the nation is its hypocrisy.  Self-deception and hypocrisy is an unvarying element in the moral life of all human beings.  It is the tribute which immorality pays to morality; or rather the device by which the lesser self gains the consent of the larger self to indulge in impulses and ventures which the rational self can approve only when they are disguised.  One can never be quite certain whether the disguise is meant only for the eye of the external observer or whether, as may usually be the case, it deceives the self.

Also impressive is Gelb’s understanding of the complex motivations of people fighting civil wars in far-off lands.  They are nothing more than "militant, crazy and dangerous jihadis” and "crazed jihadis.”  Not a word beyond that of what might motivate human beings to fight and die.  Is this guy Sun Tzu or what?  With razor-sharp insights like these into the motivations of America’s adversaries, is it any wonder all of America’s wars turn out so splendidly?

The dissonance in Gelb’s psyche produces some contradictory results:

The South Vietnamese had a million and a half men under arms and despite the unconscionable Congressional cutoff of future aid, these armed forces had plenty to fight with. But they gave up too.

But Gelb's whole argument is premised on the notion that the US is right not to “squander” its blood and treasure on governments “not worth fighting for.”  He helpfully explains that South Vietnam was one such government.  So how could a congressional cutoff have been unconscionable?  Isn’t a cutoff exactly what Gelb is proposing in Iraq, and for exactly the same reason…?

I have to ask:  does anyone edit these things?  Subject them to even the most minimal checks for internal consistency?  Or does the Daily Beast think Leslie Gelb is one of those magical people who automatically alchemize gibberish into wisdom?

If our “good guys” can’t supply this motivation for themselves, Americans should have learned by now that we in our goodness and kindness and sacrifice cannot supply it for them. That’s the central lesson of warfare for more than half a century. That’s the essential moral Americans can’t seem to learn.

More pure American beneficence!  More foreign ingrates!

And… I’m sorry, but holy fucking shit, that is "the central lesson of warfare for more than half a century”?  That is "the essential MORAL Americans can’t seem to learn”?  That America is good and kind and sacrifices selfishly, but that’s not enough to supply foreigners with the proper motivation?

That someone can say something like this out loud while maintaining a brand as a Serious Foreign Policy Expert rather than being castigated and shunned as a moral monster is stunning.

But also, for America’s foreign policy elite, entirely routine.

Again, Washington should be prepared to help the “good guys” who are fully willing to help themselves. I’m not against that at all. I am against making these American wars because it simply does not work.

Get it?  To someone like Gelb, war is fundamentally a tool.  That in just a single instance of the use of that tool it ended the lives of hundreds of thousands of people is simply not part of Gelbian math.  It’s irrelevant, a non sequitur.  All that matters is whether we’ll be able to install a stable, pliant government.  If yes, war is good.  If no, war is bad.  That’s the whole equation.  Nothing else enters into it.  Literally nothing else.  If I’m wrong, find me a sentence, even a word, in Gelb’s piece that makes even the barest fig-leaf of a nod to the human costs of his wars.

This is part of what’s amazing about people like Gelb.  It’s not just that they’re moral monsters.  It’s that they’re so blind to their monstrousness they don’t even realize they should try to issue a weak disclaimer, obscure it even a little, inject a little deniability into the mix.

Well, why bother?  They still get published, interviewed, lauded.  Their brands are impervious.  Lacking a conscience or even minimal insight, what else would matter?

It’s fascinating to consider that following his support for the war in Iraq, Gelb admitted this:

My initial support for the war [in Iraq] was symptomatic of unfortunate tendencies within the foreign policy community, namely the disposition and incentives to support wars to retain political and professional credibility.

So at some point, in a rare moment of lucidity, Gelb realized he supported something that led to the destruction of a country and the deaths of up to half a million innocent people… all so he could maintain his precious credibility.  But the insight must have been too psychologically uncomfortable to maintain.  Certainly he seems to have learned nothing lasting from it.

Before the United States jumps off another cliff, let’s simply stop and take note of the bloody realities of more than fifty years.

Well, that’s one way of putting it.  Here’s another.  How about if foreign policy “experts” like Leslie Gelb, who have never adequately apologized for or even meaningfully acknowledged their grotesque errors regarding one of the worst foreign policy catastrophes in US history—a catastrophe that destroyed a country, killed hundreds of thousands of innocent people, and caused immeasurable suffering—how about if people like that take a permanent vow of silence as atonement for what they’ve done?

Martin Luther King said that "A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death."  Obviously, the notion of spiritual death is not confined to nations, but manifests itself in individuals, too.

Gelb claims to care about "the interest of a great majority of people in these countries who suffer from these wars.”  If that were true, he would recognize that his “expertise” has harmed far, far more people than it has helped, and that the least he could do, the baseline minimally decent and dignified thing, would be to Just. Stop. Offering. His wisdom.

There really ought to be a Hippocratic Oath for Serious Foreign Policy Experts.  But there’s not.  There’s just always the next war.  The next one they’re always going to get right.