Bubblers & Civic Virtue

I went down to Washington to meet Chrissy for lunch and took advantage of being there to see some of the memorials.   

Washington is a truly beautiful city.  There is a lot to see and it is all free. I corrected a German tourist who I overheard saying to a fellow European, “Americans have so little history that they have to make a bigger thing of so short a time.”  I pointed out the truth that we Americans enjoy the OLDEST continuous government in the world after only the UK.   We have not had a radical or violent overthrow of our government since 1776 and we have lived under the same Constitution – never suspended – since 1788.   I asked him just to think about it.  I didn’t point out that Germany was not a country until 1871 and that it went through some interesting changes after that.

Below is the new office building where I will work in 2009, although I bet I won’t get a good view of the Potomac.

Below is the same building in April.  They are making good progress.

Many Europeans have a different and, IMO, mistaken view of history.  They fix on places and traditions instead of people.   Some people live close to old things but no “people” or culture is older than any other.   My mother’s family left the new Germany soon after Otto Von Bismarck’s unification thing in 1871.  My father’s family left Poland (then subject to the Russian Empire) soon after.  I am glad they did.  When they came to America, they didn’t just set back the human clock to zero and start over.  They added to America’s in a shared heritage.  I have been to Germany.  We make better sausages in Milwaukee, but they still make better beer. 

BTW – I hear my great-grandfather used to imply that things were better in Germany.  This made him unpopular during World War I.  Of course he was not telling the truth.  ALL immigrants think that America is better than the places they left, otherwise they would be there and not here.  It is true even if they don’t want to admit it.

Below – Washington still has many big and beautiful American elms.

There is no such thing as a culture outside its human carriers.   It is not resident in old buildings, the land or anything else non-human.  Parents pass their culture on to their children and some cultural traits can be astonishingly long-lived, but each transition produces an imperfect copy.  This is great.  Otherwise the culture would be as dead as a rock.  No two individuals have the same understanding of their culture.   We talk about culture as thought it was something palpable, but it really is just a chimera and a very ephemeral one at that.  Better to adapt the best things you can find rather than stick only with the adaptations that worked for your grandparents.  Even the best things must be adapted.  Living people adapt and so do living cultures.  I think America does this well.  I love our traditions and still feel a kind of excitement when I walk around the Capitol Mall, even though I done it literally hundreds of times.  On the other hand, I would not want to be limited to the skills of Washington’s dentist.

Above is WWII memorial from behind.

Of course, I didn’t bore the European tourists with all that either.  Germans usually have good teeth. 

I thought of change and persistence as I walked past the World War II memorial.  It is a new memorial, but it is so very well done and fits perfectly into the Mall that you would think it had been there forever.   It commemorates the courage of my father’s generation.   Each year there are fewer and fewer of them.  Their courage is something worth passing along.

There is one simple tradition that seems to be disappearing – bubblers.*   There are still bubblers on the Mall.  There used to be lots of bubblers around generally, now not so much.   I suppose they are trouble to maintain.  Vandals break them or put gum in the spigots.  But I think the culture has taken a small wrong turn in not keeping those things around.   A bubbler is an obvious symbol of civic virtue.  Everybody gets to have something everybody needs and it is available to all.  The symbolism is one of the reason that separate bubblers were so offensive during the time of Jim Crow.   Now people sell bottles of water.   Everybody carries a bottle of water around to “hydrate”.   I would rather have the bubblers.

*Drinking fountains to people not from Milwaukee

The Worst Hard Time

I just finished The Worst Hard Time about the dust bowl of the 1930s.   Some of what the author describes applies to Iraq.  We get the various different colors of dust and it is almost impossible to get away from it.

Below is the American dust bowl.

The dust bowl was a man-made disaster caused by the plowing up of prairie grass as farmers tried to produce crops which were not suited by nature to the area.   This process was exacerbated by “good luck”.  There was a boom in grain prices caused by WWI and the collapse of grain production in Russia (which had been a big exporter) after the revolution there.   This coincided with some unusually wet weather on the American high plains and during the 1920s times were good, with bumper harvests and high prices.  But later as grain prices dropped (i.e. returned to long term normal), farmers had to put more and more land in production merely to make the same money.  It became a viscous (BTW the original idiom is indeed a viscous not vicious) circle with farmers breaking up the sod to grow more grain and growing more lower the prices and encouraging more sod-busting.   Then the rains stopped.  Subsequent investigation showed that the drought of the dust bowl was not abnormal, but w/o the grass to hold the soil, it blew away.

There is a good PBS series on the Dust Bowl, BTW with a good webpage.

We learned a lot from this experience.   We now have methods that can build or at least maintain soils.  The most important lesson is that you have to work within the bounds of nature and there are some things you just cannot do, no matter how attractive or how much you want it.  The Great Plains have recovered (mostly) from the dust bowl.  Farming there is dry land or irrigated, usually with water from the Ogallala Aquifer, but much has reverted to grassland and many rural counties have never recovered their populations. 

Iraq has a climate like the Texas Panhandle, only hotter.   Anbar gets 4-7 inches of rain in a usual year.  Most of that rain falls in winter.  I saw a couple of good storms and once it rained all day, but the place is a desert.  I wonder, however, how much of desolation is man-made.   The dunes in Anbar are dust and dirt, not sand.   Plants can grow on dirt, if they have a chance.  Unfortunately, people and goats have been working on this place for 4000 years.  It would never be verdant, but how much could be restored?   We have planned and funded some small scale restoration projects.  I don’t know if they will last very long.  Local shepherds have incentives to let their animals devour what they can get, even if it means destruction in coming years.

I had some grandiose dreams when I came to Anbar.   I envisioned a small version of the CCC, an ink blot version.  We have had lots of contacts with local farmers but I don’t know if we have done any lasting good.   The desert will probably swallow up all we do.  Ozymandias leaps to mind.

Above is the Al Asad dust bowl with the duster blowing in

Probably the best thing I did for environment of the desolate region was negative.  We declined to fund “emergency feeding” for the local sheep and goats.   It seemed cruel, but it really would not have helped even in the short run and it would have caused must more destruction and despair even in the medium term.   There are just too many of them for the carrying capacity of the land.  They destroy everything green.  My Ag-Advisor Dennis, who did a lot of his work and growing up in Texas near the old dust bowl, understood the futility – even perniciousness – of the subsidies.  It needed NOT be done. I agreed with him 100%.  We took the hard decision and I am proud of it, although I told him that if they ever make a movie about this, we will certainly be the villains. Sheep and goats are desert making machines, but they are cute.

Anyway, I recommend the book.  About the same time you should also read The Forgotten Man, also about the Great Depression but with a broader perspective.

Lt.Col Jeffrey Chessani

Please see below.  I have no personal knowledge of this, but I do know Haditha and the Marines.  The Marines I know are honorable.  It was a difficult and confusing situation.  I have never come close to experiencing what they did, but I saw some of what was left.   I side with the Marines on the ground, which is why I am posting what I got in email today.  I am contributing.   I leave it up to you to make up your own minds.

Continue reading “Lt.Col Jeffrey Chessani”

Wrapping Up

I will go back to Iraq at the end of this week for my last two months there.  I have been thinking about how I can continue to add value up until the very end.  The two hardest parts of any posting are the first month and the last.   In first month you are overwhelmed trying to learn the new place, the new job and how to work with new colleagues; in the last you are trying to stay relevant, not check-out mentally before you leave physically and continue to plant those seeds you know you will never see germinate. 

Much of my energy will be absorbed by the transition to a new team leader.  It helps that my successor, Robert Kerr, is an experienced diplomat who has already served in Iraq.  We will overlap for at least a week – long enough to pass along my knowledge, but not my bad habits. Beyond that, my team works autonomously.  We all like to think we are indispensible, but I know from experience that soon after we leave a posting we gone like the snows of past winters.   We do our part in our time and when our time is done we do something else.   That does not detract from the importance of our duty.  Each of us is a link in the chain and as the old saying goes, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.  I am gratful that I had the opportunity to do my part.

We need to build on the success given to us by the surge.  We can be grateful that we didn’t listen to the advice of the surge opponents a year ago, but maybe some of their current advice isn’t so bad.   A detailed timeline independent of developing condition in Iraq is just plain stupid, but an aspirational timeline, one that reiterates the U.S. desire to leave, may be a good idea.  

In my corner of Iraq, we have begun already.   The Marines are gradually drawing down.  They are responible for the peace we now enjoy, so leaving is tricky for all sorts of big reasons.  For us, their drawdown has the practical effect of giving us fewer travel assets, i.e. helicopters and convoys.   We also see our Iraqi friends are willing and able to take on more of the responsibility for their own development.  The transition is tricky.  Some of the locals have come to see us as a font of resources.  They think it is easier and better to get us to do something than to ask their own government or do it themselves.  We have to change this attitude and I have been trying to wean them off our largess, at least as pertains to our ePRT.  We don’t do anything w/o a local contribution.  The days of us doing for them are over.  We are currently in the partnership mode and I look forward to the day coming soon when they will do for themselves.  I hope with some U.S. investment and participation, but that will be private.

If we don’t succeed, I worry about the moral hazard.  When people get used to unearned entitlements it leads to dependency and indolence.  Beyond that, they come to despise those giving them the benefit.  Generosity is harder than it seems.  I think it has something to do with reciprocity.   W/o self respect, people cannot respect others and they cannot build self respect if they feel that they are not making a contribution.   Giving w/o expecting anything in return can take away the recipients’ self respect.  Their contribution need not be directly proportional.  It may consist of only the promise to do something for others in the future, but the donor has to insist of something, a contribution – reciprocity.  Otherwise there is a moral hazard that leads to pain for both donor and recipient. 

The old saying that it is more blessed to give than receive is incomplete.   The best for all around is generous reciprocity.

A Fish Story

Fishermen near Hadithah are pulling bigger fish out of the Euphrates than anybody can remember.   The fish got a chance to be so big because locals had been unable to fish during the late insurgency.  Coalition forces had limited or banned river traffic to prevent terrorists from using the river as transportation and a way to get away.  With the more stable situation, the ban was been lifted, but fishing did not return to its previous levels, despite the size of the fish population.  Why not?

We thought of the obvious reasons, maybe the boats were not in good repair or that people were still afraid to take to the water, but this didn’t seem to be true.  People were fishing, but not so much.  They were fishing for their own or for very local consumption, but not for market.   Then we identified to missing link.  It was not the boats, river, fish, fish markets or fishermen.  The missing link was ice.

Fish are very perishable.  You can catch that big fish, but it is probably not a good idea to buy it or eat it after it has been sitting around in 110 degree heat in the sun all day.  W/o ice, fish mongering is limited to places very near the river where live fish can be maintained.

There was an ice factory nearby, but it was not in operation.  CF helped get it up and running and now fishing is returning.  All this makes our plans to help with fish hatcheries in Anah and Hadithah more urgent, but the hatcheries would have been ineffective and maybe even harmful if the ice problem had not been solved.

The lesson for me was a reminder of bottlenecks and how well the free market works if it is allowed to do so.    We (in this case essentially bureaucratic planners) didn’t think through the whole system.  No planners really can.  That is why the market works so well.  Individuals or groups identify a need and they fill it – IF they can.  The authorities’ role is not to do, but to enable. I think we did the right thing in enabling rather than providing.  Independently, CF are contracting with local firms for ice, rather than making it ourselves, which we are more than capable of doing.   This is helping build an ice infrastructure, which will be in place after we leave.  Ice is a big deal in this hot climate. 

I am glad that we caught on in time.   You accomplish big goals by a combination of applying pushing energy and removing obstacles.  It is tempting just to push harder because you have more ostensible control, but often the obstacle removal is the way to go.  Buying boats & nets, training fishermen etc would have looked good on our reports, but removing the obstacle and letting them do it themselves was the true key to success.

As the old Taoist wisdom advises, the best way to accomplish a task is when the people say, “we did it all by ourselves.”

FYI – In case anybody notices, I am still in the U.S. and this post is out of sequence.  I wrote it a couple weeks ago.  I just forgot to post.  The pictures are old ones too. The top one is fishermen on Lake Qadissya and the one above is Lake Thar-Thar.

Busch Gardens & City Life

The kids like Busch Gardens because of the roller-coasters.  I like them too, but good amusement parks are places where you see experimental urban planning techniques and methods of cueing control.  First the amusments. 

Along side is Espen arm wresting the machine.  He won, but it still cost 50 cents.

We went on the new ride called the Griffon.  It has a fantastic vertical drop.   Roller-coasters keep getting better.  I recall the first time I went to Busch Gardens about twenty years ago.   The best they could do back then was the Loch Ness Monster.  My favorite is Apollo’s Chariot because you feel like you are going to fly out when you hit the high points. 

 The park is designed around a European theme.  They have Italy, Germany, England, Ireland and France.  Busch Gardens in Florida has an Africa theme.

Below is the Ireland part of Busch Gardens.

Now for the urban planning.  Amusement parks create the illusions of space and distance.  They do this by using travel time and changes of venue.   Most of us cannot measure straight line distance very well.  Instead, we use the proxies of time and effort.  We also notice changes in scenery, especially when we pass through some kind of threshold such as a bridge, arch or gate.  When you walk between and among the various parts of a well designed park, you never get to go the straight line.  You often have to take some kind of transportation, usually a train, that makes it seem like you are embarking on a journey.  You also cross a lot of thresholds.  Bridges, arches and gates are placed strategically to make you think you have entered a different place.  It works.

Below – there are nice gardens at Busch Gardens.   One reason I like that park is that it is pretty.

Amusement parks are some of the places where various methods are best applied, but they are the basis of all good urban and park planning.   I read a very good book re called A Pattern Language where the authors tried to figure out the patterns that make landscapes and cities pleasant.  The book is full of suggestions that apply across cultures.  I found a website re.  You have to be member to get all the benefits, but it has some nice picture.

Below are Espen and Alex, practicing their usual looks, in Busch Gardens England.

At the risk of sounding like a philistine, IMO most great cities have that amusement park atmosphere and were essentially built with that same idea in mind.   That is why people like to go there.  Go to Venice, the Vatican, Paris or Vienna and tell me you cannot see that.  It is just that in those days the amusements were for the princes and fat cats.  At first I just thought amusement parks copied these places, but the closer I looked the more I understood that these were indeed amusement parks only on a grander scale and had developed more snob-appeal from just being around a long time.   Just as in a modern Disney World or Busch Gardens, patronage allowed architects, engineers and artists to experiment with new forms.  If the popes or the Medici could have built a roller coaster, they would have had one.  Imagine them whooping it up on the drop. A roller coaster is a wonder of engineering and physics and requires an understanding of human perceptions and psychology.  It is no small thing, physically or intellectually.  I don’t doubt that Leonardo da Vinci designed one or two of them, but like the other things he drew, they didn’t go into production.

Below is the wisteria.  Grows fast. Notice the arch as you pass from one section to the next.

For example, a path with uneven width (i.e. with wider spots and curves) is more appealing than a straight road.  People all over the world like structures with galleries or porches.  A well designed house offers a transition area from outside space to inside space.  We are attracted to houses with a sheltering roof.  A room with a corner with windows on both walls is nicer than one with windows only on one.   Most of the things are obvious WHEN they are pointed out.   Unfortunately, many of our modern cities violate almost all the precepts of a comfortable place to live.  In recent years, we have designed our cities for the convenience of the automobile and make humans second class inhabitants in our cities.  It doesn’t have to be that way and we can learn from what they do at quality amusement parks and public gardens.

Below is Busch Garden’s Italian street.

Some communities are being designed with the human principle in mind.  Unfortunately, they tend to be only upscale places where ordinary people cannot afford to live.  They also tend to run up against zoning rules.  Recently, we also have the added permutation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.   Most of the nicest places in my favorite cities such as Krakow, Vienna or Istanbul would never pass the tests of accessibility.   In theory, you could build a neighborhood as charming as some of those we find in great old cities, but modern rules would not permit it.  However, you might be able to get an erzatz version as in Busch Gardens.  That is not so bad.

Below are Alex and Espen entering the German section.  Notice again the distinct entry.

Re housing, I read an article in this month’s Wilson Quarterly about housing.  The author was Witold Rybczynski, who wrote a very good book called City Life that I read a couple years ago.  Witold Rybczynski says that housing is so expensive because of all the restrictions governments place on land use and building requirements.   Places where the red tape is the strongest, such as the New England and the West Coast, have much higher home prices.  It is not simply a matter of greater demand, but also of artificially restricted supply.   Builders are complicit in this, although you can see why they would be almost forced to do it.  If a parcel of buildable land costs a lot, it just makes sense to build a big, expensive house there to make it worth the effort.   Many people have more house than they need, but they have been convinced that they need even more.  I recommend both the article and the book.   Unfortunately, neither is available online, so you have to look at them in the old fashioned paper way (Wilson Quarterly is worth the subscription, BTW), but I did find a good interview with author.

Below is Roman Rapids at Busch Gardens.  You get wet, but it was hot so good.  Only Alex and I went. Mariza took the picture.  Espen paid a quarter to try to squirt us from the side, but missed.

PS – this is a little off topic, but as long as we are talking re things that make life work, I also found a good article re freshwater.   This is the link.   

Below – the kids don’t like to have their pictures taken. 

IMO – the recuperation part of R&R is getting a chance to think about things besides work, so this is what I have been doing.

Above – Mariza and Sponge Bob.

Below – Espen got a gum package that gave a shock when you tried to take one.  He couldn’t understand why he got no takers.  We are all suspicious of him bearing gifts.

Simple Solutions to Global Warming, the Energy Crisis, Management Malaise and Problems in General

First ban all leaf blowers.  I went running on a perfect summer morning in N. Virginia, with clear air, green plants and temperatures in the middle 70s.  Into this arcadia intruded a landscape crew of fools with leaf blowers, no doubt paid for with my property tax dollars.  A leaf blower is a small thing, but considering all the impacts and connections it is a metaphor for life’s more general conundrums.   

With its inefficient small engine, the average leaf blower makes more pollution than a new SUV.  If you are downwind, you can smell them almost as soon as you can hear them.   Their noise pierces the peace of a leafy neighborhood.  They are almost always operated by low-paid workers, often illegal aliens.  Worst of all, they don’t really work.  The distracted worker walks along the path carelessly spraying air to move leaves and clippings a few feet, while raising dust and disturbing the peace.  If you come back a few hours later, you can see no evidence of their work.  Not all wind is man-made by leaf blowers, after all, and nature redistributes the clippings in relation to prevailing daily wind patterns.  The leaf blowers, in other words, are doing nothing – badly.

What would happen w/o leaf blowers?  Eliminating the noise, fuel waste and pollution is good.  Most of the work need not be done anyway, so there is not much loss.  Landscape firms could hire fewer low paid workers. For those rare times where the leaf blowers do some good, there is nothing that a leaf blower can do that a broom or a rake cannot do better.  It is not like John Henry racing the steam drill.  A leaf blower is a labor saving, not a labor enhancing device.  Burning a few extra calories through added physical effort wouldn’t hurt the operators.  It is good all around. 

How many “leaf blower scenarios” do we have in our society?  Things that we could not only do without, but whose elimination would make us better off? Think of how you have to take a sweatshirt to theaters and grocery stores – in summer because of the excessive air conditioning. We can all think of many.

An active manager looks for things to add to his agenda every day.  A wise leader looks for things on the agenda that can be consolidated or eliminated entirely.  Unfortunately, our bias is to reward senseless activity, even when it is producing no results of even negative ones.   We do not recognize that sometimes we are failing because of and not in spite of our best efforts.  Usually a thoughtful response will do less but accomplish more.

I think the key to understanding what should be done is knowing where you want to be.  It is too easy to identify a problem, propose an inappropriate solution and then blame others when it doesn’t work – what most politicians do most of the time. Some problems are not solvable and have to be endured.  Some problems cannot be solved with the tools available. Some problems are not solvable at this time but may be easy to sort out as conditions develop.  Most problems are not problems at all.  They have to be neither endured nor solved and safely can be bypassed or ignored.  They may go away by themselves if left alone or trouble us no more if we make minor adjustments.  BTW, any problem you can easily afford to buy your way out of is not a problem; it is merely an expense and don’t spend a dollar fighting a nickel’s worth of trouble.  It is useful to think about which are which and allocate time and resources accordingly.

If you think about where you want to be rather than how to solve each problem you encounter, you come up with better solutions… and you understand that inventions such as leaf blowers don’t really get you there.   

My grandiose title may be just a little misleading, but the mind works faster when you are running and the leaf blowing fools stimulate perhaps more lesson than the experience has to teach.

PS – If you want to write to me but not have your response posted as a comment, just make a note at the top that it is just a private note.  I see all the comments before posting.

Victory in Iraq Creates Options

The opposite is also true.  Below is the Griffon roller-coaster at Busch Gardens.  It reminds me of our perceptions of Iraq over the last years.

Iraq is getting play in the news again, but the narrative is wrong.   Some commentators – covering for their earlier dumb statements – disingenuously say that we don’t  know what would have happened if we had followed the defeatist advice in 2006 and pulled out instead of surged.   Anybody who has been to Iraq knows that we would be in a big mess today.   The proper answer for the erstwhile surge opponents is to say that they were seriously wrong last year, but that they see the error in light of events and will work with conditions to take advantage of the success brought about by policies they opposed.  I certrainly would not hold their earlier mistakes against them, but I don’t think I will hold my breath waiting for the truth.

The media correctly points out that w/o the Sunni Awakening and the decline of the Shiite militias we would not enjoy the success we do today.  Lots of thing contributed to success.  W/o the surge, however, Al Qaeda would have cut the head off Sunni leaders, as they did in 2005, and the Shiite militias would never have gone into decline.   When you win, you get some of the things you want.  That is what winning means. 

Some people just cannot understand joint causality and that some conditions are indeed necessary but not by themselves sufficient.   I have lived in Anbar for awhile now and met people involved in the Awakening.   They hate Al Qaeda with considerable passion and we certainly could not have defeated the bad guys w/o their help.   But w/o our help, THEY could not have defeated the bad guys either.  Our friends would have been isolated and killed individually or in small groups, along with their families, and others would have been intimidated into silence.   I don’t have to speculate about this.  We saw that such things happened in 2005 and we still could see them happening on a smaller scale even in the time I have been in Iraq.

Let me be as blunt as I can.  The surge worked.   Those who opposed the surge were wrong.  I feel justified in being so nasty because of all the defeatism and negativity we had just a year ago – about the time I was deciding to go to Iraq myself.   I will not accept that those who told people like me that we were stupid for thinking we could win in Iraq – and chumps for volunteering – can now pretend that the success in Iraq would have happened anyway.   

I believe in looking to the future and I don’t dwell on this to justify the past.  Historians can sort out the details in the fullness of time.  But we are still in the midst of this project and we have to keep our eyes on the ball.  AQI and the bad guys are on the run, but they are not defeated.  They are like an infection that has been weakened by penicillin.   We are feeling good now and it is tempting to declare that all is well, but if we stop before the job is done, the disease will return, stronger and more deadly.

The success of the surge is giving us the options of bringing home troops – in victory – and of getting the Iraqis to share more of the burden.   But it is important to remember HOW we got to this point and don’t pretend that it was just luck.

Re Afghanistan –Foreign fighters that until recently headed to Iraq now are on their way to Afghanistan.  Why?  Because they know they are defeated in Iraq.   If WE had been defeated in Iraq in 2006, they would still be going to Afghanistan, but with greater confidence & resolve and in greater numbers.  Iraq and Afghanistan are not the same war, but they are linked.  Al Qaeda & other terror organizations send fighters and bombers to both places.  Foreign terrorists fight us where they think they can hurt us.  That WAS Iraq when we were weaker there.  It may be Afghanistan now because our success in Iraq has made it too hard for the bad guys there.   It could also, BTW, be New York or Washington.   We control them by opposing them.  That is just true.  If we keep the imitative, we have more choices about WHERE we fight them, but we do not have a choice about IF we will fight them.

People who support extremists respond to the same sorts of pressures and incentives as other people.  When being a jihadist is easy and it looks like success is at hand, lots of people want to volunteer or at least be on the winning side.   As it gets harder or more dangerous, this support dries up.   Fighting terrorists does not create more IF it is done properly.  Please see my note from yesterday.  

Extremist ideologies decline only AFTER they have been defeated or discredited.  Nazism didn’t decline by itself.   It went into terminal decline after it was defeated by force of arms.  Until then it looked like the wave of the future.  In 1941 things looked different than they did in 1945.  A similar dustbin of history fate befell Soviet Marxism.  Although in their case it was primarily an economic and political defeat, these forces were backed by forty years of resolve and strength on the part of the U.S. and our allies, without which Soviet communism would have blotted out the sun of freedom over a much wider area for a much longer time.   Why does anybody think extremist jihadists would go away without a fight?  They are standing on the edge of the precipice.  Let’s make sure they fall off.

BTW – when we do succeed in this endeavor, let’s not think it is the end of history.  We went down that path in the 1990s and it didn’t work out. 

Fresh Air on Counter Insurgency

I recommend a superb interview about Iraq with John Nagl, who helped write the COIN manual.  It is on Fresh Air on NPR.  This program sits on the soft left side of the radio spectrum, which is why this interview is so interesting.  The host obviously is a light-weight compared with Nagl.  You can hear in her voice and demeanor that she knows that too and is impressed with his knowledge.  She really seems to have learned something.  Her questions are sometimes leading and simplistic but his answers make it all work. 

Getting accurate news out on a venue such as Fresh Air is useful.  I suspect that many of the listeners are as badly in need of the education as the show’s host.  The popular stereotype of the Iraq conflict and the people fighting it are out of whack with reality, but too often on shows like this you hear “experts” repeating them in a self-sustaining circle.  A dose of reality will be a breath of fresh air.

Anyway, this is the link to the John Nagl Interview.     

Practical Anthropology

Below is the Marine Band playing at the Marine Memorial in Arlington.  They play every Tuesday evening during the summer.  I went to see them last week.  The picture is not related to the rest of the post, but I thought it was a good picture. 

I minored in anthropology as an undergraduate.   I don’t think about that much anymore, but an article from AEI reminded me of the usefulness of this sort of outlook.  Anthropologists study cultures and the interrelations within and among them.  This is useful in Iraq and Afghanistan as we try to apply leverage to help those places overcome the damage of insurgencies and terrorism.   I have spoken to anthropologist studying the cultural landscape of Anbar and we are always looking for better ways to understand the people we work with.  We call it “human terrain” and knowing the human terrain is as important as understanding the physical terrain of a battle space.  It saves lives and makes us more successful. It just makes sense.

The article I linked above is about an anthropologist who was recently killed while on duty in Afghanistan.   This guy was a hero.  What surprised me was that some professional anthropologists  disagree.   Some even say it is some kind of ethical violation for anthropologists to use their skills to help with human terrain projects.   I think maybe they have been watching too much Star Trek and they think the prime directive is applicable on our planet. It is one of those examples that shows that you can get a PhD and still remain a fool.

We apply our education – history, anthropology, business etc – to do our jobs better.   It would be unethical not to do so, IMO.  That is one of the purposes of education.  I cannot believe that there is a controversy about this among some academics.   Are they trying to prove that what they teach in the ivory tower really is useless? 

The article I mentioned refers to William Francis Butler who said that a nation that insists on separating its soldiers and its scholars will likely find its fighting done by fools and its thinking by cowards.  In our modern America it looks like we have given fools some of the thinking jobs too.

Social “sciences” such as sociology, anthropology and psychology are not sciences in the precise sense of the term.  That does not mean they are not worth study.  On the contrary, the disciplines used in these fields can help channel thought and help in the art of living life.  But social scientists have no right to stand apart from their societies in a way we might tolerate in a practitioner of a hard science.  Society IS their business.

I studied history & management in school, but I didn’t leave it in the classroom.   Whenever possible, I like to test assumptions and theories in light of actual events in the real world.  Thinking improves action and action improves thinking and the test of a theory is its ability to predict outcomes in the real world. No theory accurately applies to all aspects the real world, but some are better, more predictive, than others and all can be improved in light of experience.   I think that – the real world experience – is what scares some academics.  They want to protect their theories and their phony-baloney status from the intrusion of reality.  That is why they criticize colleagues who participate in reality, no matter what rationalizations they offer.   

The best professors I recall from my studies were those who had worked in business and/or consulted extensively.  They were a lot more reasonable than those who rarely or never ventured out.   But the pure academic types often looked down on experience – silly, but true.  It evidently still applies.  Let’s hope the “purists” are not too strong.