The 25 best longform articles of 2018

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My year in Pocket

Continuing my tradition from 2016 and 2017, here are the 25 best articles I read last year, in no particular order.  I share lots of snippets from the interesting things I read at Pocket if you’d like to follow along.

An Internment Camp for 10 Million Uyghurs.  Meduza.  “I was able to find a couple of surviving mosques, but locks held their ancient doors closed. Not far from the madrasah, which was also closed, a furrier sat at an intersection in traditional dress and crafted an Uyghur hat. Both the furrier and the hat were made of bronze. Real fur hats were sold in the city’s souvenir shops, but real furriers were now impossible to find. The marvelous ancient knives that had graced the city on people’s belts and in market stalls had also disappeared. When I greeted a few salesmen and used the word ‘pchak,’ they recoiled, and only one antiques dealer could find a heavy knife case in his stand. Inside were several sumptuous, ancient knife handles — the blades themselves had been cut off. Even when they buy everyday kitchen knives, Uyghurs are now obligated to brand the blade with a laser-carved QR code that identifies the knife’s owner. In Aksu, knives in restaurant kitchens are attached to the walls with chains.”

How E-Commerce is Transforming Rural China.  The New Yorker.  “Li pointed to a whirring speck in the sky. As it drew closer, the first thing I could make out was a red box under the belly of the drone. A minute later, I saw three spinning propellers, which seemed improbably small for the size of their load, like the wings of a bumblebee. The children pointed their fingers upward, faces lifted, and cheered for the ‘toy plane.’ But no one else seemed terribly excited. A young man with gelled hair, who arrived as the drone was descending, said that, for a few weeks, these landings had drawn big crowds, but that people soon had got used to them: ‘Things change so fast around here, there’s no time to be surprised about anything.'”

Everyday Politics.  Aeon.  “The original Ming dynasty policy held that in every military household men serving as soldiers would eventually be replaced by their eldest son. In principle, the policy initiated a simple and endless cycle of conscription, but in reality families developed in different ways that complicated the basic selection algorithm. In many military households there were multiple sons; in others none. In the hope of reducing its overhead expenses, the state left it up to families themselves to decide who should fulfil their obligation. Different families faced this challenge in different ways. Families developed a range of strategies to address the lack of fit between their own reality and the demands of the algorithm. One common solution for a family with more than one son was to arrange for responsibility to serve in the military to rotate among the sons on a set schedule. When the rotation was complete, the cycle would begin anew. Such a system could continue for generations. This was the method used by the Cai family of Quanzhou – whose genealogy I collected in the village where their descendants live today.”

“Give Us His Breath or His Body.”  Roads and Kingdoms.  “In August 2004, twelve men left their village in Nepal for jobs at a five-star luxury hotel in Amman, Jordan. They had no idea that they had actually been hired for subcontract work on an American military base in Iraq. But fate took an even darker turn when the dozen men were kidnapped and murdered by Islamic extremists. Their gruesome deaths were captured in one of the first graphicexecution videos disseminated on the internet—the largest massacre of contractors during the war. Compounding the tragedy was the reality that their deaths received little notice. Why were men from a country so removed from the war, in Iraq? How had they gotten there? And who, exactly, were they working for?”

Inside the Haywire World of Beirut’s Electricity Brokers.  Wired.  “‘We cover where there is no state,’ says Abdel al-Raham, an owner and operator of generators in East Beirut. He began with a small generator, which he used to power his house, around the start of the civil war in 1975. But the generator was loud and noxious, so over time, as a gesture of good faith, he would give his neighbors a lamp connected to his generator. “Just enough for them to light their house and to make up for all the annoying noise,” he says. But because of his generosity, his wife soon became unable to run the washing machine. He went out and bought a new, bigger generator. Then shop owners nearby needed more power, and his brother came to him and proposed they split profits on the power they could sell to the neighborhood. Self-sufficiency turned into entrepreneurship.”

She Ran From the Cut, and Helped Thousands of Other Girls Escape, Too.  The New York Times.  “Ms. Leng’ete never forgot what her sister suffered, and as she grew up, she was determined to protect other Maasai girls. She started a program that goes village to village, collaborating with elders and girls to create a new rite of passage — without the cutting. In seven years, she has helped 15,000 girls avoid the cutting ritual.”

My Great-Grandfather, the Nigerian Slave Trader.  The New Yorker.  “My grandmother Helen, who helped establish a local church, is buried near the study. My umbilical cord is buried on the grounds, as are those of my four siblings. My eldest brother, Nnamdi, was born while my parents were studying in England, in the early nineteen-seventies; my father, Chukwuma, preserved the dried umbilical cord and, eighteen months later, brought it home to bury it by the front gate. Down the hill, near the river, in an area now overrun by bush, is the grave of my most celebrated ancestor: my great-grandfather Nwaubani Ogogo Oriaku. Nwaubani Ogogo was a slave trader who gained power and wealth by selling other Africans across the Atlantic. ‘He was a renowned trader,’ my father told me proudly. ‘He dealt in palm produce and human beings.'”

What Putin Really Wants.  The Atlantic.  “But most Russians don’t recognize the Russia portrayed in this story: powerful, organized, and led by an omniscient, omnipotent leader who is able to both formulate and execute a complex and highly detailed plot. Gleb Pavlovsky, a political consultant who helped Putin win his first presidential campaign, in 2000, and served as a Kremlin adviser until 2011, simply laughed when I asked him about Putin’s role in Donald Trump’s election. ‘We did an amazing job in the first decade of Putin’s rule of creating the illusion that Putin controls everything in Russia,’ he said. ‘Now it’s just funny; how much Americans attribute to him.”

A Silver Thread: Islam in Eastern Europe.  LA Review of Books.  “The Sultan sent three thousand troops and a vizier to deal with them, but Musa killed them all, and some mercenaries too. So the time had come to summon Marko again. Marko was a Serb, a Christian, and a prince. He had a terrible temper and an enormous moustache.”

Blood and Oil: Mexico’s Drug Cartels and the Gasoline Industry.  Rolling Stone.  “All that has changed over the past few years, as Mexico’s drug-trafficking cartels have moved to monopolize all forms of crime, including fuel theft, muscling out smaller operators with paramilitary tactics honed in the drug war. Black-market gasoline is now a billion-dollar economy, and free-standing gasoline mafias are gaining power in their own right, throwing a volatile accelerant onto the dirty mix of drugs and guns that has already killed some 200,000 Mexicans over the past decade. The most violent year in Mexico’s recorded history was 2017, and some observers now say the conflict has as much to do with petroleum as it does with narcotics.”

Safe House.  California Sunday Magazine.  “Valentina isn’t a social worker or a therapist or a lawyer. She is an immigrant who opens her home to women whose husbands or boyfriends abuse them. The women who come are waitresses, saleswomen, fruit and vegetable pickers, housecleaners. Like Silvia, many are ashamed, reluctant to point a finger or to file for divorce. Most are undocumented, and before President Trump’s election, they went to Valentina when they didn’t know their rights or when shelters didn’t have space. Since Trump, even those with papers avoid shelters and mistrust the law. Silvia had stayed at Valentina’s house for a week, and now Valentina has taken to checking on her. She’s hoping Silvia will leave her partner, but she can’t predict if she will or how long it might take.”

Signs and Wonders.  1843 Magazine.  “López first saw sign language on an American television programme in 1977. During a trip to Venezuela to compete in an international track-and-field tournament, he managed to get his hands on a guide to the sign language used in Costa Rica and brought it back to Nicaragua. But oralism was enforced even more strictly at the vocational school than at Melania Morales – teachers were known to slap the hands of students caught gesturing to each other – and López’s instructors confiscated his dictionary. Undeterred, he snuck into the room where the teachers had left the book and hid it inside a folk-dancing costume as he walked out. Armed with the contraband dictionary, Lopez and some deaf friends began to gather regularly. At first, they tried to pick up the Costa Rican vocabulary. But trying to learn to communicate using a foreign rulebook felt unnatural: none of the group had ever used anything like those signs with their families or each other. ‘I didn’t identify with those signs,’ López says. ‘I felt the signs had to be something that belonged to us.’ As a result, they scrapped his dictionary, and began trying to make one of their own.”

Could An Ex-Convict Become an Attorney?  I Intended to Find Out.  The New York Times.  “After the 15-minute ceremony, I turned to everyone, without thinking, and began speaking as my uncle kept recording: ‘The last time my mom saw me in court, I was sentenced to nine years in prison.’ I wanted to say something about the journey. I’d already revealed too much. Miles, sitting beside his brother, paused and looked up. I could tell something confused him. He had questions in his eyes. He stared, listening, as I confessed the thing that I’d been holding back. What man wants to tell his child he’s done time in prison? But I had. And, in that single breath, I’d given him this: an image of his father as both a convict and an attorney.”

The Waiting Room.  The Marshall Project.  “The freed detainees will carry their possessions in plastic garbage bags, knotted and sealed. Any money they had when they were arrested will have been converted to a Cook County–issued check that is unusable for the “release and run,” as it is known. Some will have no idea which way to turn as they leave the jail, and no one will know what to do with a check. There is a currency exchange on Kedzie Avenue and 26th, but that is a 13-minute walk, past the desolate zone next to the 26th Street wall of the jail, where it’s not unusual to get jumped by gangs. The Popeyes at California Avenue used to be a good place to get your check cashed, and it was such a reliable sanctuary in the neighborhood that the sheriff’s department would send the newly released detainees there, making it a regular stop in the out-processing.”

The Real Origins of the Religious Right.  Politico.  “But the abortion myth quickly collapses under historical scrutiny. In fact, it wasn’t until 1979—a full six years after Roe—that evangelical leaders, at the behest of conservative activist Paul Weyrich, seized on abortion not for moral reasons, but as a rallying-cry to deny President Jimmy Carter a second term. Why? Because the anti-abortion crusade was more palatable than the religious right’s real motive: protecting segregated schools.”

Híyoge owísisi tánga itá (Cricket egg stories).  Carte Blanche.  “Biologists used to have a comfortable dogma. We believed that everything about an organism could be found somewhere in its DNA. That is not wrong, but neither is it the whole story. Now I am here in the Natural Sciences Building, having discovered a new function of hormones in crickets. What I—an Indigenous woman and a scientist in defiance of every obstacle—have found is not limited to crickets. Researchers studying humans have found that our hormones, too, transcend generations and genes. What I have found may be new to biologists, but not to the peoples of what settlers call the New World. We have known for hundreds of generations that we carry our histories within us. They are part of who we are.”

Embarrassment of Obscurities.  Times Literary Supplement.  “Although NASA was at great pains to present these suits as the pinnacle of modern technological achievement (and indeed each comprised twenty-one layers of fabric, mostly new synthetics such as nylon and spandex), the reality was a little different. Each suit was also a marvellous example of skill and creativity; and it was, almost exclusively, the handiwork of women schooled in the frequently undervalued craft of textiles. The sub-contractor responsible for their assembly was ILC, a firm best known for making Playtex bras, girdles and nappies. Teams of deft-fingered seamstresses and pattern-cutters, working on Singer sewing machines, assembled the spacesuits stitch by painstaking stitch. When the firm received feedback that the prototypes were chafing, they began inserting sections of fluffy material usually used to line girdles; the nylon mesh used to prevent the rubber layer from ballooning in zero gravity had originally been developed for bras.”

The Untold Story of NotPetya, The Most Devastating Cyberattack in History.  Wired.  “Disconnecting Maersk’s entire global network took the company’s IT staff more than two panicky hours. By the end of that process, every employee had been ordered to turn off their computer and leave it at their desk. The digital phones at every cubicle, too, had been rendered useless in the emergency network shutdown.”

Ready for a Linguistic Controversy?  Say “Mmhmm”.  NPR. “Once upon a time, English speakers didn’t say “mmhmm.” But Africans did, according to Robert Thompson, an art history professor at Yale University who studies Africa’s influence on the Americas. In a 2008 documentary, Thompson said the word spread from enslaved Africans into Southern black vernacular and from there into Southern white vernacular. He says white Americans used to say ‘yay’ and ‘yes.'”

Orange or Fruit?  On the Unlikely Etymology of “Orange.”  Literary Hub.  “What happened between the end of the 14th century and the end of the 17th that allowed ‘orange’ to become a color name? The answer is obvious. Oranges. Early in the 16th century Portuguese traders brought sweet oranges from India to Europe, and the color takes its name from them. Until they arrived, there was no orange as such in the color spectrum. When the first Europeans saw the fruit they were incapable of exclaiming about its brilliant orange color. They recognized the color but didn’t yet know its name. Often they referred to oranges as ‘golden apples.’ Not until they knew them as oranges did they see them as orange.”

Slivers of Sciences in Homer’s “The Odyssey.”  Discover.  “One of the most common arguments is that Circe was feeding the crew jimson weed. While that sounds innocent enough, Datura stramonium, as it is known in the scientific world, belongs to the deadly nightshade family and contains high levels of anti-cholinergic alkaloids such as scopolamine, hyoscyamine and atropine. These compounds block the neurotransmitter acetylcholine from interacting with its receptors in the brain. When this neurotransmitter is blocked, we can’t distinguish reality from fantasy, we exhibit bizarre behavior, and we can suffer pronounced amnesia. ‘Patients who consume this stuff often have vivid hallucinations and become seriously delirious,’ says Harvard Medical School toxicologist Alan Woolf.”

Tea if by Land, Cha if By Sea.  Quartz. “With a few minor exceptions, there are really only two ways to say ‘tea’ in the world. One is like the English term— in Spanish and teein Afrikaans are two examples. The other is some variation of cha, like chay in Hindi. Both versions come from China. How they spread around the world offers a clear picture of how globalization worked before ‘globalization’ was a term anybody used. The words that sound like ‘cha’ spread across land, along the Silk Road. The ‘tea’-like phrasings spread over water, by Dutch traders bringing the novel leaves back to Europe.”

How to Spot a Perfect Fake: The World’s Top Art Forgery Detective.  The Guardian.  “Like criminals of every stripe, modern forgers have kept easy pace with the techniques that attempt to trap them. The mismatch between the purported age of a painting and the true age of its ingredients is the workhorse of Martin’s technique. So forgers have grown more rigorous in their harvesting of materials, taking the trouble, for instance, to source wooden panels from furniture they know is dateable to the year of the fake they are creating. (The trick isn’t wholly new; Terenzio da Urbino, a 17th-century conman, scrabbled around for filthy old canvases and frames, cleaned them up, and turned them into ‘Raphaels’.)”

A Birth Plan for Dying.  Longreads.  “River’s birth was scheduled for September 26. She would be born in the same hospital where I had given birth to our daughter, whom I’ll call M, two years before. The staff were ready for us. A kind nurse checked us in at noon and led us to a delivery room with a small sign on the door — a leaf with droplets of water that looked like tears. It’s a secret code. It alerts everyone who comes in the room that your baby is going to die, so people don’t accidentally congratulate you for being there.”

Migration is What You Make It: Seven Policy Decisions that Turned Challenges Into Opportunities.  Center for Global Development.  “No case study or academic paper can—ever—spell out what ‘the’ effect of ‘immigration’ is. Asking this question has as little use as asking whether “taxes” are inherently “good” or “bad.” The answer depends on what is taxed and what the revenue is spent on. Those choices make the policy harmful or beneficial. The same is true of migration. But the world’s wealth of experience in regulating migration can still be a useful resource for setting better policy. We must ask a more fruitful question: how can different policy choices generate positive economic effects from immigration and avoid negative ones? Immigration is not inherently ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ Its effects depend on the context and the policy choices that shape it.

The 20 best longform articles of 2016

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The future of journalism may be uncertain, but I think there’s no disputing that we’re in a golden age of longform reporting in English.  Here are my picks for the 20 best longform articles of the year, in no particular order.  If you’d like to read more like this, check out my recommendations on Pocket.

  • The white flight of Derek Black Washington Post.  “But the unstated truth was that Derek [Black, a youth leader in the white supremacist movement]  was becoming more and more confused about exactly what he believed. Sometimes he looked through posts on Stormfront, hoping to reaffirm his ideology, but now the message threads about Obama’s birth certificate or DNA tests for citizenship just seemed bizarre and conspiratorial….   He had always based his opinions on fact, and lately his logic was being dismantled by emails from his Shabbat friends. They sent him links to studies showing that racial disparities in IQ could largely be explained by extenuating factors like prenatal nutrition and educational opportunities. They gave him scientific papers about the effects of discrimination on blood pressure, job performance and mental health…  ‘I don’t hate anyone because of race or religion,’ Derek [later] clarified on the forum.”
  • 28 days in chains. The Marshall Project. “According to inmates’ lawyers, Lewisburg staffers, and more than 40 current and former prisoners … restraints are used as punishment at Lewisburg, often for those who refuse their cell assignments. Inmates have no say over who shares their cell, even if guards place them with someone who has a violent history, is from a rival gang, or is suffering from a severe mental illness. If they try to refuse a cellmate out of fear, as [inmate Sebastian] Richardson said he did, they are locked into metal “ambulatory restraints” for hours or days until they relent…   Richardson said they ignored his complaints: his swelling hands, his soiled clothes, his cut ankles. Instead they reiterated his options — be locked in a tiny cell with a violent man or cope with the restraints.  [He] remained cuffed for 28 days.”
  • When detectives dismiss rape reports before investigating themBuzzFeed. “Across the country, some police departments claim a vast number of rape reports are false. A BuzzFeed News investigation into a year of ‘unfounded’ rapes in Baltimore County reveals that detectives often don’t investigate them at all — even when the man had been arrested for rape before.”

  • The real Spectre1843 Magazine. “The ’Ndrangheta (pronounced ehn-DRANG-eh-ta, with the stress on the second syllable) originated in Calabria, the toe end of the Italian ‘boot’. Over the past 20 years its reach has extended to the farthest corners of the world… ‘There is no other criminal group with the same ability to insert itself in unfamiliar social environments by means of day-to-day infiltration,’ says Federico Cafiero De Raho, the chief prosecutor of Reggio Calabria, the biggest city in the organisation’s native region. ‘The ’Ndrangheta colonises.'”
  • Here I have nobody:” life in a strange country may be worse than GuantánamoThe Guardian. “On really bad days, Lutfi Bin Ali retrieves his Guantánamo Bay suit from under a pile of clothes and pulls it on. The outfit, which by this point has faded from its infamous orange colour to more of a salmony pink, reminds him he was once worse off than he is now, and helps him to calm down.  Sometimes, though, he wonders if his current predicament might actually be even worse than the 13 years he spent in the notorious prison. Lonely and isolated in the Kazakh steppe, the 51-year-old Tunisian has found life since his release from Guantánamo no easier than life inside.  ‘At least in Guántanamo there were people to talk to. Here I have nobody,’ Bin Ali said during the Guardian’s two-day visit to his new home, a dusty town in northern Kazakhstan famed for being a Soviet nuclear testing site.”
  • My bloody ValentineBuzzFeed. “Valentine Strasser was once the world’s youngest dictator, ruling Sierra Leone for four turbulent years. But his fall from power left him broken, exiled, and eventually back home as a mysterious and feared recluse. BuzzFeed News makes an uninvited house call.”
  • The alphabet that will save a people from disappearingThe Atlantic.  “‘Why do Fulani people not have their own writing system?’ Abdoulaye Barry remembers asking his father one day in elementary school. The variety of writing styles made it difficult for families and friends who lived in different countries to communicate easily. Abdoulaye’s father, who learned Arabic in Koranic schools, often helped friends and family in Nzérékoré—Guinea’s second-largest city—decipher letters they received, reading aloud the idiosyncratically modified Arabic scripts. As they grew older, Abdoulaye and his brother Ibrahima began to translate letters, too. ‘Those letters were very difficult to read even if you were educated in Arabic,’ Abdoulaye said. ‘You could hardly make out what was written.’  So, in 1990, the brothers started coming up with an alternative.”
  • How spring rolls got to SenegalRoads & Kingdoms.  “France sent more than 50,000 soldiers from African colonies to Southeast Asia in the decades leading up to its final defeat by Vietnamese liberation forces in 1954. Senegal was particularly well represented among the ranks. While the colonial infantry corps was drawn from many countries in West Africa, they became known collectively as the tirailleurs sénégalais, the Senegalese riflemen.  As many as 100 Vietnamese women moved to Dakar during the Indochina War as soldiers’ wives, according to Helene Ndoye Lame, the unofficial historian of this community.”
  • King Ruinous and the city of darknessRibbonfarm.  “Legend has it that the ruler of Gujarat declared that there was no room for immigrants, pointing to a pitcher of milk, full to the brim.  ‘The country is full,’ he said.  The Zoroastrian priest leading the refugees responded by adding a pinch of sugar to the milk, which dissolved without causing the milk to spill over. That sweet little visa application earned them asylum… Of course, they hadn’t really escaped their dumpster fire. The fight followed them to Gujarat within a century. History is not geography. History can follow you across borders.  One does not simply exit history.”
  • Two women unite to take ‘honor’ out of killing in PakistanYahoo News.  “Naeema Kishwar shrouds herself in a burqa, showing only her eyes. She belongs to a political party that has been linked to the Taliban. And she comes from deeply conservative tribal lands where girls have been killed for going to school.  Sughra Imam sometimes wears a scarf draped lightly on her hair, but often her head is bare. She belongs to a liberal party whose leader, Benazir Bhutto, the first female prime minister of this predominantly Muslim nation, was assassinated by extremists…  Although they have never met, and usually are on opposite sides of the aisle, Kishwar and Imam became unlikely allies in the battle to pass a historic law to protect women from murder by members of their own families.”
  • I’m on the Kill List. This is what it feels like to be hunted by dronesIndependent.  “I am in England this week because I decided that if Westerners wanted to kill me without bothering to come to speak with me first, perhaps I should come to speak to them instead. I’ll tell my story so that you can judge for yourselves whether I am the kind of person you want to be murdered.”

  • The price of a lifeNew Statesman.  “In 2014, Islamic State fighters murdered thousands of Yazidis and kidnapped many others, mostly women and children. Their desperate relatives are now trying to buy them back.”
  • The irrational downfall of Park Guen-HyeAsk a Korean.  “For years, [South Korean President] Park’s aides complained about the mysterious off-line person to whom the president would send her draft speeches–when the drafts returned, the professionally written speeches were turned into gibberish. We now know that one of [cult leader] Choi Soon-sil’s favorite activities was to give comments on the presidential speeches… The aides who dug too deep into the relationship between Park and Choi were dismissed and replaced with those close to Choi, to a point that Choi’s personal trainer became a presidential aide. No, really. I wish I were joking.”
  • Your brilliant Kickstarter idea could be on sale in China before you’ve even finished funding itQuartz.  “Lindtner compares the culture of Shenzhen’s manufacturing ecosystem to the open-source movement among software developers. Much like how programmers will freely share code for others to improve upon, Shenzhen manufacturers now see hardware and product design as something that can be borrowed freely and altered. Success in business comes down to speed and execution, not necessarily originality.”
  • The secrets of the wave pilotsNew York Times.  “For thousands of years, sailors in the Marshall Islands have navigated vast distances of open ocean without instruments. Can science explain their method before it’s lost forever?”
  • The mirror effectLapham’s Quarterly. “The development of glass mirrors marks a crucial shift, for they allowed people to see themselves properly for the first time, with all their unique expressions and characteristics…  People’s ability to appreciate their unique appearance led to a huge rise in the number of portraits commissioned, especially in the Low Countries and Italy.”
  • How woodpeckers will save footballNautilus.  “An audience member, worried by mounting reports of traumatic brain injury from blasts among American soldiers, mentioned, of all things, woodpeckers. If someone could figure out how woodpeckers do it—they slam their beaks into trees thousands of times per day, generating forces far beyond what most people experience in car wrecks—then maybe we could better protect soldiers.”
  • Physics makes aging inevitable, not biologyNautilus.  “If this interpretation of the data is correct, then aging is a natural process that can be reduced to nanoscale thermal physics—and not a disease. Up until the 1950s the great strides made in increasing human life expectancy, were almost entirely due to the elimination of infectious diseases, a constant risk factor that is not particularly age dependent. As a result, life expectancy (median age at death) increased dramatically, but the maximum life span of humans did not change. An exponentially increasing risk eventually overwhelms any reduction in constant risk. Tinkering with constant risk is helpful, but only to a point: The constant risk is environmental (accidents, infectious disease), but much of the exponentially increasing risk is due to internal wear. Eliminating cancer or Alzheimer’s disease would improve lives, but it would not make us immortal, or even allow us to live significantly longer.”
  • When the US Air Force discovered the flaw of averagesThe Star.  “In the late 1940s, the United States air force had a serious problem: its pilots could not keep control of their planes…  Back in 1926, when the army was designing its first-ever cockpit, engineers had measured the physical dimensions of hundreds of male pilots (the possibility of female pilots was never a serious consideration), and used this data to standardize the dimensions of the cockpit. For the next three decades, the size and shape of the seat, the distance to the pedals and stick, the height of the windshield, even the shape of the flight helmets were all built to conform to the average dimensions of a 1926 pilot. Now military engineers began to wonder if the pilots had gotten bigger since 1926.”

Follow-up comments on Mosul and Mexico

After I published posts on patterns of violence in Mosul and Chicago and Boston and Mexico this summer, John Bertetto, the managing editor at Foreign Intrigue (which published the original Boston/Mexico piece), wrote to me with some great comments.  Republishing his email here, with his permission (and slight edits to the formatting).

In re: Boston and Mexico:

Combating DTOs [drug trafficking organizations] is a huge endeavor, obviously, but one fraught with opportunity to be successful. As vertically integrated organizations, they provide ample means for intervention. Focusing on the drugs will never be sufficient; they are traffickers, and traffickers traffic. What those items are, that’s another matter. DTO derive substantial profit because they currently traffic their own product, but experience has shown that when times are lean or when other markets provide greater profits they will diversify into other things, particularly humans. But trafficking networks can be broken, and a comprehensive strategy to target DTOs should include operations that focus on this, as well as on all other aspects of the trade – from financing to production, packaging, transportation, trafficking, wholesales, and economic diversification (using illegal revenues to create legitimate businesses) – provides many avenues from which we can intercede and work inward, dismantling the organization. What is missing, typically, is coordination and political will/lack of corruption. I do like the idea Dan offers of vetting and training local autodefensas – not so much as a paramilitary force but as a community watch group. This empowers locals and helps embolden them to report activities. Concurrently I’d get the military out of the DTO fighting business. This is an LE [law enforcement] issue, and should remain one. Use of the military sends the wrong message to both the community and the criminals. The community feels as though their is no law and that their is a war going on, and the criminals feel like soldiers. They should feel like the criminals they are, and everyone should feel that their is a sense of law.

Street gangs are differently primarily because they are not vertically integrated. Strategies should include isolation from needed criminal resources as well as alleviation of conditions that lend themselves to criminal activity. I’ve written a bit on dealing with street gangs, including pieces specifically addressing targeting considerations and dealing with complexity.

In re: Chicago and Mosul:

I wrote a piece at Foreign Intrigue that may be on interest to you, if you have not already seen them. In “Undergoverned Spaces” I talk a bit about some of what you address, specifically what comparisons we can make between places like Chicago and Mosul. For me, right now there is a fundamental taxonomy problem. We have this dichotomy of governed v. ungoverned that lets us frame many issues incorrectly, and from there it’s all downhill. The first question should not be “Is there governance or is there not governance,” but rather “Is there sufficient governance, is there insufficient governance, or is their no governance.” If we look at some areas of Chicago, saying their is sufficient governance is clearly incorrect, but saying their is no governance or lawlessness is equally incorrect. The issue is more profound when we look at places like Iraq, Afghanistan, or even the Ukraine – an excellent example now because we have not walked all over it and the issues like we have Iraq and Afghanistan. The question of “un/undergoverned” makes us ask of foreign countries “What would be our role here: building a government or supporting one already in place?” This has cascading effects across everything else, from how we craft our IR policy, how we deliver or messaging, what kind of support we lend, the size of our commitment, if we are going to deploy US forces and, if so, what and how large. For domestic US cities, the answer will always be “undergoverned,” and from here we conduct a systems analysis to determine which areas of governance are lacking and determine how to bring those up to par.”

As you might imagine, I am totally on board with this point of view on governed vs. ungoverned spaces.

Against support for rebellions

Edward Carpenter had a hard-hitting post at the Duck of Minerva recently about when it makes sense for the international community to intervene on behalf of rebel groups, and it hasn’t generated nearly the discussion it deserved.  He comes to several conclusions that run strongly against prevailing liberal norms of human rights protection and democratization:

The existing government may not be very good – but the alternative will probably be worse. Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi – neither were model leaders by according to the liberal democratic ideal, but life for the majority of Iraqis and Libyans was better under their rule. The same can be said for Bashar al Assad and Nouri al Maliki, although in the latter case especially, “better” is a relative statement, since an average of over 1000 Iraqi civilians have died or been wounded every month as a result of internal violence (bombings, shootings, etc) during his tenure as Prime Minister.

No population has benefited from the long-running civil wars or instability that has resulted from an existing state government being overthrown by networked opposition elements; and few regional governments are able to beat these networks quickly and decisively on their own. Thus, the West should consider making short-term, limited intervention on the side of existing governmental bodies the norm. Mali is a model for this type of intervention, using a Western QRF to buy time for state and regional forces to assemble, a combined effort to eliminate the opposing network, and a planned transition to a UN peacekeeping force as the method to ensure a stable outcome and continued international involvement.

Counterexamples come to mind quickly, of course.  Should the international community have attempted to defeat the RPF and keep the genocidal Habyarimana regime in power in Rwanda after April 1994?  Or come to Mobutu’s aid in 1997 when the old dinosaur was finally chased out of Kinshasa by Laurent Kabila?  These are both extreme cases – Rwanda for the scale of the violence perpetrated against an ethnic minority during the war, and Congo based on the sheer degree to which the state apparatus had been undermined and personalized during Mobutu’s rule.  It’s not clear to me how many similarities these countries share with pre-2003 Iraq or pre-2011 Libya.

Of course, after the rebels won in Rwanda and the DRC, their outcomes have been almost entirely divergent, with a stable, developmental state emerging in Rwanda and a violent, patrimonial status quo holding strong in the Congo.  Setting aside concerns about political repression by the RPF for the moment, the Rwandan example is basically the best-case scenario for the international community – a strong, organized rebel group comes in and puts the country back together after conflict’s end.  To use Carpenter’s metric here, life is probably better for the average Rwandan today than it was before 1994.  The Congolese case is close to the worst scenario, where armed groups continue to violently contest control of territory for years after the official end of the war, and the central state remains weak and corrupt.  For millions of people in eastern DRC, life has definitely gotten worse since the early 1990s, and in most of the rest of the country things have probably changed fairly little since that point.

So how to evaluate Carpenter’s proposal?  For many countries, I think it’s sound.  Violent political transitions can do an incredible amount of damage, and the likelihood that a new government will be substantially more democratic or development-oriented than its predecessor seems pretty low, so trying to keep active conflict to a minimum will probably be the single most helpful thing the international community could do to protect civilians.  But there’s also an obvious need to re-evaluate in the case of of genocidal violence or extreme state weakness.

Is Mosul anything like Chicago’s South Side?

I’m no expert on Iraq.  I opposed the American invasion in 2003, and have spent most of the last decade shaking my head at news coverage of the war rather than following its progress closely.  It’s only been in the past few weeks, as the Islamic State’s capture of Mosul has displaced the crises I was paying attention to (South Sudan and CAR) in the major Western papers, that I’ve finally started reading articles and commentary on Iraq instead of skipping past them.

For a number of reasons, I don’t find it very plausible that the crisis could have been averted if only American troops had stayed in Iraq past 2011.  US troops might have been in a better position to engage IS militarily, but it’s not clear to me that they could have prevented the group’s formation or successfully promoted the professionalization of the Iraqi military, let alone overcome the politicization of religion and ethnicity in order to create a stable, Western-style democracy.  There’s a huge body of literature on why building strong and inclusive states is a lengthy and often violent process, with or without foreign intervention, so the fact that the US hasn’t been able to fundamentally transform the political realities of Iraq after one decade of war is really not surprising.

What does interest me about all of this is why foreign policy hawks continue to believe that this type of transformation is possible.  I don’t just mean “why haven’t they read their history” or “why are they so arrogant,” but rather “through which causal mechanisms do they believe that American money and troops can overcome sectarian divides, build a strong state and prevent violent rebellion?”  There’s probably some literature on this question – the specific beliefs that policymakers hold about processes of social change, and their implications for enacted policy – but a few trips around Google Scholar haven’t helped me find anything useful.

This question has stayed with me as I’ve been reading about violence in a very different social context: the stubbornly high rates of armed assault on Chicago’s South Side.  The area made the news recently for a large series of shootings over the 4th of July weekend, and features prominently in Ta-Nehesi Coates’ excellent article on the case for slavery reparations, as he points out that segregation and endemic poverty in places like the South Side are the results of decades of overtly racist government policies.  This is violence taking place in the heart of one of the world’s most advanced democracies.  It is a place where the state is unquestionably strong, the police well-equipped, and the shootings themselves carried out not by an invading army but by street gangs.  In short, the American state has all the characteristics we have been trying to build into the post-invasion Iraqi state, and yet even here there are pockets of continuing violence.

It’s informative to compare the way that violence in a major American city and a major Iraqi city are discussed on the American op-ed circuit.  (Most American policymakers still get their information from newspapers, so this isn’t a case of looking at the chattering classes in isolation from actual policy.)  My morning skim of the New York Times and a number of political science blogs suggests that voices in favor of US intervention in Iraq – that is, people who believe the US has the capacity to reshape the state and control conflict there – are still prominently represented.  By contrast, as Gene Demby has noted, most of the mainstream discourse around the shooting deaths of black and Hispanic men in places like Chicago’s South Side presents this type of violence as saddening but inevitable – a natural phenomenon that can’t be controlled by government policy.  The place where the US government should in principle have the most policy leverage is where violence is depicted as uncontrollable, while the place where US leverage is limited by Iraqi sovereignty and, oh yes, the fact of being an invading force, is where American policy is expected to be most transformative.

I’d like to see the people in favor of a renewed or continued US military presence in Iraq grapple seriously with this issue.  Is it easier to have an external actor build democratic institutions in a state weakened by years of war than it is to provide quality educations and reform sentencing laws for drug crimes in one’s own country?  What about the challenges of creating a professional army in the face of continued incentives for politicization, as opposed to trying to avoid obvious racial profiling by a police force that’s otherwise pretty well-trained?  Everything on this list is difficult, but in general I suspect the domestic policy goals could be achieved more quickly and durably than the foreign policy ones.

I think there are two coherent responses to those questions.  One is, “yes, the domestic goals might be more feasible, but structural racism means that we don’t want to spend money on them; we think Iraq will be different because we’re willing to throw billions at it.”  The second is, “hmm, it seems to be hard to design effective policies to reduce violence and find the political will to implement them even in a place with a generally strong and capable government.”  If returning US troops to Iraq seemed likely to lead to a lasting reduction in the amount of violence experienced by Iraqis and an improvement in their standards of living, I would support it in a heartbeat, but so far I haven’t heard a convincing explanation of the mechanisms by which this could occur.