War Stories

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One of the most well-credentialed military writers of our generation is Thomas Ricks. Why? He is a former war correspondent and author of six military-themed books.

That’s why I gravitate to his quarterly column in the New York Times Book Review, “War Stories.”

Ricks serves up military books that are rich resources for all of us – from casual reader, the military buff, to serious historian. Here’s how he begins his latest offering:

One of the most interesting books on military affairs that I have read in some time is ARMY OF NONE: Autonomous Weapons and the Future of War (Norton, $27.95). Its author, Paul Scharre, a former Army Ranger and Pentagon official who is now an analyst at the Center for a New American Security (a think tank with which I was affiliated several years ago), provides a thoughtful overview of the mind-boggling issues associated with autonomous weapons — or, as some people call them, “killer robots.”

Unlike many authors examining the advent of autonomous weapons, Scharre doesn’t get bogged down in the question of whether they will be built. They already are here, he argues, citing the example of the Stuxnet computer bug as just such an armament. It was software inserted, almost certainly by American and Israeli intelligence agencies, into Iranian computers running that country’s nuclear enrichment program. Because the Iranian computers were “air-gapped” — that is, not connected to the global internet — once the bug was inside the Iranian system, delivered through porn-laden thumb drives, it was on its own. And it worked impressively, physically destroying a key part of the nuclear program.

Want more? You can read the full article here

Endless War?

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A decade ago, New York Times reporter Dexter Filkens wrote, “The Forever War.” The book was a best-seller.

Filkens explained why we were mired in the Mideast. A few years later, President Obama announced America’s “Rebalance to the Asia-Pacific.”

Most assumed this was the spark that would help America disengage from the messy politics of the Mideast.

We are still there – in force. Michael O’Hanlon explains why in his piece, “Resigned to Endless War.” Here’s how he begins:

Tell me how this ends.” So said then-Maj. Gen. David Petraeus to the journalist Rick Atkinson soon after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. As far as we can see today, the answer to Gen. Petraeus’s prescient rhetorical question appears to be that it doesn’t.

What many strategists predicted would be a generation-long struggle against Islamic extremism and sectarianism in the Middle East is now well into its second generation. It has been almost 40 years since the Iranian revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; 35 years since the bombing of the U.S. embassy and Marine barracks in Lebanon; 30 years since the formation of al Qaeda. It has been almost two decades since President George W. Bush, after the attacks of 9/11, told Congress and the nation that “Americans should not expect one battle but a lengthy campaign unlike any other we have ever seen.” The “forever war,” as the journalist Dexter Filkins called it in his 2008 book of that title, is living up to its name.

To wage these wars, there are currently some 15,000 U.S. troops stationed in Afghanistan, 10,000 in Qatar, 5,000 in Iraq, 4,000 in Bahrain, 2,000 each in Syria and Kuwait, and more than 1,500 each in Djibouti and Turkey. Add to this some 10,000 sailors and Marines afloat in the region, as well as Coast Guard personnel and civilians. All told, there are more than 90,000 Americans working for U.S. Central Command, according to Centcom commander Gen. Joseph Votel. These “overseas contingency operations” cost more than $30 billion a year, on top of the $600 billion-plus core defense budget. It’s a huge, expensive effort, and there’s no end in sight.

But maybe all of this is OK. It seems that Americans have effectively reached a consensus that the status quo represents the least bad option available. To put it differently, maybe we’ve taken a page from Israel’s handbook: We no longer expect to solve problems in the broader Middle East, only to manage them, at least for the foreseeable future. As a practical matter, that means relying today not primarily on U.S. ground combat troops but on our special forces, drones, aircraft, trainers, intelligence operatives and standoff forces.

Want more? You can read the full article here

Your Brain and “You”

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We all have a “to do” list with things we know we need to get done. And we always get to all of them, right? Well, not exactly.

That’s why I was taken by Tim Herrera’s recent Here to Help piece, “Why Your Brain Tricks You Into Doing Less Important Tasks.” Here’s how he begins:

Here’s a list of things I did before starting this newsletter: I filled out the documents to renew my passport; clipped my cat’s nails; bought some household items; responded to a few Instagram DMs; and ate a snack because I was hungry.

Sound familiar?

Some of those tasks were relatively urgent — I need to get my passport in order soon, and those Instagram DMs were weighing on me. But none of those tasks were as important as writing this newsletter. I know I needed to get this done, but the call of those minor-yet-urgent tasks was too strong.

To all of my procrastinators out there, I offer an explanation: Your brain is working against you, and it’s because of a phenomenon called the urgency effect.

In other words: Even if we know a larger, less-urgent task is vastly more consequential, we will instinctively choose to do a smaller, urgent task anyway. Yet again, thanks for nothing, brain.

So what are we to do? To answer that, let’s talk about boxes — specifically, one developed by our 34th president, Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Picture a 2×2 square with four boxes. At the top of the square are two labels: Urgent and non-urgent. On the left are two other labels: Important and not important.

On any given day, try to put every task you have to do into one of those four boxes. You’ll quickly see that the things tied to approaching deadlines are quite often not the most important things you have on your plate. Accordingly, schedule time to finish them later or, if possible, delegate them.

This is just a snippet. Want more? You can read the full article here

Social Media

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Much ink has been spilled regarding how much social media impacts our lives – much of it shrill. That’s why I was taken in by a recent piece, “Tweeting Into the Abyss.” The writer reviews Jaron Lanier’s book: “Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now.” If that doesn’t get your attention, what will? Here’s how it begins:

My self-justifications were feeble. They could be described as hypocritical even. I had written a book denouncing Facebook, yet maintained an account on Mark Zuckerberg’s manipulation machine. Despite my comprehensive awareness of the perils, I would occasionally indulge in the voyeurism of the News Feed, succumb to zombie scrolling and would take the hit of dopamine that Sean Parker, Facebook’s founding president, has admitted is baked into the product. In internal monologues, I explained my behavior as a professional necessity. How could I describe the perniciousness of the platform if I never used it?

Critics of the big technology companies have refrained from hectoring users to quit social media. It’s far more comfortable to slam a corporate leviathan than it is to shame your aunt or high school pals — or, for that matter, to jettison your own long list of “friends.” As our informational ecosystem has been rubbished, we have placed very little onus on the more than two billion users of Facebook and Twitter. So I’m grateful to Jaron Lanier for redistributing blame on the lumpen-user, for pressing the public to flee social media. He writes, “If you’re not part of the solution, there will be no solution.”

Want more? You can read the full article here

Drone Warriors

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Union General William Tecumesh Sherman famously said, “War is Hell.” I think few would dispute that claim.

For millennia armies have battled each other in bloody engagements. Hand-to-hand combat during the days of the Greeks and Romans wasn’t that different from that of soldiers in World Wars I and II, or even this century, with U.S. Special Operations forces fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan – and elsewhere.

We – especially the United States – have looked to technology to keep our warriors out of harm’s way. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in our use of armed unmanned aerial systems – “drones” to take out enemy combatants.

But far from being easy and “antiseptic” this missions have had often-severe consequences for the men and women he operate these drones.

This issue was perhaps addressed best in a powerful article – a New York Times Magazine cover story – entitled: “The Wounds of the Drone Warrior.” Here’s how it begins:

In the spring of 2006, Christopher Aaron started working 12-hour shifts in a windowless room at the Counterterrorism Airborne Analysis Center in Langley, Va. He sat before a wall of flat-screen monitors that beamed live, classified video feeds from drones hovering in distant war zones. On some days, Aaron discovered, little of interest appeared on the screens, either because a blanket of clouds obscured visibility or because what was visible — goats grazing on an Afghan hillside, for instance — was mundane, even serene. Other times, what unspooled before Aaron’s eyes was jarringly intimate: coffins being carried through the streets after drone strikes; a man squatting in a field to defecate after a meal (the excrement generated a heat signature that glowed on infrared); an imam speaking to a group of 15 young boys in the courtyard of his madrasa. If a Hellfire missile killed the target, it occurred to Aaron as he stared at the screen, everything the imam might have told his pupils about America’s war with their faith would be confirmed.

The infrared sensors and high-resolution cameras affixed to drones made it possible to pick up such details from an office in Virginia. But as Aaron learned, identifying who was in the cross hairs of a potential drone strike wasn’t always straightforward. The feed on the monitors could be grainy and pixelated, making it easy to mistake a civilian trudging down a road with a walking stick for an insurgent carrying a weapon. The figures on-screen often looked less like people than like faceless gray blobs. How certain could Aaron be of who they were? “On good days, when a host of environmental, human and technological factors came together, we had a strong sense that who we were looking at was the person we were looking for,” Aaron said. “On bad days, we were literally guessing.”

Want more? You can read this powerful article here

Summer

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Want to enjoy summer more? Of course you do…don’t we all? I needed a bit of encouragement to relax and do so, and found just the tonic in Patricia Hampl’s piece, “The Season for Learning To Do Nothing.” Here’s how she begins:

I barely had time to digest my colleague’s automated out-of-office email reply—“I regret missing your message. I am out of the office for two weeks on vacation, without access to email”—when her email arrived. Thirty seconds, and there she was, zooming in to solve my minor bureaucratic problem from her lake cabin half a continent away. She was still on the job, at the ready to put out any little fire flaring up on the distant horizon. “I’m only checking email twice a day,” she wrote sheepishly—or was it proudly?

We are all breathless with our busyness, over-amped with everything we must/should/could do, gleaming with how necessary we are. Time off is a guilty pleasure. Or maybe, deep down in the contemporary heart, it’s mainly just guilty: I should be making myself useful, if only to myself. This duty-driven life makes it difficult to really and truly go on vacation, or as we say, “take” a vacation—as if it were a form of theft, low-grade larceny, time pilfered from the cash machine.

How to leap off the grid of good behavior and duty, how to be out of reach? Especially out of reach of one’s own inner compulsion to be—well, doing something.

Some vacations, of course, pose no such problem. Skiing, scuba diving, following the Piero della Francesca trail in Umbria—such vacations are chosen assignments, pleasurable tasks, activities, projects. No trouble there.

But how about just letting go, allowing yourself to drift into a free fall of ease for a couple of weeks? Spend the day without knowing quite where it went—and be happy about this lapse into timelessness. Take two weeks to do nothing much, to have nothing to show for it—and find you’re the better for it. Possible?

Want more? You can read the full article here

We Like Us

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One of the things most people agree on is that high self-esteem is good, and low self-esteem is bad. Most of us more-or-less accept that “truth.”

That’s why I was quite taken by the review of “Selfie” a book that tries to get at the root of how we’ve gone from just having self-esteem to being self-obsessed. Here’s how it begins:

Worrying about one’s own narcissism has a whiff of paradox. If we are suffering from self-obsession, should we really feed the disease by poring over another book about ourselves? Well, perhaps just one more.

“Selfie: How We Became So Self-Obsessed and What It’s Doing to Us,” by Will Storr, a British reporter and novelist, is an intriguing odyssey of self-discovery, in two senses. First, it tells a personal tale. Storr confesses to spending much of his time in a state of self-loathing and he would like to know why. On a quest to explore self-esteem and its opposite, he interviews all sorts of people, from CJ, a young American woman whose life revolves around snapping, processing and posting hundreds of thousands of selfies, to John, a vicious London gangster who repented of his selfish ways, possibly because of his mother’s prayers to St. Jude. Storr takes part in encounter groups in California, grills a Benedictine monk cloistered at Pluscarden Abbey in Scotland, and gets academic psychologists to chat frankly about their work. Storr’s side of the conversations he recounts tends to be blunt, inquisitive and peppered with salty British swearing. One comes to like him, even if he does not often like himself.

Want more? You can read the full article here

Communities

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Last month I teed up the distant horizon point of view of “Global Trends: Paradox of Progress,” and talked about how our world will look if the “Islands,” or “Orbits” scenarios play out in the future.

There is one more scenario that could shape our future world. This one is a bit more radical than its two cousins, but it is thought-provoking and deserves our attention.

This scenario explores the issues that arise as the enormity of future economic and governance challenges test the capacity of national governments to cope, creating space for local governments and private actors and thus questioning assumptions about the future of governance. This scenario emphasizes the trends associated with the changing nature of power and advances in information and communications technologies that are enabling a broader array of influential actors and identifies how such trends might lead to choices that create both opportunities and hurdles for future governance. The story of this scenario is told from the perspective of a future mayor of a large Canadian city in 2035, reflecting on the changes she has witnessed during the previous two decades:

As we can see from this brief description of the three scenarios, the paths each one takes us down are dramatically different. Global Trends emphasizes that there is nothing in any of these scenarios that is preordained. Rather, choices governmental leaders make today will largely determine which scenario plays out decades hence.

Want more now? You can read Global Trends: Paradox of Progress here

Neighbors

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Many of us grew up with Fred Rogers…and for those who didn’t…your kids did. But few know how the show got started or much, for that matter, of what went on behind the scenes.

That’s why I found this piece by David Brooks, “Fred Rogers and the Loveliness of the Little Good,” so interesting. Here’s how it begins:

Often people are moved to tears by sadness, but occasionally people are moved to tears by goodness. That’s what happens to the audiences of “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” the new documentary about Fred Rogers.

The documentary demonstrates how Rogers’s children’s show got started and how he used it over 30 years to teach and accompany children. It describes the famous opening sequence — Mister Rogers going to the closet, putting on the sweater, changing his shoes. It describes how he gently gave children obvious and non obvious advice: You are special just the way you are; no, children can’t fall down the drains in the bathtub.

Sometimes he would slow down time, be silent for long periods as he fed his fish. Occasionally “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” touched politics. During the civil rights era, when black kids were being thrown out of swimming pools, Rogers and a black character bathed their feet together in a tub. After Bobby Kennedy was killed, Rogers gently explained what an assassination was.

There’s nothing obviously moving here, and yet the audience is moved: sniffling, wiping the moisture from their cheeks. The power is in Rogers’s radical kindness at a time when public kindness is scarce. It’s as if the pressure of living in a time such as ours gets released in that theater as we’re reminded that, oh yes, that’s how people can be.

This is just a snippet. Want more? You can read the full article here

Efficiency Isn’t Everything

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Silicon Valley has given us a lot – and taken away a lot. We seem to be dividing into those who embrace technology and those who fear it.

That’s why I was taken by Gal Beckerkan’s recent piece, “Kicking the Geeks Where it Hurts.” The subtitle, “Why Silicon Valley Should Embrace Inefficiency,” says a lot. Here’s how it starts:

Hypocrisy thrives at the Waldorf School of the Peninsula in the heart of Silicon Valley. This is where Google executives send their children to learn how to knit, write with chalk on blackboards, practice new words by playing catch with a beanbag and fractions by cutting up quesadillas and apples. There are no screens — not a single piece of interactive, multimedia, educational content. The kids don’t even take standardized tests.

While Silicon Valley’s raison d’être is making platforms, apps and algorithms to create maximum efficiency in life and work (a “friction-free” world, as Bill Gates once put it), when it comes to their own families (and developing their own businesses, too), the new masters of the universe have a different sense of what it takes to learn and innovate — it’s a slow, indirect process, meandering not running, allowing for failure and serendipity, even boredom.

Back in 1911, the English philosopher Alfred North Whitehead said that “civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.” By that metric, Uber and Google and Amazon Prime have given us a whole lot of civilization. And there’s no doubt our lives are better for it. (Ordering Chinese takeout in 30 seconds on an app might not be up there with Shakespeare or the incandescent light bulb, but it’s pretty great.) This unrelenting drive for efficiency has, however, blotted out a few things we all know intuitively but seem to be forgetting.

To create a product or service that is truly efficient often involves a lot of inefficiency — more like learning to knit than pressing a button. Likewise, gadgets built with a single-minded focus on efficiency can often backfire, subverting their purpose. Algorithms designed to dish up the news and information we most prefer end up blinkering us to all but a narrow slice of political and social reality. Our smartphones untether us from the office, saving us energy on travel, but also allow our lives to be interrupted nearly 24 hours a day, chewing up any productive idle time.

Want more? You can read the full article here