Ann Marlowe

Ann Marlowe, a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute, is a writer and businesswoman based in New York City. In 2011, she made four trips to Libya to cover the revolution and war and returned twice in 2012. She is working on a book that will follow Libya's first year post-Gaddafi. Between 2002 and 2011 she traveled regularly to Afghanistan and published often on Afghanistan's politics, economy, culture and the U.S. counterinsurgency there. Her articles have appeared in the op –ed pages of the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post and New York Post, and in the Weekly Standard, Daily Beast,,,and many other publications. She tweets regularly (@annmarlowe) and blogs on Libya, the Arab Spring, the links between war and art and the cultural aspects of counterinsurgency for World Affairs at:

Her monograph on the life and intellectual context of David Galula was published by the Strategic Studies Institute of the Army War College in summer 2010. Ms. Marlowe has also published two memoirs and is one of the contributers to A New Literary History of America (Harvard University Press, 2009).

Ms. Marlowe is a regular guest on the John Batchelor radio show discussing Libya, Afghanistan and counterinsurgency. She has also appeared on Fox's "Happening Now", PBS’s “Ideas in Action” with Jim Glassman, VOA, RTTV, and other television programs. She has spoken at U.S. Army bases, the Army War College, U.S. State Department, the Institut d'Histoire du Temps Present in Paris, and American colleges. In 2009, she was a Media Fellow at the Hoover Institution and returned there for a research fellowship in 2010.

Ms. Marlowe was born in Suffern, New York in 1958 and educated at public schools in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. She received her B.A. in philosophy magna cum laude from Harvard University in 1979 and studied classical philosophy there in the Ph.D. program in 1979-80. In 1984, she received an MBA in finance from Columbia University's Graduate School of Business.

Is Richard House’s “The Kills” an art project masquerading as a novel?

January 30th, 2015

Originally published in The Weekly Standard, February 9 2015 (

A Baghdad Quartet
Translating the Iraq war into fiction
Ann Marlowe
February 9, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 21

When I finished The Kills, it was not with the sense of the world made right, or understood rightly, that the traditional novel aspires to, nor with the contemporary recognition that the author and I—ironists both!—share a cynical disillusionment. It was with a profound sense of loss, even anger, at Richard House, as though he’d invited me to watch him cook an elaborate dinner and then thrown it in the trash unconsumed. This feeling made more sense when I learned that House also works in visual art and film, disciplines in which frustrating the expectations of the viewer has long been part of the sophisticated practitioner’s repertoire, in which it would be a perfectly reasonable piece of performance art to make an elaborate dinner and then throw it in the trash.

This sense of disappointment takes a long time to build. For hundreds of pages, the length of a couple of novels, it’s easy to be impressed by House’s technique and thick descriptions. The first sections—which follow the oddly soulless main character, Stephen Sutler (also known as John Jacob Ford), as he flees from a remote contracting camp in Iraq to Istanbul—have most of the elements of a first-rate thriller yet suggest depths few thrillers plumb. (Much later, we learn that the tight third-person narration conceals some crucial plot points.) This portion also felt utterly convincing: Every detail, whether of a contracting office in Iraq, a truck stop on the Turkish border, or a travel agency in Istanbul, rings true. I found myself Googling the names of towns that turned out to be imaginary. House can write bravura descriptions:

They followed a man bearing flowers into the hotel lobby. The bouquet, a generous spread of cream-coloured lilies and green ferns, swayed a little obscenely as the man scampered up the steps.

Or evoke the places in between:

The road steepened as it turned, flanked on one side by a scrappy rock face, and on the other by a scattered line of garage-like workshops. Ford walked without hurry. Four children followed behind, loosely curious. A man squatted at a doorway, shirtless, skinny, and smoking while he tapped a design into an aluminium bowl held between his feet.

But soon, The Kills began to remind me of something a shrink I know says about borderline patients: “You never accumulate any emotional credit with them. Every day you start from the beginning.” That is, House never gives you any more access to his characters on the hundredth page than he did on the first. He is fearless in drawing characters from every walk of life, every ethnicity, and both genders. (For what it’s worth, House is gay.) But as soon as we begin to see things through someone’s eyes—and there are a dozen significant players—we are pulled away to another point of view. When we come back, we haven’t gotten any closer. The characters, unlike the contracting office, don’t feel as though they’re waiting for us to find them in real life.

Oddly enough, both Sutler and his boss/frenemy, the villainous Paul Geezler, are elusive and barely sketched in. We get much more biographical detail about Rem, a building contractor, and Lila, a teenaged prostitute; but even after a hundred pages in their company, they seem to have minds but not sensibilities. Yet some minor and unedifying characters in Cyprus have surprising heft. So does a doomed Iraqi translator.

I’m certain some of this is deliberate. House may be serving us notice that classic novel-reading depends on an unearned complicity with any character with whom we spend time, a literary Stockholm syndrome. It’s what visual artists have been doing for a century or so, rubbing our noses in our determination to find depth in a two-dimensional canvas. The question is how this strategy translates to fiction.

In another move reminiscent of the visual art world, House uses embedded, repeated stories within The Kills. One plot is prefigured several times, with a character called Eric Powell reading the book that we will later see another young American, Finn Cullman, writing. The villainous contractor-boss Geezler’s end is echoed in that of another, more sympathetic, character. These repetitions lessen suspense and distance us from the characters in ways that mark a limitation, rather than a mastery, of technique. When Beethoven repeats a motif, it deepens; Richard House seems to be using repetition not to probe deeper into reality but to organize a stupendously complex narrative. Or, perhaps, to suggest that much of human behavior is patterned.

This isn’t to imply that House is a trendy nihilist of the Bret Easton Ellis school. He has a moral compass—so much so that he cannot give the three arch-villains (Geezler and two French brothers) even the narrow reality of the other characters. They remain enigmatic to the end, cartoonishly evil. Even the merely flawed characters engage in moral deliberation to an unlikely degree. One ignorant young contractor takes the moral high ground—“We’re all adults,” says Santo, “and there are consequences to every action that we take”—but it’s hard to know how to parse this. On the one hand, Santo is justifying his murder of his former boss; on the other, that boss is a thoroughly bad guy.

House also tosses out, for our consideration, the idea that narrative has a moral value in itself. Rike, a German teacher, says, “Stories are how we connect. Evolution isn’t seriously about thumbs but about how we use language—that’s what raises us above dumb animals, right?” But Rike fails to understand the story she is caught in until it is too late, and that story is about a repetition compulsion, not about connecting. Like The Kills.

There is politics, too, though not where you would think. The core of The Kills is set in Iraq, yet there is nothing here about the rightness or wrongness of the war. House’s focus is on the damage to the health of American contractors working at the burn pits of an imaginary company.

In a novel of a thousand pages, it isn’t surprising that crucial plot points seem obscure—Sutler takes a brief visit to Grenoble, yet just one sentence points to his fate in the aftermath; Eric Powell seems to be dying in remote eastern Turkey, only to die again, this time for real, in Naples—but there are odd infelicities as well. Though House used to live in Chicago, his Midwestern characters speak of someone being “in hospital.” When Rem gets off a train in Kansas City to visit a former colleague named Samuels, we are told that “Samuels lived in a town called Topeka several hours away” with “an unremarkable main street of coffee houses and closed-down stores.” Topeka, the state capital of Kansas, has an abundance of tall buildings, and no one who grew up in America would think of it as “a town called Topeka.” Whenever House describes somebody going online, it feels like 1995, with a blow-by-blow account of entering a chat room or doing a Google search.

After an immersion of several weeks—sometimes wondering if it would ever end—and a couple of weeks’ reflection, this reader’s feelings about The Kills remain unresolved. It’s a complex, brilliant, flawed, ultimately unsatisfying trip halfway around the world that takes an inordinate amount of time to complete. But portions of the trip are rivetingly suspenseful, portions take us where few have gone before, and House takes the novelist’s mission as a deadly serious one.

The People of the Book vs The People of the Kindle

February 27th, 2014

Originally published January 14 2014 in Tablet Magazine:

The other day, my friend John said he was getting rid of almost all his books. By the time I visited his apartment, he’d already pruned his library by a quarter, dumping most of it in the garbage. “I read everything on Kindle now,” he explained, a trifle defensively. The immediate cause of his decision was his impending move to a starkly minimalist apartment with spectacular river views—and room for bookshelves, had he wanted them.

What led to John’s decision was a disgust at the accumulation of things that I partly understood. I had even recently told a non-Kindle-owning friend that I didn’t understand why one-fifth of my house was taken up by a library I rarely entered. And I find myself very impatient with people who say they refuse to get a Kindle because they love the physicality of books. These are people who don’t produce culture, I thought. It’s just a consumer preference. They’re the same people who go compulsively to the theater and see rubbish because it’s “theater.”

Of course, minimalism dates at least to Le Corbusier, and it was possible to purge one’s library before Kindle, but then it meant relying on public libraries. Now, if you have the money to re-purchase on Kindle everything you want to own, you can have those bare white walls and still read. My editor has suggested to me that book-purging is an essentially Protestant impulse, which solves a particularly Protestant problem, in which personal reading of the Bible must be reconciled with a ban on the worship of objects. There’s something to this, particularly when you think of the interiority of the Kindle, which is a personal space much as one’s Bible was for, say, a Puritan in Boston circa 1640. Jews and Muslims, meanwhile, both venerate the physical version of their holy books: We all know what an outcry Quran-burning causes, while Jews actually bury [1] Torahs that are deemed to be too damaged to use.

It is also true that the Kindle’s marketing emphasizes that your content isn’t attached to your Kindle, that it resides in the Cloud and that if you lose or break your Kindle, everything you’ve bought can be downloaded to your (new) Kindle or your PC or smartphone. Everything is designed to discourage the purchaser’s attachment to the Kindle itself (which is just as well as they can be fairly fragile [2]).

Still, it’s odd that the trend toward getting rid of one’s books co-exists with a valorization of collecting in almost every other sphere. Even in minimalist houses there are collections—small and carefully staged, perhaps, but still collections. And the art world! People who can afford to live in huge white modernist houses seem inevitably to fill them with costly art whether they are Protestants, Catholics, or Jews. This places them in an honorific category of “collectors,” and no one seems to advise them to get rid of their paintings. Being an art collector is the dream of many aspirational rich people while being a book collector is dusty and uncool. Perhaps this is because books aren’t very expensive unless one goes in for first editions and incunabula [3]. For the $20,000 or so it costs to buy into an “emerging” artist, you can have a first edition of an iconic hundred-year-old novel.

The truth is that books just aren’t something we covet very much anymore. We’ve come a long way from the days when Walter Benjamin could blithely write in his essay [4] “Unpacking My Library,” “You have all heard of people whom the loss of their books has turned into invalids, or of those who in order to acquire books become criminals.” That was 1931, nearly at the birth of minimalism in décor. I would venture to say that no one reading this article has heard of anyone like this; I haven’t.

Of course, part of the reason people coveted books in 1931 was their symbolic value as signs of cultivation, social prestige, and good character. And when I look within myself, I have to admit that’s part of why I was so shocked by John’s decision. How could a highly educated and cultured man, who’s been known to go to three Shakespeare plays in one week, get rid of his books? I had grown up assuming that book ownership was one of the signatures of an educated and cultivated person, a thoughtful person, a man or woman with concerns beyond getting and spending. When I go to someone’s home for the first time I still look at their bookcases as part of an assessment of their character. If there aren’t any bookcases, I wonder.

But with Kindle, the judgments I grew up with go out the window. And there isn’t any way to bring them back. Maybe it’s the apartment of someone with 300 books on physics on his Kindle. Asking to see someone’s Kindle is invasive. It’s also likely to be an inaccurate reflection of what one has read, unless one has replaced all of one’s books on Kindle. I have 59 books on my Kindle and perhaps 2,000 in my house. Apparently Kindles can hold up to 3,500 books, but the Kindle website comparing [5] models only gives memory size, not an estimate of how many each model holds. This suggests that most purchasers are using their Kindles as a convenient reading device rather than a replacement for a physical library.
Unread books force us to ask how we are spending our time and whether we are becoming the people we want to become

There’s at least one set of people who are unlikely to derive any benefit from replacing their books with a Kindle, and they are children. Horace Mann wrote, “No man has a right to bring up his children without surrounding them with books, if he has the means to buy them.” While the advantages of public libraries are obvious—larger selection of books, and one which better reflects the range of published works than anyone’s personal collection is likely to—among the virtues of a private library is the ability to make chance discoveries—including books that you’re too young for at the time, but which come within your awareness and which you remember later.

But for those of us without children, does not having a physical library matter? I’d say so. A library is a room or a portion of a room set aside for purposes higher than the everyday matter of life, just as a church or synagogue or museum or concert hall is. And having it out where everyone can see it imposes what may be a desirable self-consciousness, not only in terms of what you put into it but in terms of the physical reproach it offers if you do not use it. While Walter Benjamin joked about not having read many of his books (including those he borrowed from friends), his casualness is of a piece with his assumption that books are an arena for emotional engagement. Unread books force us to ask how we are spending our time and whether we are becoming the people we want to become.

What of the appeal of minimalism, of the room without books? I am wary of it. At bottom, the allure of big white rooms is the conspicuous advertisement of underconsumption, combined with the replacement of engagement with reality with engagement with fantasy. Few of us, at least few Westerners of my acquaintance, are capable of gazing at a solitary vase or plant for hours in a spiritually uplifting way. If we are not thinking about books, we are not likely to be thinking about something better. Or so it is with me. While writing this essay, I took down a few books from my own shelves for the first time in years and in the process discovered a few that I’d forgotten. My library happens to be in a room that doesn’t get sun at the times I want it and is often too cold. But I’ve resolved to spend at least a half hour there every day from now on.

Hope Yet For Libya (orig. pub. in Wall St Journal Europe)

October 1st, 2012

The Wall Street Journal

September 18, 2012, 3:40 p.m. ET

Hope Yet for Libya
In local politics as in fashion, Libyans’ stubborn individualism will confound outsiders’ expectations.

Derna, Libya

The deadly Sept. 11 attacks in Benghazi should not lead Americans to think of Libyans as anti-American or intolerant. Rather, they are an indication of the catastrophic failure of the country’s security forces, and of Benghazi’s failure to pull itself together as many smaller Libyan cities have.

But my impression, after three weeks traveling from the country’s far west coast to the far east, is that while Libya may be on the verge of being a failed state, many if not most of its cities are working. The eastern port city of Derna, population somewhere between 85,000 and 120,000, is a case in point.

Just about every English-language news article on Derna refers to it as a hotbed of Islamic extremism. It’s true that more foreign suicide bombers in Iraq over the last decade came from Derna than from any other city—perhaps because the city has been economically moribund for generations. It’s true that everyone knows a local boy or two fighting in Syria. And during Ramadan in August, Wahhabists blew up an ancient shrine in the center of the town’s main mosque.

But scarcely a month later, the shrine had already been rudely reconstructed using the same stones. A foreigner walking through the mosque and around the old town center—skillfully renovated under the auspices of Unesco just before the revolution—gets friendly greetings and endless questions: “What do you think of Derna?”

Libya’s elections in July tell some of the story. Derna is represented by two women and three men in the newly seated National Assembly. Derna’s local council doesn’t include any women, but two women were among the 90 candidates who vied for the 23 neighborhood representative positions.

Randa el Goudary, a Libyan-American from Ashburn, Virginia, readily admits that there is a fashion among some of Derna’s youth for the garb of Islamic extremists. “But I am going everywhere like this”—she points to her diaphanous headscarf and contemporary slacks and shirt. “I am driving myself, and no one says anything. Do you think if Qaeda is here that I will be here?”

Ms. el Goudary was one of a group of women gathered for coffee on the terrace of the Derna Pearl Hotel, the nightly resort of the local elite. Her table overlooks the swimming pool, where men and women swim together (though in T-shirts and long tights). Nearby is Jamila Ruta Al Henad, an Arabic teacher who heads a 180-person non-profit called “Citadel of the Free.” She wears the typical Libyan female dress of a long coat and a tightly pinned headscarf. Next to her is Fatima Ramadan Boudirah, all in black, her face nearly covered, wearing the black gloves affected by very conservative women.

Samaya Edris Elagi, 25, one of the two women who ran for local council this year, wears a hot pink headscarf and long shirt over pastel jeans and Paul Smith sneakers. A lawyer who speaks only Arabic, Ms. Elagi was inspired to run for office by the men and women who gave their lives in the uprising against Moammar Gadhafi, and by a feeling of frustration among young people here. “We have absolutely nothing to do,” she says. She shows off her campaign flyer, which bears her photograph. Although women’s campaign posters have been defaced even in Benghazi, Libya’s second city, Ms. Elagi says hers are still up. She adds that she has not been threatened by any Wahhabists.

The extremists have been driven out of the town center, Mohamed Suweisy tells me, “because no one likes them here.” But about 300 or so are holed up in the nearby mountains, according to local estimates. Before the revolution, Derna had 3,000 policemen, or roughly one for every 12 residents. But they were mainly from other towns, and have not returned to work in a place where they were unpopular. New York City currently has about 36,000 police officers. If it had as many cops proportionally as prerevolutionary Derna, there would be 700,000.

So the town lives in some fear. Derna’s top need, says town council head Fathalla Ibriham Alawamy, is security. Walking through the recently renovated old town market, Mr. Suweisy explains that one particularly attractive courtyard is closed because there were no police to protect it from vandalism. In his shop nearby, Asea Ben Ali, a money changer, insists that “Libya needs police and strong government.” Yet just try to find someone in Derna who wears a seat belt, as mandated by law.

“The problem,” said Abdul Juwied Bubeida, “is that everyone here is working for the government. He estimates that 30,000 of Derna’s citizens are state employees—himself included. Yet along with state socialism in Gadhafi’s Libya, there was also neglect of basic services. Mr. Bubeida, for instance, has a developmentally disabled child. But there has never been special-needs education in Libya. Now Mr. Bubeida, together with other parents of special-needs children, has created a private school staffed by volunteers.

Libya has a long way to go, but the independent Libyan character allows for hope. If there’s anything Libya will not do, it is to conform to expectations. There is a streak of stubborn individualism here, worn with charm and Mediterranean allegria, that calls to mind American individualism. Now it remains to be seen if Libyans will also show some American responsibility and take ownership of their streets before a tiny minority hijacks their revolution.