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.

Slough Saga: not your father’s MI5

June 18th, 2016

Originally published in the June 27 Weekly Standard (

Slough Saga
The world of Mick Herron is not your father’s MI5.

Jun 27, 2016 | By Ann Marlowe

It makes sense that Mick Herron’s third novel about MI5 can be enjoyed without reading the others: Coming in at the middle of things is integral to his books. It’s the condition of life, especially in a government bureaucracy. And the same could be said about intelligence gathering: It’s what we all try to do, from birth onward. Maybe this is why spy novels resonate.

But this isn’t your father’s MI5. Herron describes an intelligence service that devotes most of its energies to infighting, when not mounting false flag operations that endanger Britons. Oh, if a terrorist crops up, these folks will deal with him; but that’s a distraction from destroying competitors. It’s a commonplace of the spook novel that our side is no better than theirs, but Herron’s black comic message is even more demoralizing.

Luckily, it’s delivered in dialogue worthy of Ivy Compton-Burnett, funny and heartbreaking, with the vocabulary of a Balliol English graduate.

Herron reminds us that today’s crispest English dialogue is found in the office. This is something new; the English novel began in an era when people with the leisure to read novels did not work in today’s sense. Those delicious exchanges in Austen, Thackeray, Trollope, and the like take place mainly in people’s homes or country house parks. It’s only recently that novelists have given the workplace its due; television got there first. And Herron is one of the poets of office conversation.

Real Tigers is even better than its predecessors in his “Slough House” series. It follows the same cast of characters, minus one or two, as Slow Horses (2010) and Dead Lions (2013). They are MI5 agents who have messed up, exiled to Slough House, the nickname for an imaginary dilapidated building near the Barbican Theatre. In Herron’s series, MI5′s headquarters is called Regent’s Park—although, since 1994, the real MI5 has worked out of Thames House on the unfashionable south bank of the river. The errant agents are meant to be ground down with meaningless paperwork so that they will resign, saving the service the possible legal trouble and publicity attendant upon firing them.

The nickname Slough House is said to come from the remoteness of the location from Regent’s Park. There’s also a running joke about Slough House agents being “slow horses,” but slough—which refers to a marshy, low-lying area—is pronounced like “how” not “mow.”

I suspect that “Slough House” may allude to the Slough of Despond in The Pilgrim’s Progress, for the same reason that many of the Slough House agents use the phrase “Jesus wept” instead of the curses one might expect. “Jesus wept,” of course, is the shortest verse in the King James Bible and describes Jesus’ reaction to the death of Lazarus.

Slough House is purgatory and the agents spend much time figuring out why their colleagues are there—and little time figuring out why they made the mistakes that got them there. There’s a compulsive gambler, a cocaine addict, a former alcoholic, a woman with an uncontrollable temper, a hate-filled, vindictive IT genius. Others made terrible operational errors. There’s one possibly “innocent” agent among them, River Cartwright. And then there’s the boss, Jackson Lamb, whose name also has Christian echoes.

Lamb is one of the most memorable antiheroes of recent fiction: a fat, slovenly, compulsive eater and alcoholic whose flatulence is as legendary as his Cold War feats, whose wit is razor sharp, who can play both “Moscow rules” (hostile territory) and “London rules” (infighting). He may even have a conscience: We learned in Slow Horses that his disgust with the workings of MI5 led to his self-exile at Slough House.

The “slow horses” struggle to regain MI5 headquarters, though none of those exiled has returned. Regent’s Park looks more like hell than heaven from anywhere but Slough House, and one of the underlying questions of the series is why anyone would want to work there in the first place. The First Desk, Dame Ingrid Tearney, is “a hobbit of a woman,” dwarfish and bald due to a genetic condition, passive-aggressive, with “a bred-in-the-bone instinct for knowing how to needle, humiliate and frustrate her underlings.” And her closest rival, Head of Ops “Lady Di” Diana Taverner, is a snake.

Real Tigers concerns dirty tricks played by Taverner, Tearney, and Peter Judd, a home secretary with prime ministerial aspirations. Judd evokes Boris Johnson—”He’d established a brand—’a loose cannon with a floppy fringe and a bicycle’ ”—and he seethes about having been turned down when he tried to join the service 20 years earlier, being “a narcissistic sociopath with family money, a power complex and a talent for bearing a grudge.”

Mick Herron has sidestepped the inevitable question of how he knows so much about spies. His birth year isn’t online and his Wikipedia entry is only in French. But better than any insider knowledge, he brings a fine-grained intelligence to bear on every detail he describes. These novels are a part of English literature, not only the genre of spy novels.

Jane for Moderns (Curtis Sittenfeld’s “Eligible”)

June 6th, 2016

Originally published in The Weekly Standard, June 6 (

Jane for Moderns
In translating ‘Pride and Prejudice’ it helps to understand it.

Jun 06, 2016 | By Ann Marlowe

Eligible is one of more than a hundred reworkings of Pride and Prejudice listed on Goodreads and it’s part of a recent publishing enterprise, The Austen Project, which has paired six Austen novels with six contemporary novelists. (None of the four released so far has been a critical success.) When a novel is fair game for retelling, it’s entered a special domain, where the bar is both higher and lower than other fiction. On the one hand, no one can cavil with the basic premise; on the other, you had better be able to add something fresh.

In some respects, Curtis Sittenfeld had an easy task: Pride and Prejudice (1813) is the most mythic of Austen’s novels, echoing Cinderella (the sisters and the high-born suitor who chooses the hidden gem) and Much Ado About Nothing (the witty, bickering lovers). In a poll a dozen years ago it was chosen the second-best-loved novel in Great Britain, after The Lord of the Rings. But the problems with Eligible are the author’s lack of passion for the story and the quality of her prose, which are surely related. Jane Austen’s novel is structured in 61 short chapters and tallies just 99,000 words. Eligible takes 181 chapters to retell the story, and all too many are the writerly equivalent of those cardboard-like rice cakes some well-meaning parents feed their toddlers.

Maybe Curtis Sittenfeld wasn’t a natural choice for this task. Prep, the only one of her four previous novels I’ve read, is a big, thumping, maximalist book whose strength is its immediacy and devastating social detail. Still, a voluble, underedited take on Pride and Prejudice could have worked if it were as heartfelt and energetic as Prep. But something has gone very wrong here. Perhaps Sittenfeld believed she was echoing Austen’s formality and precision, but there is a lot of clumsy, unlovable exposition in Eligible. She misunderstands the cadence of Austen’s sentences, which were Latinate, and the art of using long clauses gracefully eludes her:

The eldest and second eldest of the five Bennet sisters had lived in New York for the last decade and a half; it was due to their father’s health scare that they had abruptly, if temporarily, returned to Cincinnati.

.  .  . Almost immediately, a maelstrom of activity was swirling. The following evening, while it was still afternoon in Los Angeles, Liz, Jane, and Chip participated via speakerphone from Liz’s apartment in a conversation with both Chip’s agent, whose name was David Scanlon, and the Eligible producer with whom Chip had discussed Jane, whose name was Anne Lee.

The dialogue is a little better, but the author doesn’t seem sufficiently engaged with her characters, who in Pride and Prejudice are mainly revealed through speech. Sittenfeld does good, if not particularly imaginative, work with Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, and is best at reimagining the sullen, studious sister Mary—though she stops short of the kind of sympathy that would have opened up the novel in a new way. Jane remains the lovely cipher she is in the original. Lizzie is the big problem here: literal and rude without being funny, pedestrian without the original’s refreshing, down-to-earth sensibility. When the original Lizzie Bennet banters with Fitzwilliam Darcy, she’s like a good psychoanalyst speaking with a patient. She takes up and makes him hear the absurdities and neuroses in his speech.

Changing, or eliminating, minor characters in a rewrite or adaptation for film can be like randomly yanking a part out of a car engine. More than you’d guess goes wrong when Sittenfeld transforms Darcy’s aunt (Lady Catherine de Bourgh) into a celebrated feminist thinker, modeled on Gloria Steinem, who plays no role in the Liz/Darcy romance and has nothing to do with Mister Collins. Indeed, we lose the dark humor of Mister Collins’s flattery of his patroness and the sense of misery in Charlotte Lucas’s marriage. We also lose an articulation of the opposition to the Liz/Darcy union, which scarcely exists in Sittenfeld’s version.

There’s something else. Lady Catherine de Bourgh functions in the original as a counterweight to Lizzie, an example of a brave, intelligent woman, prohibited from a career, who turns her considerable abilities to trivial targets and contemptible ends. In the incendiary final confrontation between Lady Catherine and Elizabeth Bennet, where Lizzie trounces the older woman’s insistence on aristocratic order and arranged marriages with ruthless, lawyerly logic, Jane Austen forces her heroine’s hand and creates an extraordinary moment in cultural history: “I have not been used to submit to any person’s whims. I have not been in the habit of brooking disappointment. .  .  . That will make your ladyship’s situation at present more pitiable; but it will have no effect on me.”

When Lizzie concludes—”I am only resolved to act in that manner, which will, in my own opinion, constitute my happiness, without reference to you, or to any person so wholly unconnected with me”—we hear the spirit that runs through the Declaration of Independence, which was just 37 years old when Austen published. Curtis Sittenfeld may feel we live in degraded times, and her use of the culture of reality TV to frame her retelling is doubtless meant by way of criticism. But Pride and Prejudice is not a cynical book; it’s a revolutionary book, and a rewrite that doesn’t capture, and renew, its earnestness isn’t worthy of the name.

TOEFL, a Desperately Dull & Profoundly Unfair Exam

March 14th, 2016

(originally published on March 14 2016 in;

TOEFL, a Desperately Dull and Profoundly Unfair Exam, Abuses the English Language

I tried to prep a pair of Afghan teens for American boarding school, but instead of teaching them the language they need, I spent all my time explaining cultural references and unfamiliar contexts

By Ann Marlowe

United States
TOEFL, a Desperately Dull and Profoundly Unfair Exam, Abuses the English Language

I tried to prep a pair of Afghan teens for American boarding school, but instead of teaching them the language they need, I spent all my time explaining cultural references and unfamiliar contexts

By Ann Marlowe
March 13, 2016 • 10:00 PM

Google Plus

“Who is Alicia Keys?” Amina’s voice over the Viber connection to Afghanistan was faint but her puzzlement was clear. I didn’t think I was going to have to give lessons on American pop culture when I set out to tutor Amina, 16, and her brother Ahmad, 17, for the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL). Truth was, I didn’t know much about Alicia Keys either, and that hadn’t interfered with my life so far.

I’d met Amina and Ahmad in their home town of Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan in 2002, when they were 3 and 4 years old. We took to each other from the start. And I kept visiting their family—and staying in their big family compound—at least once a year up until 2011. For most of that time, Afghanistan in general and Mazar in particular seemed to be on an upward path.

Amina and Ahmad both go to the local Afghan-Turk High School—run by the Turkish Gulenist movement and rather peculiar but the best option among the not very impressive selection of local private schools. Everything was going well for Amina and Ahmad until this year, when the Afghan government began what looks like a meltdown. This summer, the girls’ Afghan-Turk school received Taliban death threats, and the Taliban’s success in capturing Kunduz briefly this fall didn’t bode well for Mazar, just 100 miles away. So, this fall Amina and Ahmad’s parents asked me to help them apply to boarding school in the United States.

To apply to American boarding school or college, foreign students must take an English language test, usually instead of the PSAT or SAT. For all the boarding schools we were interested in (and for the vast majority of colleges) the TOEFL is required. While there are TOEFL junior and primary tests for ages 11+ and 8+ respectively, the TOEFL iBT, or Internet-based test, which Amina and Ahmad will take, is suggested for “16+”. They will be competing with students five or 10 years older—they are lucky enough to attend a local TOEFL prep course, and the other students are at the local university. The TOEFL IBT takes four and a half hours and incorporates reading, listening, speaking, and writing sections.

I’d assumed Amina and Ahmad would have a tough time with the TOEFL, as they have little experience with English. Uzbek, a Turkic language, is their home language. Dari—a dialect of Farsi and, along with Pashtu, one of the two official languages of Afghanistan—is what they speak outside the house. Turkish is the second language of their high school. They also study Pashtu in school, as it’s obligatory for Afghan students to study both Dari and Pashtu. But not English. So, I was prepared for an uphill battle to improve Amina and Ahmad’s English. And I adjusted to the fact that the Internet is slow in Mazar, and it takes a long time to download files or refresh a screen.

What I didn’t expect was the esoteric cultural content embedded in the test. In three months of working an hour a day with Ahmad and Amina, seven days a week, I’ve come to see the TOEFL as almost always dull and often profoundly unfair to students from the more remote parts of the developing world.


Alicia Keys came up in a practice reading selection on the Empire State Building’s switch to LED lights—an event which wasn’t exactly of earth-shattering importance for me or anyone else I know in New York. “What does Alicia Keys suggest the Empire State building is a symbol of?” the question asked. The explanation involved my explaining to the Afghan siblings why New York is called “The Empire State.” Another question about the lighting of the Empire State Building referred to the size of a Volkswagen Beetle. This also puzzled the young Afghans, as this isn’t a car available in Afghanistan.

It also took a lot of work—and I mean, a lot—to explain the worldview embodied in the test. Two of the 10 questions in the Empire State Building selection focused on the environmental effects of the building’s shift to LED lights, using the phrases “to become more green” and “environmentally conscious,” which make no intuitive sense to non-English speakers from the developing world. For those who live in a largely pre-industrial society like Amina and Ahmad, getting electricity is a much more familiar concern than saving it. (Viber makes our sessions possible even when the city power is down.)

The TOEFL, I came to see, is less a test of proficiency in the English language than it is a test of students’ familiarity with fashionable American media and pop culture references and with current topics like global warming and the greenhouse effect. For instance, the Empire State Building passage includes this:

The LED system has “16.7 million color possibilities, in digital combinations of ripples, sparkles, sweeps and strobes,” says Phil O’Donnell, of Burlington, Mass.-based Philips Color Kinetics that’s responsible for the system and worked with a resident lighting designer. It’s the sum of all possibilities – a huge palette.

While it is possible to imagine the person for whom this kind of breathless virtue-signaling might be a source of near-physical pleasure, it is hard to argue that properly parsing word-combinations like “ripples, sparkles, sweeps and strobes” is crucial for academic success in America. While I was trying to teach Ahmad and Amina grammar, vocabulary, and test smarts—read the first paragraph and the last, then look at the questions to see how many you can answer and what you need to attend to as you read the rest—what I couldn’t teach were dozens of references to things, places, and experiences that Afghans have no acquaintance with.

An internationally famous ballerina, Maria Tallchief, demonstrated that the quality of ballet in North America could equal those of the ballet in Europe.

If you don’t know whether a ballerina is a scientist or a dancer, or that the words “ballerina” and “ballet” are related, how are you supposed to answer the question?

The Educational Testing Service (ETS), the behemoth that runs the TOEFL, insists that cultural context has little to do with the accuracy of the test. ETS’ Manager of Public Relations, Allyson Norton, emailed answers to my questions about cultural context. She responded,

One of the key principles of passage selection is that the passage needs to stand alone, meaning no prior knowledge is needed to understand the passage. … Further, background knowledge of content within test passages does not significantly impact scores.

But is it realistic to think that students who have no background knowledge on any question, like Ahmad and Amina, generally do as well as, say, test takers from a European country?

Norton sent me an internal study that showed that:

reading passages were neither advantageous nor disadvantageous to those who had physical science backgrounds or were familiar with a certain culture, and this holds for both the lower and higher proficiency groups.

The paper that Norton sent me referred to two types of mental processing used in reading comprehension, top down and bottom up. Both are used in most reading. Those who rely too heavily on top down, context-based understanding may make errors. But Norton also sent me a document that proves my main point: a country-by-country breakdown of average scores on the TOEFL’s four parts. There is a clear correlation between countries that are poor, isolated, and less linked to the world economy and countries with low average TOEFL scores. No surprise, Afghanistan ranks near the bottom with an average score of 69 out of a possible 120.

The rankings are fascinating. It’s no surprise that Equatorial Guinea stands dead last at 59, but Saudi Arabia is also at 59. Meanwhile Israel is 93, just two points below English-speaking New Zealand, and the highest scores belong to Austria and English-speaking Northern Ireland tied at 100. So, what are these tests actually measuring?

As the variation in country scores suggests, the common-sense hypothesis that success on the TOEFL is correlated with coming from a richer, more developed, more globalized country is true. The TOEFL tests cultural knowing-ness as much as it tests English skills. Of course, there’s a correlation there, too: If your English is really good, chances are you spend time on English language websites, listen to English language songs, watch English language movies, and so on.

The research also shows that test takers who are applying to high school have the highest average scores, higher than applicants to graduate or professional schools. My hypothesis is that apart from anomalies like Ahmad and Amina, most foreign teens who apply to boarding school in the United States are from rich, sophisticated families who have sent their children to excellent schools where they are immersed in American culture.

There’s also another issue, which has nothing to do with cultural literacy. Many of the TOEFL reading selections are simply deadly dull. Some are poorly written, vague, and confusing; others are clear but concern subject matter like geology that would get very few page views if posted on an online news site. I can understand that graduate-student test takers ought to be ready to tackle tedious material—adults often have to read boring articles for work. But why is this necessary for teenagers applying to high school? Why not pick excerpts from famous speeches by Churchill or Lincoln? How about some easy English poetry? When I asked Amina and Ahmad to read some poems by Robert Frost, they were much more interested than in anything the TOEFL practice tests have put before them.

Ironically, though there is not much to say in favor of the Afghan school system, public or private—they don’t teach evolution, for instance; and brutal physical punishment, though officially prohibited, is not uncommon—Afghan students know well the glories of Persian literature. They study the great Persian (and Pashtu) poets. Ahmad and Amina have memorized poetry in Farsi and Turkish (the most celebrated Afghan poet, Rumi, also wrote in Turkish). It’s sad that nothing they have encountered in prepping for the TOEFL has given them a hint that English is a powerful, economical, and supple language that has produced libraries full of magnificent novels, essays, and poetry.