Archive for the ‘book reviews’ Category

The Counterinsurgent (review of Max Boot’s biography of Edward Lansdale)

Tuesday, January 16th, 2018

originally published in The Weekly Standard, Jan 15 2018 (

The mixed legacy of Edward Lansdale.
1:55 PM, JAN 07, 2018 | By ANN MARLOWE

“You dirty son of a bitch.  .  . somebody’s got to beat you up and I hereby appoint myself.” Thus Edward Lansdale recalled addressing the CIA station chief in Saigon in the mid-1950s, when Lansdale was a CIA operative under cover of assistant air attaché at the American embassy. Whether or not his memory was exact—he recounted this anecdote in an interview three decades after the fact—the gist of the story is certainly correct: Lansdale was far from a natural fit in bureaucracies. He thrived only in informal settings, a trait that shaped his career and led to his contribution to American military history: as a pioneering practitioner of what are now known as counterinsurgency (COIN) techniques.

Born in 1908 to an automotive executive and his homemaker wife, Edward G. Lansdale spent his childhood in Detroit, then in Westchester County, then Los Angeles. He was a mediocre student—although he did well enough in high school to get into UCLA in 1927, majoring in English. The campus had only opened eight years earlier, so the friendly, talkative Lansdale had a chance to help start new institutions, including a satirical magazine, a fraternity chapter, and an ROTC unit. His grades were so bad that he couldn’t graduate after four years, so he quit school and moved to New York, hoping to make it as a writer or cartoonist.

It was not a great moment to find such work—the Depression was on—but Lansdale did manage to find a wife, Helen Batcheller, a pretty and reserved woman seven years his senior. Giving up on New York, the couple moved to California in 1935, where Lansdale got a start in advertising when one of his brothers offered him a job. The nascent advertising industry proved a good fit for Lansdale’s strategic intelligence, excellent writing skills, and personal brashness, but after Pearl Harbor, he burned to join the military. His efforts to enlist in the Army were rebuffed because of a minor medical condition, but a few months later he found a route to wartime service: in the Office of Strategic Services, a newly created intelligence agency. It was the perfect situation for a smart, charming, creative, untamed individual like Lansdale. Based in San Francisco and New York, he gathered intelligence and recruited agents, and was good enough at the work to earn promotions and to remain after the war’s end at OSS and its successor entities: the Office of Policy Coordination, a highly secret, fast-growing group created in 1948 and tasked with acting on intelligence analysis, and the Central Intelligence Agency, which soon absorbed OPC. (From 1947 until 1963, Lansdale was officially in the Air Force, working on assignment at these intel agencies.)

Lansdale’s historical importance is due to his successful-for-a-while counterinsurgency practices and to his accomplishments as a sherpa (or puppet master, depending on one’s view) to Ramon Magsaysay of the Philippines and Ngo Dinh Diem of Vietnam. Both were doomed figures. The engaging Magsaysay was killed in a plane crash in March 1957 and a few years later Ferdinand Marcos began his two decades of kleptocratic rule in the Philippines. The more-problematic Diem was assassinated with tacit American approval in 1963, and of course South Vietnam fell to North Vietnamese forces in 1975. The question for historians is whether things might have turned out differently in either case.

Max Boot, the military historian, policy expert, and opinion journalist, is a prominent supporter of COIN strategies in Iraq and Afghanistan, so Lansdale is a natural subject for him. The Road Not Taken, Boot’s thumping new biography of Lansdale, will appeal to anyone interested in the debates over the effectiveness of COIN.

For most readers, though, the question will be whether they should crack open a big new book—600 pages, plus notes—about a marginal figure when there already exists a well-written 1988 biography. Edward Lansdale: The Unquiet American by the late Cecil B. Currey, an Army reserve chaplain, weighs in at a comparatively slender 350 pages. Currey had the advantage of interviewing Lansdale in person in 1984—the quotation at the beginning of this review comes from one of Currey’s interviews—as well as other individuals who are now long dead. (His book boasts an introduction by former CIA director William Colby.)

Both biographers mainly rely on the same sources—and Lansdale’s was a well-documented life. (While working on a research project at the Hoover Institution, I myself read boxes of Lansdale’s letters and dispatches from the Philippines.) Boot emphasizes that, unlike Currey, he has had access to Lansdale’s letters both to his wife and to Pat Kelly, Lansdale’s longtime Filipina mistress. Indeed, Boot is the only person besides Lansdale to have read both sets of letters.

This is a fair point, since Lansdale’s long relationship with the smart, brave, and spirited Kelly was a huge and defining part of his personal life. Their affair began in 1946, and Lansdale tried to get his wife to agree to a divorce, but the proper, Christian Science-devoted Helen refused, and the marriage lasted until her death in 1972. Soon after Helen died, Lansdale and Kelly, who had often gone years without seeing each other, were married. By drawing on the lovers’ correspondence, Boot’s book gives us a much fuller picture of Lansdale the man. Yet it’s still an open question whether Lansdale’s letters to Kelly add much to our understanding of his professional life and his contributions to counterinsurgency theory and practice. I was struck by how much his letters home to his wife and family were written with an eye to a larger readership, more like blog posts than personal letters. Even writing to Kelly, once past the obligatory mild sexual innuendos, Lansdale was relentlessly on message about the Philippine situation. Perhaps the biggest divergence between the public and private Lansdale papers is in his occasional candor in the latter about how bad the situation in South Vietnam really was.

* *

Half adman, half spook; an accomplished writer who never finished college; an Air Force major general who never fought a battle—what is it that made Lansdale a “counterinsurgent par excellence,” as Boot calls him, whose “practices could be emulated by contemporary advisers in countries ranging from Mali to Mexico”? If we are to draw lessons for today’s counterinsurgency efforts from Lansdale’s record, it is worth looking closely at just how replicable his practices are.

Col. Lansdale and Philippine defense minister Ramon Magsaysay in October 1952, on an inspection of the Philippine countryside. [Muir S. Fairchild Research Information Center/Maxwell AFB, via Liveright]
Boot ably takes us through Lansdale’s career in the Philippines. His first stint, from roughly 1945 to 1948, was spent composing reports based on his observations of the country and then working as a public affairs officer. During his second stint, from 1950 to 1954, he was personal adviser to Philippine defense secretary Ramon Magsaysay. Drawing on Lansdale’s creativity and adman’s insight into what moves people, as well as Magsaysay’s credentials as a patriot and man of the people, the inseparable pair began to experiment with what we would now call “population-centric” counterinsurgency techniques to use against the Communist Huk rebellion then underway. They arranged food deliveries for farmers that the Huks exploited; they had soldiers hand out candy to children; they promised land to defecting guerrillas. They engaged in psychological warfare, manipulating superstitions and suspicions. These techniques, combined with more conventional military measures, destroyed the insurgency. Lansdale then strove in a thousand ways to have Magsaysay elected president in 1953, which he was. There followed a period of reasonably good government, sadly short lived.

Lansdale in 1953, on his first trip to Vietnam. [Muir S. Fairchild Research Information Center/Maxwell AFB, via Liveright]
Meanwhile, in 1953, while still working in the Philippines, Lansdale made his first trip to Vietnam. He moved there in June 1954, staying through 1956, with shorter postings ending in 1968. Lansdale brought with him a successful template from the defeat of the Huks. The only problem was each unhappy country is unhappy in its own way.

In Vietnam, Henry Kissinger wrote in 1965, Lansdale seemed to rely too much on Philippine precedents “no longer fully relevant”:

The Philippine Insurrection has as many points of difference from the Vietnamese civil war as similarities to it. In the Philippines the insurrection had never reached the scale of the war in Vietnam. There was no foreign base for the guerrillas. The indigenous government was much stronger. There was a tradition of working with Americans. The situation in Vietnam is much more complex, much less susceptible to bravura, individual efforts.

If Kissinger was right—and military historians have been arguing similar questions almost since the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam conflict began—then the subtitle of Boot’s book, Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam, is a misapprehension. Maybe there was no American tragedy in Vietnam. Not every error is a tragedy. Maybe Lansdale could have done nothing to stop the Communist takeover.

Boot’s observations certainly turn more critical as the book progresses, and by the time his narrative reaches the fall of Saigon, his belief in the Lansdale magic wanes:

Would the course of the conflict have been different if Lansdale’s advice had been heeded? There is, of course, no way to know. .  .  . South Vietnam might not have survived even if Lansdale had enjoyed more success in implementing his agenda; North Vietnam would have been a tough and determined adversary under any circumstances, with more will to win than the United States had.

And, Boot adds, Lansdale was “downright delusional” to suggest that a proper American psychological-operations campaign against Hanoi could have led to the overthrow of the North Vietnamese politburo.

Boot gives short shrift to the most successful U.S. counterinsurgency program, the Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support (CORDS), which is understandable given that it started in May 1967 and Lansdale left Vietnam for the last time in June 1968. But CORDS, which aimed at engaging the rural population through improved security and state institutions so that it would support the government of South Vietnam, is Exhibit A for those historians who maintain that the United States tried counterinsurgency tactics and still came up short.

Boot’s decision to largely leave aside the extensive scholarly debate about whether and how the United States could have won in Vietnam is an odd omission for a writer on military doctrine, especially one making the case that we should today be doing more to emulate the actions of his subject. Could a COIN-centric strategy have worked in Vietnam? There is a current in recent scholarship, exemplified by Dale Andradé’s influential 2008 article “Westmoreland Was Right,” that argues that a concerted COIN campaign would not have succeeded:

The strategy conducted by the North Vietnamese was arguably like no other in history. It was the epitome of insurgencies: a combination of large main force units, a well-entrenched guerrilla movement with deep roots in the South Vietnamese countryside, and the support of two powerful sponsors—China and the Soviet Union. All of this, combined with the ability to attack South Vietnam over and over again, with no threat of a serious retaliation, was an unprecedented advantage. To simply argue that the U.S. military ignored pacification does not begin to address the problem of countering such a threat.

As Andradé goes on to note, each of the Military Assistance Command Vietnam commanders was “caught on the horns of the same dilemma”: Gen. William Westmoreland “concentrated on the main forces and failed to prevent a guerrilla offensive in 1968,” and Gen. Creighton Abrams “placed great emphasis on pacification and failed to prevent a conventional buildup in 1972.” Neither commander, Andradé writes, “had the resources or the opportunity to handle both threats simultaneously.”

Lansdale himself grew dubious about whether American efforts could succeed in Vietnam. Boot quotes a letter Lansdale sent his wife in October 1965:

I’m scared to tell everyone how really bad it is. .  .  . What has happened here is that after 20 years of war almost all the tensile strength has gone out of the social fabric. Military operations just make it limper. The village folks just don’t seem to give a damn about anything except to please be left alone.

This insightful remark, from one of the leading lights of COIN, acknowledges that COIN is limited by human and social nature—by the receptiveness of the population.

Lansdale on a visit to the remote Vietnamese village of Binh Hung in early 1961. [Muir S. Fairchild Research Information Center/Maxwell AFB, via Liveright]
And of course counterinsurgency strategy is also limited in the other direction: by the abilities of the people attempting it. Nothing Boot says about Lansdale contradicts the criticism that COIN can only work so long as charismatic leaders practice it, and that it doesn’t work when mediocre leaders do. Here is Boot:

How different history might have been if Lansdale or a Lansdale-like figure had remained close enough to Diem to exercise a benign influence and offset the paranoid counsel of his brother.

Saying that Lansdale had a unique ability to get along with Diem and that had Diem stayed in power he could have saved Vietnam is not the same thing as saying that Lansdale’s or anyone’s practice of COIN would have saved Vietnam from Communist takeover. And if Lansdale was the only person who could manage Diem, I’d conclude not that Vietnam would have been better if President Kennedy had assigned Lansdale the job of resident Diem wrangler, which seems to be Boot’s position, but that Vietnam needed someone other than Diem.

A similar example of the dependence of counterinsurgency techniques on the all-too-rare alignment of practitioner and population can be found in the story of perhaps the most brilliant COIN theorist of them all, Lansdale’s French contemporary David Galula. He concludes his beautifully written military memoir Pacification in Algeria by casually informing us that his two successors in company command were promptly shot dead by the “pacified” villagers of the Kabylie. (His immediate predecessor met the same end.) Not much of a success if you only make your area of operations safe for yourself.

* *

Lansdale’s career was essentially over when he left Vietnam for the last time in June 1968 at the age of 60. As Boot makes clear, this was due to his personality: “In his attempts to influence American leaders, Lansdale lacked the deft touch he displayed in dealing with foreign leaders.”

Lansdale could be inspiring; men who worked for him tended to want to continue to work for him for decades. “I’ve met a handful of people in my life who have this particular genius for dealing with human beings in ways that make them feel dignified,” Walt Rostow said of him. Kissinger called Lansdale “a man of extraordinary gifts” and “an artist in dealing with Asians.”

Yet Lansdale stumbled again and again with the American ambassadors, cabinet ministers, CIA honchos, and—to a lesser extent—military commanders he had to work with in the Philippines, Vietnam, and Washington. Frustratingly, his good ideas were often overlooked because of his underlying resentment of having to operate in formal, structured, hierarchical organizations. Boot comments perceptively that Lansdale “viewed the bureaucracy as an enemy and, by so doing, turned it into one.”

My hunch is that Lansdale was not threatened by the two leaders who adored him, Magsaysay and Diem, because both had elements of the underdog about them—but he constantly found himself fighting with other Americans for alpha-male status. Rather than my hunch, I would prefer to have Boot’s thoughts on this matter, and in a book this length a few pages of psychologizing would have been perfectly in order, but none are to be found.

* *

Throughout The Road Not Taken, Boot briefly mentions memorable cultural and political events contemporaneous with the stories he’s telling. But he shies away from exploring the broader cultural context for Lansdale’s ideas about counterinsurgency.

Boot does note that advertising—the field in which Lansdale worked through the late 1930s—was where he learned “many of the skills that he would later employ as a CIA operative.” Sure, persuading American housewives to buy a certain brand of soap powder is in some ways similar to persuading Southeast Asian villagers to support a certain political party; a catchy jingle might help in either case. But Boot’s book could have used some discussion of the emerging business of advertising and the theories that Lansdale would have been exposed to as a young adman and exactly how they might have shaped not only Lansdale’s but other American military men’s ideas in the 1950s.

Currey is only a little better than Boot on this, quoting Lansdale in 1950 when he was teaching psychological warfare at the Pentagon to Philippine Army officers training in the United States. “All you have to figure out,” Lansdale said, “is what you want the enemy to do and then use psychological means to get them to do it.” No 18th-century commander could have said such a thing, but neither biographer gives us the context to really understand the importance of psychology to changes in strategic thought.

As for military doctrine, the growing cultural relativism of the fifties and sixties surely has a great deal to do with the Kennedy administration’s openness to COIN. In 1957, soon after Lansdale finished his first stint in Vietnam, Marcel Duchamp wrote: “The creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work into contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.” The same tide that raised the boat of Duchamp raised that of counterinsurgency theory. COIN is also largely about perceptions; it’s the Vietnamese villager’s perception that counts.

Such ideas were in increasingly wide circulation during the Vietnam era. Edward L. Katzenbach, a deputy assistant secretary of defense, wrote in 1962, “Although Mao never states it quite this way .  .  . his fundamental belief is that only those who will admit defeat can be defeated. .  .  . Or, conversely, when the populace admits defeat, the forces in the field might just as well surrender or withdraw.” Marine lieutenant general Victor Krulak, who ran one of the few successful small-unit counterinsurgency operations in Vietnam, echoed that sentiment: “The battlefield is in the minds of 16 or 17 million people.”

This perspectivalism is invaluable in small doses; it can aid critical thinking and can helpfully remind strategists of the importance of seeing events from others’ eyes. But if it dominates strategic thinking it can lead to disaster. In a brilliant, widely debated 2009 article, “A Strategy of Tactics,” whose title became a shorthand for the American problem in Afghanistan, military historian Gian Gentile argued:

In the American Army’s new way of war, tactics—that is, the carrying out of the “way”—have utterly eclipsed strategy. .  .  . Because the United States has “principilized” population-centric COIN into the only way of doing any kind of counterinsurgency, it dictates strategy.

Perhaps Boot decided his own views were sufficiently well known, with many articles and a book on counterinsurgency already under his belt, and so chose to leave them on the margins. But The Road Not Taken—an interesting book, written in prose that’s clear and well crafted—would have been much richer if Boot had engaged in this debate over the limitations of COIN.

It may sound odd to speak of so large a biography as halfhearted, but there it is: Boot seems charmed by but ultimately ambivalent about his subject. On Lansdale’s professional life, Boot is too narrowly focused on the task at hand, marshaling all the facts, to explore the intellectual and cultural context of his subject’s ideas. And for all the quoting from Lansdale’s letters, his personality still seems somehow elusive. But perhaps this is how Lansdale, both achingly sincere and a professional dissembler who always had an eye on posterity, would have wanted it.

Saddam Hussein’s New Novel Might End Up Funneling Money to ISIS

Thursday, July 28th, 2016

Originally published July 21 2016 on (

Saddam Hussein’s New Novel Might End Up Funneling Money to ISIS

By Ann Marlowe

Fancy reading a novel by Saddam Hussein? How about an allegory set 1500 years ago that describes “through biblical metaphor, a Zionist-Christian conspiracy against Arabs and Muslims?” Would you read it if you knew that the royalties from the book go to Saddam’s daughter Raghad, who has declared her support for ISIS?

Hesperus Press, a part-Jordanian-owned UK publishing house, thinks you will; they’re bringing out the 186-page novella, whose title has been rendered in the past as Begone Devils and Damned One, Get out of Here, in December, just in time for the tenth anniversary of Saddam’s hanging.

American readers with an interest in the Middle East might be curious about this window into Saddam’s disturbed mind and his view of the Iraqi people, whom he treated so badly. After all, he might still be ruling Iraq if he’d allowed inspectors to see that he didn’t have the WMDs he was feared to possess. But given Saddam’s reportedly modest literary skills, this tepid interest is probably outweighed by American weariness of all things Iraqi, not to mention the royalties issue—do Americans really want to see Hussein’s ISIS-supporting daughter profit from the book? (“To clarify, we are paying the agent,” a spokesman for Hesperus told me in an email, when asked about the royalties issue. He declined to give his name.)

This isn’t Saddam’s first literary foray. The best-known of Saddam’s four novels, titled Zabiba and the King in English translation, appeared in 2000 and is said to be a turgid allegory of Saddam’s relations with the Iraqi people and the U.S. “Some critics have suggested that Zabiba and the King was ghostwritten,” wrote The Guardian’s reviewer Daniel Kalder in 2011. “I doubt that: it is so poorly structured and dull that it has thewhiff of dictatorial authenticity.” Apparently Saddam was working on a fifth novel while in American captivity prior to his trial and 2006 execution.

The three earlier books, all published in the early 2000s, were published by “he who wrote them,” but the identity of the author was an open secret. Kanan Makiya, the well-known Iraqi intellectual and writer and author of a novel that spirals out from Saddam’s hanging, 2016’s The Rope, agrees that the novels are likely written by Saddam himself.

At first I thought he had not written them, but had them ghostwritten,” he told me via email. “Eventually I met speechwriters and media people who were close to him. They convinced me he had in fact taken himself seriously as a writer in the early 1990s. At any rate they read like extremely amateurish efforts to spin out a story of very recent events. The one I read had characters who were thinly veiled caricatures of real people in the Iraqi opposition (I recognized Ahmed Chalabi!). Saddam valued the arts in general. He fancied himself a sculptor, having designed and built a victory arch in Baghdad celebrating his so-called victory over Iran in the Iraq-Iran war; if a sculptor, why not a novelist?

The books were huge best-sellers in Iraq, where, of course, they would not have received any bad reviews. They may or may not have been added to the school curriculum. An Iraqi translator from Basra told me in an email,

I graduated before the so-called Saddam’s novels were supposed to be introduced to students. Actually, the whole thing was halted and the novels never included into the curriculum because of the Kuwait invasion. Also, there is no proof that Saddam wrote the novels and the writer who used to write Saddam’s speeches has not yet spilled the beans.

Unlike Makiya, this Iraqi states, “No one in Iraq thinks that Saddam did write the novels.”

Begone was smuggled out of Iraq by Saddam’s daughter Raghad, who is now based in Jordan, where she is a guest of the royal family. She tried to publish the novel herself in Jordan in 2005 but it was banned from sale. Bootlegged versions have done well; Saddam is still popular among segments of the Jordanian population, which is Sunni Muslim and includes many Iraqi Ba’ath party officials who fled there from Iraq after 2003.

But Raghad is ethically questionable even apart from her actions during her father’s regime; she has declared her support for ISIS, and in May 2015 Iraq tried unsuccessfully to extradite her from Jordan “for alleged support of terror and involvement in money laundering.” This isn’t a surprise considering that it has been widely reported that ISIS draws support from the former Baathist elite.

Hesperus Press also has Jordanian ties: the sole director, Shadi Jabra Sharbain, a twenty-six-year-old, is Jordanian, as were two former directors who no longer seem to be involved with the company. Two of the four current shareholders, Lana Harkouz and Jebra Sharbain, seemingly the father of Shadi, also claim Jordanian nationality on Hesperus’s obligatory Companies House filings.

Oddly enough, Hesperus, founded in 2001, was previously in the news for not paying royalties to an author. The company made headlines in 2015 for failing to pay Jonas Jonasson, who wrote a best-selling novel; the staff at that time all resigned. According to one publishing industry blog, Jonasson was not the only author cheated by Hesperus.

What value is there in “dictator lit” such as Saddam’s novella? With the right publisher, it could provide some insight into how things unraveled in Iraq. As Kanan Makiya noted in an email, “With an intelligent up front article it would be a reasonable publishing project, providing some insight into an aging dictator’s warped mind.”

The Iraqi translator I spoke to was less sanguine. “Raghad is fiercely fighting to keep Saddam’s name and legacy alive among his followers as a symbol of Sunni hero who fought Iran and the USA altogether (exactly what ISIS is doing now),” he said. “The profits of the novels should be seized by the USA because they are going to be used to finance terrorism.”

Do We Really Want to be Members of a Tribe?

Thursday, July 7th, 2016


Sebastian Junger’s fascinatingly wrong-headed ‘Tribe: on Homecoming and Belonging’

By Ann Marlowe
July 7, 2016 • 12:00 AM

“The question for Western society isn’t so much why tribal life might be so appealing—it seems obvious on the face of it—but why Western society is so unappealing.”

This statement early in Sebastian Junger’s new paean to tribal togetherness is, on the face of it, rubbish. Western society’s lack of appeal must be news to the millions of people who try, often at risk of their lives, to enter the United States, Canada, Australia, Great Britain, and the European Union each year as migrants or immigrants, apparently having decided that all that tribal connectivity in Somalia, Eritrea, Iraq, Afghanistan, or Syria (to name the countries that were the top sources of migrants to the E.U. in 2015) was something they could live without. Such rashness alerts us that Tribe is one of those eccentric screeds where everything looks like a nail because the author has a hammer. (But then, 2016 is a year in which this seems to be a feature of political thinking.)

Junger argues that the loss of the tribal environment in which human beings evolved helps to explain the 2008 financial crisis, mass shootings, and insurance fraud. He even argues against the American and Northern European practice of making children sleep by themselves in their own rooms—after all, our primitive ancestors didn’t do that, so it must cause problems. And yet Junger never defines what he means by “tribe.” The closest he comes is near the end of the book: “Acting in a tribal way simply means being willing to make a substantive sacrifice for your community.” But Americans already have one of the world’s highest levels of community engagement in terms of volunteerism, charitable giving, and attendance at religious worship.

Junger wants something more intense than normal life. Natural disasters, he argues, “Turn back the clock on ten thousand years of social evolution. Self-interest gets subsumed into group interest because there is no survival outside group survival, and that creates a social bond that many people sorely miss.” He’s in love with the immediately post-Sept. 11 upsurge of group cohesion, and some of this was a good thing. He points out that there were no mass shootings for a year after Sept. 11 and that “rates of violent crime, suicide and psychiatric disturbance dropped immediately. … New York’s suicide rate dropped by around 20 percent in the six months following the attacks, the murder rate dropped by 40 percent.” But there was also a circling of the wagons, a suspicion of the foreign and the Muslim, a lot of flag waving by people careful to stay far from danger.

Is American society circa 2001-2 really something we want to revisit? Did we fight smart wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as a result? Was abridging our freedoms at home really the best way to enlarge the cause of freedom in the world? Is the rhetoric of “homeland” and “belonging” to a larger entity and “solidarity” helpful going forward?

Junger’s book is sorely lacking in analysis, counter-examples, subtlety, and organization. His prose has the rounded homogeneity of best-selling nonfiction. Yet the itch Junger is scratching is widespread in advanced societies, and the regressiveness of his argument is very of the moment, and he knows something about what he speaks: A seasoned war correspondent, he is the author of War, about an extended embed at a remote combat outpost in Afghanistan, and the companion film Restrepo. And as a national level distance runner at Wesleyan, he also spent a summer training with Navajo runners.

Yet Junger’s tribalism is vague. He mainly refers to Native American tribes, though he does mention a few African tribes. As anthropologists have been at pains to establish, tribes come in all sorts of flavors, and some are very nasty. It matters, because the crux of Junger’s argument is that human beings used to live happily in a certain way for hundreds of thousands of years in small tribes, and we no longer do, and our genetics change much more slowly than our living conditions, so we are profoundly maladjusted to the way we live now. This in turn leads to greedy bankers who disrespect the tribe by taking more than their share and PTSD for returning warriors, because war used to involve the whole tribe, not just a small segment of society. It’s hard not to see Junger’s model for how human beings used to live as yet another primitivism fantasy, an imaginary paradise loosely gleaned from American Indian life. It’s nostalgie de la boue—a term coined in 1855, just as the lower layers of European society were finally starting to escape the mud.

Moreover, the term tribal today is often used to describe social organization in some spectacularly unsuccessful places, like Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Kenya, and (with less validity) Libya. In some places in these countries belonging to a tribe is more or less important. But these societies, unlike American Indian life as Junger characterizes it, suffer from severe gender inequality, endemic corruption, conflict, and often from extremes of wealth and poverty.

But let’s give Junger the benefit of the doubt, say that human beings evolved under something like the conditions of the nicer American Indian tribes, and see what he has to say.


“Indians almost never ran away to join white society,” Junger notes. But so many Americans who do not claim Indian identity have Indian great-great-great grandmothers or -fathers that plenty of Indians must have entered white society. From my anecdotal knowledge, most of the captives lived on the frontiers and were not part of the ruling elites. They had pushed out to the places where the forest met the fields for cheaper land or more privacy; they were not abducted from Boston or Richmond. My hunch is that the captives who chose to stay were predominantly lower income, lower status, less educated: They were making a rational choice in the context of their position in white society. As Junger points out, “Indian society was essentially classless and egalitarian,” and a lower-status white person might do better relatively there.

As to the appeal of Native American life to non-Native Americans, it may well have been relaxed and companionable and egalitarian, but it did not offer much scope to the intellectual or cultural interests of cultivated Europeans (or for that matter Chinese or Japanese) at the time. How appealing would it be to spend the rest of your life in a society of 100 to 1,000 ethnically homogeneous people, without access to writing, science, philosophy, more than one type of cooking, chess, more than one type of music, more than one type of dance, more than one type of fashion, painting, or a variety of sports? Even in the 18th century, it meant no horse-drawn carriages, no roads, no Homer, no Shakespeare, no flower gardens, no piano, no silk, no architecture, no metal tools, no fine china, no furniture, no number theory.
‘Acting in a tribal way simply means being willing to make a substantive sacrifice for your community.’

Junger is also curiously silent about the moral and spiritual life of the Indian tribes. He might have noted that at the time of the first settlers, Protestantism was also becoming the dominant religion of northern and Western Europe. Protestantism demanded individual moral judgment and constant self-scrutiny (rather like Judaism). The notion of a career as providing meaning in life was just beginning to grow and with it the idea that one was responsible for one’s success or failure in worldly terms, and that it all had something to do with goodness. All of this is hard stuff; that’s why many people in the West, and even more in the Rest, still don’t like it.

It’s easier to live in a shame culture, not a guilt culture, and that’s what Native America was. The Indians may have lived blamelessly, even virtuously, but without forming independent moral judgments, figuring out one’s identity as an autonomous individual, even opposing the group if one thought they were wrong. When people are caught up in a larger-than-life drama, good or bad, whether a natural disaster or an event like Sept. 11, they find themselves back in a shame culture, where self-interrogation is less important than meeting group expectations. And for some people, this has good effects.

Junger’s two favorite idylls, military life and Native American life, meet along an existential dimension: In both of them, you don’t need to engage in a daily struggle to achieve your purpose in life. Most of us in advanced, urbanized cultures have to confront disturbing existential questions every day. What have I accomplished today? What’s my plan? Am I living rightly? Is everything I’m doing today furthering that plan?

This sort of interrogation is a part of Jewish culture even among non-religious Jews and surely explains the celebrated neuroticism and melancholy of Jews. Which brings me to another issue: I can’t see the word “tribe” without thinking of the phrase, “member of the Tribe.” Maybe it’s the same for Junger, who is half-Jewish on his father’s side. I’ve never liked this phrase, which implies that Jews are born, not made, and which mistakes what is great about Judaism. Our ancestors were not very like the American Indians Junger extols: They invented monotheism and wrote the Bible and started abstract thinking and one of the great schools of legal reasoning thousands of years ago. All of this proved to be essential to modern life. All of it was accessible to people who were not born Jews.


In tribal life, as in the American military, many of the existential questions are answered for you once you make the big choice to sign up. That’s why there are people who flounder in civilian life but succeed brilliantly in the military. That’s also why some 18th-century captives presumably made great Indians, but would have been lost in Providence or Philadelphia.

So, yes; living in the non-tribal world is harder and often sadder. Junger says: “The more assimilated a person is into American society, the more likely they are to develop depression during the course of their lifetime, regardless of what ethnicity they are.” Of course! If you’re a Chinese immigrant waiter working 18 hours a day and sharing a two-bedroom with 15 other men, you don’t have the luxury of depression. But a Chinese-American investment banker has time to agonize over whether he is really actualizing himself, really married to the right person, really living in the right city. “According to a global survey by the World Health Organization, people in wealthy countries suffer depression at as much as eight times the rate they do in poor countries.” Well, yes. If I’m sure of my food for the day, I start thinking about existential issues, and often this leads to anxiety or feelings of inadequacy.

In Tribe, Junger does not mention any of this; war and tribal life are all about camaraderie, never about how they solve the existential questions. Perhaps because of the simplistic view he takes of war, Junger also errs in his argument in Tribe that PTSD is a disease of re-entry into a fragmented society. This is unfair in a couple of ways to the military and rather unfortunate given recent medical research on the physical basis of at least some PTSD. Junger, whose website features a photograph of the author in body armor on an embed, is a great admirer of the American military, but just as he ignores the aspects of military life that are easier than civilian life, he also ignores the burdens of military discipline and of command.

Part of the reason for this, I think, is that Junger’s fallen into a common trap among military reporters: thinking you’re having the full experience when you’re just an observer. Sentences like, “At one point I and the men I was with made our way to a front-line position” and “We lost one of our packhorses in the barrage” are a clue that Junger misunderstands his role. Reporters have few of the moral burdens of the combatants. No journalist fires at the car that doesn’t slow down for the checkpoint and then finds out that it contains the dead bodies of a not very bright father and his perfectly innocent Iraqi family of eight. No journalist sends a SEAL team on a mission knowing some of them will not come back—or sends four young low-ranking enlisted on a routine re-supply convoy that ends in their crippling by IED explosion. All this must be processed on re-entry.

Then there is the impact of IEDs. It’s not uncommon for American soldiers with multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan to have experienced several IED blasts. This is very different from a World War II soldier’s experience. Junger notes that “roughly half of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have applied for permanent PTSD disability. Since only 10 percent of our armed forces experience actual combat, the majority of vets claiming to suffer from PTSD seem to have been affected by something other than direct exposure to danger.” He’s right to notice that there is a mismatch—and some fraud and freeloading—here. But that 10 percent figure is as sketchy as it is hard to verify, and it’s irrelevant in the new wars, where combat is not what’s most likely to kill you. Supply specialists, drivers, cultural experts, or engineers who had the bad luck to be in the wrong convoy can die or receive disabling injuries in an instant.

Junger’s view of PTSD as a mainly or wholly psychological ailment is also turning out to be incorrect. Medical studies are emerging now which prove what seems common sense: The human brain is injured by being multiply concussed. Just in the last months, it’s emerged that there are distinctive changes in the brain from concussions that can affect reasoning, mood, and behavior. Here is the key medical article and here is the New York Times Magazine piece about it.

More than 340,000 veterans have been diagnosed with Traumatic Brain Injury (admittedly most not from IEDs), which can take months or years to manifest. Part of the reason for the high numbers of vets applying for disability is that people are surviving what would have been lethal wounds in earlier wars. Junger views it as a paradox that disability claims rise as mortality falls, but it makes perfect sense: We have a lot more injured vets coming back who would have died in WWII from the same injuries. So, if PTSD is often a response to surviving IED explosions that jar the brain, it doesn’t make much difference what kind of integration into society the returning vet has.

But again like that man who happens to have a hammer, Junger is intent on seeing all of life through the lens of the military and tribalism. Something Junger says about the current debased political discourse is applicable here: “Reviling people you share a combat outpost with is an incredibly stupid thing to do, and public figures who imagine their nation isn’t, potentially, one huge combat outpost are deluding themselves.” Sympathetic though I am with Junger’s message, America should not be looked at as a combat outpost—either by foreigners, or worse, by Americans.

We have never been Sparta; the founders were clear that we were not to be a garrison state with a standing army but a nation devoted to “the pursuit of happiness” in whatever way individuals wished. And it’s precisely because figuring out one’s desires is tough that life in the contemporary world is tough. Jews learned that, perhaps, before most other people. But regression to the values of tribalism is no answer.