Readings: The Runaway General, Jane Goodall, A Case for Space, and Mockingbird

Here’s what I read over the last week or so.

(1) “The Runaway General” [Rolling Stone] – an already infamous piece of reporting that sent Obama to depose Stanley McChrystal as the top commander in Afghanistan. This is a very long read, quite compelling and, dare I say, entertaining (it was written for Rolling Stone, so do expect a fair share of curse words in the article). A few nuggets I found worthwhile:

A good explanation of counterinsurgency, or COIN (the term makes a recurring appearance throughout the piece):

From the start, McChrystal was determined to place his personal stamp on Afghanistan, to use it as a laboratory for a controversial military strategy known as counterinsurgency. COIN, as the theory is known, is the new gospel of the Pentagon brass, a doctrine that attempts to square the military’s preference for high-tech violence with the demands of fighting protracted wars in failed states. COIN calls for sending huge numbers of ground troops to not only destroy the enemy, but to live among the civilian population and slowly rebuild, or build from scratch, another nation’s government – a process that even its staunchest advocates admit requires years, if not decades, to achieve. The theory essentially rebrands the military, expanding its authority (and its funding) to encompass the diplomatic and political sides of warfare: Think the Green Berets as an armed Peace Corps.

What kind of a man is Stanley McChrystal?

McChrystal is a snake-eating rebel, a “Jedi” commander, as Newsweek called him. He didn’t care when his teenage son came home with blue hair and a mohawk. He speaks his mind with a candor rare for a high-ranking official. He asks for opinions, and seems genuinely interested in the response. He gets briefings on his iPod and listens to books on tape. He carries a custom-made set of nunchucks in his convoy engraved with his name and four stars, and his itinerary often bears a fresh quote from Bruce Lee. (“There are no limits. There are only plateaus, and you must not stay there, you must go beyond them.”)

Perhaps the smartest paragraph in the piece:

When it comes to Afghanistan, history is not on McChrystal’s side. The only foreign invader to have any success here was Genghis Khan – and he wasn’t hampered by things like human rights, economic development and press scrutiny. The COIN doctrine, bizarrely, draws inspiration from some of the biggest Western military embarrassments in recent memory: France’s nasty war in Algeria (lost in 1962) and the American misadventure in Vietnam (lost in 1975). McChrystal, like other advocates of COIN, readily acknowledges that counterinsurgency campaigns are inherently messy, expensive and easy to lose. “Even Afghans are confused by Afghanistan,” he says. But even if he somehow manages to succeed, after years of bloody fighting with Afghan kids who pose no threat to the U.S. homeland, the war will do little to shut down Al Qaeda, which has shifted its operations to Pakistan. Dispatching 150,000 troops to build new schools, roads, mosques and water-treatment facilities around Kandahar is like trying to stop the drug war in Mexico by occupying Arkansas and building Baptist churches in Little Rock. “It’s all very cynical, politically,” says Marc Sageman, a former CIA case officer who has extensive experience in the region. “Afghanistan is not in our vital interest – there’s nothing for us there.”

(2) “Jane Goodall’s 50 Years in the Jungle” [The Guardian] – an excellent profile and interview of the British anthropologist who spent the majority of her life working with chimpanzees in Gombe Stream National Park, Tanzania.

Why is Jane Goodall’s work important?

Jane Goodall made one of the most important scientific observations of modern times in that remote African rainforest. She witnessed a creature, other than a human, in the act not just of using a tool but of making one. “It was hard for me to believe,” she recalls. “At that time, it was thought that humans, and only humans, used and made tools. I had been told from school onwards that the best definition of a human being was man the tool-maker – yet I had just watched a chimp tool-maker in action. I remember that day as vividly as if it was yesterday.”

On animals having personalities:

In any case, Goodall (who got her PhD in 1965) believes it is simple nonsense to say that animals, particularly chimpanzees which are so closely related to humans, do not have personalities. “You cannot share your life with a dog, as I had done in Bournemouth, or a cat, and not know perfectly well that animals have personalities and minds and feelings. You know it and I think every single one of those scientists knew it too but because they couldn’t prove it, they wouldn’t talk about it. But I did talk about it. In a way, my dog Rusty gave me the courage of my convictions.”

(3) “A Case for Space” [DigitalMash] – a blog post which explains why you should say less, more often. An excellent read.

(4) “Don’t Mention the Mockingbird” [The Daily Mail] – Harper Lee, the reclusive author of To Kill a Mockingbird (one of my favorite novels), talks to the British newspaper. It’s a very rare interview/profile worth reading, not least because the last time Harper Lee spoke to the press was in 2006, when she granted a brief interview to a New York Times reporter at an awards ceremony for a high-school essay contest on the subject of To Kill a Mockingbird. The most unusual part to me was that she chose to speak to a British newspaper, rather than her local paper or the New York Times again.

Trivia: Harper Lee supposedly handwrites every interview request she refuses. The author told the New York Times in 2006 that if she were to send out a form response, it would say “Hell, no”.

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