James Fallows
James Fallows
James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More +
  • More on the Military and Civilian History of the AR-15

    Joshua Roberts / Reuters

    This past Tuesday Dean Winslow, a medical doctor and retired Air Force colonel who had deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan as a flight surgeon, appeared before the Senate Armed Services committee. It was considering his nomination as the Trump administration’s assistant secretary of defense for health affairs.

    At the hearing, Senator Jean Shaheen, a Democrat of New Hampshire, asked Winslow about mental-health issues in the military—and specifically about the shooter in the Sutherland Springs massacre, who had been courtmartialed and given a bad-conduct discharge by the Air Force for offenses that included threatening people with guns.

    Winslow answered that question, and then volunteered a view that would have gotten more attention if not for the avalanche of other news. As a military veteran with first-hand experience treating combat wounds, he said he wanted to underscore “how insane it is that in the United States of America a civilian can go out and buy a semiautomatic assault rifle like an AR-15.” You can see Winslow making these comments starting at about time 1:19:00 in the Armed Services Committee video here, and read about the reaction here, here, here, and from a pro-gun site here.

    * * *

    The question Dean Winslow raised—whether  a weapon designed for the battlefield should be in wide circulation among civilians—is one I’ve been addressing on this site.

  • Why the AR-15 Was Never Meant to be in Civilians' Hands

    Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

    Decades ago I wrote in the Atlantic about the creation of the AR-15, which was the predecessor of the military’s M-16 combat rifle and which now is the weapon most often used in U.S. mass gun murders. After the latest large-scale gun massacre, the one in Texas, I did a follow-up post about the AR-15, and then a range of reader views.

    Among the responses I got was from a man who as a young engineer in the Vietnam era had worked, at Colt Firearms, on the M-16. He writes to explain why he is shocked, as he says the AR-15’s famed designer Eugene Stoner would have been, to see this weapon anyplace other than the battlefield.

    “I do not believe that there is any place in the civilian world for a family of weapons that were born as an assault rifle,” he writes at the end of his message. You’ll see the reasoning that takes him there. He begins:

    During the Vietnam war era, as a newly graduated mechanical engineer, I was hired by Colt's Firearms, the original manufacturer of the M-16, and tasked with M-16 related assignments during my employment.

  • The Nature of the AR-15

    Joshua Roberts / Reuters

    Back in the early 1980s, I described the origins of the AR-15 rifle, and its military counterpart the M-16, in an Atlantic article called “A Bureaucratic Horror Story” and a book called National Defense. This week I did an item about the AR-15’s role as the main weapon in America’s modern mass shootings. It explained that one reason for the AR-15’s killing power is that its bullets were designed not to pass straight through an object but to “tumble” when they hit, destroying flesh along the way and leaving a large exit wound on departure.

    Readers write in, pro and con. Here’s a sample, starting with pro. From a reader in (pro-gun) Vermont:

    There are a great many things wrong with the military, both in practice and in concept, but it offers one bit of education that is of use and more people should be aware of.

    My father's experience was typical of many people I have heard of. He left his time in the (peace time) military with absolutely no interest in ever owning a gun. The Army had taught him in no uncertain terms that the one and only purpose of a rifle (not a "gun", a "gun" is what civilians call a cannon) it to kill people. And the one and only purpose of a pistol is to kill a human right in front of you. The main purpose of a military pistol is  for officers to shoot their own men with. The lesson being that if you are not interested in killing someone, you shouldn't have a firearm. Period.

  • 'The Animal Instincts at the Heart of Human Nature'

    Carlo Allegri / Reuters

    In the run-up to this week’s election results in Virginia, New Jersey, and elsewhere, I ran a series of items on how to think of “tribal”-style loyalties in American politics, and whether that was the right term for “We’re right, you’re wrong” political intransigence.

    As I mentioned in the latest installment, one reason for continuing the discussion was as a sample of the nuance and erudition with which Americans can still discuss contentious issues—contrary to the impression national politics might bring. For reference, the previous sequence began with an opening post about the failure of congressional Republicans to hold Donald Trump accountable to normal standards of behavior, or even to notice what he is doing. It was followed by reader responses  first,  second, third, and fourth.

    Now, a reader in the American Midwest leads off with what the Virginia results suggest about the divisions, and our terms for it:

    I have been wondering aloud about the tribal — I like the word for this purpose, realizing it might not be PC, coterie doesn't capture the clannish nature of the idea)—reactions to the VA election results, which are all-too-triumphant [on the Democrats’ side]. (Too close to Trump, dontcha think?)

    I've been thinking ahead to 2018 and the obvious reaction coming from the GOP and particularly from the Trump WH is that they will double-down, since that's what 45 always does, never give an inch, never apologize, always believe you're right and say you're right regardless of the evidence to the contrary.  A tribal response on steroids, and it could work.

  • Joshua Roberts / Reuters

    Why the AR-15 Is So Lethal

    “The little bullet pays off in wound ballistics.”

  • A Nation of Tribes, and Members of the Tribe

    On Spiegelgracht, in Amsterdam, yesterday.

    A few days ago I argued that sins-of-omission by Paul Ryan and his fellow Republicans in the House, and Mitch McConnell and his fellow Republicans in the Senate, amounted to de facto shirking of their “check and balance” duty relative to Donald Trump. Because members of the majority party in the legislative branch  wouldn’t call out or even notice Trump’s excesses—except, as with Jeff Flake and Bob Corker, when they had decided not to run again—they were putting unsustainable pressure on other parts of the formal and informal governing system. The courts, the press, Robert Mueller, and so on.

    I called this blind “I could shoot somebody in the middle of Fifth Avenue” defense of Trump’s actions “tribalism”—and that is when the messages started pouring in. The previous installments are here and here and here.

    Why am I quoting more samplings of accumulated mail on this theme? One reason is that this apparently minor linguistic point raises a lot of larger issues: The nature of today’s politics, the nature of group identity, the terms in which we discuss our differences, and so on. But another reason is simply to illustrate the depth and erudition that is still possible in public discussions of sensitive issues.

    Noam Chomsky (!) used to argue that an hour of listening to sports-talk radio revealed the astounding sophistication that “ordinary” members of the public could bring to analysis of complex questions. My several bouts of serving on trial juries have had a similar effect. That’s an impression I’m also trying to convey with these selections. People from around the world have taken the time to write and argue their case, from a range of perspectives but with hardly any low-blows or venting. Obviously it’s a skewed sample that writes in to the Atlantic. But while the national discourse rings with simplified slogans, it’s worth noticing this other element in public thought.

    Here we go. First, from a reader in Canada:

    As you are no doubt aware, Canada is home to a large number of indigenous groups … or tribes.  While I’ve not heard from any of my friends about the use of the word Tribal, I imagine they would share the sentiments of your reader from the West.

  • ‘Scorn for Tribalism Is an American Tradition’

    Let’s take another whack at whether the right word to describe the tribal divisions now on display in Congress is in fact tribalism, or whether some other term would do better. The first entry in this series was here, with follow-ups here and here. This next set of entries makes the fourth in the series:

    Tribalism is ok. From a reader with advanced degrees in linguistics, who grew up in the United States but has lived and worked for decades in Africa and in Europe:

    Tribalism sounds just fine to me, having been in Africa and hearing “tribe” all the time. They always ask each other, and even us “Europeans,” what tribe we belong to, as if asking where are you from or what’s your job. I think tribe means “affinity group” for me now, and it certainly would pertain to political parties. Sort of like a club or group.

    The lady who wrote about being offended should just come to realize that there is more than one sense to the word now.  It has acquired another broader meaning.  

    Wolf-pack. From another reader who was raised in the United States but has lived in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East for many decades:

    I vote for “Wolf-Pack.” Having a dog over the years and seeing how sensitive our dog is to always look to our lead and stay near us and do go where we are going, she is clearly a wolf following the Alpha Wolves.

    "Tribes" is not only a word associated with Native Americans. I think of "Tribes" more in the African sense.

    How about parallels to rabid sports fans, especially soccer crowds?

  • ‘The Parable of the Tribes’

    From the 1990s, and still relevant

    Yesterday I argued that certain Republican congressional leaders were behaving in a “tribal” (as opposed to constitutional) manner, in declining to apply normal standards of scrutiny to Donald Trump. Then a reader who had worked with Navajo and Pueblo tribes wrote in to complain about the pejorative use of the term. I mentioned in that dispatch Harold Isaacs’s classic Idols of the Tribe. Another book that has stayed with me and that I meant to mention is Andrew Bard Schmookler’s The Parable of the Tribes.

    I woke up this morning to find dozens of messages from readers suggesting other ways to get across the “tribal” idea. An initial sampling:

    Faction. A reader recommends the classic Founders-era term:

    I believe the word you are looking for is "faction".  James Madison uses it Federalist Paper No. 10, where he defines it succinctly:

    “By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community”

  • On the Many Connotations of ‘Tribalism’

    Joshua Roberts / Reuters
    A classic book on tribalism.

    A few hours ago I posted an item arguing that today’s GOP leaders, notably Mitch McConnell in the Senate and Paul Ryan in the House, had essentially abdicated their constitutional responsibilities and were behaving in a “tribal” sense. By that I meant: whatever was good for their group, was Good, and whatever was bad for their group, was Bad—to the exclusion of any abstract standards of the good or bad of the polity as a whole.

    “Tribalism” in this sense is a word I use frequently, to mean an in-group loyalty that I distinguish from the E pluribus unum American ideal. Every time I use the term, I at least half-think of  a wonderful book called Idols of the Tribe, by Harold Isaacs, which was about the power of group identity (and its good and bad ramifications).

    A reader in the American West writes in to complain about my use of the term:

    I wanted to talk to you about the use of ‘tribal’ as a term to mean thoughtlessly following the pack.

    I am a newly retired school teacher in [the Southwest], where I have taught for many years primarily Native American students, Pueblo, Navajo etc. The use of tribal in the political white sense does not go over very well among Native folks for obvious reasons. It feels like a putdown of one of the last cultural distinctions that exemplifies tribal sovereignty.

    I’m sure this is not your intention nor is it President Obama’s intention but I can tell you the vocabulary while hip is not appreciated among many of the hundreds of thousands Native Americans in New Mexico and Arizona and it does not help the young respect their own culture. If you want to secure those votes I would stop using the word tribal in a negative sense.

    I wrote back to the reader thus:

  • Aaron Bernstein / Reuters

    The Broken Check and Balance

    It’s up to Congress to police the executive—but so far, its Republican leaders are placing tribal loyalty ahead of their constitutional responsibility.

  • Eric Thayer / Reuters

    It’s What Bob Corker Does Next That Counts

    After the senator warned that Trump’s threats may set the nation “on the path to World War III,” the question is whether he intends to do anything about it.

  • Mass Shootings in the United States: 'This Is Who We Are'

    In the wake of Las Vegas, only one thing is certain, according to James Fallows: It will happen again.

  • Steve Marcus / Reuters

    Two Dark American Truths From Las Vegas

    On the certainty of more shootings

  • From Donald Trump, a New Low

    Reuters / Yuri Gripas
    Donald Trump, who is at one of his golf courses, early this morning.

    The purpose of my 152-installment Trump Time Capsule series during the 2016 campaign was to record, in real time, things Donald Trump said or did that were wholly outside the range for previous serious contenders for the White House.

    I’ve resisted continuing that during his time in office, because the nature of the man is clear.

    But his Twitter outburst this morning — as he has left Washington on another trip to one of his golf courses, as millions of U.S. citizens are without water or electricity after the historic devastation of Hurricane Maria, as by chance it is also Yom Kippur — deserves note. It is a significant step downward for him, and perhaps the first thing he has done in office that, in its coarseness, has actually surprised me. (I explained the difference, for me, between shock and surprise when it comes to Trump, in this item last week.) Temperamentally, intellectually, and in terms of civic and moral imagination, he is not fit for the duties he is now supposed to bear.

    ***

  • Two Additions to the Political Reading List: Unbelievable and Thanks, Obama

    Reuters / Carlo Allegri

    The relationship between the drama of a presidential campaign, and the literature and reportage that come from it, is shaky at best.

    By acclamation the best modern campaign-trail book, What It Takes by Richard Ben Cramer (see Molly Ball’s assessment here), came from the historically very uninspiring George H.W. Bush-Michael Dukakis campaign of 1988. The book took Cramer nearly four years to write. Along the way, he despaired that he’d missed his chance to get it out before the next election cycle and that all his effort would be in vain. But the book endures because of the novelistic richness and humanity of its presentation of the politicians Cramer is writing about—they’re not simply the charlatans, liars, and opportunists of many campaign narratives (though each has elements of that) but complex, striving figures with mixtures of the admirable and the contemptible. Cramer chose what also turned out to be the inspired strategy of giving full time not just to the two finalists but also to four of the also-rans who fell back along the way: Gary Hart, Bob Dole, Dick Gephardt, and the young Joe Biden.

    My friend and former Washington Monthly colleague Walter Shapiro applied a similar “equal time for the also-rans” strategy in his elegant little book about the 2004 campaign, One-Car Caravan. The title refers to the humble origins of nearly all campaigns (i.e., all but Trump’s), in their early stages when the only reporter interested is crammed with staffers into the single campaign car. The 1968 Nixon-Humphrey-Wallace campaign was brutal and violent; it also gave rise to Garry Wills’s memorable combination of reportage and scholarship, Nixon Agonistes, plus a book I remember being impressed by at the time, An American Melodrama by the British journalist team of Godfrey Hodgson, Bruce Page, and Lewis Chester. The 1972 Nixon-McGovern campaign was an all-fronts nightmare for the country, but from it came the lasting press chronicle The Boys on the Bus, by my college friend Timothy Crouse.

    On the other side of the literary ledger are the routine backstage tick-tock accounts that over-apply the lesson of Theodore White’s seminal The Making of the President, 1960 book. White pioneered the idea that minutiae about what candidates ate, did, or said off-stage could be of great interest. Through overuse by other authors, and because the tick-tock is now a staple of regular campaign coverage, the approach long ago became a cliche. (A: “With an oozing Philly cheesesteak in one hand, Hillary Clinton forged her connection to the hard-pressed voters of this crucial swing state.” B: “It was not that Obama spurned the ritual of modern campaigning, he just did it appallingly badly. Faced with the famed Philly cheesesteak, after a day sampling various wursts, he couldn’t handle it, and promised to ‘come back for it later.’” One of these is a sentence from a real book about the 2008 campaign.)

    * * *

    This  is a setup for saying: The 2016 election, a low point for the nation, has produced some impressive works. For instance, two books that each spent time as leading national best-seller:

  • Why The New York Times Should Grapple With Its Coverage of Hillary's Emails

    Brendan McDermid / Reuters

    This week Jill Abramson, the estimable former executive editor of The New York Times, whom I’ve always admired and never criticized, contended that I had been “stoking” the idea that the NYT had a vendetta against Hillary Clinton.

    That is false.

    What I have argued, repeatedly during the campaign and most recently nine days ago in an item about Hillary Clinton’s new book, is that the Times very badly erred in its wild over-coverage of the Clinton email “issue,” and that this distorted coverage was, in turn, one of many factors leading to Donald Trump’s elevation to the presidency.

  • Readers on Trump, Kaepernick, and the NFL

    Reuters / USA Today Sports

    Over the weekend I wrote about Donald Trump’s attacks on protesting NFL players, at a raucous rally in Alabama, and his tweeted threats that if North Korean officials didn’t change their tune, “they won’t be around much longer!”

    A sample of the response—pro, con, amplifying, and correcting:

    ‘To Make America Great, Remind Us of What Makes America Exceptional ...’ A veteran of America’s current long wars writes:

    I am a U.S Marine who has proudly served in Afghanistan and Iraq after a weekend filled with consternation over our president's comments and tweets. I'm convinced that he no longer cares about his job or national unity.

    He turned an NFL protest into a wedge issue about the flag so that he can appeal to a base of voters he is letting down. If players want to protest on the sidelines before games it is their choice and I respect their right to do so.

    As a U.S servicemen I have sworn an oath to defend the Constitution which grants the right to free speech, peaceful assembly as well as to petition the government for wrongs committed. How players or individuals choosers to exercise such  freedoms is not my concern but my commander in chief using the flag and the sacrifice made by military families as a wedge issue is what troubles me.

    Being in the military you fight so that you have a home to come back to, you fight for a more "perfect union" but not to divide, politicize or segregate our nation on the basis of what voters believe in standing for the flag and which voters don't. I don't support the presidents effort to divide a nation already split on so many issues and unsure how to combat inequality.

    To make America great he must remind us of what makes this nation exceptional which is our belief that freedom and justice exist for all and that all Americans are created equal with inalienable rights.

    * * *

    Trump Never Loses!’ From another reader:

    Amidst the noise, I think you've overlooked last week's 'shocking' (but not surprising) reprise of one very basic Trump theme: TRUMP NEVER LOSES

  • AP

    Trump's Shocking Recklessness

    The president’s latest comments shouldn’t be surprising—but his deliberate inflammation of tense situations is no less stunning.

  • The Theory and Practice of Civic Engagement, by Eric Liu

    Eric Liu (Citizen University)

    If you happen to be in Redlands, California, on Thursday evening, September 21, I suggest you go by the headquarters of the tech company Esri to hear a talk by my friend Eric Liu, on the practical possibilities for civic engagement in our politically troubled age.

    If you don’t happen to be in Redlands, I recommend getting Eric’s book, You Are More Powerful Than You Think. It addresses a central question of this age: what, exactly, citizens who are unhappy with national politics can do, other than write a check or await the next chance to vote.

    This is a question I wrestled with immediately after last year’s election, in this Atlantic article, and in a commencement speech a few months later. But Eric, author of several previous books about the theory and practice of citizenship (including The Gardens of Democracy and A Chinaman’s Chance) and head of the Citizen University network, based in Seattle, has devoted his useful and enlightening new book to just this topic, in the age of Trump. He described some of its principles in a NYT interview with David Bornstein a few months ago. Essentially his topic is how to bridge the gap between thinking, “something should be done,” and actually taking steps to doing that something, on your own and with others. This also is the ongoing theme of Citizen University, which emphasizes that citizenship is a job in addition to being a status.

    I’ll leave the details, of which there are many, to Eric — on the podium in Redlands or in the pages of his book. The high-concept part of his argument flows from these three axioms:

    • Power creates monopolies, and is winner-take-all. → You must change the game.
    • Power creates a story of why it’s legitimate. → You must change the story.
    • Power is assumed to be finite and zero-sum. → You must change the equation.

    He goes on, in practical terms, to illustrate what these mean. The political question of this era (as discussed here) is how the resilient qualities of American civic society match up against the challenges presented by the lurches of Donald Trump. Can the judiciary adhere to pre-2017 standards? How will the Congress fare in its ongoing search for a soul? Will states and cities maintain their policies on the environment, on standards of justice, on treatment of refugees and immigrants? And how, fundamentally, can citizens play a more active and powerful role in the affairs of their nation? These and others are central struggles of our time. And Eric Liu’s book is part of the effort to push the outcome in a positive direction.

  • The New Series on the Vietnam War, and the Mysteries of Historical Resonance

    In roughly the center of this view of the Pee Dee River in South Carolina is the Snow's Island National Historic Landmark. These are the swamplands where the American forces led by Francis Marion applied guerrilla tactics against the British. Google Earth

    The Ken Burns / Lynn Novick 18-hour series on The Vietnam War began its run on PBS on Sunday night and continues through this week and next. I felt about as familiar with that era as I could imagine—with its tensions at the time, with the journalism and literature that came out of it, with the historical assessments, with the war’s role in music and movies and others parts of pop culture and public imagination. Even so I found this a tremendously revealing series. I recommend it very highly. Please find a way to watch—now, or in the many streaming and download alternatives they are making available.

    ***

    As with any attempt to grapple with a topic this vast and complex, and of such emotional and historical consequence, the Burns/Novick series is bound to be controversial. For one example of an avenue of criticism, see this review by veteran Asia-hand correspondent Jim Laurie, who was on-scene in Vietnam and Cambodia during the war.

    Here’s another: When I did an interview with Burns and Novick for the upcoming issue of Amtrak’s The National magazine, I asked them about one of the central themes of their press-tour presentation of the project, as opposed to the video itself. Both Burns and Novick have stressed the idea that the divisions generated by the Vietnam war prefigure the polarization of Trump-era America.

    To me, that seems a little too pat. Even though I argued back at the time that the “class war” elements of Vietnam were a central reason the U.S. remained engaged for so many years, so much has happened between then and now that it’s hard to trace a sensible connection from those times to these. Since the height of the fighting in Vietnam, we’ve had: the end of the draft; the disappearance of the Soviet Union; the emergence of China; multiple dramatic shifts in political mood (the arrivals of Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, later Barack Obama, and now Donald Trump, were each seen as the dawns of new political eras); the 9/11 attacks; multiple wars; multiple booms and busts; multiple grounds for hope and despair. Donald Trump was on one side of the Vietnam class-war divide, with his student deferments and mysterious physical disqualifications. Figures as politically diverse as John McCain, Al Gore, John Kerry, Jim Mattis, and Jim Webb were on the other. But it’s hard to make a neat match of that cleavage 50 years ago to the multiple axes of disagreement now. To me, it seems easier to trace a line of descent from the Civil War—subject of Ken Burns’s first national-phenomenon film series, back in 1990—to Trump-era divides than from the Vietnam war.

    I lay out this disagreement on a specific point as a set-up for emphasizing  how valuable and informative I think the series is overall. It is remarkable in interleaving the accounts of participants from opposite sides of the same battle— the Americans and South Vietnamese, but also the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong—all describing what they were afraid of, what their plans were, how they reckoned victory and defeat in struggles for control of a particular hill or hamlet. It offers abundant evidence of battlefield bravery and sacrifice, on all sides—but precious few examples of political courage or foresight, especially in the United States. It’s hard to say whether Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon comes off worse for the combination of strategic misjudgment and flat-out dishonesty in management of the war. The White House recordings from both men are spell-binding.

    Please watch. And since most of today’s Americans had not even been born by the time the last U.S. forces left Vietnam, it’s all the more valuable for generations who know nothing about that era first-hand.

    ***

    Further on the theme of linkages between Vietnam and previous American engagements, a reader makes the evocative connection to the first war that troops of the newly formed United States ever fought.