Once our soldiers leave the theater, all that will remain is a clinical and codified policy of assassination writ large
A man carries a bag over his shoulder as he pulls a suitcase in Kabul
On Wednesday, the New York Timesreported that Pakistani officials, eyeing President Obama's spurious timeline for withdrawal from Afghanistan, are "watching as the war, in their view, goes badly and are waiting for their share of the Afghan spoils." The report added that Pakistan's generals and spymasters "appear to have little incentive to bargain away their demands or to modify their side of the ledger," confident that the president lacks the political will to see the war through. In December, U.S. forces will begin withdrawing from Afghanistan. Those combat troops deployed as part of the surge will come home in September 2012. If there is a strategic military reason for that particular date, David Petraeus is unaware of it. David Axelrod might have a keener insight on the matter.
Last month, Stanley McChrystal told the Council on Foreign Relations that we're just over the 50 percent mark in Afghanistan. The retired general noted that where we're providing security, "The change has been stunning. The ability to move crops around, the ability to apply governance and whatnot, has been good." But that requires boots on the ground and men with rifles. Where the Coalition footprint is light, meanwhile, the Taliban "campaign of assassination is terrifying to people, because it makes everyone feel under threat." During his recent confirmation hearings to take the helm at CIA, General Petraeus called the president's withdrawal plan "a more aggressive formulation, if you will, in terms of the timeline than what we had recommended." In Petraeus-speak, this was the equivalent of banging his shoe on the table.
Ten years ago, who would have thought that victory in Afghanistan meant luring the Taliban to the bargaining table? And who would have been surprised when the Taliban then assassinated our proxy negotiator? (There's no need to reach back ten years; in 2010, the Taliban said point blank that they intended to kill members of the High Peace Council.) With the military security option all but exhausted (and thus unavailable to support the remarkable work of civil affairs teams), and diplomacy a hopeless endeavor, the United States and Afghanistan can now look forward to an eternity of Predator drones primed with Hellfire missiles.
It would be hard to improve on essays by Jane Mayer and Conor Friedersdorf on the immorality of drone warfare. But drone warfare is what we're left with. Sherman famously said, "There's many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory but it is all hell." Small communities know that hell and reel when their sons become men, become infantrymen, and never return from third world wastelands. Military spouses know that hell when chaplains in Class A uniforms knock at the door, hats in hand. Combat veterans know that hell better than anyone. And collectively -- oftentimes tragically -- the results of war inform our culture and serve as society's most effective moderating influence. There are many good reasons to go to war, but when we don't, it's often because we know how terrible a thing it is.
Humanity can be found and understood in the best and worst of war. But drones change the equation. It's the worst kind of war, a frightening new enterprise that we've embraced, celebrate, and laugh about. But there's something dishonorable about it. It's the aerial equivalent of roadside IEDs. It's the only kind of war America seems willing to fight anymore, and that is what we're leaving behind in Afghanistan. To be clear, "fairness" should never be an objective of war. But almost by definition, this is not war. Once our soldiers leave the theater, all that will remain is a clinical and codified policy of assassination writ large, with virtually no public scrutiny. It won't be front-page news when drones vaporize innocents, and it won't be front-page news when drones vaporize al-Qaeda operatives, because we've got no skin in the game. It's just robots hunting ghosts.
How long will Afghans agree to that? Are we even asking? Or will this silent non-war be negotiated with our man in Kabul, who, until he was convenient to this administration, was deemed corrupt and incompetent? And how long will Pakistan allow missiles to materialize from nowhere and leave behind craters and corpses? How about the next government, and what are we prepared to do if they say no? The White House has established a precedent that borders are just fine for the people at Rand McNally, but meaningless in the context of drone warfare. Consent of the Congress is a quaint relic; as proven in Libya, the president doesn't need authorization so long as we get a nice snuff film at the end.
Afghanistan is a war worth seeing through. Last week, I spoke with Michael Yon, a writer who's spent four years, cumulatively, in Iraq and Afghanistan -- three of those in combat. According to Yon, as withdrawal moves from concept to reality, "Many troops see their actions will be for naught. They've done their parts and have succeeded when properly resourced, but they see the presidential decisions for what they are. The unit that I last embedded with, 4-4 Cav, was clearly making progress and they know it, but they also see the light at the end of the tunnel is turned off, and that's due to politics. We waited a long time to get serious here, and never got totally serious."
At any rate, says Yon, "The war is largely forgotten. Soldiers who have been going back on leave and are shocked when many Americans don't realize that there is a no-kidding war going on here. I've done my best to highlight some of them." He adds, "The trajectory of the war favors the enemies. If the president precipitously reduces our footprint, the war will be lost. The good news (for somebody) is that most Americans don't seem to realize that we are still in a war, so they won't realize that we lost."
But at least we fought a war that could be forgotten. As America turns to drone technology, more than ever we will be fighting wars we never knew about in the first place.
Russia's strongman president has many Americans convinced of his manipulative genius. He's really just a gambler who won big.
I. The Hack
The large, sunny room at Volgograd State University smelled like its contents: 45 college students, all but one of them male, hunched over keyboards, whispering and quietly clacking away among empty cans of Juicy energy drink. “It looks like they’re just picking at their screens, but the battle is intense,” Victor Minin said as we sat watching them.
Clustered in seven teams from universities across Russia, they were almost halfway into an eight-hour hacking competition, trying to solve forensic problems that ranged from identifying a computer virus’s origins to finding secret messages embedded in images. Minin was there to oversee the competition, called Capture the Flag, which had been put on by his organization, the Association of Chief Information Security Officers, or ARSIB in Russian. ARSIB runs Capture the Flag competitions at schools all over Russia, as well as massive, multiday hackathons in which one team defends its server as another team attacks it. In April, hundreds of young hackers participated in one of them.
Russian billionaire Yuri Milner says if the space rock 'Oumuamua is giving off radio signals, his team will be able to detect them—and they may get the results within days.
The email about “a most peculiar object” in the solar system arrived in Yuri Milner’s inbox last week.
Milner, the Russian billionaire behind Breakthrough Listen, a $100 million search for intelligent extraterrestrial life, had already heard about the peculiar object. ‘Oumuamua barreled into view in October, the first interstellar object seen in our solar system.
Astronomers around the world chased after the mysterious space rock with their telescopes, collecting as much data as they could as it sped away. Their observations revealed a truly unusual object with puzzling properties. Scientists have long predicted an interstellar visitor would someday coast into our corner of the universe, but not something like this.
Attacks on the special counsel aren’t about misconduct—instead, they’re aimed at discrediting the very idea of professionalism.
If you’re not a regular consumer of pro-Trump media outlets, it could be easy to underestimate or overlook the recent onslaught of attacks on Special Counsel Robert Mueller. There are a couple reasons for that. One is that this discourse exists almost entirely within that media ecosystem (which is distinct from, though overlapping with, the broader world of conservative media). The other is that critics have been calling for Mueller’s dismissal and an end to his probe since it was announced. Nonetheless, the intensity of the recent spree is notable, as is the gradual shift from ostensibly politically neutral critiques to openly partisan ones.
“Mueller is corrupt. The senior FBI is corrupt. The system is corrupt,” former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said on Fox News. The channel’s legal analyst Gregg Jarrett said Mueller was employing the FBI “just like the old KGB,” which Sean Hannity piously told viewers was “not hyperbole.” Using chilling language, Fox host Jeanine Pirro said, “There is a cleansing needed at the FBI and Department of Justice. It needs to be cleansed of individuals who should not just be fired but need to be taken out in handcuffs.”
The movie knows little—and cares less—about how people fall in love.
I confess that it wasn’t until recently that I understood the degree to which Love Actually, the 2003 romantic comedy by writer/director Richard Curtis, had been gradually reevaluated and granted the status of a “classic” holiday film. For me, the news came by way of a November Vulture piece that began, “It might be hard to recall, but the film that has now become a beloved holiday classic was one that initially received a flurry of mixed reviews.”
My own review was among several cited. I’ve of course always known that my take on Love Actually was more unforgiving than most. But beloved holiday classic? Really?
Well yes, evidently. Over the course of several conversations with friends and colleagues, some of them conducted with good cheer but at high volume—I refer interested parties to the Twitter feeds of Atlantic employees on the afternoon of November 20th—it was confirmed to me that a considerable number of people not only consider Love Actually a classic, but go so far as to watch the movie annually as a holiday tradition.
“The U.S. is now the most unpredictable actor in the world today.”
As conflicts ignite and burn and flicker out around the world, U.S. officials assess the dangers they represent back home. Not all of these conflicts directly threaten American interests, which is why the Council on Foreign Relations conducts an annual survey to help U.S. leaders prioritize threats in the year ahead. For the past decade, this survey has focused on the risks posed to America by foreign actors. Now it’s reckoning with the risks America poses to the world—and to itself.
“The U.S. is now the most unpredictable actor in the world today, and that has caused profound unease,” said Paul Stares, the director of CFR’s Center for Preventive Action, which produces the annual survey. “You used to be able to pretty much put the U.S. to one side and hold it constant, and look at the world and consider where the biggest sources of unpredictability, insecurity are. Now you have to include the U.S. in that. … No one has high confidence how we [Americans] would react in any given situation, given how people assess this president.” This president might welcome the development. “I don’t want people to know exactly what I’m doing—or thinking,” Donald Trump wrote in 2015. “It keeps them off balance.”
The cryptocurrency is almost certainly due for a major correction. But its long-term value remains a mystery.
To call Bitcoin the biggest and most obvious bubble in modern history may be a disservice to its surreality.
The price of bitcoin has doubled four times this year. In early January, one bitcoin was worth about $1,000. By May, it hit $2,000. In June, it breached $4,000. By Thanksgiving, it was $8,000. Two weeks later, it was $16,000.
This astronomical trajectory might make sense for a new public company with accelerating profits. Bitcoin, however, has no profits. It’s not even a company. It is a digital encrypted currency running on a decentralized network of computers around the world. Ordinary currencies, like the U.S. dollar, don’t double in value by the month, unless there’s a historic deflationary crisis, like the Panic of 1837. Instead, bitcoin’s behavior more resembles that of a collectible frenzy, like Beanie Babies in the late 1990s.
The depiction of uncomfortable romance in "Cat Person" seems to resonate with countless women.
Recent months make it seem like humanity has lost the instruction manual for its “procreate” function and has had to relearn it all from scratch. After scores of prominent men have been fired on sexual-assault allegations, confusion reigns about signals, how to read them, and how not to read into them. Some men are wondering if hugging women is still okay. Some male managers are inviting third parties into performance reviews in order to avoid being alone with women. One San Francisco design-firm director recently said holiday parties should be canceled, as The New York Times reported, “until it has been figured out how men and women should interact.”
Into this steps “Cat Person,” a New Yorker fiction story by Kristen Roupenian that explores how badly people can misread each other, but also how frightening and difficult sexual encounters can be for women, in particular. “It isn’t a story about rape or sexual harassment, but about the fine lines that get drawn in human interaction,” Deborah Treisman, The New Yorker’s fiction editor, told me.
There is clear evidence that it’s best to show children relationship skills that never escalate to physical harm.
Spanking looks to be instantlyeffective. If a child is misbehaving—if he keeps swearing, or playing with matches—and then you spank that child, the behavior stops immediately.
The effect is so apparently obvious that it can drive a sort of delusion. Lived experience tends to be more powerful than facts. One of the few memories that many people retain from early childhood is times they were spanked. The desire to believe it was “for our own good” is strong, if only because the alternative interpretation is bleak.
It’s in the face of personal experiences like these that science has been flailing for generations. Some 81 percent of Americans believe spanking is appropriate, even though decades of research have shown it to be both ineffective and harmful. The refrain I keep hearing is, “Well, I got spanked, and I turned out okay.”
The stinging, gelatinous blobs could take over the world’s oceans.
In my mid-20s, I spent three months living in Broome, a coastal township in Western Australia famous for its moonrises, pink beaches, and pearl farms. Each morning during what is known locally as “the buildup” (the hot, muggy weeks heralding the wet season), I would stuff a towel in a bag and trudge out to where the red pindan soil—distinctive to the Kimberley region—marbles powdery dunes, longing to dunk my body in the postcard sea. Often, I could go no farther than the water’s edge. Signs pitched by lifeguards along the beach showed a stick figure lashed by a mass of tentacles: Irukandji jellyfish.
By midday, the mercury might have drifted above 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and still no one would dare to even dabble in the shallows of the jade ocean—corduroyed by waves—knowing that Irukandji had been detected. Back from the shoreline, a few tourists resolutely sweated their silhouettes onto beach chairs. If the notices were plucked from the sand in the afternoon, a tense choreography would ensue. Each heat-strained person would approach the surf and make an elaborate pantomime of applying sunscreen or stretching out hamstrings, hoping not to have to be the first to get in.
Kristen Roupenian’s viral New Yorker short story is not an essay—but many have seen it as one.
In fiction-writing—before characters can be developed, before plots can be sketched, before tensions can be introduced, and attendant arcs molded and stretched—the author must first make a series of much more basic decisions: How will the story be told? Who, in the context of the story itself, will tell it? Who will be given a person and a voice within this hermetic little universe? Who will not? Why? Why not? These are the defining cosmological questions of every work of fiction, the ones that will shape everything else that comes to exist in the author’s—and the story’s—manufactured world.
Kristen Roupenian, in “Cat Person,” the New Yorker short story that has been, and continues to be, going viral, selected as her storyteller a classic, third-person omniscient narrator: the Godlike entity, seeing all and telling some. And then Roupenian—the subsidiary, and yet much more complicated decision—focused her narrator’s attentions entirely on the perspective of her protagonist, a 20-year-old college student named Margot. It is from Margot’s perspective—her perspective as filtered through this particular story’s author-God—that Roupenian’s story unfolds: Margot meets a man named Robert, several years her senior, and then successively flirts with him, texts with him, goes on a date with him, sleeps with him, and, finally, breaks up with him.