Tag: books

My 5 Secret 'Weapons' for Finishing a Book

There is all kinds of advice out there on how to write and finish a book. We are frequently advised to ‘Write everyday’, ‘write early in the morning,’ ‘workshop and present your work,’ among other things. Here is a great overview of 10 steps to writing a book and another fantastic post called “‘I’m writing a book no one will read’ and other reasons the PhD can get you down.'” It seems common knowledge that writers need time, space, and mental energy to complete any piece of work. But no one talks about the other types of daily tools that can be useful in getting words on a page. I’m no expert on writing books- in fact, I’ve only got one! But I’ve been hibernating for 8 months working on another project. Besides the obvious- coffee, sleep- here are a few unlikely ‘weapons’ I used to complete my recent book (unless I’m wrong, and I still have 2 chapters to write, which is a reoccurring nightmare)

1. IMG_3008‘Back in 5 or 45 minutes’ post it notes.
Ok, I’m outing myself to my colleagues on this one. I appreciate office socialization and I generally have an open-door policy and welcome staff and student drop-ins. However, when I start to get on a writing roll I try to get up, put up a ‘back in 5- or 45’ note, and close the door to ensure uninterrupted typing. Obviously, I don’t do this during office hours or other appointments. The result? I catch the inspiration while it is there, and open the door for chit chat when its not.

2. Retreats.
Over the course of this project, my partner and I organized 3 separate  writing retreats. They were scheduled at pivotal times (completing the theory chapter, writing the intro, and going over the complete manuscript a last time). I went to a Buddhist temple that has simple hotel rooms. There is not much to do besides write, meditate….and sneak in a few episodes of bad tv from the ipad. These blocks of time got me over major writing blocks and helped me get back on track when I had fallen far behind my own deadlines.

IMG_30103. Dragon Dictate (hands free microphone)
Sure it is a mega pain in the @ss to set up, but once you get the hang of using this program it can get you through some long days. It is particularly useful for ‘talking out’ sections of the manuscript, dictating longer quotes, or brainstorming ideas that you will go through and finesse later. Much of the conclusion chapter was ‘written’ by me pacing around my office with this plugged in my ear.

4. Grooveshark and Spotify. Namely, extended Prince playlists.

IMG_30095. New glasses. This seems obvious, but trying to write a book (or anything) with glasses from 3 years ago is not a good idea…as I figured out in month 2 of this project. These beauties make 8 hours of screen-staring bearable.

What are your weapons for getting work done? Continue reading


In Search of a New Warrior Ethos

Steven_Pressfield's__Cover_for_KindleIt’s not often that a Marine officer writes a book that goes head-to-head with a title currently listed as “Commandant’s Choice” book by the Marine Corps, but in this case, I had little choice but to lay down the sword and take up the pen in order to debunk the honor-bound, shame-based relic of dead cultures espoused by Steven Pressfield’s 2011 monograph, which the current Commandant has made mandatory reading for all Marines.

Unfortunately, Pressfield’s book is a rambling mixture of Laconophiliac hero worship, Eastern mysticism, and pop psychology, and the “Warrior Ethos” it proposes is more suited for the Bronze Age than the Information Age.

My new book is now available in paperback and Kindle formats, and has been critically reviewed at Battles and Book Reviews and on War Is Boring. Written during my last tour to Afghanistan, it attempts to provide better answers to the questions posed by Pressfield in his earlier work: Continue reading


An ExPat Academic Thanksgiving

duck-thanksgivingIt is time for an academic Thanksgiving (at least it is for me, flew home early because it was Reading Week in the UK), that time of year when we give thanks for when our ancestral academic Deans fed us when we were hungry. Something like that…cornucopia with grants, laptops, and travel funds.  Who knows how it all started. 

Still, it is that time of year we all reflect on what we are thankful for.  So what am I thankful for, as an academic?

Continue reading


Presidential Reading List: (After you probably get through the ones with ‘Bacevich’ on the cover)

Dan Drezner has issued a call to arms!… or to your library card:

“I therefore call upon the readers of this blog to proffer up their suggestions — if you had to pick three books for an ambitious U.S. politician to read in order to bone up on foreign affairs, what would they be?”

I have a gut feeling that all of the answers are going to be grand strategy, grand strategy and some war on terror/Afghanistan. (Although, maybe I’m not being generous enough… but looking at the comments on Drezner’s post, I don’t think so.) So I’m going to suggest three books that touch on issues presented by ethical and political leadership as well as the war on terror, with a little bit of history thrown in on the side. Oh yeah – they’re all very good reads – Senators are going to be reading these things on planes, right?

(And for comparison, with an American IPE guy, Kindred Winecoff’s take is here.)

1. Barbara Demick, Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea.

I think this book actually deserves its own post, let alone a mention here. It won (and very much deserved) the BBC Samuel Johnson Prize in 2010. Basically Demick interviews North Korean defectors who now live in South Korea about their experiences north of the 38th Parallel. But it’s not just a book about North Korea – most of the individuals in the book lived through the famine that struck the country in the 1990s. And gradually, as the story of the expats unfold, you learn what it is like to live through a famine – bonuses slowly disappear, soon the shelves aren’t stocked, and people begin to sell off their possessions to buy food on a dangerous black market. It gets worse – seeing increasing numbers of abandoned children at the train station, walking overtop of people literally starving to death – but in such a way that you’ve become numb to the suffering, so as to not be overwhelmed buy it. And eventually to see your family and friends die.

“From the outside, Chongjin looked unchanged. The same gray facades of the Stalinist office buildings stared out at empty strtches of asphalt… But Mrs. Song knew better. It was a topsy-turvy world in which she was living. Up was down, wrong was right. The women had the money instead of the men. The markets were bursting with food, more food than most North Koreans had seen in their lifetime [in the black markets], and yet people were still dying from hunger. Worker’s Party members had starved to death; those who never gave a damn about the fartherland were making money.” (p. 157)

It’s a powerful book and a brilliant insight into a country which we know little about. In short, learn about North Korea, but also what it is like to live through starvation and suffering and how people cope and survive. And I’m sure there’s a lesson in there for dealing with North Korea for the aspiring policy maker.

2. Peter Hennessy, The Secret State: Preparing for the Worst 1945-2010

This is a book by one of the UK’s foremost historians of the Cold War. Effectively, it is about how governments counter threats – whether it is through intelligence agencies or nuclear deterrence. It is on this later topic, nuclear weapons and nuclear politics where Hennessy’s book is really chilling. How would a society cope with the ultimate worst case scenario – nuclear war? How can governments plan for the unthinkable? One of the most unsettling chapters is about Exercise INVALUABLE – a simulation for UK government officials in 1968 of a weeklong countdown to WWIII. According to the exercise at 1200 hour ZULU:

“Today’s newspapers give particular prominence to Soviet advances into West Germany and of the fighting in Northern Norway and on the Jugoslav/Italian border. Radio programs were interrupted this morning to report the amphibious attack against the Danish Islands. In leading articles, the ‘Times’ and the ‘Guardian’ urge that the West should not initiate a tactical nuclear exchange.”

Beyond this, it is a useful look back at how government looked at ‘subversive’ organizations, managed intelligence and threats to the nation. It’s a useful reminder of where we’ve been with regards to national threats that provides good insight as to where we might be going.

3. Conor Folely, The Thin Blue Line: How Humanitarianism Went to War

An excellent book by a former (recovering?) humanitarian. In short. Folely looks at the real consequences of good humanitarian intentions. How, for example, the international community’s intervention in East Timor completely distorted their economy – raising prices in local communities; and how the Timorese saw little of the billions of dollars spent on the peacekeeping mission there.

“A sudden, large influx of resources will invariably distort the local economy and the arrival of an international mission will have a destabilizing effect. However well-intentioned, the intervening participants will almost always be inadequately informed regarding specific local politics and culture. Even the worst-paid international aid workers are likely to earn several times more than the average local salary. …” (p. 143) 

Or while the intervention in Kosovo helped to protect the Kosovar Albanians, it failed to preent a reverse population expulsion as the Serbs were forced to leave Kosovo. It’s a very good critique – and a useful reminder that every humanitarian action seems to have an equal and opposite reaction. Additionally, it’s a useful examination of what happens when bodies established to alleviate human suffering and put an end to war end up making a case for just that.

So there you are – three books that have done well in the UK which may have some lessons for US policy makers (and none with Bacevich on the cover!)

Cheeky honourable mention: I realize that I have no IPE on this list. Not my area – but I like the writings of Michael Lewis. I’ve just started The Big Short and I’m looking forward to Boomerang.


Good N’ Red Plenty

Henry Farrell mentions Francis Spufford’s new book Red Plenty. Before proceeding, you should know three things:

  1. I have no connection, social or otherwise, with Francis Spufford.
  2. I am a philistine made almost incapable of reading literary fiction by years of journal articles and serious journalism.
  3. I am in no way an expert in any aspect of Soviet culture, politics, or history.

Bearing these facts in mind, let me give the book my highest recommendation. A colleague brought back a copy from the UK at my request, so I’ve read the book well in advance of its American release (which has still not taken place).

It is by far the best novel I have ever read about the Soviet nomenklatura, about the management of a planned economy, and about the transition from the excitement of the Khrushchev years to the Brezhnev stagnation. That obviously undersells the book’s real strengths, which is to attempt to suggest the excitement of building socialism and the stench of its decay. And it is not quite a novel–more a documentary, or even better a much more scrupulously accurate biopic. (In the film version, expect Colin Firth to play the part of the planned economy.)

Whatever it is, it is well worth your time, and certainly worth the price of admission.


Debate Day

When I was a college student, I spent every Labor Day working in the debate squadroom at Kansas. Everyone on the team, in fact, was expected to put in a full day working on their affirmative cases, negative arguments, etc. Sometimes, debaters learned the identity of their colleague on that day — it is a two-person team activity after all. After the work ended, our coach and his wife hosted the team for dinner.

Even though it was a Labor Day of work and not rest, I always enjoyed it and have fond memories.

Recently, former National Debate Tournament champion Michael Horowitz (Emory 2000) wrote a short piece for Slate about his own fond memories and experiences in college debate. In the article, he discusses a book by Mark Oppenheimer about that author’s personal experience in debate. Indeed, the piece is penned as an open letter to Oppenheimer.

I’m not sure I agree with Horowitz and Oppenheimer that “debate is ‘football for dorks.'” Yes, it is a competitive activity, but I’d probably use a different comparison. My colleague during sophomore and senior year used to describe our skills metaphorically by quoting from Stripes:

The world isn’t fair! Truth isn’t fair!

Is it fair that you were born like this? No!

They’re not expecting somebody like you. They’re expecting some clown.

You’re different. You’re weird.
You’re a mutant. You’re a killer!

You’re a trained killer!

You’re a lean, mean, fighting machine!

I’ve written before about being a “made man in the Kansas debate mafia.”

For me, this is the key paragraph in the Horowitz piece:

One thing that struck me was how you were discouraged early in your debate career, by an “earthy, hippiesh senior girl,” from “trying too hard” and doing too much research. You were encouraged instead to exercise your brilliance and charm to win debates, and the most entertaining debate stories in your book are the ones in which you emerge triumphant thanks to a clever turn of phrase, an eloquent monologue, or your sharp wit. To me, eloquence, research, and reasoning form the trinity of good debate. Too often, all of them are lacking from our political discourse. To the extent any of them are present, however, it is often style (or attempts at style) privileged over substance. This is unfortunate, because debate without substance runs the risk of being mere sophistry or just a dilettantish rhetorical dance.

I could not agree more with this.

Incidentally, Horowitz recently published a book that looks interesting: The Diffusion of Military Power: Causes and Consequences for International Politics.

Update 9/7/10: A friend of the blog sent along a link to a new debate documentary: “Debate Team.” Apparently, it is available in DVD — and they have a lot of interesting deleted scenes online. The clips seem to support the Horowitz point about substance vs. style.

Also, if you look around on the web, you can find an old photo of my colleague and I holding Mike’s trophy. It gets around.


What I’ll Be Reading on the Plane to Thailand

I’ll be mostly off the grid traveling for the next two and half weeks, and I want to thank readers for their many suggestions as to what I should take with me. I probably won’t flesh out my entire reading list until I get to the airport Barnes and Noble, but I have decided on one book I’m definitely taking with – and it’s not even a paperback: Bursts: The Hidden Pattern Behind Everything We Do by Albert Laszlo Barabasi.

Barabasi first captured my imagination with his book Linked, a lay person’s guide to network science, and his new book is said to extend his analytical vision through time as well as space. His argument – drawing as usual on wide swaths of interdisciplinary science plus fascinating historical and current events anecdotes – is that “we work and fight and play in short flourishes of activity followed by next to nothing: our daily pattern isn’t random, it’s ‘bursty.'” But what I’m in it for is not his findings but his methodology: Barabasi has developed this theory by culling data from our digital lives. “Mobile phones, the Internet, and email have made human activities more accesible to quantitative analysis, turning our society into a huge research laboratory. All those electronic trails of time-stamped texts, voice-mails, and searches add up to a previously unavailable massive data set that tracks our movements, our decisions, our lives. Analysis of these trails is offering deep insights into the rhythm of how we do everything.” I’ll be interested to see how he converts that mass of data into an argument, and I’ll be interested to see if I buy it.



Beach Book Blegging

At the invitation of an old friend, my daughter and I will be traveling to Thailand the first two weeks of July, and I’ve been commanded to bring only vacation reading. It’s been awhile since I did any of that and I could use suggestions for humorous, smart, non-war-crimes related non-fiction or other good beach reads.

In the past I’ve enjoyed humorous science writing like Mary Roach’s Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers; funny, twisted memoirs like Augusten Buroughs’ Running With Scissors or Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle or social-science-for-laypersons books like More Sex is Better Sex:The Unconventional Wisdom of Economics Heck, I’ll even take a good novel as a last resort. (No mysteries please. Zombie literature ok.)

And it has to be available in paperback. What should I consider? Comment away.


What I’ve Been Reading This Month

During my self-inflicted hiatus, I’ve been traveling a lot by road with two children, so I’ve had less reading time. But I’ve also been staying in a lot of people’s houses along the way, and that has allowed me to accumulate vast (and vastly more diverse than usual) amount of reading material.

We turned around and headed east yesterday, and I should be back to blogging regularly in a couple of weeks. Until then, I thought I’d post tell of a few literary nuggets worth the late-summer beach-goer’s attention, especially if you’re looking to get out of your foreign policy head-space.

Each one has been loaned to me by a friend or relative I have visited on this journey, and each one has my highest recommendation. See below the fold.

Why Buildings Stand Up. I’d always wondered about that! Mario Salvadori puts architectural history and the basics of structural engineering into language anyone can understand and get excited about. Loaned to me by my good friend Joel Oestreich.

Mop Men: Inside the World of Crime Scene Cleaners. A fascinating, humorous and informative ethnography of disaster restoration specialists who clean up after suicides and murders. (I flipped open a page randomly and learned a great deal about the life cycle of maggots.) This is in the genre of Mary Roach, but with more social science as it’s as much about the industry of death as it is about the forensic science of human decay. This one came courtesy of my brother Richard, who owns two cleaning businesses in Durango CO and also has a quirky interest in disaster science.

Best Military Science Fiction of the 20th Century
. It was especially nice to read the original short story version of Ender’s Game, something I’d never managed to do despite my devotion to the Ender book series. Thank you Alex.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Seth Grahame-Smith has taken Jane Austen’s original novel and embellished it with a sub-text of an England afflicted by a “strange plague” that causes the dead to rise and intermittently feast upon the minor characters. Needless to say conversations from the original about ladylike decorum, otherwise intact, now include references not just to accomplishment in music and manners, but also in the deadly arts; and squabbles between Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy are now interrupted by battles with the unmentionables. A bloody good read, thanks to my brother USMC Major Edward Carpenter; and one that makes me look forward to reading more in the genre Grahame-Smith has no doubt just popularized, the humorous retelling of classics. Let us hope the original authors don’t return from the dead to challenge their new compatriots on grounds of copyright.



The Barnes and Noble website is currently advertising a new and potentially interesting book slated to be issued later this summer: Historical Dictionary of Terrorism by Sean K. Anderson.

Unfortunately, the book pictured is not the one advertised — the second edition of the Historical Dictionary of Islam by Ludwig W. Adamec:

ISLAM is clearly readable in all caps and quite large font.

Anyone can make a mistake, but this one is particularly clumsy.

Here’s a screen capture:

Hat tip: freelance journalist David Zax. Check out his pieces in The Smithsonian.


Sarah Sewall and COIN

This past week, I’ve read Sarah Sewall’s name three times in different magazines and blogs.

Perhaps you are asking, who is Sarah Sewall?

Well, Sewall is director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. I first heard her name more than 20 years ago when I worked briefly at Center for the Defense Information in DC — a left of center think tank that studies the military. Sewall also interned at Institute of Policy Studies. She must have worked at IPS when Michael Klare ran the Program on Militarism and Disarmament.

So, what’s up with Sarah Sewall these days? Why would she suddenly appear on the blog radar?

First, on October 4, Dan Drezner blogged about the foreign policy wonks who are advising various presidential candidates. Click on his link to a William Arkin piece in The Washington Post and you’ll find Sewall listed as an Obama advisor. She and better-known colleague Samantha Power are helping the campaign in various ways. Sewall seems to approve of Obama’s plan for “military disengagement” from Iraq.

OK, that seems pretty normal for someone working on human right at the JFK School.

Then, in a book ad in The Atlantic Monthly, I noticed something a bit different. Sewall wrote the introduction to the University of Chicago Press 2007 edition of The U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual. This is au courant — General David Petraeus coauthored the foreward. This link seems to be a free sample.

Writing an introduction for the manual is perhaps not surprising, given that Sewall was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Peacekeeping and Humanitarian Assistance from 1993-1996.

However, the third mention is definitely much more unusual.

Sewall was excoriated by Tom Hayden in The Nation last month for her defense of “the new counterinsurgency.”

the Petraeus plan draws intellectual legitimacy from Harvard’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, whose director, Sarah Sewall, proudly embraces an “unprecedented collaboration [as] a human rights center partnered with the armed forces.” Sewall, a former Pentagon official, co-sponsored a “doctrine revision workshop” at Fort Leavenworth that prepared the Army and Marines’ new counterinsurgency warfighting Field Manual.

Hayden, the famous foe of the Vietnam war and former spouse of Jane Fonda, continues:

Yet Sewall of Harvard’s Carr Center suggests that intellectuals have a moral duty to collaborate with the military in devising counterinsurgency doctrines. “Humanitarians often avoid wading into the conduct of war for fear of becoming complicit in its purpose,” she writes in an introduction to the Field Manual. In a direct response to critics who argue that the manual’s passages endorsing human rights standards are just window dressing, she adds, “The Field Manual requires engagement precisely from those who fear that its words lack meaning.”

One would think that past experiences with death squads indirectly supported by the United States, as in El Salvador in the 1980s, or the recent exposure of abuses at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib, Afghanistan’s Bagram facility and Guantánamo, would justify such worries about complicity. But Sewall defends Harvard’s collaboration through a pro-military revisionist argument. She says, “Military annals today tally that effort [the war in El Salvador] as a success, but others cannot get past the shame of America’s indirect role in fostering death squads.” Can she mean that the Pentagon’s self-serving narrative of the Central American wars is correct, and that critics of a conflict in which 75,000 Salvadorans died–the equivalent of more than 4 million Americans–most of them at the hands of US-trained and -equipped security forces, including death squads, simply need to “get past” being squeamish about the methods? Instead of churning out self-deluding platitudes about civilizing the military, Harvard would do well to worry more about how collaboration with the Pentagon impairs the critical independent role of intellectuals.

In his last paragraph, Hayden accuses Sewall of being someone who urges us to “get past the shame of death squads.”


In response, Sewall had some comments for the Harvard campus paper:

“The Carr Center’s mission is to make human rights principles central to the formulation of public policy,” Sewall said. “Civilian protection in war is premised on core human rights and has become a cornerstone of international humanitarian law. Helping to ensure that international humanitarian law is fully embraced in military doctrine will contribute to human rights protection.”

…“How can you hope to change the conduct of war without engaging those who practice it?” Sewall said. “We should all hope to live in a world without war, but there are many steps we can take to minimize war’s horror along the way.”

Actually, Sewall’s response seems pretty reasonable to me, given civilian casualties — though I do worry about COIN strategy.


Happy fourth: worried edition

Today is a day that the United States of America celebrates its independence. The Declaration of Independence, which was dated July 4, 1776, contains some of the most familiar political language in world history:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Those last clauses are kind of interesting because people seldom think about the circumstances that might cause a government to be replaced whole cloth.

In an era of overt political “regime change,” perhaps this idea should receive more attention.

Setting aside the question of Iraq, the Bush administration has spent some time since 9/11 thinking about the unthinkable: a necessary transformation of the U.S. government in response to a catastrophic emergency.

On May 9, the White House and Department of Homeland Security released Presidential Directives on National Security (NSPD 51) and Homeland Security (HSPD-20) that dealt explicitly with “National Continuity Policy” to “enhance the credibility of our national security posture and enable a more rapid and effective response to and recovery from a national emergency.”

Some parts of the directives are classified, but the public portion identifies a number of “national essential functions” (NEFs) and declares simply that “The President shall lead the activities of the Federal Government for ensuring constitutional government” after a “catastrophic emergency.”

On the internet, you can find critics who equate this order with a declaration of “martial law.” One blogger on DailyKos said it provided the Bush administration with a “lever that could well be used to end democracy in the United States.”

Part of the problem is that the definition of “catastrophic emergency” would seem to extend even to 9/11-scale attacks or Katrina-level natural disasters.

We’ve had two of those events in less than six years.

Before your pulse starts racing, I would note that the first NEF is “Ensuring the continued functioning of our form of government under the Constitution, including the functioning of the three separate branches of government” and that “each branch of the Federal Government is responsible for its own continuity program.”

Nonetheless, the document is kind of scary in that it allows for the possibility of fundamental change in American democracy 231 years after the “Declaration of Independence.”

Has anyone here read Annihilation from Within; The Ultimate Threat to Nations? by former Defense undersecretary Fred Iklé? The Financial Times review last November explained one of its core points:

Mr Iklé’s apocalyptic fears focus less on radical Islamists or a nuclear-armed North Korea and more on the danger of a would-be tyrant seizing power by annihilating his government from within, possibly through the use of weapons of mass destruction that would be blamed on others.

One weakness of Iklé’s book is that it does not really reveal much that a country can do in advance to preclude these events from happening. Then again, the neoconservative does not predict this scenario fo rthe U.S. The FT again

He does not see the US as vulnerable to such a coup because of the “powerful influence of its body politic and the hallowed position of the constitution” – but there are likely candidates in the semi-dictatorial regimes of central Asia, the Middle East, or even Russia.

Of course, the conspiracy-minded might note that the author was writing before NSPD 51.

Do we live in a new world?


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