Friday, April 2, 2010

Mark Bowden needs a geography lesson

The author of Blackhawn Down and Guests of the Ayatollah, among other books, has a much-ballyhooed and pretty mediocre profile of GEN Petraeus in the newest Vanity Fair. In describing his first meeting with the CENTCOM commander, Bowden writes this:
Petraeus has kept a low profile since taking over at CentCom, one of the U.S. military’s six combatant regional commands, and by far the most active of them. Its responsibilities include Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran, and its domain stretches from Sudan east to Pakistan, and from Kazakhstan south to Kenya.
This strikes me as a really unusual way to describe the CENTCOM AOR, which does not include either Sudan or Kenya... or Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, or Somalia, the countries in between Kenya and Sudan, all of which (along with those latter two) are in AFRICOM's AOR.

The only explanation that I can imagine is that Bowden actually wrote this piece in 2008, pre-AFRICOM. Oh, no, wait, there's another alternative: sloppy research, an old copy of the Unified Command Plan, and a lack of fact-checkers.

14 comments:

  1. Really crappy profile...it was like all the hagiography of the Jaffe and Robinson and other books, without anything interesting. He seriously could have written the entire thing from other articles and books - not even a new anecdote or anything in there.

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  2. It was cheap, meaningless hagiography. Unserious.

    On a pedantic note, however, CENTCOM extends to the shorelines of Somalia and Djibouti and whatnot, just not inland (and Egypt belongs to CENTCOM, but not Israel/Palestine, which is part of EUCOM).

    So, pirates tend to be a Petraeus problem when put to sea, but not Somali insurgents who stay fixed on land.

    SNLII

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  3. On a pedantic note, however, CENTCOM extends to the shorelines of Somalia and Djibouti and whatnot, just not inland (and Egypt belongs to CENTCOM, but not Israel/Palestine, which is part of EUCOM).

    This is of course correct, but it seems plain from context that Bowden isn't talking about the Sudanese coastline. If he'd written "from the eastern coast of Africa to Pakistan" it would've been correct. I suppose he could've meant "from the eastern border of Sudan to the eastern border of Pakistan and from the northern border of Kazakhstan to the eastern border of Kenya," but that seems really weird to me. (Why not then "from Sudan in the west to China/India in the east, and from Russia in the north to the Kenyan shore in the south"? Because it's a really, really weird way to describe it, that's why.) It's much easier to conclude that he was just confused or misinformed.

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  4. And when I say "a really, really weird way to decribe it," what I mean is that it's not standard practice for people to describe the extent of some geographic doman by naming four or five countries that are outside it. It's like saying that Africa goes from Spain in the northwest to Jordan in the northeast to Antarctica in the south.

    Not just "weird," but well-nigh nonsensical.

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  5. It's Vanity Fair. It's always been a "high" society version of People Magazine, and really, I don't see anything wrong with that. It's personality and glamour-driven, and the personalities tend to be actors, artists, fashion industry types, and people-about-town to include political figures of the day.

    I won't defend the errors, though.

    Vanity Fair has glorious photography too, and the photo of the General is in keeping with the best glossy traditions of the magazine.

    I think the profile served its purpose for its audience.

    Can you give me an example of a short magazine or newspaper profile - written for the general public on the topics generally presented here - that is personality-driven and aesthetically pleasing? If this is a bad profile, then what is an example of a good one? Because you know I will look it up and read it.

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  6. Can you give me an example of a short magazine or newspaper profile - written for the general public on the topics generally presented here - that is personality-driven and aesthetically pleasing? If this is a bad profile, then what is an example of a good one? Because you know I will look it up and read it.

    Madhu, you may not have intended to, but you make a good point about this crowd (and I include myself in this): it's hard to imagine that any profile of a general is a "good profile," simply because a lot of us don't agree with the celebration of the individual, the media frenzy around specific generals with easily-glorified biographical details ("he only eats one meal a day!" "did you know he got shot as an O-5?!" "his mom, you know, spoke Arabic" etc etc etc). The Iraq war, as we all know, was about a lot more than just Dave Petraeus, and the Afghan war is and will be about a lot more than just Stan McChrystal. These sorts of hagiographic portraits suggest that victory can be assured with a simple formula and sheer force of will, with good physical fitness and ascetic lifestyle habits, with work ethic and commitment. Those things may be necessary (or at least helpful), but they're certainly not sufficient.

    Of course, I say "this crowd," but I guess I'm just speaking for myself here.

    As far as profiles go, I thought George Packer's 2006 article about Tal Afar (and by extension, sort of about H.R. McMaster) was really good. Interestingly, it's also a great example of how Petraeus wasn't the only guy who got this stuff.

    Non-COIN/war related, but if we're looking for even-handedness, objectivity, and the precise opposite of hagiography in a profile of a public figure, I think David Foster Wallace's "Up, Simba" (also often rendered under Rolling Stone's alternate title "The Weasel, Twelve Monkeys, and the Shrub") about McCain's 2000 campaign, is awesome.

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  7. Oh, I suppose I should also note that while you asked for "short," neither of those are. But they're both from magazines, so that's something!

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  8. Gulliver:

    Thoughts on Packer's article on Kilcullen (New Yorker 2006, I think)? Just keep it short, Ebert-like: thumbs-up/down. :)

    ADTS

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  9. Ah, I've always meant to read that Tal Afar article. Surprising that I haven't given my reading habits. Thanks for the other suggestion, too.

    I think human beings like stories, and like stories about other human beings best of all. I bet there is all kinds of research demonstrating that we humans tend to process information in certain ways, and one way is to create a story or feeling around a person.

    I agree this has drawbacks for society, especially in elevating the great man or woman of history over the variety of complicated phenomena that lead to a result.

    That said, I'd rather see this kind of article in Vanity Fair because it is appropriate to that venue.

    Newspapers might have a value added function if they would use their expertise to break down complicated information in different ways. I don't know, the pressures are enormous on that industry today, and I guess I'm not to happy about all of it, because I like a few corners of newspaper world. The art pages best, I suppose.

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  10. Mahdu,

    Nassim Taleb writes a lot about humanity's need for narrative in "The Black Swan." There is in fact a great deal of research regarding humanity's compulsive desire to index events into a logical order/chain, creating a story even out of irrelevant details. It's most likely a byproduct of our earlier, simpler times as hunter gatherers. It’s quite hard to explain in a short blurb.

    -Deus Ex

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  11. I agree that he got CENTCOM's map completely wrong, which goes to my problem with the author's lack of seriousness.

    I just didn't want people to think that CENTCOM doesn't concern itself somewhat with Somalia, et al, because the command inherits certain problems when they leave the shoreline.

    It was a pedantic moment, but one I thought should be mentioned.

    SNLII

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  12. Madhu,

    I'm not so disappointed that Vanity Fair would run such an article as I am that Mark Bowden would write one. I don't know what Bowden has been doing in the intervening years, but "Black Hawk Down" was awesome and "Killing Pablo" was pretty good too, so it's a bummer to see him now writing such a bad article on such an interesting topic.

    As for good profiles: I think Rick Atkinson did a good job describing Petraeus in "In the Company of Soldiers," better than most actual profiles of him since then, all of which sort of re-tread the same ground. Also, I've never met COL Mike Steele but I've heard that Rafi Katchadourian's New Yorker article last year about his brigade did a pretty good job. (I really liked the article, too, especially its overview of the 2005-6 period at the beginning, which was better than, say, Tom Ricks's whole book.)

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  13. Also, why does SNLII seem so agreeable about this? Just one line about it being cheap and unserious? I thought he'd be ripping it apart!

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  14. Oh, I get it now Tintin. Yes, it's always disappointing when an author you like fails to deliver.

    On the other hand - hire Tintin to do some glossy, yet interesting, profile, Vanity Fair!

    :)

    PS: SNLII does seem uncharacteristically mellow in this comment thread. What gives?

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