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Getting it Mostly Write

Writing for any audience is to live in a state of continual chagrin.

Over a long and fortunate career, I have written a lot: a natural condition for someone talking and writing about rhetoric. How many readers I’ve had remains a mystery, probably one that is better left unexplored. Even so, books, blogs, articles and reviews have kept me busy. I suspect it is equally true for folks who manage a staff partly through e-mail, write a lot of reports, or respond to customers or clients. With all the practice, we might expect that communicating our thoughts in print would get easier. But I find that it never does. There is almost always a shock that comes with rereading a “finished” piece that has gone through the pipeline and emerged as less than the crystalline version I envisioned. Imagine lining up a set of cringeworthy photos of yourself that were all taken at the wrong time, then being forced to look at them every day. Writing for any audience is to live in a state of continual chagrin.

For sure, we need editors. But my experience is that most miss the same awkward wording or silly errors as well. We all seem to be too busy or lazy to be the kinds of close readers that catch an errant thought or a grammatical train wreck. For these reasons a lot of writers probably experience the equivalent of buyer’s remorse: the sinking feeling that what looked so good at first glance no longer scans so well. This fear is why some of my colleagues find it a challenge to let a manuscript go.  Who knows how many studies of epochs or individuals languish because their authors want to keep improving them. Alas, I’m not burdened with this worry; haste is built into my DNA.

My theory is that all writers are still in training. We never fully master the components of literacy. Even the most polished pieces can still reveal the equivalent of a shirt tail that is hanging out. This illusive quest for perfection makes it all the more fun to read an author who seems to have polished every sentence to a fine shine. Such writing or speaking is a wonderful thing to experience. But for the rest of us, there’s nothing to do but soldier on, hoping that next time we will do a better job of sorting out our thinking before it is committed to pixels and pages.

Overestimating What We Can Fix

       U.S. Troops on Patrol in Helmand Province, 2009

We cannot shape other states with dazzling armaments. And we were never going to have enough forces to change millions of Afghan hearts and minds.

The rapid triumph of the Taliban in all of the provinces of Afghanistan is an important reminder of the limits of American power.  If there was ever a case of national hubris, Afghanistan was it, not just for the United States, but Britain, the Soviet Union and America’s NATO allies as well. We surely did more to improve services like banking and education, helping to further enfranchise the nation’s women. Some of those gains may survive, but measuring success or failure in terms of money spent to prepare the Afghan military–President Biden’s recent measure of expected success– always seemed to be a non-starter.

What is clear is that assisting a nation to modernize in the western mold must be based more on the soft-power of building bonds predicated on civil society values than on military might. I once suggested half seriously that the Taliban might lose their woeful fundamentalism if we swamped their society with our cable television technologies and programming. Bombing Taliban staging areas has always seemed counterproductive. But who might have the time and will to fight if communication devices had more systematically bought them off with mindless distractions?  Soft power engages rather than attacks. And, yes, exporting somnambulistic media is clearly a form of cultural imperialism. But we are the unchallenged leaders in perfecting this kind of export. Just ask our Canadian neighbors.

The story that is yet to be told is how much modernization in the form of cell phones, news reporting and social media is now baked into the lives of residents in or near urban areas. These will not be easy to suppress.  The young around the capital will surely expect more than what the mostly rural and backward Taliban troops can deliver.


We are in charge less often than we think.

Notwithstanding the valiant members of the American military and their contractors who served and sometimes died in the region, the nation’s long-term failure in Afghanistan is a reminding that we often presume a greater sense of agency than conditions on the ground can justify. We cannot change others by outgunning them with dazzling armaments. In truth, we haven’t really haven’t been in charge in the last decade or so.

As the Vietnam experience should have taught us, we are in control of events less often than we think. That was as true as well for the British when they sought to subdue American revolutionists in the colonies. Exporting a temporary force to transform a distant population is usually a fool’s errand. George Washington’s troops that successfully attacked Hessian mercenaries in Trenton in 1776 had the greater will to succeed. They were fighting for a way of life that increasingly diverged from their counterparts living an ocean away.

Every nation wants a competent and strong military.  But they are seriously over-rated as change agents. Sadly, in most societies such as Russia, they usually function more to cow their own citizens, not insurgents somewhere else.