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With the exception of my newsletters every one of my posts is thousands of words, and yet despite that length I am always left with the impression that I haven’t hit all the points I wanted to or explained things as well as could have. That in some sense I still haven’t quite gotten to the essence of a subject. Normally I just shrug this off as something that comes with the territory. A skill I’ll hopefully get better at, but also a feeling I’ll probably never get rid of because I will always have a certain amount of built in anxiety which is forever intractable. I will also remind myself that the perfect is the enemy of the good, and you have to hit publish at some point.
This was certainly the case with my posts on Afghanistan, and initially it just seemed like the standard second guessing that happens after every post. But it didn’t fade, and I found my mind continually drawn back to some of the ideas from those posts, in particular the idea that one of the reasons we failed in Afghanistan is that we are “no longer a serious people”.
As a brief reminder here’s where I left things:
In my first post on Afghanistan I borrowed an idea from Antonio García Martínez about the idea that we are no longer a serious people, and perhaps I need to amend that. “Digitizing the economy” is a serious topic. It’s the kind of thing serious people talk about. What it wasn’t, was relevant. When the Taliban have conquered most of the country in the space of a few days talking about anything other than how your guys are going to kill their guys is pointless. I’m confident that Najibullah [The president backed by Russia] was an expert in such conversations. Ghani [The president backed by the US] apparently avoided them.
As you can see I was already hinting at the idea that people mean different things when they talk about being serious. And that perhaps if we’re going to say that we failed in Afghanistan for not being serious we need to unpack that word. What does it mean to be serious, particularly in this context?
As the word is used day to day it generally comes as an injunction to dispense with frivolity, to set aside extraneous matters and focus on what’s important. The word also carries a connotation of consequential, as in a serious heart attack vs. a mild attack.
If we look around at what’s currently happening, on certain measures we are very serious. Biden’s infrastructure bill was passed over a week ago, and it would seem to meet all of the above criteria. We have set aside the extraneous concerns of politics and the back and forth accusations of one party vs. another to focus on something truly important. Additionally it’s consequential, even in an age where deficits don’t seem to matter, $1.2 trillion is, as Biden would say, a big f’ing deal.
This would seem to be an example of serious people doing serious things, and yet on the other hand it’s exactly the thing I complained of when talking about Afghanistan. President Ghani was obsessed with digitizing the economy, which is essentially also an infrastructure initiative, albeit a virtual one. But if he really cared about the country as a whole (and there’s reason to suspect he didn’t) what he really should have been obsessed with was the defense of his country.
As I sat down to grapple with this issue again, I was reminded of one of my very earliest blog posts, as a matter of fact, it was only the sixth thing I’d posted. The post was titled Sports, the Sack of Baghdad and the Upcoming Election. In particular I was reminded of this passage:
As an example of this, I have a theory of history which I call “Whatever you do, don’t let Baghdad get sacked.” You may think this is in reference to one of the recent gulf wars, but actually I’m referring to the sack of Baghdad by the Mongols in 1258 (Genghis had been dead for nearly 40 years at this point but the Mongols were still really scary.) This incident may have been one of the worst preventable disasters in history. Somewhere between 200,000 and 2 million people died. Anyone who loves books always shudders when you bring up the loss of the Library of Alexandria, but in the sack of Baghdad we have an equally great library being destroyed. Contemporary accounts said that “the waters of the Tigris ran black with ink from the enormous quantities of books flung into the river and red from the blood of the scientists and philosophers killed.” Even though it happened centuries ago people will say that Baghdad still hasn’t recovered. I don’t know what dominated the thinking of the Abbasid Caliphate in the years before Baghdad was sacked. Perhaps, like us, they argued about taxes, or fought amongst themselves, or worried about foreigners. Perhaps there was even someone who said that they should do whatever it takes to appease the Mongols. If they did I see no evidence of it.
The sack of Baghdad was a black swan, a big one. And the whole course of history is different because it happened. Of all the things that the Abbasid Caliphate did, (or perhaps in this case didn’t do) this is what’s remembered 1000 years later. Perhaps judging them by that standard is harsh, but what other standard should we judge them by? If the point of government is not to prevent your capital from being sacked, your rulers from being killed, your treasure from being carried away and your women from being raped, then what is its point?
As I said, whatever the Abbasid Caliphate did, it was the wrong thing. Now obviously I’m operating with perfect hindsight, but this takes us back to antifragility. It’s true that you can’t predict the future, but there are things that you can do to limit your exposure to these gigantic catastrophes, these major black swans. And that’s what governments are for.
I’m surprised I never thought to reference this in the previous posts on Afghanistan, because, more or less, Kabul ended up being a mirror of Baghdad. To be clear, we have to adjust things for modern sensibilities. But in both cases the most critical task was making sure the capital wasn’t conquered, and in both cases the rulers failed. The only reason the rulers weren’t killed this time is because of the existence of air travel. (Though I would also argue it was an issue of courage as well.) Also, and unfortunately for the Taliban, there wasn’t much treasure to be carried off. (Which I guess is one good reason to digitize the economy.) Apparently Ghani carried off quite a bit of the treasure before they got there. Finally I suspect that many women were raped when Kabul fell, and we know for sure that many were given to Taliban fighters in forced marriage.
From all of this we are left to consider our own situation: Are there any Mongols or Taliban fighters on the verge of sacking our capital? I think it’s clear that we have neither steppe horseman nor Islamic fundamentalists outside our gates. But it’s a mistake to take things too literally, what we’re really looking for is patterns. Who are our enemies? Are we focused enough on the dangers they pose? Or have we perhaps been distracted by something else? All of which is to say, are we paying attention to the right thing?
The genesis of this post and the beginning of me revisiting things, came early last month when one of my loyal patreon subscribers pointed me at a story which had run in the New York Times.
Top American counterintelligence officials warned every C.I.A. station and base around the world last week about troubling numbers of informants…being captured or killed…
The message, in an unusual top secret cable…highlighted the struggle the spy agency is having as it works to recruit spies around the world in difficult operating environments. In recent years, adversarial intelligence services in countries such as Russia, China, Iran and Pakistan have been hunting down the C.I.A.’s sources and in some cases turning them into double agents.
Acknowledging that recruiting spies is a high-risk business, the cable raised issues that have plagued the agency in recent years, including poor tradecraft; being too trusting of sources; underestimating foreign intelligence agencies, and moving too quickly to recruit informants while not paying enough attention to potential counterintelligence risks — a problem the cable called placing “mission over security.”
While we don’t have Mongols outside our walls we do have other countries who would like nothing more than to destroy us and carry away our treasures. Espionage is the field on which the battle is taking place, and if the NYT is to be believed, we’re not doing very well in this battle.
Perhaps our situation is not as dire as that of the Abbasid Caliphate in 1258 or of the Afghan government in August. But when it becomes that dire it will probably already be too late. So is this an issue of seriousness? One requiring serious people? Are we failing because we lack such people?
There’s a lot to unpack in the Times article, and I obviously only quoted a portion. One of the explanations given for the problems the CIA has been encountering is technological:
The large number of compromised informants in recent years also demonstrated the growing prowess of other countries in employing innovations like biometric scans, facial recognition, artificial intelligence and hacking tools to track the movements of C.I.A. officers in order to discover their sources.
This part is certainly interesting, and it relates to themes I’ve touched on a lot in this space. But it’s not what I want to focus on right now. Rather my eye was drawn to point about the deterioration of the craft, particularly the drive to “quickly to recruit informants while not paying enough attention to potential counterintelligence risks”.
Recruiting new informants, former officials said, is how the C.I.A.’s case officers — its frontline spies — earn promotions. Case officers are not typically promoted for running good counterintelligence operations, such as figuring out if an informant is really working for another country.
In other words the CIA has turned recruiting spies into a numbers game. And as you may recall from my last post, when I reviewed The Tyranny of Merit. There are a couple of adages about this, one of which asserts that: “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.”
But how does all of this relate to whether or not we’re serious people? Do I mean to suggest that if we stopped tracking the number of new informants a case officer recruited that the whole situation would be reversed? Or, to draw on another concept from my last post, do we just need to implement a few nudges? Perhaps we can give the “Add New Informant” screen a red background to remind them of the blood that will be spilled if they don’t consider the quality of their informants in addition to the quantities? Or maybe we should conduct a follow-up survey, with questions like, “Did the informant turn out to be a double agent?”, followed by: “How many Americans did they end up getting killed?”
I assume that these suggestions seem ridiculous or flippant, but why? Certainly many governments are enamoured by the idea of nudges, perhaps the red background nudge wouldn’t work, but how do you know? Have you tried an A/B split test? And if in the past we based promotion on job performance metrics, why is it bad to refine those metrics and add additional ones to plug the gap? Are these not the sort of things which serious companies do?
But it would seem once again that there is a level of seriousness beyond this when we consider matters of national security—matters of life and death. And that even things which are normally plenty serious, something which wouldn’t feel out of place in a boardroom of a Fortune 500 company, becomes downright frivolous when applied to things that are truly serious.
This gets us quite a bit of the way to what we’re looking for when we describe the qualities of a nation of “serious people”. Those who are familiar with life and death situations and who also perform well in them. The reason we are no longer a serious people is that by and large we don’t deal with life or death situations—certainly not with the same frequency or intensity as our forebearers. And when we are called to do so, as in the case with CIA case officers, we bring in tools from our unserious existence, and wonder why they don’t work.
But why? What’s the difference? What differentiates a serious tool from an unserious one?
A little over a year ago I published what many have declared to be my best post. (Though one reader declared it to be the closest I’ve come to insanity.) It was an extended meditation on the book The Master and His Emissary, by Iain McGilchrist, which itself is an extended look at the way modernity leans into a left-brained view of the world, resulting in the perpetuation of various damaging distortions.
After I published that post I expected to reference it frequently, but mostly I haven’t returned to the subject. I think largely the reason can be boiled down to the idea that if you’re a fish it’s difficult to comment on water. That said, I think this is finally a subject where the connection seems obvious.
As I have pointed out there seem to be two levels of seriousness. The more shallow form of seriousness is the one that tracks the number of informants recruited, but overlooks the fact that most of them are killed or turned. The shallow form spawns leaders who are obsessed with digitizing the economy of their country, but have no desire to make any plans for the defense of that same country. And then there is a deeper level of seriousness which considers not only the quantity of the informants being recruited but their quality, and indeed the way in which this recruitment effort contributes to the struggle between nations in its entirety. A seriousness which empowers someone to hang on as the President of Afghanistan for years rather than days.
When considering these two levels, I would argue that the more shallow form corresponds to a predominantly left-brained way of thinking, while the deeper form is predominantly right-brained.
It is not my intent, nor do I have the space to go into all of the attributes of right vs. left brained modalities. But whatever your preconceptions about the difference you should probably cast them aside as pop science oversimplifications. The difference of left vs. right is not a matter of logic vs. emotions or facts vs. imagination. It’s best described as a difference between trying to turn the whole into parts vs. binding parts into a whole. And yes, this is also another oversimplification. But I think it’s good enough to give us a basis for the point I want to make. Particularly if we include a couple of examples.
Coincidentally, speaking of espionage and Afghanistan, at this moment, I’m reading The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia, by Peter Hopkirk. This is the story of the British efforts to secure the northern approaches into India against the expanding influence of Russia. These efforts involved a lot of spying, and the story of these spies provides an interesting contrast to the NYT story. To give but one example, consider the story of Arthur Conolly. I don’t have the space to give a full account of his exploits and life, but here are some of the highlights:
- Was the person who coined the term “The Great Game”
- Went undercover into Muslim Central Asia for years at a time
- Was eventually captured and later beheaded while on a daring solo mission trying to rescue another British officer.
- One of six brothers, three of whom, himself included, suffered violent deaths while “playing” in the Great Game.
- Finally, Conolly was motivated in all of these efforts by his Christian beliefs and his patriotism.
Now let us contrast this list with a list of presumed qualities possessed by one of the CIA officers mentioned in the NYT article:
- Has very little concept of the struggle they’re engaged in right now. Not only have they not labeled it, no one has labeled it yet.
- They expect to have a mostly normal life.
- Would never set out on a solo mission to rescue a fellow agent, nor even need to.
- Setting aside how weird it would be for one of these officers to even have five brothers, it’s inconceivable that half of them would die because they all passionately believed in the importance of American interests in Central Asia.
- Primarily motivated in their efforts by what will get them promoted.
It’s the contrast between the last points of both lists where we really get to the heart of the matter. It’s impossible to imagine a modern CIA officer being motivated by Christianity. And really being motivated by any ideology, even patriotism, would get him funny looks. No, he’s motivated by considerations that are largely material, and individualistic. Calculations of what actions are required to get the numbers necessary for promotion. His perspective is essentially a left-brained one.
Now I’m probably overstating the individualism of our hypothetical CIA officer a little bit. I mean to begin with he’s in the CIA, he could probably have chosen a profession that was both safer and more lucrative. But I would argue that, at a minimum, there is a trendline and it’s pointing in a left-brained direction. In part this is illustrated by the fact that even if he wanted an overarching ideology on which to base his efforts there isn’t one available, certainly not one which would be shared by his fellow officers, not one that could animate the entire enterprise.
On the other hand Conolly understood the problem from a right-brained perspective. As evidence of this more holistic perspective, he was able to give the entire conflict a label which was so on point that we continue to use it down to the present day. Still just because he approached things from a different perspective doesn’t necessarily mean it was a better perspective. Most educated Westerners would be horrified if modern spies talked about the civilizing mission of Christianity and the benefits of British rule in the same fashion as Conolly.
It’s possible that the two different levels of seriousness are useful, but in different contexts. I’m happy to grant that the shallow form of seriousness is great if you’re in a mature and stable democracy. While the deep form of seriousness is useful if you’re in a desperate struggle for existence.
(This all reminds me of Scott Alexander’s Thrive/Survive Theory of politics, which I expanded on in a post of my own.)
However, even if the shallow level of seriousness is more useful, most of the time, it should be clear that it’s less important than the deep level of seriousness, because as I have pointed out on numerous occasions: if you can’t survive you can’t do anything else either. This means it’s a problem if the shallow form of seriousness starts to crowd out the deep form, such that it can’t be called on even when needed, as appears to be the case with the CIA and Afghanistan.
To close out I’d like to offer up a second example I came across recently, this one from the Vietnam War. From a left-brained perspective this was a war we should have easily won. We had the numbers. We had overwhelming might. The math was entirely in our favor. We even had computers which told us we were going to win. But as you may recall, we didn’t. Why? Well I would opine that one of the reasons was we had different levels of seriousness. We were mostly conducting the war from a shallow level while for the North Vietnamese it was deeply serious.
I encountered the example in an episode of the Radiolab Podcast. This particular episode told how, at some point during the war, partially in response to fears of Communist brain-washing, the Army decided to look into psychological operations or what came to be known as psyops. As a first step, they decided that the best people to consult for such an operation were advertisers from Madison Ave. There’s even a quote from the episode along the lines of “Your Lucky Strike campaign was really effective, maybe you can teach us how to get someone to lay down their weapons.” If that isn’t an example of using shallow methods on a deep problem I don’t know what is.
In any case, the idea they came up with was to drop coupons on the North Vietnamese troops. (Perhaps you can see the advertising connection?) These coupons were good for safe passage across US lines, where they were promised a warm cup of coffee, safety, and an end to all their privations. Unfortunately for the military, these coupons ended up having very little effect. I imagine that most of my readers are probably not too surprised to discover this. But why not? Here you have a country that’s slightly smaller than the average US state, and we end up dropping twice as much ordnance on it as all of the ordnance dropped in all theaters during the entirety of WW2. Why wouldn’t you be grasping for any excuse to get out of there, no matter how flimsy. During the episode they play an interview with a North Vietnamese soldier and they ask him about this, and as I recall, after explaining how awful things were, and how impoverished he was, he still declares that the “coupons” never even tempted him. That he felt like he was participating in something larger than himself. That it was his country, and he didn’t care how bad it got; he wasn’t going to stop fighting until the invaders had been driven out.
That’s someone who’s serious.
Perhaps when I talk about US seriousness with respect to the CIA, and Afghanistan and Vietnam, I have selected too narrow of a focus. Perhaps if our country was truly threatened we would discover that we’re a deeply serious people after all. Certainly there was something of that feeling after 9/11, but it’s been in short supply since then. Also it should be pointed out that I’ve focused entirely on the seriousness we’ve displayed when dealing with other nations. There’s a whole other discussion to be had about seriousness as it relates to the culture war. But here again many of the proposed solutions involve breaking things down into parts that we can understand and measure, when we should really be trying to unite the various parts into a larger whole.
Once upon a time we were “one nation”, perhaps that next phrase, “under God”, or at least under some unifying ideology, was more important than we realized.
My uncle was in the CIA. He generally doesn’t talk about it all that much. But at one point he said that the reason he left was that his next job was going to be in a foreign country, presumably recruiting informants. If you want to hear the rest of that story, consider donating. I’ll use it to buy him lunch and see if I can’t pull some details out of him.