Longform’s Picks of the Week

The best stories from around the world.


Every weekend, Longform highlights its favorite international articles of the week. For daily picks of new and classic nonfiction, check out Longform or follow @longform on Twitter. Have an iPad? Download Longform’s new app and read all of the latest in-depth stories from dozens of magazines, including Foreign Policy.

Black Hawk Down’s Long Shadow, by Daniel Klaidman, the Daily Beast

As the U.S. sets foot in Somalia again, men who fought in 1993 tell Daniel Klaidman what still haunts them.

But what about those who fought in Black Hawk Down? On the surface it might appear that, for them, all these policy implications are very much beside the point. It’s an ancient warrior creed that the human experience of combat transcends politics. That attitude is typified by Hoot, the composite character played by Eric Bana in Ridley Scott’s movie version of the battle. “You know what I think,” he says when asked if it was a worthwhile mission. “Don’t really matter what I think. Once that first bullet goes past your head, politics and all that shit just goes right out the window.” Toward the end of the movie, Hoot reduces war to its most elemental quality: “It’s about the men next to you, and that’s it. That’s all it is.”

But that’s not exactly right. The warriors who fought in Mogadishu in some ways care about the politics in a more profound and visceral way than anyone else. If the most emotionally searing experience in combat is the death of a comrade in arms, then the most human impulse of the warrior is to ask: why? For all their expressions of pride in how they fought, some members of Task Force Ranger still are tormented by the belief that their brothers died in vain. They point to President Clinton’s decision to call off the mission after October 4, even though the objective of capturing Aidid had not been achieved.


The Tyrant as Editor, by Holly Case, the Chronicle of Higher Education

Historical records of Stalin’s editorial zeal shed light on his understanding of history — and his role in it.

Of the 12 chapters of the Short Course, Stalin wrote to its authors after receiving the manuscript, “it turned out to be necessary to fundamentally revise 11 of them.” His was a near total revision. Marxism-Leninism-and therefore also Stalinism as presented by the Short Course-was born of what Hannah Arendt called “the refusal to view or accept anything ‘as it is’ and … the consistent interpretation of everything as being only a stage of some further development.” It represented a shift toward seeing the world with the eye of an editor. Literally. As Jonathan Sperber notes in his recent book, Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life, Marx’s career as an editor was “always one of his chief forms of political activism.”

There were those-most notably his supreme antagonist, Leon Trotsky-who claimed that Stalin was an ideological bumbler, “absolutely incapable of theoretical, that is, of abstract thought.” Stalinism was nothing but a self-serving revision of both past and future, Trotsky wrote in 1930, crafted “to justify zigzags after the event, to conceal yesterday’s mistakes and consequently to prepare tomorrow’s.” While Trotsky was right that Stalin’s ideas were largely corrections, edits of an existing model, he was wrong to assume that theory is something inherently pure, a new birth as yet untainted by revision. Stalin’s obsessive editing of the socialist project was his ideology, a manifestation of the idea that the final draft of history could be just one edit away.


Why Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel Loves Selling Drugs in Chicago, by Jason McGahan, Chicago Magazine

Chicago is key to a business moving tons of drugs for billions of dollars. Here’s how the whole operation works.

While mighty Colombian cartels once ran the supply side of the business, Mexican bosses wrested control years ago. Under the watchful eye of cartel operatives, coca leaves are converted into cocaine, usually in Colombia, Peru, or Bolivia, in labs near the fields where they’re grown. The drug is then packaged into “keys,” brick-shaped bundles weighing a kilogram each. To avoid detection by drug-sniffing dogs, each key is sheathed in a rubber membrane, swathed with plastic wrap, and then wrapped once more in duct tape.

The keys are smuggled into Mexico and then on to the United States-by land, air, or sea-using methods as varied as they are ingenious: stashed under fresh produce, in cans of jalapeños, in the bellies of frozen shark carcasses, in trap compartments of cars, trucks, motor homes, container ships, small aircraft, even submarines; taped to the bodies of backpackers traveling by bus; catapulted over border fences; concealed in the trunks of corrupt local sheriffs; or trundled through underground tunnels (some so well constructed that they have air conditioning), a tactic purportedly devised by El Chapo himself.


Kept Women, by James Palmer, Aeon Magazine

Mistresses are big business in China, where no official is a real man without his own ernai. What’s in it for the girls?

Chinese men’s penchant for mistresses is sometimes attributed to deep-seated cultural expectations, and it’s true that Chinese culture has rarely paid even lip service to ideas of male fidelity. Yet modern reformers often singled out concubinage as a sign of China’s backwardness, and pressed for stronger roles for women. Some, such as modern China’s first president, Sun Yat-sen, or its first chairman, Mao Tse-tung, did so even as they pressed teenage girls into their beds. Modern mistress-keeping might seem like a step back to the distant past. But this is just an excuse: any society as dominated by male leaders, and with as vast a chasm between the elite and the poor, sees the same exploitation of young women by powerful men.

Besides, Shanshan and her friends seem less like victims and more like players, aware of the limits of their work and astutely using the vulnerabilities of powerful men for their own ends. I admire them; in a system profoundly rigged against women, sex workers, the young, the rural and the poor, they have found a way to get what they can. Although it comes at an emotional cost, they seem to have taken control of their own fates. True, they live off dirty money: the cash conjured up by their lovers is frequently drained from the public treasury, or extorted in bribes from others. But so do hotels, luxury goods stores, estate agents, and the millions of others in China and the West happy to profit from the consumption habits of China’s elite.

Alexander F. Yuan-Pool/Getty Images

We Knew They Were Coming, by Colum Lynch, Foreign Policy

The untold story of al-Shabab’s murderous attack on the U.N. in Mogadishu.

The concerns surrounding the Mogadishu attack extend to many others like it around the world. Over the past decade, political and humanitarian aid workers with the U.N. have become prime targets of some of the world’s worst terrorist groups. In September, for instance, scores of people descended on Turtle Bay to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the worst terror attack in the institution’s history: the Aug. 19 suicide bombing of the U.N. compound in Baghdad that killed 22 people, including the U.N.’s special representative Sergio Vieira de Mello. Moreover, since the summer of 2005, the U.N. has been attacked by armed extremists linked to al Qaeda nearly 70 times, with 68 people killed and more than 160 injured, according to internal U.N. figures.

What can be done to stop this trend? Is it reasonable to expect lightly defended U.N. relief workers to hunker down in the world’s most dangerous conflict zones, even when confronted with specific and potentially deadly threats? Is the U.N. doing all that it can to prevent attacks, and is it appropriately holding people accountable for failures to address warnings? To date, no one has been held professionally responsible for what happened — and didn’t happen — in Mogadishu.

Mohamed Abdiwahab/AFP/Getty Images

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