Joyce, de Beauvoir, Louis Armstrong, and ‘Intelligence Community Directive 203: Analytic Standards’
What FP’s columnists are reading this summer.
Independence is an elusive concept, with different meanings for different people. Around this time of year, we are reminded that, for some, many years ago, it meant freedom from King George, and from the tyranny of taxation without representation. But independence can also be something more subtle: a certain autonomy of mind, perhaps, or an insistence on self-reliance.
This year, for our annual FP summer reading list, we asked our columnists to write about their favorite books on the topic of independence, whatever that means to them. It turns out that our writers managed to fit a wide array of books under this sizable umbrella: They’ve recommended books ranging from graphic novels to science fiction to memoirs — even government reports, if that’s your idea of beach reading. Here’s what they came up with.
Six independent-minded takes on international affairs, by various authors
Writing on foreign policy is characterized by dull conformity and careful fidelity to the conventional wisdom, because saying something unique, challenging, or original might offend somebody important or jeopardize one’s chances for the Next Big Job.
For this year’s Independence Day, therefore, I recommend authors whose works demonstrate admirable and unusual “independence of mind.” One need not agree with everything they write to admire their willingness to slaughter sacred cows and challenge enduring shibboleths, in the truest traditions of America’s revolutionary origins.
So when you’re done reading Jason Matthews’ novel Palace of Treason, I’d recommend a moving biography of a real spook, independent historian Kai Bird’s The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames. Next, take a look at Max Blumenthal’s The 51 Day War: Ruin and Resistance in Gaza, a gripping eyewitness narrative of the latest pointless war in Gaza last year. Follow that up with A Dangerous World?: Threat Perception and US National Security, edited by Christopher Preble and John Mueller — a careful and effective counter to the threat inflation that dominates foreign-policy discourse. If you’re still worried about the situation in Ukraine, Richard Sakwa’s Frontline Ukraine: Crisis in the Borderlands offers a view of the crisis that differs sharply from the standard view in Washington. And if you can interrupt your beach reading for a weightier tome, Peter Schuck’s Why Government Fails So Often: And How It Can Do Better, is a refreshingly nonpartisan look at why ambitious government programs often fail to fulfill even laudable objectives.
What books to skip? Easy: anything written by anyone running for president in 2016, and self-serving memoirs by former foreign ambassadors to the United States.
The Unraveling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq, by Emma Sky
This book is at the top of my list this summer. It’s not exactly about independence (though I suppose some might argue that point), but the author has been a fiercely independent voice on the Iraq conflict for the duration, having arrived in 2003 and staying — with a few quick breaks — as an advisor until the drawdown in 2011.
There are dozens of books out there on the endless tragedies that have unfolded in that country since the invasion, none of which I’d choose to curl up with poolside, mostly because my family makes fun of me when I read books about war on vacation. But for Sky I would endure a few eye rolls, primarily because she is one of the few players to come out of the Iraq debacle with some clear and useful messages for those trying to wrap their brains around the new crisis in the region. She is also a regional expert who chose to engage in foreign policy, rather than a foreign-policy expert who chose to engage in a region. That in itself makes her worth listening to.
Algerian writer and journalist Kamel Daoud is a fearless, original thinker facing death threats because of his writing, an Arab voice that shows not all is lost for intellectual freedom in the region. I only recently heard of Daoud and just started reading his novel.
Published in French in 2013, The Meursault Investigation was nominated for the prestigious Prix Goncourt. The New Yorker describes the new English translation as a “tour-de-force reimagining of Camus’s The Stranger, from the point of view of the mute Arab victims.”
In Camus’ classic, Meursault, a French Algerian, is half-heartedly mourning his mother and ends up killing a nameless Arab on a beach. Daoud gives the victim a name and a brother, who narrates the story. A portrait of today’s Algeria, this book sits at the heart of the debate about Islamism, liberalism, and post-colonialism. Algeria had one of the longest and bloodiest wars of independence against a colonial power, and the narrative of that struggle defines much of modern Algeria’s identity.
A former imam, Daoud told the New York Times he quit the Islamic movement because he wanted the “right to live and to rebel.” Although it has a distinctly Algerian voice, Daoud’s writing strikes me as a reflection of the wider struggle for identity, individual liberty, and independent thinking in the Arab world.
America Day by Day, an American road trip diary by a French existentialist published in the wake of WWII, as the Cold War set in, provides a unique perspective on the United States. What better way to celebrate July 4th than by reading Simone de Beauvoir’s stunning essay and rediscovering America coast to coast in the company of a fiercely independent, unconventional thinker?
In 1947, de Beauvoir spent four months in the United States, traveling from New York to Los Angeles, by train and by Greyhound; she was feted at cocktail parties, marveled at the vastness of the country, listened to jazz, gambled in casinos, and smoked her first joint.
Though it’s not one her better known works, it’s sometimes described as one of her best. As a left-wing French intellectual, de Beauvoir certainly had her biases against America, and her condescension towards consumerism, puritanism, and even Americans’ sense of fashion comes through. But her eye for detail makes this is a vivid description of a different era. She warms to the country, finding it painful to return to drab, post-war Paris. She concludes that no one can be indifferent to the battleground of ideas that is America, a battleground that will define the future of humankind.
I’ve never read it cover to cover, but I dip in and out, catching up with de Beauvoir as she gives a lecture or sips a Manhattan — or delves into issues, like race, that are still relevant today.
Seveneves, by Neal Stephenson
This is a book about the biggest of challenges mankind could ever face. It begins with a dramatic event: The moon explodes, and the seven fragments that remain continue their rough orbit around the earth. But soon they begin to collide with each other, breaking into smaller and smaller chunks. It quickly becomes clear that in a couple of years the smaller pieces will come crashing to earth, destroying life as we know it.
Freed from every normal sociological and geostrategic constraint, the burning question becomes how mankind will react to its impending doom. This is a novel about what we would do as a species if we were suddenly to find ourselves independent from every assumption we had ever made about the future. Full of futuristic technology, tense geopolitics, and existential psychology, Seveneves holds up a mirror to the human race and asks us what we are capable of if everything we know is going to be destroyed. No spoilers here — but read this gripping book to find out.
Along the way, Seveneves also answers what is perhaps the burning question of our times: Are men really necessary? Here’s a hint, as if you needed one: The book is not called Sevenadams….
Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, by David Eltis and David Richardson
In the wake of the killing of nine parishioners inside Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, white Americans today are finally beginning to find a distinction between the myths of Gone With the Wind and Dixie and the hideous realities of slavery. The Dixie flag and other symbols of the Confederacy, in which the young man charged with these murders, Dylann Roof, wrapped himself, are at the iconic roots of racism in our country. The Dixie flag wasn’t, as is often misstated, the national symbol of the Confederacy, but, worse, the emblem of battle under which gray-clad rebels fought to defend the institution.
The Civil War and more than a century and a half of segregation and race-based hatred in America stem directly from the transatlantic slave trade, which between 1501 and 1867 “claimed an estimated 12.5 million Africans and involved almost every country with an Atlantic coastline,” according to researchers David Eltis and David Richardson. In their brilliant 2010 book, Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, and on their amazing website, Eltis and Richardson chronicle one of the largest and most heinous mass kidnappings and relocations of human beings in history. Published by Yale University Press, the Atlas uses straightforward shipping data, logs, and maps to reveal in startling detail the commerce in human beings and its links to general trade.
The American Revolutionary War spawned the expansion of Atlantic capitalism and Brazilian, Caribbean, and Southern states’ demand for slave labor. When the slave trade finally ended after the American Civil War, “the number of people living in North America [who had been] enslaved was larger than anywhere else,” Eltis told NPR in a 2010 interview. “And it’s extraordinary that the slave trade accounts for such a small share of that number.”
On one point, it seems, modern Americans’ nostalgia for Dixie and the antebellum past may recall a grain of awful truth: Africans enslaved in the rest of the Americas were treated even more brutally than were those who worked the plantations of North America. And that modicum of “better” led them to have children, grow in population, and escape to free states, so that today more people descending from the transatlantic slave trade live in the United States of America than any other country on Earth.
Three U.S. government manuals on how to think independently
Actual foreign-policy nerds might be interested in reading about some of the approaches and techniques that U.S. government officials and staffers use to attempt to think and act independently. People working in national security agencies are highly susceptible to the normal cognitive biases and institutional pathologies that make creative thinking and openness to new ideas far less likely. Notably, groupthink is especially prevalent in agencies that are characterized by rigid hierarchy and shared values, and comprised of people who work in dangerous and high-stress environments to achieve a common objective.
The Government Accountability Office’s ‘Government Auditing Standards’, or “Yellow Book,” includes a 26-page conceptual framework for how to be independent when auditing government programs. It explains how Department of Homeland Security auditors covertly smuggle weapons and fake explosives past airport checkpoints, and how Department of Homeland security hackers conduct cyber penetration tests of Office of Personnel Management computer systems.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s recent ‘Intelligence Community Directive 203: Analytic Standards’ instructs analysts in how to develop their analytical products objectively, independently from political considerations, and occasionally by employing alternative analytical techniques, like competitive intelligence, Team Bs, and devil’s advocacy. And for specific examples of alternative analytical techniques, check out the government’s ‘A Tradecraft Primer: Structured Analytic Techniques for Improving Intelligence Analysis.’
The University of Foreign Military and Cultural Studies, aka, Red Team University, at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, publishes ‘The Applied Critical Thinking Handbook’, formerly known as Red Team Handbook, now in its seventh version. It teaches military and government agency red teamers about self-awareness, cultural empathy, critical thinking, groupthink mitigation and decision support, and red teaming techniques. These include 57 different “liberating structures” — brainstorming techniques used to generate innovation and break conventional thought processes. This handbook also serves as a go-to for military red teamers outside of the United States.
The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan, by Jenny Nordberg
She can’t leave the house unaccompanied, she can’t wear what she wants, she can’t choose whom she marries. The Afghan everywoman lives a life of near-total restriction — unless she is a girl raised as a boy, reports Jenny Nordberg in her startlingly detailed book about a secret sector of Afghan society, The Underground Girls of Kabul.
As Nordberg discovers girl after girl raised as the favored sex, she gets to the heart of what freedom means in a most primal sense. The girls and women profiled had no choice in how their parents presented them to the world, but they have all enjoyed playing sports with boys on the streets and working in their parents’ shops — rather than remaining shut up in houses with curtains drawn, the traditional lot of girls in a conservative society. Although they have little choice in being turned back into women when they hit puberty, Zahra, one girl Nordberg introduces, resists this reverse metamorphosis. Zahra sees no reason she shouldn’t have the independence men have. If not at the beginning of the book, then by the end, neither do we.
Aaron David Miller
Signing their Lives Away: The Fame and Misfortune of the Men Who Signed the Declaration of Independence, by Denise Kiernan and Joseph D’Agnese
The Man He Became: How FDR Defied Polio to Win the Presidency, by James Tobin
The idea of ‘independence’ has an elastic quality about it. It can encompass a great many things, from an individual enterprise to a national one. And so in honor of Independence Day, I’m recommending two books that occupy different but not necessarily opposing ends of the independence spectrum.
The first, Signing their Lives Away, is in essence a story of what happens when independent men (many affluent and influential) choose to sacrifice their own personal independence and pledge themselves to a broader kind of independence cause. None were killed or tortured by the British, though some were imprisoned. Many saw their fortunes lost and all were very much at risk, surely knowing, to paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, that they would all hang together or all hang separately. Some of the 56 signers’ names you will recognize — the vast majority you likely won’t. The portraits sketched out in this lively read will help you know them better. They weren’t perfect men, but you still may wonder, as I do, how it was possible for a country of just a few million inhabitants, precariously located on the eastern edge of a vast continent, to produce the likes of some of the better known signatories (Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams). Today we — some 318 million strong — can’t seem to produce a single political leader of their stature.
The second book, The Man He Became, tells the remarkable story of Franklin Roosevelt’s battle against a disease that could easily have crushed him and made despondent, demoralized, and dependent. And yet, James Tobin spins an inspiring tale of independence and resilience. A man who after the age of 39 could never walk again unassisted managed to overcome his physical limitations and, in a political culture that put a premium on virility and the very act of standing (‘what does he stand for?’; ‘she’s a woman in good standing’), became one of the three undeniably greatest presidents in American history.
Both books tell uniquely American stories on this, our 239th Independence Day.
“A man’s got to have a code.” And presumably, a woman does to. These words, attributed first to John Wayne, and then to characters in various television series, define a regulated, consciously chosen form of independence. Not for them Emerson’s notion that a “foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds” — rather, their embodiment of rules for living offers an attractive alternative to the ambivalence and hypocrisy indulged by the rest of us.
In literature, sometimes the rules of independence become self-evident as the guiding principles behind a character’s mission, as in Dave Eggers’s You Shall Know Our Velocity. Other authors constantly recycle protagonists who live by similar rules, like Graham Greene’s wretched yet moral antiheroes or Haruki Murakami’s disaffected seekers. But perhaps the most fascinating and challenging example of rules-based independence is J. K. Huysmans’s Jean des Esseintes in Against the Grain (À Rebours), a conspicuously unlikable man who creates a series of new realities for himself. For all of these characters, independence does not mean caprice or self-discovery; it means living along the fringes of society’s expectations while staying true to their own.
The Arab of the Future, by Riad Sattouf
For English-only readers, this one will sadly remain out of reach through the summer. But come fall, publisher Metropolitan Books will be releasing an English translation of the French original L’Arabe du Futur. A graphic memoir by French-Syrian cartoonist and filmmaker Riad Sattouf, it won this year’s top Fauve d’Or award at the prestigious Angoulême International Comics Festival and hit the French bestseller list with more than 200,000 copies sold.
Sattouf, born in Paris to a French mother and Syrian father, recounts an impossibly nomadic childhood driven by his father’s quest to fulfill the Arab nationalist dream of shaking off the shackles of imperialism. Abdel-Razak Sattouf’s hunger for dignity entails turning down academic positions in the racist West and opting instead to take his long-suffering French wife and their son back to the Arab heartlands. Dignity and true independence, Sattouf’s father believes, will only come to his people when Arab man (women don’t seem to count for much in Sattouf Sr.’s worldview) enters modernity to become the eponymous Arab of the future. In his quixotic quest, first in Libya and then in Syria, the father is endlessly humiliated as the family runs into dictatorships that stifle liberty while feeding the people a diet of dogma, hypocrisy, and abuse. In his father’s native Syria, the blond-haired Riad is promptly dubbed “a Jew,” and can’t stomach his cousins’ cruelty to animals.
Most of the memoir, which unfolds between 1978 and 1984, is dominated by Muammar al-Qaddafi’s Libya, where Sattouf’s father took up a post as a university professor. Qaddafi’s Third International Theory style of government — intended as a alternative to capitalism or communism — creates harrowingly comic problems in practice. Arriving in a country that has done away with “the fraud of democracy,” since the masses apparently can rule themselves, the Sattoufs are given an apartment with no locks, since property belongs to all the people. This is all very well — until the family returns home one night to discover another family has moved into their apartment and stacked the Sattoufs’ belongings in the garden.
Hafez al-Assad’s Baathism stitches the second part of the memoir together. The Baathist goal was to create an enlightened Arab society — one Sattouf Sr. would be proud of. Unfortunately, in a single party, strongman-led state, those ideals are effectively crushed by the lack of liberties and high levels of obeisance to a dictator whose portrait dominates houses and cafes and is so omnipresent that even school kids can’t think of anything to doodle besides “the Lion of Syria.”
Sattouf’s account of his childhood is a deeply personal recollection of a peripatetic youth that can resonate with audiences across the world. It also paints an incisive picture of the Arab world in the late 1970s and early 1980s that sets the stage for the revolutionary changes that would grip and roil the region decades later.
Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
The independence I am focused on is how Americans can become independent from the dominant themes of our national security policy: that is, “exceptionalism,” and the belief that under the guise of leadership, we can and should intervene in other countries’ affairs with the expectation that we can change things simply by brute action, apparent good intentions, and high-mindedness.
This narrative is rooted in the notion that America can simply reproduce, in another country, the blessings we have here — and in a profound ignorance about history, culture and the diversity of experiences in the world. Acting on this belief has been the Achilles’ heel of U.S. foreign policy.
It is interesting to read writing about the United States that comes from outside the country. It can reveal the dangerous naiveté of this American view of the world and invite us to declare independence from our national myth. One such book is Americanah, a novel by Chimamanda Ngoze Adichie, a Nigeria-born writer who lives in the United States.
While her novel is not about national security, it is deeply revealing of Americans’ ignorance towards others — particularly others of African origin. The book follows the arrival of a Nigerian woman in America and her experience of this country. She encounters the ignorance of racism — all dark-skinned people must be the same — and ignorance about countries — where is Nigeria, anyway? Her experience would be comical, were it not so serious. Adichie holds a mirror up to America, revealing why we had the experiences we did, most recently, in Iraq and Afghanistan. What we do not understand, we cannot change. When we understand, we realize that trying to change another culture, country, people, is shooting ourselves in the foot.
Until our policies and views are free of both this sense of exceptionalism and this cultural ignorance, we are fated to encounter one Iraq, Afghanistan, or Vietnam after another — perhaps, next, in Nigeria or some other country in Africa where, once again, we imagine we are “doing good.”
Thomas E. Ricks
A hodgepodge from an independent-minded columnist
I’m gonna be independent and tell you what is on my bedside table, from top to bottom. This is a gen-u-wine list:
William Buckley, Atlantic High: A Celebration (I like his writing style, and I try to read a sailing book every summer)
Elizabeth Longford, Wellington: The Years of the Sword (I know nothing about him)
Louis Armstrong, Satchmo (a memoir of his early years in New Orleans)
James Joyce, Ulysses (I can’t believe I graduated as an English major from Yale without reading this)
Ha Jin, Ocean of Words (one of the best writers alive today — you can’t go wrong with him)
But if you put a musket to my head and told me to recommend two books about independence, I’d recommend these two:
John Shy, A People Numerous and Armed: Reflections on the Military Struggle for American Independence (how the American Revolution was won)
Piers Mackesy, The War for America (how the American Revolution was lost)
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