- The Tina Brown Diaries
- The Truth About Military Parades
- Echoes of the Mommy Wars in #MeToo
- The False-Accuser-in-Chief
- Russia Is Still Exploiting America's Divisions
- When the Islamic State Came to Libya
- <em>Fire Sermon</em> Is a Profoundly Strange Meditation on Desire
Posted: 11 Feb 2018 04:00 AM PST
"There is no such thing as a succès d'estime in America. That's why it is a French phrase."
Tina Brown never lacked for success in the American fame-and-money sense of the word. Yet for all the acclaim that has come the way of this legendary magazine editor, Brown has also been persistently underestimated. Brown observes of herself: "The perception of me is flashy, fast, and scandalous." Now Brown has published a memoir of her spectacular journalistic career, based on the diaries she kept during her tenure as the editor of Vanity Fair from 1984 through 1992. The book has gained praise, yet even the praise often retains the familiar grudging character accorded to Brown's editorial accomplishments. As a reviewer wrote in The New Yorker (a magazine that owes its existence to Brown's rescue from a readership collapse under her two predecessors): "Brown's legacy remains controversial not because her success is in question but because, for some, too much was lost in her kind of success."
Brown's new book offers an opportunity to test that querulous judgment. Here not only is her voice and sensibility, but also her searching and candid self-assessment.
Through the 1980s and 1990s, Brown remade first British and then American magazine journalism. Brown reinvented the celebrity profile and celebrity photography. She printed close-up investigations of the murderous misrule of dictators like Haiti's Duvalier family and the Central African Republic's Jean-Bedel Bokassa. When a trove of new Picasso drawings was discovered, she hired the painter's most scholarly biographer to explain them. She published forensic profiles of the Gary Hart sex scandal and of the murder of the primatologist Dian Fossey in Rwanda. Her rule was high-low: high culture joined to low gossip, insisting on the highest standards of accuracy and narration for both. She deployed known writers in unexpected ways, while generously promoting new talent. It was Brown who assigned Adam Gopnik to Paris and who liberated Malcolm Gladwell from newspaper reporting. "An editor's job is to make people say yes to something they hadn't thought they could do," and that role Brown fulfilled to the utmost again and again.
Brown was never a "writer's editor" and always a "reader's editor": "Writers, unless guided and edited and lured out of their comfort zones, can go off-piste into dreary cul-de-sacs of introversion and excess and entirely forget about questions of content and pace." This is incontrovertibly true, and for that reason utterly unforgivable—by writers, that is.
Yet even as her titles gained readership, rewards, and respect, Brown's peers and rivals credited her achievement not to her own vision and drive, but to her willingness to pay large fees. The New York Times' then-description of her "sprinkling gold dust" still rankles her, all these decades later. It rankles me too, but for the opposite reason. I experienced the Brown editorial method personally, and while money certainly occupied a place in her instrument chest, it by no means predominated. At that time, just after the 2009 recession, gold dust lay a lot thinner on the ground for print journalism than in the gaudy 1980s. Brown had launched a website, The Daily Beast, which had just merged with the tottering Newsweek. She took me to lunch to ask: What would it take to hire me at the Beast? I suggested what seemed to me an attractive number.
She asked if she could consider overnight. Of course, I replied.
The next day she called me. Would I accept $5,000 more than I had asked for?
That isn't something that happens every day, at least not to me, and so I failed to perceive the metal cage suspended above Tina's tempting bait of cheese. That unsought $5,000 crackled in the air every time I got an email at 10 p.m. on a Sunday evening asking if there were any way I could produce 800 words on a fast-breaking news story by 7 a.m. the next morning—or if instead of the contracted three articles per week, I could just this one time squeeze in a fourth.
The strange thing was that somehow I always could squeeze in that uncontracted column—and enjoy doing it too. Tina rewarded effort not only in dollars and cents but also in enthusiasm. She didn't just ask for an article before breakfast the next day. She asked for "one of your always brilliant articles." She didn't merely extract more work than contracted. She explained, "I never can have enough of you." Obviously, this was practiced art, but how amazing that she had practiced it so well.
If something was "lost" in Brown's editing career, as The New Yorker's reviewer suggested, the most important of those somethings—on the evidence of this book—was Brown's own voice. In all those years devoted to coaxing better work out of balky writers, one great writer was persistently sacrificed: Tina Brown herself.
"You can teach people structure," Brown observes early in her diary-memoir, "and how to write a lead. But you can't teach them how to notice the right things." Brown is a writer who notices and notices and notices.
Here is her brief observation of a legendary 1980s trophy wife:
Here is her vignette of 1980s-vintage Donald Trump:
Here is how a truly wealthy man raises money for a fashionable cause:
Tina Brown's story is that American classic: the striver arriving to make a mark in and upon New York. This time, the striver is a woman and mother of two, struggling with those affections and those claims in a way no man-on-the-make ever has. She found herself locked in savage emotional competition with a psychotic nanny, whom she overhears on the phone saying, "I hate her. Georgie [Brown's son] hates her. He loves me … I want to choke her."
Brown grew up in Britain in the 1950s and 1960s, in a milieu in which money was too scarce to offer a scale of status. Her father worked in the threadbare British film industry, a comfortable but not a lavish life. She arrived in a New York that had plunged into a money mania unparalleled since the Jazz Age. The wealth geyser erupted, pushing the city's rich into a new social stratosphere—of which Brown designated herself the most astute and intimate chronicler. Her role both delighted and troubled her. "Why do I keep seeking out the things I deride?" she wonders. She never does find the answer. Yet also she never loses awareness of the discrepancy between her economic situation and that of the high society she mingled in, a discrepancy that provides many of her book's most comic moments.
In April 1985, the very young Tina Brown, just a year into the editorship of Vanity Fair, had already emerged as a dominant figure in American magazine journalism. But she had a problem familiar to many New Yorkers: an unsatisfactory apartment. After two days without running water, she decided she must move. Her landlord refused to allow realtors to show the apartment on behalf of Brown. The editor of Vanity Fair had to take time off work to buzz potential subtenants into the building. "Tell Tina Brown she just gotta sit there and let the parties in. Tell her, yeah, it's an inconvenience. But she just gotta live with it." Why must Tina Brown gotta live with it? Because "Jonny Guerrero don't deal with no intermediaries."
Thanks to Tina Brown's deft pen, Jonny Guerrero—wherever he may now be found—will live in the history of the 1980s alongside Henry Kissinger and Henry Kravis. Brown has preserved in vivid perpetuity a moment in social history. As John Bunyan, who coined the phrase "vanity fair," wrote in The Pilgrim's Progress:
These were Tina Brown's interests as a great editor, and they are her material as a writer. If you object that her interest in such things should be dismissed as unworthy, go file your complaint at the same office where they are accepting petitions against the duc de Saint-Simon and Marcel Proust.
Posted: 11 Feb 2018 03:00 AM PST
It is a safe bet that by the time the Pentagon does actually get around to giving Donald Trump the parade he has demanded, two things will have happened: First, the scale will be considerably less than the hundreds of M-1 tanks roaring up Pennsylvania Avenue deplored by many of the President's critics; second, the current fuss will be long forgotten in the avalanche of scandals, crises, and constitutional battles that lie ahead.
Yet it is still worth considering what exactly these military parades mean, and why people get so exercised about them. And it is possible to do so without talking over much about draft-dodging presidents and why the troops hate rehearsals.
Victory parades are easy enough to figure out. The Grand Review of the Armies in May 1865 included 145,000 troops from three Union armies—of the Potomac, Tennessee, and Georgia—marching past cheering throngs of onlookers. There were some uncomfortable moments. General William Tecumseh Sherman, still bristling over what he regarded as unwarranted and brusque orders from Secretary of War Stanton, refused to shake the latter's hand. But overall, the mood was joyous, albeit still shadowed by the assassination of President Lincoln little more than a month before. The armies marched down Washington streets for two days, and then quietly, almost instantly, melted away to their homes. The song "Goodbye Old Glory" was written in September 1865, but it caught the mood:
"The mighty work is through." That too was the mood of the victory parades for World War I held in New York and Washington in September 1919, some nine months after the armistice. 25,000 troops led by General John Pershing were cheered mightily, as they too received a nation's thanks before returning to factory, farm and store. In January 1946 a similar parade through New York celebrated the end of World War II. It featured the 82nd Airborne Division, less, perhaps, because of the glamor of parachuting than because of its nickname: "All-American." And, of course, there have always been local parades for units returning home from the wars.
The last real victory parade in the United States was after the first Gulf War in 1991. It involved 9,000 troops and plenty of kit, which spectators were free to gawk at and climb over at the Mall. This was a different kind of celebration: for a professional force, not for draftees and for-the-duration volunteers about to return to civilian life. It made more of a victory over a third-rate opponent than was seemly. In keeping with the over-the-top mood of the time, in fact, military leaders had given serious consideration to having the Iraqis sign the armistice on the quarterdeck of the battleship Missouri, where MacArthur had imposed peace terms on the defeated Japanese in Tokyo Bay in 1945. That ludicrous proposal, like the parade, reflected less the experience of the war than a deeper, if still uneasy, sense of having wiped away a disgrace. Like so much else from the First Gulf War, it was an attempt to banish the ghosts of the unsatisfactory outcome of Korea and the failure of Vietnam. A parade served, in this case, as exorcism.
Victory parades make one kind of sense. But there are other kinds of parades, such as those at the inaugurations of Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy. These included tanks and, in the cases of Eisenhower and Kennedy, atomic artillery and missiles. The United States stopped doing that. So too has another country which once celebrated its independence with a big military parade including hardware: Israel. The Israeli military parades ended in the 1970s. France, of course, has its elaborate and always spectacularly staged Bastille Day parade, which is the inspiration for our current debate. Its origins go back to 1880. France had suffered a humiliating defeat in 1870 at the ends of Germany; its politics were deeply factional, riven between secularists and Catholics, democrats and royalists. A military parade was a way of binding the country together. It became as well a symbol of French glory and power despite the unexpected defeat of 1870, the carnage of World War I, the catastrophe of 1940, and the humiliations of Indochina and Algeria.
Military parades with lots of hardware appeal to countries that have something to prove. For Israel in the 1950's and 1960's, it was that the tiny state had the muscle to survive; for France in the late 19th and 20th centuries that defeat and ruinous victory had not dimmed her martial prowess; for the first three presidents of the Cold War that the United States was the same country that had won World War II and could triumph in an entirely novel global contest against an opponent with weapons that could obliterate cities at a stroke.
Parades are also a way of paying tribute to the troops. The troops of the past, however, were citizen soldiers in the old sense: temporarily uniformed men (and later, women) who had answered their country's call. As war has become for the vast majority of Americans a spectator sport, the problem becomes why, how, and to what extent public thanks is due. At one extreme there is the sentiment—darkly put out by John Kelly on a number of occasions, and most recently in his October 17, 2017, news conference about fallen soldiers—that civilians can not only never be grateful enough, but rather, must accept a position of permanent moral inferiority to those who serve.
That kind of parade becomes an act of moral extortion, a false claim to a monopoly of courage and civic virtue. It overlooks many things, including the fact that soldiers today are exceedingly well paid and cared for, and that most never experience hardships different than (indeed, often as bad) as, say, fire fighters. There are those, however, who think this is appropriate.
There is, finally, parade as exultation in raw power. At its ugliest, in the military parades of totalitarian regimes, it is a vaunting not only of might but of brutality. George Orwell had it right in England Your England:
Americans don't goose step. But they are not immune to an adolescent fascination with weaponry, and a celebration of raw strength. Hence the unseemly pronouncements in the current case by pundits and politicians, most of them remarkably devoid of military experience themselves or among their children. One thing they may miss is that a military parade would show off some really old pieces of hardware, first designed and deployed (if modernized since) over 30 years ago—M-1 Abrams tanks, Bradley Fighting Vehicles, F-15 jets. One thinks of the aging alpha male baboon who attempts to intimidate the rest of the troop by baring his teeth, but has failed to notice that some of his fangs have dropped out. The Chinese colonels taking careful notes might be less impressed than the talking heads of Fox News.
What parades do not do is adequately celebrate today's soldier and his or her spirit. What they do not show is the personal appreciation Americans should appropriately offer men and women who have repeatedly left family behind for danger and boredom, often leaving pieces of who they once were on the battlefield. What they do not do is replace the barbecue or the beer, the patience with the far-away look and sudden irritability, the long walk and the arm around the shoulder, the welcoming smile and the attentive ear.
Thirty-five years ago, during my own brief and inglorious Army reserve career, I went to an officer's basic course with D. J. Reyes, who unlike me, later spent nearly 34 years doing hard work in hard places, including serving as then Major General David Petraeus's intelligence officer for the 101st Airborne Division in Iraq. "Quiet warrior, quiet professional is the motto," he recently reminded me. We should respect that spirit, realizing that Orwell was right, and that parades say more about those who order and watch them, than those who participate in them.
Posted: 11 Feb 2018 03:00 AM PST
The first, furious wave of #MeToo has receded, but the reckoning is hardly over. Stories continue to surface. Workplaces (and beyond) continue to grapple with the shifting terrain. The terms of the debate continue to evolve—including, predictably, heated back-and-forths about the dangers of overreach and backlash and witch hunts and neo-puritanism and political correctness run amok. With a movement at once so intimate and so vast, almost everyone is a little anxious about where this is going. Almost everyone has skin in the game.
That said, the bulk of the public agonizing—about missteps and momentum, about what is and is not fair—has fallen to the ladies. Overwhelmingly, women are the ones both pushing this train to go faster and fretting that it has already run off the rails. (Most recently, professional provocateur Katie Roiphe kicked the hornets' nest with an extended lament about what she considers the silencing effects of #MeToo.) Across traditional and social media, women of every race, age, orientation, and ideology are going at this issue—and often at one another.
In many ways, this intra-gender debate feels appropriate, healthy even. Women's voices are now strong enough to carry such a discussion on their own. They are confident enough to disagree fiercely without worrying overmuch about undermining the larger movement. Women no longer need to look to men to champion their cause or legitimize their views.
Which is just as well, because most men are happy to stay quiet on this subject. Not that you can blame them: In territory this fraught, it is all too easy to stumble. The line between engaged debate and mansplaining can be fuzzy, at times nearly impossible for even well-meaning guys to distinguish. Lord help any man seen as trying to "hijack" the conversation. Ditto the poor dolt who ventures an opinion deemed insufficiently supportive. (Hello, Matt Damon!) In the midst of this furor, it is the rare man who will risk offering anything more nuanced than a blanket apology for his gender's piggishness and sense of entitlement. And so the field largely has been ceded—perhaps properly, perhaps unavoidably—to the women.
At the same time, there is something unsettling about watching my gender splinter into factions and slash at one another over how to navigate yet another sexist aspect of American society. Forget the public nature of the debate: In private discussions, I've listened to friends and colleagues agonize about whether other women are judging them, disparaging them, and disapproving of the way they have chosen to navigate these murky waters.
Take the generational split within #MeToo: Generally speaking, women in their early 40s and younger seem to be taking a less tolerant view of male misbehavior than are their elders. They have a broader definition of what qualifies as harassment and whether they have ever been the target of such. At 47, I seem to sit rather awkwardly atop the fault line between the earlier, shake-it-off approach to male misconduct and the emerging, call-it-out path. I sympathize with Millennials' distress that more senior women see them as fragile flowers, as self-identified victims unable to cope with the stickier realities of male-female relations. But I also relate to the older Gen Xers and Baby Boomers who are hurt, and vaguely insulted, that younger lasses seem to feel that they failed to stand up for themselves, that they were too willing to put up with inappropriate behavior in the name of going-along-to-get-along.
All the hand-wringing, finger-pointing, and knife-fighting carry more than a whiff of the Mommy Wars, that never-ending cultural cagematch in which women have felt compelled to savage one another's choices about everything from pursuing a career to breastfeeding to mommy-tracking to co-sleeping. Lean in. Lean out. Jump down, turn around, tie yourself into knots in a furious, ultimately futile effort to do the exact right thing and thus avoid judgment by other women. As though there were any exact right thing. As though any of us should feel the need to justify our choices to anyone, male or female.
Nor is mommyhood the only personal area to prompt such public divisions. One of my favorites: Remember back in May 2013, when everyone was praising Angelina Jolie for disclosing that she had the BRCA breast-cancer genetic mutation and, as a result, had undergone a preventative double mastectomy? Remember a few weeks later when singer Melissa Etheridge, a breast cancer survivor and fellow BRCA carrier, announced that not only did she disagree with Jolie's decision, she felt it was "the most fearful choice one could make when confronting anything with cancer"? As someone who'd recently had my own (non-prophylactic) mastectomy, I sympathized with the tough calls both women had made. But of course different people deal with medical conditions in different ways. (My mom, for instance, tackled her breast cancer, diagnosed a few months before mine, with a combo of surgery, radiation, and chemo.) Which is why I found Etheridge's slap at Jolie jarring. I thought, Is this really where we are: women calling out each other's medical choices?
Obviously, such comparisons to #MeToo are inexact. But once again women have landed in a situation where we are squaring off to brawl about how to address a major gender injustice—while men mostly watch from a safe distance.
At times it feels as though women cannot stomach the thought that other women might not approve of the choices we make—even, or perhaps especially, in the most excruciatingly personal corners of our lives. Maybe we need to battle one another as a way to validate our choices to ourselves. And maybe that's a fine thing—or at least a cathartic one.
Still, I can't help wondering if we are doing that thing we so often do, where our tendency to be way too hard on ourselves, and each other, keeps us from making as much progress as we otherwise would.
I'd gently suggest as much. But who am I to criticize?
Posted: 10 Feb 2018 08:28 PM PST
On Saturday morning, President Trump posted an apparent critique of the #MeToo movement on Twitter. "Peoples lives are being shattered and destroyed by a mere allegation," he declared. "Some are true and some are false. Some are old and some are new. There is no recovery for someone falsely accused––life and career are gone. Is there no such thing any longer as Due Process?"
Within hours, his tweet garnered almost 100,000 "likes" as his supporters echoed outrage at the notion of serious accusations that harm people who are innocent of them.
The tweet came the day after Trump said that his staff secretary, Rob Porter, "says he's innocent and I think you have to remember that," and wished him well—even as he resigned in the face of multiple allegations of domestic violence. And it was written by a man who has himself been accused by at least 19 women of sexual misconduct.
Of course, outrage at false accusations is proper, whether or not they "destroy" someone's life or literally "end" their career. Whether a given American is a supporter or a critic of #MeToo, most agree that carelessly or falsely accusing someone of serious misbehavior in public is wrongheaded and deeply irresponsible.
But how is it that so many people who purport to hold those common-sense convictions support one of the most frequent perpetrators of false and irresponsible accusations in America? Trump supporters who are outraged at such behavior are also complicit in empowering one of the worst offenders. When donning Make America Great Again hats, they affiliate themselves with someone who treats others as badly as Jackie treated that UVA fraternity.
Donald Trump accused Ted Cruz's father of helping to assassinate John F. Kennedy.
He went on CNN and accused Ted Cruz himself of having an affair with a former staffer based on nothing more solid than a story in a supermarket tabloid.
In 1989, when a group of minority teens were convicted of raping a female jogger in Central Park, Trump bought newspaper ads calling for them to be executed. Later, the teens were exonerated—Trump had unwittingly called for five innocents to be put to death. But instead of apologizing, he has continued to speak about the exonerated men as if they were guilty, doing so as recently as 2016.
How would Trump's supporters on the populist right regard someone who kept talking about the Duke lacrosse players falsely accused of rape as if they were guilty today?
Yet Trump supporters rally around the president as if he is superior. In famous and infamous cases, the hypocrisy is glaring––and Trump's transgressions don't stop there.
Trump falsely accused Barack Obama of forging his own birth certificate and thus perpetrating an election fraud en route to his successful 2008 run for the presidency.
Trump falsely claimed that thousands of Arabs were cheering the 9/11 attacks on the streets of New Jersey.
Citing Ben Carson's account of his own flaws as a much younger man, Trump said the mild-mannered neurosurgeon's "pathological temper," was incurable, adding, "if you're a child molester, a sick puppy, a child molester, there's no cure for that—there's only one cure and we don't want to talk about that cure, that's the ultimate cure. No there's two, there's death and the other thing. But if you're a child molester, there's no cure, they can't stop you. Pathological, there's no cure."
If a liberal journalist, or a Black Lives Matter activist, or a Democratic politician made even a quarter as many false accusations as Trump, much of the right would be apoplectic, cite it as evidence of the moral bankruptcy of their opponents, and righteously insist on the perpetrator's termination and shaming.
Their acceptance of Trump's irresponsible and blatantly false accusations is discrediting––a sign that they have abandoned the moral and civic standards that they purport to believe and in some cases still think of themselves as believing. It ought to jar them to discover themselves complicit in that which stokes their contempt when perpetrated by anyone besides Trump, who corrupts.
Posted: 10 Feb 2018 07:40 AM PST
Russian meddling in American democracy didn't start with Donald Trump's election to the presidency, and, new reporting makes clear, it hasn't ended with his inauguration.
The New York Times and the Intercept reported Friday that a Russian intermediary attempted to sell compromising material on the president to American intelligence agencies last year. What started in an effort to recover American hacking secrets apparently turned into an offer by a shadowy Russian to provide the Americans a "video of Mr. Trump consorting with prostitutes in a Moscow hotel room in 2013," according to the Times. The Russian, in other words, apparently intimated that the infamous "pee tape" was real. He offered to sell it to the very intelligence agencies that Donald Trump has personally attacked over allegations that his election victory was tainted.
None of the new reporting gives any additional reason to believe that the pee tape is real. But it suggests Russian agents are taking advantage of American divisions over questions like the existence of compromising information about the president in order to keep the United States off balance. The Russian intermediary's attempt to sell dirt to American intelligence officials, wrote the Times' Matthew Rosenberg, "raised suspicions among officials that he was part of an operation to feed the information into United States intelligence agencies and pit them against Mr. Trump." Those agencies are deeply divided. The Intercept's James Risen reported, "U.S. intelligence officials are torn about whether to conduct any operations at all that might aid Mueller's ongoing investigation into whether Trump or his aides colluded with Russia to win the 2016 presidential election." They fear, he continued, "blowback" from Trump if they got involved.
Some parts of the American government are openly concerned. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warned this week that Russia is targeting the American midterms. "I think it's important we just continue to say to Russia, 'Look, you think we don't see what you're doing. We do see it and you need to stop. If you don't, you're going to just continue to invite consequences for yourself," he told reporters in Bogota.
Tillerson has good reason to be worried. Russia has been interfering with his department with few consequences since long before he became secretary of state. The State Department's email system has been serially hacked. Back in 2014, the Russians intercepted and leaked an embarrassing phone call between senior State Department official Victoria Nuland and a colleague. It was a sign, Nuland told Politico recently, that "the gloves were coming off and the knives were coming out." But the Obama administration couldn't agree on an aggressive response. There was a debate, she said, about whether there "should have been countermeasures taken that would have raised the cost at the time, and preempted further interference." Obama took a few symbolic measures over the course of his presidency, including personally confronting Vladimir Putin and expelling Russians from diplomatic compounds in the U.S. But the response didn't satisfy American officials alarmed by the Russian interference campaign. "I feel like we sort of choked," one official told The Washington Post.
America's political system remains dangerously open to exploitation even as foreign efforts to to enflame political divisions continue. "Russia has one simple goal: to erode trust in democratic institutions," wrote former CIA officer and current Republican congressman Will Hurd. "The current highly charged political environment is making it easier for the Russians to achieve their goal." The push to release Hurd's House colleagues' intelligence memos is the latest front in that political war. Bot armies sympathetic to Russian goals were mobilized to demand the release of Rep. Devin Nunes's memo, researchers found. Russia's disinformation efforts are effective, argues Ben Ninmo of the Atlantic Council, because it engages in "full-spectrum" propaganda efforts that use state media outlets like RT to amplify the work of social-media troll factories, all aimed at the same goal. And that has continued well past the 2016 election, regardless of RT's formal registration as an agent a foreign power in the U.S.
This week marked exactly four years since Russia openly leaked Nuland's call. The 2016 election came and went. If anything, Americans have become only more divided about Russian meddling since then. U.S. intelligence agencies are vulnerable to disinformation campaigns intended to divide them from their president. Looking at what he has wrought, one has to imagine, Putin must be asking, "Why stop now?"
Posted: 10 Feb 2018 07:44 AM PST
TRIPOLI—As U.S. military forces hunt down the remnants of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, they are also waging a quieter campaign in the fractured country of Libya. Conducted primarily from the air and through special-operations personnel based in the western city of Misrata, the effort aims to eradicate cells of fighters who fled the group's stronghold in the central city of Sirte before its fall to Libyan forces in December 2016.
According to Libyan officials I spoke with in December, these cells number around 500. They include capable leaders and planners who comprise what ISIS calls its "Desert Brigade" and its "Office of Borders and Immigration," a section responsible for external operations, logistics, and recruitment. Moving along the shallow valleys south of Sirte, the network has already conducted a number of attacks on checkpoints and convoys and, most recently, against an oilfield. It is also reconstituting itself. A burly 38-year old jihadist from the Libyan town of Bani Walid named Malik al-Khazmi reportedly helps lead the recruitment drive. Libyan officials believe he played a pivotal role in the rise of ISIS in Libya.
One of the Libyans he recruited is a young man I'll call Ahmed who I met in 2016. In many ways, Ahmed's path to jihad paralleled his country's dissolution after the fall of dictator Muammar Qaddafi. And, when compared with the career of another jihadist 20 years his elder, it also underscored the recurring factors that continue to push successive generations of youths toward militancy.
Born in 1996, Ahmed grew up comfortably in Janzur, a seaside settlement on Tripoli's western edge. Then came the oil boom, and along with it, a rush of migrants from the hinterland. Janzur soon expanded into a suburb of the capital, complete with gated "tourist villages" and an American school favored by diplomats.
In 2013, Ahmed entered the University of Tripoli to study engineering. He was not religiously observant back then. He smoked cigarettes and drank bokha, a potent home-brewed alcohol. His first semester in school was a time of dislocation and questioning, wrought by turmoil in Libya and across the region. The uprising in Syria gripped him; its parallels to the struggle against Qaddafi were obvious. "We'd suffered, and we knew the Syrians were suffering too," he told me.
Ahmed watched the Syrian war from afar, on the Internet and on Saudi satellite stations. He recalled popular Saudi clerics beseeching their audiences to support the revolution. It was a religious obligation, they said, incumbent upon all believers. But these arguments alone did not persuade him—it took a horrifying atrocity to do that. In the pre-dawn hours of August 21, 2013, a Syrian Republican Guard artillery crew in Damascus launched volleys of sarin rockets into the city's eastern neighborhood of Ghouta. U.S. government estimates put the civilian death toll at over 1,400. Ahmed was outraged. "After Ghouta, I really decided," he told me.
Getting to Syria wasn't hard. A Syrian man in Tripoli gave Ahmed the information for a contact in Turkey. "Call this guy," he said, "he will tell you where to go." Once he made it to Aleppo, Ahmed joined a small militia of Libyan fighters who had joined Syrian Salafist groups; some, like the Nusra Front, were linked to al-Qaeda. They encamped on farmlands dotted with grain silos and transmission towers, where Ahmed trained on a 14.5-mm gun.
In October 2013, the Syrian army launched an armored blitz aimed at choking off Aleppo and cutting the rebels' supply lines to Turkey. The Libyans fought in the battle of Brigade 80, an army base near the international airport, then retreated north to Tiyara, a hamlet of beehive homes and olive groves. Here, Ahmed manned the defenses of an old factory that the rebels had taken, just east of a hill where Hezbollah snipers and Syrian soldiers had the commanding heights. One day, a Libyan fighter next to him—a childhood friend from Janzur— fell dead after being shot in the head. And so in December of 2013, a shaken Ahmed decided to leave the front. But leaving Syria would prove much harder than entering.
In January 2014, the rebels fell into factional fighting. Ahmed barely escaped with his life, crossing west until he reached the Turkish border. By February he was back in Tripoli, safe and exhausted. But he wasn't finished with war. In the summer of 2014, the capital was consumed by the civil war between the so-called "Dawn" faction, comprised of militias from western towns led by Misrata and some Tripoli neighborhoods and Islamists, and the "Dignity" faction, led by General Khalifa Hifter in the east, which included forces from the western mountain town of Zintan. Ahmed joined a militia from Janzur, fighting on the side of Dawn.
One day in October 2014, in the midst of the fighting, seven Libyans, some of them veterans of the Syria war, arrived at the abandoned headquarters of a Tripoli TV station that Ahmed and his fellow fighters were using as a camp. One introduced himself as Malik al-Khazmi and proceeded to pitch them to join the Islamic State, Ahmed told me. "The dawla [or state] is coming to Libya," al-Khazmi told them. "Don't you want to be the first? The nucleus?" He answered yes.
Around the same time that Ahmed was joining ISIS in Tripoli, another Libyan some 450 kilometers to the east was making the same pledge. Born in 1976, Fawzi al-Ayat is 20 years older than Ahmed, with a much longer record as a jihadist. Like Ahmed, though, he told me his career began when a foreign conflict compelled him to travel abroad to defend Muslims.
Fawzi grew up in Sirte, the city now famous as ISIS's Libyan base, and as Qaddafi's hometown and a bastion of loyalist sympathy. Long before that, the city boasted a rich and complex social identity, comprising multiple tribes and an ancient history. In the first century, it was "a large coastal city with brick walls … date palms and sweet-smelling springs," as a visiting Andalusian geographer wrote. But in the centuries that followed, Sirte, a middling town linked by trade to the desert south rather than to the east or west, faded to the margins. Qaddafi would eventually change this, building it up as an enclave for his favored tribes and elites, dispensing funds on villas, a university, a hospital, and the iconic Ouagadougou Center, a staggering conference hall named for the capital of Burkina Faso.
Today, vast swathes of Sirte's downtown are in shambles. Though the Libyan-led victory last year over ISIS dealt a serious blow to the group, the city faces a dubious future. On a visit to the city in December, I passed by block after block of flattened buildings and piles of ashen debris. Reconstruction has been slow and displaced residents are furious. "I am ready to swim to Europe," a young man told me.
All this was a far cry from the city that Fawzi knew as a young man. Still, despite the attention Qaddafi lavished on them, Sirte's residents were not exempt from his redlines. And in 2007, Fawzi crossed one of them.
At the time, Fawzi was 31, married, and working as an engineer at the national electrical company. Yet like other young Libyan men, the ongoing U.S occupation of Iraq seized him. He said he was never part of any organized jihadist or opposition group, but was planning to travel to Iraq on his own to fight the Americans, when the Libyan government arrested him. He spent the next 17 months in Tripoli's notorious Abu Slim prison, the site of a massacre in 1996 where over 1,200 inmates died. Though torture in the prison was rampant, by the time of Fawzi's incarceration, the Libyan regime was supporting a process of theological "revisions" to convince imprisoned jihadists of the illegitimacy of political violence.
It didn't work for Fawzi. When he was released in 2009, he emerged more radical than ever, and in 2011 he fought against Qaddafi. Afterwards, he founded a jihadist militia called Ansar al-Sharia. By this time, Sirte had fallen into neglect and desperation—punishment, many said, for its long association with Qaddafi. Revolutionaries from the nearby city of Misrata took revenge on the city with detentions and executions, upsetting its social balance by repressing some tribes while favoring others. Crime, drug use, and bloody score-settling spiked. Without a police force, Sirte was open for someone to impose order, even a radical form of order.
Fawzi told me he helped form Ansar al-Sharia, or "the Partisans of Islamic Law," to do just that. (It shares its name with several other al-Qaeda-inspired Islamist movements. An identically named and better-known militia had also formed in Benghazi, but Fawzi maintained his group arose spontaneously and independently from this one.) It quickly took over security in Sirte and won plaudits for battling drug dealers and mediating land disputes. Meanwhile, another foreign battlefield beckoned.
By this time, a faction had begun developing within Fawzi's group that wanted to abandon the gradualist approach of al-Qaeda ideologues and establish a territorial caliphate immediately—one that would include Libya. He recalled listening in 2013 to Turki al-Binali, a gifted Bahraini orator, deliver exhortations in Sirte's Rabat Mosque; al-Binali would become one of the Islamic State's most important preachers. Libya's worsening political conflict also weighed on Fawzi: He worried that the Dignity operation, the eastern Libyan forces led by General Khalifa Hiftar, would soon attack Sirte—especially since Hiftar's tribe, the Firjan, had a presence in the city. Pledging loyalty to the ascendant Islamic State would bring protection, he believed. And by the fall of 2014, he committed to travel to Syria to do just that.
But when Fawzi arrived in the Islamic State's de-facto capital of Raqqa along with three other Libyans, the group's leadership instructed him to return home. ISIS, they were told, had already dispatched three lieutenants to the North African state. So Fawzi and his group returned to Libya. And at the end of 2014 in Sirte, he took an oath of allegiance to the Islamic State.
Today, Fawzi sits in a makeshift prison at an air force academy in Misrata, where I met him in December. His cell is a converted dormitory room he shares with several other inmates, sealed by a heavy steel door with a narrow slit. He is tall with a shaved head. His once-luxuriant beard is gone. When speaking, he tilts his head to one side to compensate for the left eye he lost from an American airstrike on Sirte in the summer of 2016. All that remains is the sutured socket.
Fawzi was captured in Sirte that fall after fierce fighting, just after a close ISIS confidante named Walid Firjani killed himself in a suicide bombing. Fawzi said it was Firjani who appointed him to serve as a sharia judge during the Islamic State's reign in Sirte, covering personal status law—hereditary matters and marriage and divorce.
The Misratan prison official who escorted me told me Fawzi and other ISIS fighters are awaiting trial. But Libya's judiciary has been in disarray since the revolution and its prisons are, in many cases, the preserve of militias, with scant regard for due process. The official did not see any hope for rehabilitating the captured jihadists, along the lines of what Qaddafi tried. "They will never change," he said.
This is not the attitude back in Tripoli, however. Here, a militia that passes for a counter-terrorism force is running an extensive re-indoctrination effort, rooted in Islamic scripture and jobs training. The program is run from a prison on the northern end of Matiga International Airport, where hundreds of ISIS fighters or suspected fighters are kept, along with common criminals and individuals caught on the wrong side of Libya's factional divide. The prison is not controlled by the Libyan government but by a man named Abdelroauf Kara, the commander of the Special Deterrence Force, one of Tripoli's most formidable armed groups. He has emerged as the city's de facto counterterrorism czar.
Just shy of 40 years old with a gaze of severe remoteness, Kara met me in early 2016 a conference room in his fortified compound at the airport. In an adjacent office, wispy young militiamen in lizard-stripe fatigues and Diadora trainers lounged on a couch watching a wide-screen TV. A box-fed machine gun rested on a bipod. Growing up in the nearby Tripoli neighborhood of Suq al-Jumaa, or "Friday Market," Kara told me he worked as a metal artisan before the revolution. He is also an adherent of Salafism, the literalist, conservative interpretation of Islam, and sports the ample beard and shaved mustache of a practicing Salafist. His rise as a militia boss is part of a nationwide trend of Salafists taking over Libya's policing functions.
After the fall of Qaddafi, Kara founded a militia to ferret out ex-regime loyalists. Then, since the Libyan police had all but disappeared from the capital's streets, he tackled the drug trade: With the collapse of Libyan border control after 2011, a torrent of illicit narcotics had flowed into the country from the south and west. All the while, Kara's opponents feared the vast power he was accruing.
The arrival of ISIS in Libya proved a further boon to Kara's authority. While the campaign against its stronghold in Sirte was chiefly a military one, the battle against the group in Tripoli demanded intelligence and police work, using surveillance, informants, and nighttime raids. And Kara's militia was the closest thing to a security service.
Kara brought onto his payroll ex-intelligence officers from the Qaddafi era with a talent for interrogations. His militiamen raided suspected safe houses. Each new arrest led to more raids, he told me, after interrogations and the analysis of data from seized cell phones. ISIS hit back, attacking Kara's base and killing several of his men. Still, he insisted he was winning, and presented himself to Western powers as a counter-terrorism ally, especially after aligning himself with the weak United Nations-backed government in Tripoli. Kara's biggest coup came last year, when he arrested the brother of Salman Abedi, a 22-year old Briton born to Libyan parents who blew himself up in Manchester in May 2017, killing 22 people at a concert. Believing the brother to be an accomplice, British authorities have asked repeatedly for his extradition.
Yet Kara's power has not gone uncontested: In mid-January, another Tripoli militia attacked Kara's base, seeking the release of prisoners. A mix of personal, ideological, and political rivalries underpinned the assault, which left more than 20 dead and shut down the airport for days. Despite such clashes, Kara has denied using the pretext of the Islamic State to go after opponents. And he has further refuted accusations leveled by the United Nations of abuses inside his prison, insisting he acted with justice and humanity. The proof, he told me, was his program of prisoner rehabilitation.
The morning after we met, I went to see this program, housed on Matiga airport near a half-finished soccer field. At 7:30 a.m. sharp, the prisoners jogged from their cells to breakfast, followed by classes on Islam. Some of them, my escort told me, had come to the prison on the recommendation of their families, for alleged drug use or for an array of behavior problems. Then there were the jihadists. "The Islamic State guys need special treatment," he said.
Seated on a plush carpet before a cleric, they hunched over Korans and pamphlets written by religious authorities in Saudi Arabia. This dose of Salafist principles seemed to comprise the core of their counseling and treatment, though Kara said he addressed more worldly needs as well. After lunch, the prisoners took vocational classes: cabinet making, computer literacy, house painting, and electrical repair. All of this would help them "rejoin society," my escort said.
I walked through the hives of activity, past the whine of buzz saws and fumes of lacquer to a small cantina where some young men were frying hamburgers. This is where I first met Ahmed. He'd been captured by Kara's forces a few months earlier. When he made the pledge to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the so-called caliph of the Islamic State, Ahmed had hardly expected this. He'd wanted to join a project; the Islamic State's recruiter spoke of a borderless state, where Muslims lived peaceably with one another, apart from the unbelievers. He said he was well aware of its brutality, but that the recruiters marshaled an array of theological justifications. "They showed us verses from the Koran and the Prophet's sayings," he said. "You see? It's all here."
Now, the prison clerics tried each day to purge him of what he'd been told. Earlier, Kara had given me an illustration. "We tell the Islamic State guys, 'Westerners in Libya who buy our oil are people protected by an ahd," or Islamic covenant, he said. "They are not kuffar"— unbelievers.
Ahmed gave me an even simpler explanation. "I didn't know the stories behind the sayings and the verses," he said. "The Islamic State never told me the stories."
In the end, it was local context that blocked the expansion of the Islamic State in Libya. Libyans had their own stories, and the terrorist group found it hard to graft its narrative onto the North African state.
Still, the paths to violence are varied and personal, often forged from narrow communities and peer groups. Common threads bind them: political and economic upheaval, foreign wars, and, especially, repression, corruption, and the absence of rule of law. The latter afflictions bedevil Libya today, under the countless militias who rule with impunity across the country. With no effective Libyan government and no capable police or security services, the chiefs of these militias present themselves to outside powers as counter-terror partners, much in the same way they have done in countering migration to Europe. The real challenge, then, is dealing with extremism in a way that does not empower these men at the expense of an inclusive, civic state.
The factors that pushed Ahmed and Fawzi toward militancy remain. And the cycle of mobilization may yet turn again.
This article is adapted from the author's forthcoming book The Burning Shores: Inside the Battle for the New Libya.
Posted: 10 Feb 2018 05:00 AM PST
Desire gets a bad rap, and not just from prudes. Buddhists, for instance, come out pretty firmly against it (desire, they say, is the root of suffering), and even atheists like me are susceptible to the wisdom of the Buddha. But Jamie Quatro sees it differently. Maggie, the protagonist and intermittent narrator of Quatro's new novel, Fire Sermon, wants to want. Her desire is what makes her human and also what connects her to something larger, something she insists on calling God.
Those who have read Quatro's first book will recognize the theme of desire. I Want to Show You More, a collection of stories, was handsomely blurbed and ecstatically reviewed, and—perhaps most telling of all—was one of those books that get fervently passed from writer to writer. Among other enticements, it featured a series of lambently honest, somewhat otherworldly treatments of adultery. The stories exerted an urgent tug as I read—they created a beating, hot, weird heart at the center of the collection. As James Wood wrote in The New Yorker, "The stories about adultery make a book-within-a-book."
In Fire Sermon, Quatro places all her chips on that book-within-a-book. Maggie is a writer and a mother, raised as a strict Christian, who falls in love with a man who is not her husband. "This story begins where others end," Quatro writes. "A boy and a girl in love, a wedding, a happily-ever-after." And then what? Two children, two careers, a few moves, and a couple of decades later, the wife discovers that she wants—well, what, exactly? Maybe she just wants. Full disclosure: Quatro blurbed my recent memoir, Love and Trouble. Fuller disclosure: Quatro and I hoe the same occasionally dolorous row of female midlife yearning. The wanting to want, the insistent shoulder-tapping of desire—these things seized me in my mid-40s, and so I expected to be a sitting duck for Quatro's all-in take on the theme.
Desirousness moves restlessly like a bird across the landscape of Maggie's life—she has flirtations with, or crushes on, or inappropriate friendships with, a series of people. An unattributed voice, presumably that of her shrink, says to her: "So you've come to me, again, because you keep falling in love with men who aren't your husband." Her wanting finally settles on James, a poet whose work she admires. The two become correspondents, as do so many of the characters in I Want to Show You More, which deals with love at a distance, replete with torrid email exchanges and phone sex—rituals of modern-day longing. In Fire Sermon, too, Quatro is good on the mores of this sort of courtship: the coyness, the posturing, the elaborately casual self-presentation.
Eventually Maggie and James meet in person, and I have to say that I don't think they bring out the best in each other. Here's what flirtation looks like between these two: They sit on a park bench and chat about "St. John of the Cross, how he said we might become sexually aroused in the middle of spiritual acts, such as prayer, or communion, because when the spirit is moved to pleasure it drags the body up with it." At this point I scrawled in my copy of the book, "Can't they just fuck and be done with it?"
We're meant to understand why James makes Maggie swoony, but to us nonpoets he sounds tiresomely pretentious—so much so that I wondered whether Quatro intended us to roll our eyes. When the two first meet: "I shook his hand. Tattooed on his wrist: the word sight. Later, at lunch, I'd notice the other wrist: vision." (On his third wrist: a drawing of Camus smoking a hand-rolled cigarette and wearing a beret.)
We know right from the start that they will end up in bed, because the book skips around chronologically. The middle of the novel is consumed with Maggie and James's letters, fragmented memories of their single night together, and an accounting of her life with her husband, a relationship drained of whatever intensity it once might have harbored. By contrast, when she imagines sex with the genteelly tattooed poet, Maggie has this to say:
Prose as awful as this, from a writer of Quatro's gifts, again raises the question of whether she means us to grow impatient with her protagonist.
Quatro repeatedly returns to this kind of egregiously full-throated religious language. The rest of the book—the descriptions of marriage and family—unfolds in a far less stagy register, allowing the reader to slip into the nuances of the novel's emotional flow, only to be yanked out by this God stuff. I was initially suspicious of and even hostile to Quatro's religious preoccupation. It felt like a veneer, a spit shine, a way of elevating the down-and-dirty nature of the material—as if Quatro were thinking, Hmm, if I describe adultery or anal sex in this high-flown language, then I can get away with it.
I thought I detected another, more insidious impulse at work as well, a kind of subconscious misogyny. The author seems at times to be punishing her adulteress. Maggie must be made to endure mortification, the way so many of her fictional sisters pay for their transgressions, from Anna Karenina to Emma Bovary to more-recent examples such as the protagonist of Jill Alexander Essbaum's Hausfrau. Even the eternally independent thinker Rachel Cusk is unable to resist punishing the straying wife Tonie in her novel The Bradshaw Variations; faithless Tonie ends up imperiling her own child. In the case of Maggie, the chastisements are quieter and certainly more interior—mostly taking the form of her own (rather histrionic) discomfort over her affair: "Shall I pray, Let Christ always be dying for the pain that moment caused, and is still causing?"
Worn down by Maggie's breast-beating, I found myself missing the kinetic oddness of I Want to Show You More, a book that combines a charmingly flat, demotic style with a taste for the surreal. Some of Quatro's stories, which feel as though they have been dredged from dreams, recall the painter and writer Leonora Carrington's short fiction. In "Ladies and Gentlemen of the Pavement," all the runners in a marathon must carry personalized statues, the majority of which are "half-human, half-animal sculptures doing lewd things with their bodies. Creatures with hideously sized phalluses." In "Decomposition: A Primer for Promiscuous Housewives," an ex-lover's body lies decomposing in a married woman's bed, causing logistical problems and also some very bad smells.
In Fire Sermon we get God instead of such playful, parable-like turns. It's not a trade-off I would've chosen. And yet. Eventually Quatro brought me around to her way of seeing things. The God stuff isn't there to polish or to punish her adulteress. It's essential to Maggie's character and to what Quatro wants to say. In the end, the book is a profound, and profoundly strange, meditation on desire and how it connects us to the "eternal" (a word Maggie is fond of). Maggie is someone who is never satisfied by what she has—who is defined by what she lacks. Her mother says of her: "She'll go hard after something and once she gets it no longer care. A hammered gold necklace she pestered me to buy for a year … she wore it twice and gave it away."
The French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan developed the idea of the thing that you desire but will always lack—the unattainability of the object being essential to the desire. The concept will be familiar to anyone who's ever scribbled her crush's name on her Pee-Chee folder in seventh-grade math class: You don't really want the boy in the next row—honestly you wouldn't know what to do with him if you got him. You just want to want.
Throughout Fire Sermon, Quatro weaves the image of desire slipping away once its object is at hand. "I read an interview with a poet yesterday, someone you mentioned knowing," Maggie writes in an unsent letter to James. "He said that when he was a boy he climbed the tree beside his house to gather apples. Sitting in the top branches … his desire for apples fell away. He forgot about them completely."
So perhaps I shouldn't have been as surprised as I was when the book offered a startling gift: a very serious, and deeply against-the-grain, reconsideration of marriage. The institution is valuable, Fire Sermon tells us, because it creates an impediment to obtaining the object of your desire. In the absence of real religious proscriptions in the modern world, marriage itself becomes an engine of longing. In other words, Maggie is able to feel these desires not in spite of the ramparts of marriage, but because of them. In a climactic passage that Quatro titles "Fire Sermon," Maggie celebrates the role marriage plays as a lifeline to eternity:
She concludes: "So let me burn."
This declamation wowed me with its derring-do. We sometimes hear people say that an affair helped their marriage, but I've never heard anyone promulgate the idea that her marriage helped her affair. It's just not a very comfortable thought. And yet that's what Maggie's saying here. The state of marriage makes yearning possible, and yearning makes us burn, which Maggie (and perhaps Quatro) sees as a good and essential and human thing. I was stunned by the notion, and enchanted by the way the book built to a crystallized idea rather than a scene or an event—thinking as a dramatic gesture is a pleasure found more commonly in nonfiction than in fiction.
Rereading with this idea of unsated desire fresh in my head, I found that Quatro had seeded the problem of wanting throughout. What had seemed a lot of overblown palaver about God felt illuminated, now that the "Fire Sermon" echoed in my mind. Once I understood its creator's design, the pattern of the book became beautiful to me. By the time she's done bobbing and weaving her way through her narrative, Quatro makes us feel the absolute necessity of desire, which she reveals as something shining: a hammered-gold necklace, begged for, worn twice, given away.
This article appears in the March 2018 print edition with the headline "The Virtue of Illicit Desire."
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