How Adults are Made

FeaturedHow Adults are Made

Going to school in Oregon in the 1990s, helicopter parenting was only just starting to get a name. Parents were unaware of just how much danger lurked in the world. Then an eighth-grade girl got raped in the girl’s bathroom by a stranger with a swastica tattooed on his forehead. The whole town was talking about it. By the time she confessed to making it all up, it was too late. Now everyone had to wear their student ID on them at all times and the side and rear entrances to the school had their outer handles removed so you could only enter by the front office. It made everyone’s walk to school that much longer, but to the school district’s credit, they never again had a case of fake Nazi rape. 

This was back when you could get in a fight and you’d be hauled down to the principle’s office to think about what you did while inhaling second-hand smoke. Then came mandatory sentencing laws. Slam a kid up against his locker now and you were going to juvie until you were 18. Grown men, salaried prosecutors and public defenders would argue in front of a judge about whether young Timothy represented a clear and present danger to society for having thrown a book at Billy during a pubescent tantrum. One charlie-horse and playground shove at a time, the bullies disappeared.

And what happens when you remove the apex predator from an ecosystem? It creates an imbalance. Suddenly the other animals don’t behave the way they used to. They get lazy. The squirrels get fat. They lose their instincts for survival.

Whereas in elementary school kids would taunt each other over whose dad could beat up whose, now you had a school full of kids who watched Law & Order, threatening to sue each other for defamation. The lonely police officer assigned to the school, having successfully cleared the hallways of violent scum, was reduced to taking statements from crying cheerleaders. Becky said that Cindy eats her boogers. Becky better lawyer up.

Everything was fine, for a while. Then a kid in the 7th grade went home one afternoon and laid his head on a table saw. Parents and teachers started to talk medication. During bi-weekly D.A.R.E. classes, kids would learn that if you rely on drugs or alcohol to escape your problems, you’re a junkie. Then there’d be a squawk on the P.A., and a third of the class would be called to the student office for their afternoon dose of Depacote and Dexedrine and Zoloft and Ritalin.

Cindy used to come home after school and cry in her room. Now she comes home and reads quietly at the kitchen table. Clinks of glasses filled with Mommy Merlot can be heard from the living room. 

Then a kid named Kip Kinkle took his dad’s hunting rifle to class and shot a few dozen fellow students. Everyone cried. At least, everyone still able to do so. This was before Columbine and Sandy Hook, back when school shootings were new and exciting. Looking back on it now, the real mystery is why someone would name their child Kip? 

That’s about the time that clear plastic backpacks became fashionable. (Did you know that Kevlar backpacks have been available since 1997?) If the kids had known that in just a few years they would all have to take their shoes off and submit a DNA test just to board a two-hour flight, they’d probably not have complained as much.

Sometime around their 18th birthday, they finish high school. They are congratulated on their mere survival, and then they go to college to explore this thing called “independence” with pristine medulla oblongatas, never once sullied with a drop of adrenaline. 

They go off in search of identity. They throw the pills away, shunning Big Pharma in favor of $5 coffee and paying to have their chakras realigned. 

They stare in bafflement at the world around them. The bullies are back and micro-aggressing them from every angle. It becomes too much to take. When the deadline comes for their final paper during their Senior year of college, to excuse their tardiness, they mail in a printed copy of a meme they saw on Facebook. “15 Things You Should Never Say to a Person with X.” 

When their GPA starts to slip, they reach for the bottle of beta-blockers only to find it’s empty. In a panic, they search every drawer for leftover ginkgo biloba. It’s not fair, they say. The world can’t truly be such a cruel and unforgiving place, can it? Tearing through the cupboards in search of something, in search of anything to help them cope, they at last find relief: a dusty bottle of Mommy Merlot. 

They reach for a glass, and graduate.

An adult is born. 

The Travel Deviant’s 4 Rules for Finding Adventure Abroad

FeaturedThe Travel Deviant’s 4 Rules for Finding Adventure Abroad

An adventure is very different than a vacation. Where a vacation recharges you, an adventure exhausts you. It can be uncomfortable, raw, and definitely dangerous. That said, it may also be the most rewarding experience of your life. So with that in mind, here are some quick and dirty tips to help you sniff out adventure while traveling abroad.

1) Travel alone.

Baby or boyfriend, it’s all the same. They need to be napped, fed, or have their boo-boos kissed. I spent the last year traveling around the world collecting stories of the crazy and wild adventures I’ve been on, and the only gaping hole in my collection coincides with when I met up with three friends in Thailand. It was a month spent herding cats and completely uneventful, unless you count that time that Stephanie wanted to get double-teamed by a ladyboy. (Bankers, am I right?) The takeaway from this is that if you want spontaneity and all the opportunities that come with it, you need to be on your own schedule, and that means traveling alone. (Another lesson is that ladyboys are total divas. Just remember that when someone wants to bring two of them back to the hotel.)

2) Always book one-way tickets.

You never know what’s going to happen. Let’s say you wake up in a sleepy town in the Yucatan and meet a mysterious man that you are convinced is the real-life Tyler Durden. He even sells soap. Maybe he tells you about a mock execution that took place there a few years ago and you, being naive as fuck, forget which country you’re in and start asking around. Maybe the Lina drug cartel hears about a single male gringo poking around with questions about drugs and violence and decides to send you a message. Maybe you should run for your life. The point is, you never know when you’re going to want to leave, and change fees are expensive.

3) Travel Cheap.

Hotels should be a last resort. If you couch surf (, you’ll have an excellent landing pad with locals who will surprise you with their generosity and the introductions they make. Say you go to Beijing and your host can only offer you a blanket on the floor? That’s kind of rough, but maybe she takes you to a karaoke club where you sing Ariana Grande at a cute German girl, and the next day you and German girl both take a bus to a small town and scale a mountain for three hours. You make love, in the rain, on top of the Great Wall of China. Three days later in Shanghai, she teaches you the words “Ich liebe de.”
Or maybe you pay $150 a night for maid service and a mint on your pillow. If it’s a choice between the two, I suggest the former.


4) Say yes. 

Traveling alone, traveling light, and have an open-ended itinerary, you’re going to start giving off a serious vibe for spontaneity and invitations will start rolling in. It could be as benign as spending Christmas with a British family out in the country, or as harebrained as a Marilyn-Monroe-impersonator-turned-music-executive who offers to fly you to Mexico for a rave on the beach, as long as you are willing to drive the Beamer and translate. Next thing you know,a year after fleeing the country, a photographer is publicly tagging photos of you in Quintana-Roo, smoking cigars and doing blow in Pablo Escobar’s underground swimming pool. The point is, nothing interesting is going to happen if you stick to what you think you “should” do.

Those are the four basic rules. If seems a little too risky for your taste, just remember that you signed up for adventure! So summon whatever testicular or ovarian fortitude you have squirreled away, and go for it.

Good luck.

Why I’m Considering Journalism School

Why I’m Considering Journalism School

I filled out an application to Columbia University’s School of Journalism yesterday. I declined to actually apply, preferring to continue my year of White Boy Walkabout, but they asked a very pointed question: Tell us about yourself and why you want to go to journalism school? This was my answer:

I joined the Marines at 17, still a child. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into, nor did I have any idea what it meant to be in war, to feel pain, or to feel alone. I was just a stupid kid trying to impress a girl and deluded in my understanding of what I’d signed up for. This was before 9-11, of course. Peacetime America. I joined the Marines because, of all the services, they had the sexiest uniforms.

And you get a sword.

After the start of the forever-wars, I spent the next four years overseas. First, spending a year country-hopping in the infantry, then joining a special unit that gave you suits and ties and a diplomatic passport to go guard embassies and government secrets. Perhaps the best advice I ever received was to ignore the posts in shiny tourist destinations where Marines were known to live like kings. Go to the places you’ll never go with your wife and kids, because you’ll never get another chance.

When everyone else was putting Paris, Rome, or Tokyo into their dream sheet, I just wrote, Send me to the biggest shit-hole on the planet. The next day, Secretary of State Colin Powell gave me my diploma and cracked a joke about me heading to Liberia.

In three years of embassy work, including time with the President of the United States and time spent in Baghdad, nothing compared to the things I saw in Liberia. From guarding diplomats as they marched into the jungle with body armor to treat with warlords, to paying off prostitutes to prevent congressional inquiries into what went on at U.S. embassies after dark, no task was refused. When one of our diplomats was murdered with a screwdriver in his hotel room, I was tasked with the initial crime scene documentation. Not because I had any training in such things, but because no one did, and all things being equal, I had the nicest camera. That child who joined at 17? Picture him tripping over a riggored corpse and landing palms down on soggy carpet, and you can see how it might impact his view of the world.

After the Marines, after a Political Science degree from Columbia and interning at the State Department, I’ve always been drawn back to the hidden parts of the world, wanting to shine a light in a way that makes people understand: Embed reporting. Long narratives that make people feel, not like they’re watching it on a screen, but like they are there and a part of it. To feel empathy and experience something incredible by proxy.

I had desk jobs. I worked for non-profits, I worked for a tech startup, but left in search of something more interesting. I have side-projects that run themselves and afford me the ability to travel at length, and it’s in these travels that I keep finding hidden stories.

Only yesterday, I made it home from Mexico, happy to still have my head attached to my body. I’d been chasing a story of a mock execution held years ago by the town elders, perpetrated against four addicts causing trouble in the town. An intervention of sorts. Two had fled, but the other two stayed and got clean, now living normal lives with jobs and families, so I went looking for them. It wasn’t until a stranger came up and started to give me unsolicited cartel information, that I closed my notebook and realized just how deep I had stepped into it. The line between a writer looking for a story and a narc is a thin one, and the Lina drug cartel had started asking too many questions about me asking too many questions.

Today, the day after coming home, after feedback from friends in the media, I started my application. I want to tell these stories, and my tolerance for risk is high enough to find them, but here I had put myself in unnecessary danger, remaining perilously unaware until it was too late to do anything but flee. Without a journalist’s tool-kit, without proper training, I’m just a guy trying to brute-force his way to a story. I want to write, but to uncover truth with more finesse, and to learn to tell it so that no one gets slandered, or worse: killed.

This is Insomnia

This is Insomnia

It’s 5 am and I’m sitting upright in the fetal position in bed, and in the three hours since going to bed I haven’t had a minute of relief. Tomorrow afternoon I am supposed to go see my dealer. Sorry, “doctor.” A kind, prescribing nurse at the V.A. whose hair reminds me of my grandmother because they both dyed it a bright red. (My grandmother was 90, post-stroke and wheelchair-bound. “Redheads have more fun.” She’d said.) I’ve been taking Ambien as prescribed for thirty days, but tonight I skipped it. I wanted to be able to have a frank discussion with her about my possible dependency on it, while also showing my will power. That’s to say, to show her she doesn’t need to cut me off, just in case.

I tried the “magic” asleep-in-thirty-seconds 4-7-8 breathing techniques you find on homeopathy sites. Inhale for four, hold for seven, exhale for eight. They probably say to visualize a balloon, too, but they’re full of shit. Show me a person that can will-themselves to sleep in under a minute. Oh! Well, there’s a caveat: you have to mine coal. As in, people who are up late at night surfing the web for sleep techniques probably weren’t swinging an ax all day and didn’t turn their computers off two hours before bed. That’s called camping.

I remember when I used to “mine coal,” but even in the field as a Marine, I never slept. Throughout my whole life, unless it’s the sixty seconds after an exhausting fuck, there’s no way I’m going to bed without tossing and turning for two hours.

After the Marines, I sleep like a feather, too. When things go bump in the night, so does my heart. The greatest torture is when I can just feel myself drifting off and something misfires in my brain. I’m laying there in silence and suddenly a helicopter buzzes overhead or maybe a gunshot goes off right in my ear. The women who have endured the waking me can attest that the sleeping me gets no rest.

One time I came across my V.A. medical file and saw handwritten notes from a doctor in 2007. “Patient says his heart beats so hard he’s afraid it will wake up his girlfriend.” That part’s true. When she would fall asleep with her head on my chest, I could see it bounce up and down. How did I ever manage to shoot a rifle? They teach you to fire only when you’ve exhaled, so as to keep a consistent aim, but I’m sure my best shots came in between heartbeats.

When I’m in bed, I don’t think consistent thoughts. It’s a constant stream of ideas and mental face-palming as I relive embarrassing moments. Sometime around 3am I realized that the reason I must like writing so much is that you can edit it afterwards. Nothing can save you from the stupid shit you actually say, though. Once it leaves your lips, it’s final copy. The only solace being that nobody was recording it for posterity. But you remember. And the audience remembers. I’m thinking of that semester I spent debating fellow students on the efficacy and necessity of torture. As I say when I wrote about it years later, “please don’t remember me that way.” It’s bad enough that I have to.

So sometime around 4:50am, I concede. Three hours of laying still with a mask and earplugs counts as a valiant effort. I decide to write it all down. I grab my phone and invert the colors so I’m typing on a black screen. If I don’t piss off my eyeballs, maybe they won’t shoo away sleep if it chances to pay a visit. Moreover, the typing speed-limit of using just thumbs forces me to filter out a lot of the static in my head. (Thumbs do it better. Ask any asshole.)

I think this month has been hard on my sleep for environmental reasons. I’m still traveling, and am just a guest in my own place since I sublet the closet I used to sleep. $750 a month. That’s what it costs to be centrally located in Manhattan: $750 for a closet. The roommate in question will tell you he sleeps like a log in the closet.

On a mat in the living room, I’ve been sleeping with my face to the wall, but here that’s on the right. In my various sarcophagi that I keep around the country, I face to the left. I know this sounds like some Derek Zoolander “I can’t turn left” male-model shit, but it’s real. I can’t sleep on my back, and I always face to the left. Even when filled with IV tubes awaiting an appendectomy, I slept on my stomach, arms at my side, right side of my face mashed into whatever is beneath me. The nurse said it was cute, but I’m convinced it’s going to gradually stretch my skin, and by the time I’m 60, everyone’s going to assume I had a stroke.

For the last month I’ve taken Ambien every night, but when commenting about chemical addiction, my roommate dismissed the idea: if you don’t double up, and you don’t take it when you’re not supposed to, then you’re not addicted.


I often refuse the prescription because I have so many stashed up and this year since I started smoking weed before bed, with much more fun results. Here in New York, the only stuff I have is a brain-wiring sativa, so after I realized that was doing the opposite of what I needed, I stopped. While I was reassured that I’m not addicted to weed, I’ve started to wonder about the Ambien.

But it’s so nice. You take one, and in ten to thirty minutes, you’re asleep, and you stay that way the whole night.

Is this what normal sleep is like for normal people? I couldn’t tell you, I’ve never had it and never been one.

Patriotism vs. “Patriotism”

Patriotism vs. “Patriotism”

If you haven’t listened to Slate’s The Gist podcast with Mike Pesca, you should. His insights and delivery are news-man perfection for the 21st century, and moreover, I love the way he writes. On his December 12th episode, he opened by addressing why and how the word “patriotism” has been declared the sole domain of the right, and cracks that have appeared in that bludgeon they so deftly weird against the left. Painstakingly transcribed below by yours truly:

They say that patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel, but I say SeriousChannel125 is the last refuge of the patriot. That is the name of the channel for a certain type of political programming. Would you like to guess? Is it Left Wing political talk? Is it Right Wing political talk? Or centrist political talk? Of course it is, you guessed it: It’s Right Wing political talk. And I was thinking of this when I heard that current CIA director John O’brennan, described the CIA officers who tortured– Sorry! Can’t call it “torturers” –but you can call them the “Black Site Question Askerers,” “The Attention Grabbers,” “The Abdominal Slappers,” (those are all things that they did). Torture is way too incendiary. Call them “The Stress Positioners.” So he called them “patriots.”

Why did patriotism, the word “patriotism,” “patriot” fall into the hands of just one-half of the American public. Sometimes you will hear a Liberal defending their own patriotism by saying, “I think it’s patriotic to dissent.” “I think it’s patriotic to question my government.” Yeah, well, maybe, but that’s not exactly getting at patriotism the definition: vehemently defending your country.

I am a patriot. More-so, I think, than many self-styled patriots. A lot of self-styled patriots, Tea-Party patriots, don’t like the government, don’t like the president, don’t like broad swaths of the electorate. What do they like? Each other? The Land? The wide open prairies? Are they patriots or geologists? See, I’m claiming patriotism, because if you love America, and you want to vehemently defend America, you want to face down America’s problems before the problems become overwhelming.

I had a neighbor who loved his classic car. Now, did he ignore a clanging sound? No. He addressed that clanging sound right away. Didn’t make him less of a car lover; made him more of a car lover! So what of the problems of America? Things like Economic disparity, educational imbalance, I don’t call these “problems” because I’m not patriotic, I call these problems because I “am” patriotic. It’s preservation. If you love it, you want to fix it. Like the car enthusiast, a teacher who points out and corrects the mistakes of her pupils. Does she do it because she doesn’t support them? Is that why she’s voicing criticism? No! It’s because of her commitment. 

So were the CIA torturers patriots? Maybe they were, but it would be for other things they did elsewhere, not because of what tubes they inserted into what rectums, in what “black sites”. The people who correct their actions, those are the real patriots. Whoa! The soapbox is getting a little creaky.

Listen here.

Subscribe to The Gist here:

Two Officers Murdered, Finger-Pointing, Vomiting to Ensue

Two Officers Murdered, Finger-Pointing, Vomiting to Ensue

NBC news is reporting that two officers have been shot and killed in their patrol cars in Brooklyn. My response was revulsion on three counts.

First, this is awful. Two cops were murdered. Two anybody being murdered is bad, but it really is worse when those people are appointed shields of the community.

The other two vomit-inducing revulsions are knowing what’s going to be said about it. I’m friends with both liberals and conservatives, with Jezebel-writing feminists from Columbia University, and ex-Marine cops who patrol the meanest streets in Chicago (so hard they can get shot in the head and still return fire). But from either camp, the following narratives will start to make the rounds on our respective Facebook feeds:

“This is what happens when you wake the beast–abuse the trust of the people–let killers go free, etc.” Basically it’ll start with a condemnation, followed by “but…” And just like every not-racist racist knows, the “but” means you’re about to excuse it. I was at the Millions March in New York to protest the killing of Eric Garner, and during the march, twice I heard someone try to commandeer a chant and get people to say, “shoot back,” but it didn’t work. No one was dumb enough to take the bait. And no one really believes it appropriate. But it didn’t matter, Bill O’Reilly had his producers on scene, and my friends who foolishly believe that Fox News has journalistic integrity let it color their understanding of the event.

Here that lone asshole, the one who wants to start a war with the police, has his hero. The Dark Knight of murdering cops. And just like in the march, we can roll our eyes and try to drown him out, but what we do or say will be hijacked. His 187-on-a-motherfuckin’-cop celebration is going to slander the whole in the eyes of others.

The other cringe-inducing chorus we’re going to hear is when someone points at these killings and says, “The blood is on your hands Libtards, because you instigated this hatred of cops. It was only a matter of time.” No. Holding police to a standard of professionalism that precludes murder doesn’t make one complicit in killing cops. But it being just a matter of time? That’s debatable.

Police violence and lack of accountability is a big issue, and big issues call out to the crazies like moth to a flame. The Iraq war saw increases in conspiracies to assassinate President Bush, just as being the first black president did for Obama. (What am I thinking? We live in post-racial America! It’s about executive overreach!) And that leaves me with the one last itch I can’t seem to scratch. Is this not the Bundy Ranch don’t-tread-on-me chickens coming home to roost? I mean, it may not be a white hen in a cowboy hat, but it’s the same coop, right? This has been the year of crazy assholes pointing guns at police officers and being lauded as heroes. Until one shoots a cop, and the stomach-churning blame-game begins.

Above: An American patriot is ready to fire on federal agents because #Freedom. Photo credit: Reuters/Jim Urquhart

Caffein for Dummies

Caffein for Dummies

Here’s a sad story about bad activism: A young man died from an overdose of caffein powder purchased online, and now his parents want to get the substance banned. Following their visit to Washington, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) is calling for just that to help end this scourge once and for all.

Dennis Stiner, father of the late Logan Stiner, 18, made his case against caffeine powder bluntly on Good Morning America: “It’s poison in a jar, plain and simple.”

ABC News
ABC News

Yes. It’s a super-concentrated chemical compound meant for industrial-size mixing, and you better know what you’re doing, plain and simple.

Katie Stiner, Logan’s mother, said, “We must do everything we can to get this product off the market and away from children.” But is ease of access really the culprit here? These were not toddlers who found their way under the kitchen sink. Stiner was 18.

She went on, “He thought caffeine was innocuous like the rest of us.”

Finally we’re getting to the real issue. He didn’t know that caffeINE was a powerful psychoactive compound, because if it was truly dangerous, it would be covered in D.A.R.E. with the other INEs, like cocaINE and meth (amphetamINE). No one told him that if you consume the equivalent of 30 cups of coffee all at once, it might just give you more than a pick-me-up.

This is abstinence only sex education for drugs. We teach kids about the big scary plants that grow in the forest, and the powders, and the rocks. Oh! And don’t ever do those, because drugs are bad. (Except alcohol. That’s something special shared between mommies and daddies.) A middle-class white kid overdosing on caffeine is the drug equivalent of a teen mom with a purity ring.

So what is there to legislate? This is not Big Tobacco using cartoons to sell cigarettes to kids, nor are packets of C8H10N4O2 being found at the bottom of sugared cereals. You have to buy it online in the same place you’d buy lye or chlorine, and their labels are just as unappetizing. So you can’t blame these deaths on easy access.

We could blame the drug itself, but my initial research has indicated that the jars themselves do not show a pattern of becoming self-aware and sneaking themselves into the protein shakes of the innocent. Someone has to make the choice to play kitchen-chemist.

As sad as it is that the young man died, I can’t see how a national law should be made from this. Lawmakers would do better to skip the legislation, and instead buy a truck-load of Mr. Yuk stickers.

I Used to Support Torture, and I Apologize

I Used to Support Torture, and I Apologize

I need to apologize. I used to be a torture apologist, and I was wrong. Back then we tried to dress it up by calling it “enhanced interrogation,” but that was only because deep down we all knew the truth. Torture is a bad word, and we’re the good guys.

In a public speaking class, I gave a short speech defending “enhanced interrogation.” It makes me sick when I think about how passionately I argued for my naïve beliefs, and how blind I was to confirmation bias. If my instructor at the time or fellow students read this, please don’t remember me that way. I literally face-palm when I remember that moment.

Back in college, I was benefiting from my unassailable status as a veteran when making policy statements. During the heated debates over the Iraq war, Americans were so badly beaten with the flag, that one would have to throw a puppy off a cliff before you could criticize the actions of soldiers.

I had spent over five years in the Marines, four of them overseas. That’s like getting a Bachelor’s of Science in How to Kill Bad Guys. And they were all bad. There was no grey area. Each as evil and two dimensional as a Disney villain.

My ace in the hole? If some pinko-Commie tried to tell me that torture was ineffective or wrong, I’d hit him with an anecdote so good that it shut the conversation down instantly: In 2004, I was part of a small team of Marines in Liberia. One day, we were called in to meet with the CIA’s station chief. There was a hit list, and all our names were on it. He must have had a snatch team pick up some warlord’s lackey and put the screws to him in a tin-roof shack out in the jungle. So when I would drop the line, “I’m still alive, and ask me if it was worth it,” it was over.

But did I really owe my survival to information gleaned via torture? No. Did the CIA use torture to get the list from some would-be hit man? No.

Sometime after, the same officer tried to recruit me to join “the company” after I went to college, and my imagination came alive with visions of “Feibleman, Ben Feibleman,” International Man of Mystery. But the more he revealed about the job, the more normal it seemed: Go out, meet your counterparts from the local government. Liaise with the local police forces. Meet a few regular non-government contacts. It’s police work. And one of the people he talked to told him, “Hey, we found this list.”

It took years for me to unlearn the falsehoods I believed about war, politics, and human nature. I studied International Politics and History at Columbia, with a particular focus on counter-terrorism and the politics and culture of the Middle East. I read too many books, and wrote too many papers to continue to believe the false narrative. I read the Quran from front to back and even took a stab at the language. (You want to know pain? Take an Arabic language intensive.) The more I learned, the sillier the action-hero notions of torture seemed.

It’s been ten years since Liberia, and I’m sad that it took me that long to learn how wrong I was. Moreover, I wish I hadn’t contributed to such a lie by defending it so vehemently. So, taking my own advice with regards to “enhanced interrogation”, I’m going to shut the fuck up in my defense of torture, and voice the fuck up to do my part to squash this toxic lie that it works, or that it’s somehow justifiable. It’s not.

STFU: “Enhanced interrogation isn’t torture.”

STFU: “Enhanced interrogation isn’t torture.”

If you draw a distinction between enhanced interrogation and torture, you need to shut the fuck up.

In Mother Jones yesterday, Kevin Drum puts National Review’s Andrew McCarthy on blast:

Suppose any other country in the world did what we did. Waterboarding. Sleep deprivation. Physical abuse. Stress positions. Rectal feeding. Nudity. Extreme heat and cold. All for months or years in an effort to turn prisoners into broken husks. Let’s say that it was Putin’s Russia or Khamenei’s Iran, and the victims were American captives. What would you call it then? Enhanced interrogation? I doubt it. You’d call it torture, and you’d loudly insist that it was barbaric and an act of war. And you’d be right.

So why the semantics? I think it’s in how we learned about torture as kids. Tidbits from Medieval history are the true ghost stories of childhood. Who needs a monster under the bed when you can just open up a textbook and see all the incredible toys humans invented to cause the most agonizing pain possible? We see drawings of people being sawed in half, or having their limbs ripped off. The lesson we teach isn’t “this happened” as much as it is complimenting ourselves for how far we’ve come. Why, by Vietnam, they’d only stick bamboo shoots under our fingernails (those little rascals)! 

When someone starts with semantics like “enhanced interrogation,” the argument that follows will be some variation of “torture works.” But because advocates are also regular people, they know torture is bad as truly as they believe that mommy is good, and rightfully, that makes them uncomfortable. So they call it something else. It’s PR for the soul.

But can we drop the charade? Just because we didn’t use a Rube-Goldberg machine for crushing bones doesn’t make it not torture. It’s causing severe physical and emotional distress in order to facilitate cooperation. It’s torture. So let’s shut the fuck up already with this “enhanced interrogation” bullshit.

How the East Was Won: China’s Ballistic Ace in the Hole

How the East Was Won: China’s Ballistic Ace in the Hole

China’s newest anti-ship missile just won the war over Taiwan without firing a shot.

As recently as 2005, Robert Ross wrote, “Taiwan is as secure as ever,” because of the U.S. having the ability to intervene in any conflict from both Kadena Airbase in Okinawa, and the 7th carrier group, also based in the region. A mere six years later, the balance of power in the Taiwan Strait is shifting. The Chinese are now perfecting anti-satellite and anti-ship missile capabilities that, while giving it the defensive capabilities needed by any large country to feel secure, it gives China the ability disrupt the projection of U.S. power in the region, leaving Taiwan vulnerable to attack. The “Dong Feng” 21D, or DF-21D, a long-range ballistic missile developed by the Chinese, is, according the U.S. Defense Department’s 2010 report to Congress, “intended to provide the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) [with] the capability to attack ships, including aircraft carriers, in the western Pacific Ocean.” If the PLA is able to destroy a U.S. aircraft carrier at sea, it will challenge the projection of U.S. power in the region. Indeed, according to an unclassified 2008 RAND report titled Air Combat Past, Present, and Future, which sought to articulate U.S. prospects in likely combat scenarios, “Air superiority is [the] foundation for all U.S. conventional military operations. Without air superiority U.S. Joint [concept of operations] unravel.”



In China’s Search for Military Power, James Fravel attributes such a development to China’s interest in “strengthening or developing three general military capabilities: internal control, area denial around its periphery, and limited regional force projection.” According to Fravel, at sea, “China’s military preparations for potential conflict over Taiwan have focused on delaying or slowing the deployment of U.S. forces to the theater.” By deploying a single weapon with the capability of destroying the heart of the United States’ 7th Fleet, (or at least present the credible threat of destruction), China can effectively challenge three decades of rhetoric from the United States, declaring it is ready to shed its own blood for the physical security of Taiwan.

Until recently, the standard line has been that the Chinese are militarily 20 years behind the United States, ever since the United States’ rapid technological expansion of the U.S. military in 1991’s Revolution in Military Affairs. According to Columbia University Professor of Chinese Foreign Policy, Andrew Nathan, China has monitored U.S. military technology closely and is very aware of their comparative weaknesses. In light of this, China has sought ways to turn their disadvantages into opportunities for innovation. For instance, one Chinese military education manual emphasizing the principle that, “[The Chinese must] explore the art of the inferior defeating the superior under high-tech conditions.” As Thomas Christensen, Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University points out, “by being more innovative than the United States by necessity, China might then skip levels of technological development in the ongoing revolution in military affairs and quickly close the gap with [the] United States.” For this reason, these missiles are critically important to China, as they enable it to create a defensible position against the United States despite being outgunned tactically, logistically, and technologically.

These technologies, however, are yet to be perfected. As global strategist and former advisor to the Defense Department, Thomas Barnett, points out that, “One missile on one ship in the beta-testing phase does not a deployment make.” He also underscores more conservative estimates that indicate a fully functional deployment may still be four years off. The debate continues, with the crux of the issue being over China’s intent. Is it a “peaceful rise,” as China puts it? Or is it a shot across the bow, a harbinger of the next cold war?

According to Christensen, there are several reasons why a weaker China might want to challenge the United States. While his article Posing Problems without Catching Up about the so-called “counter-revolution in military affairs” was written in 2001, long before either of these capabilities appeared as a threat, the principle of his argument remains relevant. If China views their window of opportunity closing, says Christensen, either from an intolerable delay in diplomatic reunification, or they think that the U.S. unwilling or unable to go to war over Taiwan, they may feel inclined to take swift action against the island.

Optimists elect to view the development of these weapons not from the perspective of the United States, but from that of a China that feels boxed in, militarily. Strategists like Fravel argue that China would be guilty of neglect if it denied itself these capabilities for the sake of not making the U.S. uncomfortable. “China sees its own military posture as defensive and nonthreatening.” Says Fravel, while Barnett sees it more as a matter of fairness.


China parks no carriers off our coast, nor does any war games up close, nor has any air force bases within strike range. We have all those on China, and we publish war plans in detail saying we’ll bomb their entire country and destroy all their shipping and sink all their naval vessels – for starters! [So] I don’t think its particularly “provocative” for the Chinese to develop [the DF-21D]


Nevertheless, for Realists the debate over propriety is a moot point. However benign the threat is in reality, as Time Magazine points out, “Anything that seriously threatens U.S. aircraft carriers in the western Pacific calls into question the Pentagon’s entire war plan for defending Taiwan against aggression from the Chinese mainland.” That is why Realists and Optimists find themselves overlapping by default. Even without trying to match U.S. power in the region China will unavoidably trigger fears that these weapons have not just defensive, but offensive aims. Fravell points out that “Chinese texts on military operations stress ways of defeating stronger opponents.” In that vein, it should be no surprise that the Chinese have also adapted technology from the DF-21 to create the SC-19 anti-satellite missile.

In 2007, China “shocked” the world when it announced that it had destroyed a dying weather satellite with a kinetic strike weapon designed specifically for that purpose. The Defense Department describes this as part of the PLA’s desire for the capability to “blind and deafen the enemy.” The same PLA analysis of U.S. and Coalition military operations also states that, “destroying or capturing satellites and other sensors…will deprive the opponents of initiatives on the battlefield and [make it difficult] for them to bring their precision guided weapons into full play.” Despite a press release saying that the missile was not meant to target any specific country, it is clear that the Chinese wanted to send a message to any country that values their satellites that they should not expect those satellites to remain operational if one of these countries interferes militarily in Chinese affairs (e.g., Taiwan).

As Andrew Nathan writes in China’s Search for Security, U.S. military capabilities are heavily reliant on technology to corral the mountains of data provided from field based, space based, and air based sensors. Nathan, when asked about the capability to render those technologies useless with anti-satellite weapons, stressed that, “One satellite [shot down] does not necessarily mean that they can blind the U.S. completely.” Indeed, there are technological responses being developed to counter such efforts. One emerging technology could allow for a small and simplified version of today’s larger satellites to be constructed in days or hours, and launched into orbit soon after. According to The Economist, there are even technological innovations to permit the launching of a satellite from the undercarriage of fighter jets, meaning that a navy finding itself “blinded” in a Chinese attack could replace its own satellite within hours. It should also be noted that different kinds of satellites fly at different altitudes. While spy and military communications satellites must fly in a low orbit of only several hundred miles, the higher end of the SC-19’s target range, “global positioning” and other satellites, fly at tens of thousands of miles in altitude and are thus still safe.

At this point, applying these new technologies to possible conflict scenarios best demonstrates how the balance of power that favors the United States in the Western Pacific may not be as certain as it once was. Going back to Robert Ross’ piece in 2005, a time when the U.S. still was basking in the warmth of the Revolution in Military Affairs, “Chinese leaders know that should there be a war in the Taiwan Strait, the U.S. Navy would intervene and the cost to China would be intolerable.”[21] But the situation may now be just the opposite.

According to Christensen, a September 1999 article in the PLA daily, Jiefangjun Bao, argued against the American willingness to fight a high casualty war.


“Hegemonists fear, first of all, personnel casualties…The strong reaction of the American public to the death of 16 Rangers during the U.S. invasion of Somalia forced the U.S. Army to withdraw its troops from Somalia…. The defensive side should make good use of the dread of the enemy, and choose the right methods of operation… including distant air attacks, long-range raids, concealed sabotage by secret service personnel, network break-in, and sneak attacks against enemy warships.” (The same author faults Saddam Hussein for not striking American and Saudi bases in the multi-week staging process prior to Desert Storm.)


This is particularly relevant in any simulations that pit the PLA against the United States in a bid for Taiwan. For the U.S., military conflicts in recent memory have been against forces that can only offer the occasional sniper’s bullet or roadside bomb. It has not suffered a heavy bombardment against its force for more than forty years. The possible costs of going into conflict with a so called “peer power” over Taiwan will make U.S. policy makers very wary of intervention if it means risking the sinking of a ship with 6,250 personnel on board, and the Chinese factor this into their calculations.

Using the RAND report assessing the practicality of American air power against a quickly modernizing China, a simulation of such a conflict was run in January by Popular Mechanics. It focused on how emerging technologies like the DF-21D will undermine present security strategies in the region, particularly in the case of Taiwan. In their simulation, the Taiwanese military awakens one morning to missile attacks on their airbases, rendering them unusable. Before the U.S. has time to scramble its F-22s from Kadena Airbase in Okinawa, thirty-four short-range ballistic missiles crater the runways and taxiways, destroying or stranding 75 percent of aircraft, according to RAND.

No translation necessary.
No translation necessary.

As the closest American aircraft carrier at the time, the U.S.S. George Washington races towards Taiwan, a volley of DF-21Ds fires off into space from the Chinese mainland. The missiles reenter the atmosphere traveling as fast as 8,000 miles per hour and tracking the aircraft carrier the U.S.S. George Washington as it responds to the attack. At that speed, it penetrates the 50km of atmosphere in a mere 22 seconds. While some Defense officials claim that it is not an Achilles heel for the fleet, it is hard to believe that any system, even new laser based defenses, can do much against the missile if it is a kinetic energy weapon which is not vulnerable to small explosives or lasers. A single strike from the DF-21D could incapacitate the carrier by destroying its surface runway without sinking it but forcing it to turn home. In this scenario, China would count on the United States’ aversion for high casualties to enable a Taiwanese surrender.


China’s calculations that the conflict would be over within hours and relatively bloodless could convince them that the political fallout of an unprovoked attack on Taiwan would be worth the engagement. Worse yet, they could very well win such a campaign with the U.S. fatigued by more than a decade of combat, causing them to hesitate committing fully to war with a “near peer” and the high-casualties that come with it. This is why the emergence of a Chinese anti-ship ballistic missile represents such a shift in Pacific power. For all intents and purposes, the DF-21D puts an end to more than six decades of U.S. dominance in the Pacific, making the future of U.S. global hegemony anything but certain.