Keith Boyea's Blog

Notes & Commentary on National Security, Current Affairs and Bourbon

Identity, Responsibility and the Afghan War

I had myself quite a little twitter rant today and I wanted to flesh out my ideas a little in blog form. As I noted on twitter, I have a habit of trying to philosophize practical issues, even though I have no special expertise in philosophy. So with that warning, I wanted to write a little bit about what I think “identity” has to with “responsibility” and what both those things have to do with the Afghan War.

To me, identity is fluid.  It changes with time.  It’s also a summation of all I was, am, and will be.  Lots of things influence my identity–in fact, I could say that my identity has changed since I got home this afternoon.  Inside that summation of me, are my ideas.  I’m not exactly sure what percentage of the self ideas are, but if you think about the greatest thinkers in history, say a Nietzsche or an Einstein, they are thought of almost completely as ideas and not as people.  

(As an aside on this point, coming up with great ideas or using ideas in a new way is one way to establish a legacy, or in Becker-ian terms, deny death.  In that way, Nietzsche and Einstein live.)

This is where identity begins to intersect with responsibility.  If my ideas are part of my identity, and I am responsible for my ideas, then it stands to reason that I am responsible for my identity.  I recognize that there is genetic determinism at play here–Part of our identity is our height, but I wouldn’t make the claim that I’m responsible for my height; as if I could get taller. As far as ideas go, however, I think it best to think that ideas are malleable and contigent; fluid and changable based on new experience and the discovery of new facts.  That is to say that I can take responsibility for them in a way I cannot take responsibility for my height.  If I’m right about that, then I’m responsible for a certain percentage of my identity. (And I tend to think that percentage is fairly high.)

I say all that to get to this point: If I fail to take responsibility for my ideas, then I’ve failed to take responsibility for my identity.  It’s like dividing my identity by zero.  It makes no sense.  It says that I do not have responsibility for my identity.

And all of that possibly tortured argument brings me to counterinsurgency and the Afghan war.  In 2009, generals, pundits, politicians, think tankers, and Versailles-on-the-Potomac royal courtiers were advocating the idea of counterinsurgency (COIN) as a solution to America’s Afghanistan problem.  There are a variety of reasons why this cast of characters pushed COIN–some honestly thought it was the correct course and others, quite cynically, pushed it because they believed it to be politically expedient.  But I don’t think it matters, responsibility-wise, why one holds an idea.  Either way, if my formulation is correct, it is still part of your identity.  

Since 2009, COIN has proved itself to be a failure.  Arguably, (but not very) the United States is in a worse position in Afghanistan in 2012 than it was in 2009.  Now those same generals, pundits, politicians, think tankers, and courtiers are doing their best to avoid taking any responsibility for the situation. It seems to be they are engaged in a massive effort resulting in dividing their identities by zero.

You may have noticed, well at least I hope you did, that I made a slight rhetorical switch there.  The crux of the switch is this–Does one have to take responsibility for the consequences of the ideas that make up their identity?

I’m inclined to say yes.  Ideas have consequences.  Ideas that are advocated publicly have consequences.  Ideas advocated by those with the ability to influence policy have consequences.

Further, the identities of those who advocate ideas publicly with the ability to influence policy are even more influenced by those ideas.  

So all you generals, pundits, politicians, think tankers, and courtiers, stop dividing your identity by zero and start taking some responsibility. 


Written by keithboyea

June 27, 2012 at 6:23 pm

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tethered together

In my post yesterday, I wondered what America can be tethered to if there’s no foundation to tether to.  I think maybe the answer is that we can be tethered together.  I guess I’d say this is similar to a version of Locke’s social contract.  It gives us support, stability and strength.  I think of it mentally as the tether going laterally rather than vertically.

Compared to something that connects to a solid foundation, this formulation seems a lot less stable. Americans are moving in a lot of different directions at once, with competing goals and politics.  That makes me think this formulation is as untenable as universals are.

Written by keithboyea

June 12, 2012 at 10:07 pm

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(un)tethered together

Over the past couple of years, I’ve trended strongly towards antifoundationalism, which is a rejection of fundamental truths or beliefs as a basis for analysis or inquiry.  It sort of started with Nietzsche’s God is dead formulation and proceeded from there.  Basically, I’ve come to doubt that there are any moral truths or any grounds for believing that their might be. This line of thinking can lead to what appears to be some ridiculous claims–there are no genders?–but I want to deal with it on a more superficial level.

One of the problems of antifoundationalism, for me, is trying to define the United States of America.  If there are no absolute, no essences, what can America possibly mean?  I think most people, me included, when pressed, quote the Declaration when pressed on this point:  America is about the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  That’s what we think ties us together as Americans.

So what does America mean to an antifoundationalist who rejects life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as universals?  I don’t know–how can I share in an America that I reject?

It’s a tough question for me–I don’t really know how to answer it.  And none of this is to say I don’t share in America, but I am pretty skeptical of the bullshit we tell ourselves about universal values.

Written by keithboyea

June 11, 2012 at 3:30 pm

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I Love Bourbon: Bookers

My buddy bought found a bottle of Van Winkle Special Reserve 12 Year, Lot B the other day, and because he’s a great friend, he bought if for me and my wife for Christmas.  I promised him that I wouldn’t open it until we could share a dram together.  But its the 10th of January as I write this, and I’m getting itchy…he better hurry.

Today’s review is Booker’s Single Barrel. 63.7% ABV.  This bourbon is straight from the barrel, uncut and unfiltered.

Color: Rich amber, like I think a bourbon should look .

Smell: Alcohol, without being offensive.  I get a load of vanilla nd some wood/oak.

Taste: Complex, sweet, with a long finish.  It hit me on the back of the tongue hard, but this tastes like a MAN’S bourbon. Warm and intense, it is a really good expression of Jim Beam.

Overall, I really enjoy Booker’s.  I like the stripped down, single barrel, uncut and unfiltered idea.

Rating: 3

Written by keithboyea

January 11, 2012 at 6:00 am

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Some Thoughts on Ron Paul

There has been a debate raging in the blogosphere and in print on how left leaning people should feel about Ron Paul.  The short story is that Dr. Paul appeals to some on the left because of his views on civil liberties* and American empire.  He has some unusual beliefs about the Federal Reserve and the gold standard, but what really bothers pretty much everyone is the publication of blatantly racist and homophobic articles in a newsletter in his name in the late 80s and 90s.  Paul claims to neither have written nor approved the articles.

The newsletters controversy rightly calls into question Ron Paul’s views on race.  There is just no excuse for it.  But I wanted to contrast the newsletters with what Ron Paul is saying right now.  The following excerpt is from the GOP debate on 7 Jan 2012:

PAUL: Well, it’s been explained many times, and everything’s written 20 years ago, approximately, that I did not write. So concentrating on something that was written 20 years ago that I didn’t write, you know, is diverting the attention from most of the important issues.

But the inference is obvious that — and you even bring up the word racial overtones. More importantly, you ought to ask me what my relationship is for racial relationships. And one of my heroes is Martin Luther King because he practiced the libertarian principle of peaceful resistance and peaceful civil disobedience, as did Rosa Parks did.

But, also, I’m the only one up here and the only one in the Democratic Party that understands true racism in this country is in the judicial system. And it has to do with enforcing the drug laws.

Look at the percentages. The percentage of people who use drugs are about the same with blacks and whites. And yet the blacks are arrested way disproportionately. They’re — they’re prosecuted and imprisoned way disproportionately. They get — they get the death penalty way disproportionately.

How many times have you seen a white rich person get the electric chair or get, you know, execution?

But poor minorities have an injustice. And they have an injustice in war, as well, because minorities suffer more. Even with a draft — with a draft, they suffered definitely more. And without a draft, they’re suffering disproportionately.

If we truly want to be concerned about racism, you ought to look at a few of those issues and look at the drug laws, which are being so unfairly enforced.

To my knowledge Ron Paul is the only candidate in the GOP talking about institutional racism (albeit in his characteristic inartful way). I think this is a serious point: The Government will never be able to eliminate personal racism, meaning a person expressing a prejudice against another racial or ethnic group.  Racism of that sort will probably always be with us.  But institutional racism–racism inherent in the system–is something Government has a duty to address.  The things Ron Paul mentioned above, the disproportionate effect of the drug war on African-Americans, is an example of institutional racism.  And he’s the only one in the GOP that wants to do something about it.

I don’t think this means I’ll feel comfortable voting for Ron Paul, but I am going to give him a more serious look than I have previously.

*I do recognize that Ron Paul might send the responsibility for civil liberties to the states, which may lead to civil liberties abuses in some states.  I don’t feel fully comfortable with this.

Written by keithboyea

January 10, 2012 at 5:21 pm

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BCS National Title Game

I did not see a minute of it.  From the highlights I saw in the gym this morning and the snark in my twitter feed, it appears I didn’t miss much.  I honestly (and naively) hope that the “meh” outcome increases support for a playoff system.  The college game is a disaster of incoherence run by money hungry oligarchs.  I’m not sure if it is more like Wall Street or the Republican Party.

Written by keithboyea

January 10, 2012 at 8:12 am

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Counterinsurgency, What Do You Really Know?

Thesis: Counterinsurgency theory says that obtaining knowledge about the local human “terrain” will help the counterinsurgent win the support of the locals, thus helping to end the insurgency.  Our experience in Afghanistan suggests this effort is useless.

The United States has spent a lot of effort trying to learn about the human terrain in Afghanistan.  It developed a formal system (Human Terrain Teams) but more generally, knowing the locals is a key tenet of counterinsurgency.  When Andrew Exum, one of America’s counterinsurgents, traveled to Afghanistan in the summer of 2009 as a member of Stanley McChrystal’s assessment team, he found the knowledge of the local terrain lacking.  As related in Michael Hastings’s book The Operators:

In one meeting, Exum drills down on the briefers.  Who controls the water?  Who are the local power brokers?  Tell me how they are related to the insurgency. The intel officers shrug… (Page 79)

The point here is that in 2009, according to the counterinsurgency experts, the US did not know the human terrain.  We didn’t  know the sources of the insurgency.  In response, the military undertook a serious and concerted effort to fill in the knowledge gap.   About 18 months later, in December 2010, Exum was impressed how well the intelligence officers had learned about the human geography:

1. Our intelligence at the tactical level is greatly improved. Eighteen months ago, as I traveled around Afghanistan for the former commander here, intelligence officers were outstanding in terms of providing information on the enemy: size, disposition, composition, most likely course of action, etc. When it came to providing political intelligence on “white actors” or explaining local tribal dynamics, though, most intelligence officers did not have much to offer. What a difference 18 months makes. This time around, when an intelligence officer began a briefing, he or she usually began by explaining the human geography of their area of operations and only later focused on the insurgency as a part of that human geography. I am so impressed with how sophisticated the analysis provided by intelligence officers today is when compared with not too long ago.

Here is my question:  Has this acquired expertise helped end the insurgency?

It is, admittedly, a tough question to answer because insurgencies don’t end on the deck of the USS Missouri.  But almost none of the trends appear to be trending towards the end of the insurgency.  2010 and 2011 were the deadliest two years for the US military.  More  Afghan civilians died in 2010 and 2011 than any years.  Hamid Karzai does not appear to have increased his legitimacy among the Afghan population.  There are still safe havens in Pakistan.  Afghan support for the US Military has been trending downward since 2005.  The insurgency still rages a full year after Exum said, “Counterinsurgency, as practiced at the tactical level, is the best I have ever seen it practiced.”

I am, obviously enough, against the war in Afghanistan.  But I am willing to look for evidence that the insurgency is close to ending, and I just don’t see it.  So what did our expertise in the local human geography get us?

The answer, I think, is that we know a whole lot more about the Afghan populace than we did in 2009,* but that information is almost perfectly useless.  It turns out that knowing who controls the water in a specific valley in Afghanistan doesn’t really matter to the context of the Afghan insurgency.  Let me put it another way: The information gleaned from studying Afghanistan’s human geography has not helped end the insurgency.

* I think there is another possibility here.  When Exum first asked the intel officers his questions in 2009, they didn’t know what to expect.  They were blindsided like a kid given a pop quiz who didn’t do the reading.  When Exum came back in 2010, the intel officers knew what to expect, so they prepared accordingly.  It may not reflect a real knowledge of human geography. (Which wouldn’t necessarily be useful anyway.)

Written by keithboyea

January 9, 2012 at 6:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized