Two years after the Syrian civil war began, Donald Trump was asked on Twitter how he would deal with the conflict if he were president. “I’d let them all fight with each other,” he replied. “Focus on US!” But since the former isolationist moved into the White House, he’s had a change of heart. Last month, we fired dozens of Tomahawk missiles at Syrian chemical-weapons facilities, joining France and the United Kingdom, in the largest Western intervention since the war began. Trump’s reversal follows a familiar pattern of post-9/11 presidencies. In 2003, George W. Bush’s administration announced that the Iraq war would be over within five months. Nine years later, Barack Obama campaigned for reelection with a pledge to withdraw US troops from Iraq and Afghanistan by 2014. Today we have thousands of troops stationed across the region—with no apparent exit strategy. To find out how we ended up in this endless war, Harper’s Magazine traveled to West Point and convened a Forum of retired military officers to examine the question of how the world’s best-trained and best-equipped military doesn’t ever seem to win.
And while we’re on the subject of losses, it was Seymour Hersh’s 1969 reporting on the My Lai massacre in Harper’s Magazine that hastened the end of Vietnam. In a piece adapted from his new memoir, Hersh reveals the journalistic detective work that his history-making (and history-changing) story required—and the fierce, even violent, resistance it provoked among his colleagues.
Abe Streep tells the story of a Syrian refugee family’s arrival in liberal Missoula, Montana, as a direct result of the resolve of a jewelry maker and rafting guide named Mary who successfully petitioned the International Rescue Committee to open its first office in the state. But Mary’s good intentions reach only so far—the areas surrounding Missoula are populated by white supremacists, rabid xenophobes, and anti-Muslim advocates who immediately target her program with hate and death threats. Streep follows the arriving Abdullah family’s efforts to build a home amid the chaos.
Hearing voices of invisible others has always been considered a clear indicator of serious psychological disturbance. But, according to T.M. Luhrmann—an anthropologist at Stanford who studies the odd, the uncanny, and the supernatural—auditory hallucinations just might be the key to the treatment of mental illness. Luhrmann follows Sarah, a California woman who experiences daily voices and visions but is completely healthy. Prominent psychiatrists are coming around to the idea that hearing voices is normal. It is the ways in which people react to those voices that determine whether they might become mentally ill.
Police stops and searches have historically been determined by what officers can see with their eyes—an officer must claim “reasonable suspicion” that a person is engaged in criminal activity before intervening—but smart cameras using artificial intelligence are quietly and profoundly extending the law’s reach. Ava Kofman explains a new technology that is revolutionizing policing but may be threatening our civil liberties.
Rabih Alameddine has been called “one of world literature’s most celebrated voices”; his novels have been described as “a bridge to the Arab soul.” In “Comforting Myths,” he explores the demands such labels put on writers. “You might think this is diversity but it seems more like homogenization,” he writes. “When I read a novel presented or marketed as ‘foreign,’ I feel that I’m reading that common thing, a generic novel hidden behind an alluring façade, a comfortable and familiar book with a sprinkling of exoticness.”
In Readings, David Graeber considers workers afflicted with what he calls “bullshit jobs,” those occupations that seem to serve little purpose to a company or to society and yet account for as much as 40 percent of all labor. Elsewhere in the section, a dating-simulation video game replicates the come-ons of prominent “seduction coaches” in the pickup artist community, and a Pennsylvania school district comes up with a new defense strategy against armed intruders in its schools: equipping classrooms with buckets full of rocks. Says the superintendent of his district’s students, “Some have a pretty good arm.”
In the June Easy Chair, Walter Kirn explores his fascination with Q, an ever-evolving thread on Reddit that purports to describe a global network of elites who are in cahoots to orchestrate world events. This month’s fiction by Mary Gordon sets up and immediately subverts the reader’s expectations about how past experiences might lend clarity to present motivations. A couple of books on the uses and abuses of psychedelic drugs are considered in this month’s Reviews section, as is Rachel Cusk’s fiction trilogy.