Editor's Note — March 14, 2016, 1:39 pm

Introducing the April Issue

Dan Baum, Ralph Nader, Thomas Frank, Don DeLillo, Robert P. Baird, Emily Witt, and more

HarpersWeb-Cover-201604-302x410_blackIt’s a truth almost universally acknowledged that America’s war on drugs failed spectacularly. Why then, Dan Baum asks in his cover story for the April issue, “did the United States entangle itself in a policy of drug prohibition that has yielded so much misery and so few good results?” It was not until speaking to Richard Nixon’s domestic policy adviser, John Ehrlichman, that Baum began to hazard the answer he long feared: the catastrophic collateral wrought by the drug war on the lives of millions of black families was intentional. “Did we know we were lying about the drugs?” Ehrlichman told Baum in 1994. “Of course we did.” The Nixon White House thought of the antiwar left and black people as enemies. “But by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities.” Fast forward two decades, however, and it’s clear that the country’s mood has changed. To date, twenty-three states have legalized medical marijuana. The question is no longer whether we should legalize drugs but how. “If we can summon the political will,” Baum writes, “the opportunity to establish state monopoly of drug distribution,” as we did with alcohol distribution in the 1930s, is now.

In his essay on U.S. tort law, Ralph Nader examines the ways in which lobbyists have chipped away at what he calls the country’s “revolutionary process of personal-conflict resolution.” Corporate law firms, Nader writes, “now busily sound false alarms about the ever-expanding number of tort cases being brought by ‘greedy attorneys.’” What these claims fail to acknowledge, however, is that tort-law depositions unearth incriminating evidence against those at the uppermost reaches of the corporate ladder, often leading to criminal prosecutions. When the protections of tort law are circumvented, weakened, or nullified altogether, Nader concludes, it undermines the right of all citizens to protect themselves from harm caused by greedy manufacturers and to have their day in court.

In this month’s Folio, Harper’s Magazine’s managing editor Robert P. Baird tells the story of Jay Miscovich, a fifty-year-old treasure hunter who found more than a hundred pounds of emeralds on the ocean floor. “There was so many of them it was like picking cherries on a cherry tree,” he testified at a court hearing. To Miscovich, who lost everything in the financial crisis of 2007–08, the find, which was potentially worth millions, seemed like a blessing. As the saying goes, however, treasure is hard to find but easy to lose. A few years after his discovery, police found Miscovich dead of a self-inflicted shotgun wound. “I loved many beautiful woman, built my business and found an awesome treasure,” he wrote in a note to friends and family. “So don’t mourn my death, celebrate my life!”

Also in this issue: An excerpt about Hillary Clinton and the Clinton Foundation from Thomas Frank’s new book, Listen Liberal; new fiction by Don DeLillo; Walter Kirn meditates on the uncanny valley of virtual reality; Christine Smallwood reviews David Means’s meta-fictional Hystopia, which tells an alternate history of America during the era of the Vietnam War; and Emily Witt examines how the first two seasons of Transparent enact the vital questions and messy answers of real-world identity politics.

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More from Ellen Rosenbush:

Editor's Note May 10, 2018, 3:50 pm

Inside the June Issue

Seymour M. Hersh, Zora Neale Hurston, Rabih Alameddine, and more

Editor's Note July 21, 2016, 3:35 pm

Inside the August Issue

Martin Amis on the rise of Trump, Tom Wolfe on the origins of speech, Art Spiegelman on Si Lewen, fiction by Diane Williams, and more

Editor's Note June 16, 2016, 3:38 pm

Inside the July Issue

Tom Bissell on touring Israel with Christian Zionists, Joy Gordon on the Cuban embargo, Lawrence Jackson on Freddie Gray and the makings of an American uprising, a story by Paul Yoon, and more

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Afew months before the United States invaded Iraq, in 2003, Donald Rumsfeld, the defense secretary at the time, was asked on a radio show how long the war would take. “Five days or five weeks or five months,” he replied. “It certainly isn’t going to last any longer than that.” When George W. Bush departed the White House more than five years later, there were nearly 136,000 US soldiers stationed in the country. 

The number of troops has fallen since then, but Bush’s successors have failed to withdraw the United States from the region. Barack Obama campaigned on ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, only to send hundreds of troops into Syria. For years Donald Trump described America’s efforts in Afghanistan as “a waste” and said that soldiers were being led “to slaughter,” but in 2017 he announced that he would deploy as many as 4,000 more troops to the country. “Decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk of the Oval Office,” he explained. Every president, it seems, eventually learns to embrace our perpetual war.

With the Trump Administration’s attacks on affordable health care, immigration, environmental regulation, and civil rights now in full swing, criticism of America’s military engagements has all but disappeared from the national conversation. Why hasn’t the United States been able—or willing—to end these conflicts? Who has benefited from them? Is victory still possible—and, if so, is it anywhere in sight?

In March, Harper’s Magazine convened a panel of former soldiers at the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. The participants, almost all of whom saw combat in Iraq or Afghanistan, were asked to reflect on the country’s involvement in the Middle East. This Forum is based on that panel, which was held before an audience of cadets and officers, and on a private discussion that followed.

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Before he died, my father reminded me that when I was four and he asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said I wanted to be a writer. Of course, what I meant by “writer” then was a writer of Superman comics. In part I was infatuated with the practically invulnerable Man of Steel, his blue eyes and his spit curl. I wanted both to be him and to marry him—to be his Robin, so to speak. But more importantly, I wanted to write his story, the adventures of the man who fought for truth, justice, and the American Way—if only I could figure out what the fuck the American Way was.

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Sarah was four years old when her spirit guide first appeared. One day, she woke up from a nap and saw him there beside her bed. He was short, with longish curly hair, like a cherub made of light. She couldn’t see his feet. They played a board game—she remembers pushing the pieces around—and then he melted away.

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In the fall of 1969, I was a freelance journalist working out of a small, cheap office I had rented on the eighth floor of the National Press Building in downtown Washington. A few doors down was a young Ralph Nader, also a loner, whose exposé of the safety failures in American automobiles had changed the industry. There was nothing in those days quite like a quick lunch at the downstairs coffee shop with Ralph. Once, he grabbed a spoonful of my tuna-fish salad, flattened it out on a plate, and pointed out small pieces of paper and even tinier pieces of mouse shit in it. He was marvelous, if a bit hard to digest.

The tip came on Wednesday, October 22. The caller was Geoffrey Cowan, a young lawyer new to town who had worked on the ­McCarthy campaign and had been writing critically about the Vietnam War for the Village Voice. There was a story he wanted me to know about. The Army, he told me, was in the process of court-martialing a GI at Fort Benning, in Georgia, for the killing of seventy-five civilians in South Vietnam. Cowan did not have to spell out why such a story, if true, was important, but he refused to discuss the source for his information.

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The family was informed they would be moving to a place called Montana. Jaber Abdullah had never heard of it, but a Google search revealed that it was mountainous. Up to that point, he and his wife, Heba, had thought they’d be moving from Turkey to Newark, New Jersey. The prospect of crime there concerned Heba, as she and Jaber had two young sons: Jan, a petulant two-year-old, and Ivan, a newborn. 

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