Editor's Note — May 10, 2018, 3:50 pm

Inside the June Issue

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

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.

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More from Ellen Rosenbush:

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

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Editor's Note May 13, 2016, 1:31 pm

Inside the June Issue

Helen Ouyang on the cost of crowd-sourcing drugs, Paul Wood on Trump’s supporters, Walter Kirn on political predictions, Sonia Faleiro on a man’s search for his kidnapped children, and Rivka Galchen on The People v. O. J. Simpson.

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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.

Artwork by Mahmood Sabzi
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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.

After that, he came and went like any child’s imaginary friend. Sarah often sensed his presence when strange things happened—when forces of light and darkness took shape in the air around her or when photographs rippled as though shimmering in the heat. Sometimes Sarah had thoughts in her head that she knew were not her own. She would say things that upset her parents. “Cut it out,” her mother would warn. “This is what they put people in psychiatric hospitals for.”

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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. 

Montana sounded like the countryside. That, Heba thought, could be good. She’d grown up in Damascus, Syria, where jasmine hung from the walls and people sold dates in the great markets. These days, you checked the sky for mortar rounds like you checked for rain, but she still had little desire to move to the United States. Basel, Jaber’s brother, a twenty-two-year-old with a cool, quiet demeanor, merely shrugged.

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"Gun owners have long been the hypochondriacs of American politics. Over the past twenty years, the gun-rights movement has won just about every battle it has fought; states have passed at least a hundred laws loosening gun restrictions since President Obama took office. Yet the National Rifle Association has continued to insist that government confiscation of privately owned firearms is nigh. The NRA’s alarmism helped maintain an active membership, but the strategy was risky: sooner or later, gun guys might have realized that they’d been had. Then came the shootings at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, and at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, followed swiftly by the nightmare the NRA had been promising for decades: a dedicated push at every level of government for new gun laws. The gun-rights movement was now that most insufferable of species: a hypochondriac taken suddenly, seriously ill."

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