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When the problem is a moving target

Saturday, September 19th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — the AUMF and “wickedness” ]

The essence of the insight that Horst Rittel and more recently Jeff Conklin bring to our attention under the rubric of “wicked problems” is the idea that what is viewed as a problem from one standpoint may be seen from another perspective as having a different emphasis, a different center of gravity — so that a move that solves a given problem from the first viewpoint may partially or wholly fail to solve it from that second perspective.

Add to that, the idea that the problem may itself morph as circumstances vary over time — as some interested parties drop out and others become interested, deadlines pass and new techniques and avenues of approach arise — and it becomes clear that the naive label “the problem” covers something far closer to an evolving and poorly defined entity than to one that is clearly defined and unchanging.


Gregory Johnsen had a fine piece on the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) in Buzzfeed titled 60 Words And A War Without End: The Untold Story Of The Most Dangerous Sentence In U.S. History. Those sixty words say:

That the President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.

In his extensive commentary on how those words have been interpreteted, he writes:

Unbound by time and unlimited by geography, the sentence has been stretched and expanded over the past decade, sprouting new meanings and interpretations as two successive administrations have each attempted to keep pace with an evolving threat while simultaneously maintaining the security of the homeland. In the process, what was initially thought to authorize force against al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan has now been used to justify operations in several countries across multiple continents and, at least theoretically, could allow the president — any president — to strike anywhere at anytime. What was written in a few days of fear has now come to govern years of action.


It seems to me somewhat naive as a general principle to think that words framing in a problem and or solution from one perspective, in one time, and under one set of circumstances, will necessarily “fit” it some later time, under changed circumstances and perhaps from a different perspective.

One could surely apply these words of Conklin’s in Wicked Problems & Social Complexity to the AUMF:

Moreover, the field is changing so fast that new options become available, and others drop into oblivion, almost every day.


My question is: what do we do about the fluidity of change in a world of verbally-fixed laws? And I see that as an inevitable question arising in light of Lao Tzu‘s twin dicta which I have variously phrased or seen phrased as:

  • The pronounceable name isn’t the unpronounceable name
  • The flow that can be capped isn’t the overflowing flow
  • The quantity that can be counted is not the unaccountable quality
  • No way the way can be put into words
  • The problem that can be described isn’t our actual situation
  • the path that can be mapped is not the pathless path
  • and so forth.. or as Korzybski has it:

  • the map is not the territory
  • Sow wind, reap whirlwind

    Sunday, December 30th, 2012

    [ by Charles Cameron — on blowback, in praise of a Gregory Johnsen post, and literacy ]

    William Blake, The Lord Answering Job Out of the Whirlwind


    ED Hirsch and Joseph F Kett‘s New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy doesn’t appear to have an entry for the phrase “For they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind” which is straight out of the prophet Hosea and is now something of a proverb in the form “sow the wind, reap the whirlwind”. Hunh.

    It’s an elegant phrase. The translators of the King James Bible were masterful in their singular ear for English, and no doubt Hosea‘s original Hebrew (Hosea 8.7) is no less pithy. Seed preceding harvest is about as basic a notion of cause resulting in effect as one can find in the lived world of agriculture, with the actual mechanism through which it comes to pass hidden in the “black box” between them where, as another biblical passage (John 12.24) puts it:

    unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.


    Sow the wind…

    It doesn’t sound like much, does it? Put an airy nothing in the ground…

    reap the whirlwind.

    If you were within media reach of the devastation that Sandy caused to New York and New Jersey — or Haiti (yet again) for that matter — you know what reaping the whirlwind is about. And the proverb, with the prophet behind it, tells us we get it by sowing the wind.



    Gregory Johnsen, in a recent Waq-al-Waq post, Sowing the Wind: Three years of strikes in Yemen, pulls together three recent news pieces on Yemen to give us a view from 30,000 feet — in which blowback is clearly visible as the “whirlwind” his title implies we are already beginning to reap.

    This sort of “here’s how the weather system looks from above” picture comes from the juxtaposition of key quotes, and since that’s one of my specialties, I’ll present two quotes that Johnsen selected in my own format devised with just that sort of exercise in mind:

    That first quote is from Letta Tayler in Foreign Policy, and the second from Sudarsan Raghavan in the Washington Post.

    As Johnsen puts it:

    This is clear: the US bombs, kills civilians and AQAP sends compensation – ie, helps out the families that have been killed – and takes advantage of the carnage the US has sown to reap more recruits.

    This is at once all too sad, and at the same time all too predictable.


    There’s plenty more in Johnsen’s post, obviously, and being a trawler for religious details, I myself was particularly amused, or maybe alarmed, by this sentence:

    That opening strike in the US’ war against AQAP in Yemen was a disaster, a strike so bad that the Pentagon lawyer who authorized it famously said later: “if I were Catholic, I’d have to go to confession.”

    Indeed, as I hope to show shortly in a review of his book, The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaeda, and America’s War in Arabia, Johnsen has a great deal to tell us, and he tells it with the added grace of a real appreciation for the language he uses.

    Which brings me to the reason why I singled this particular post for commendation, given that I read a number of insightful people on a number of interesting topics each day.

    Gregory Johnsen is literate, lettered.


    I can’t estimate for myself just how many people would know and recognize the Hosea quote, nor how many more would at least know the proverb “sow the wind, reap the whirlwind” well enough to recognize its first half and provide the second half from memory… That’s why I looked it up in Hirsch’s New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy. And when I didn’t find it there, I have to say I wasn’t surprised.

    Way back in 19232, was it, TS Eliot was dropping snippets of already obscure (obsolete?) texts in English, Italian, Latin, and French — from Thomas Kyd‘s Spanish Tragedy, Dante‘s Purgatorio, the Pervigilium Veneris, and Gérard de Nerval‘s El Desdichado — into his poem The Waste Land, with the comment “these fragments I have shored against my ruins.”

    As Eliot would note later in Burnt Norton, “Words strain, / Crack and sometimes break, under the burden, / Under the tension, slip, slide, perish, / Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place…”… And how much more so the myths, fables and proverbs made of them — myths, fables and proverbs which pass down the embodied wisdom of generations, as this proverb from Hosea passes down embodied wisdom about blowback — or negative positive feedback loops, as a latter-day Hosea might call them.

    Johnsen is, precisely in this sense, literate, and in addition to the benefit his analysis brings, it’s a delight to read him for that very reason.

    But there’s an even bigger issue here — the one Eliot was on about — the question of what happens when we lose the cultural underpinnings which, I’ll repeat, pass down the embodied wisdom of generations?

    Johnsen speaks to the present, to Yemen, to the Yemeni people and to American politics. But in quoting that fragment of a proverb in his title, and expecting us to recognize it, he also speaks to memory, to culture, and to wisdom — wisdom, the capacity to act wisely — to which memory and culture are portals.


    William Blake painted The Lord Answering Job Out of the Whirlwind, which I’ve placed at the top of this post, and it is said in Job 38.1, “the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind”.

    In a forthcoming post — how often have I posted those words, and how seldom do I manage to fullfil them? — I hope to address the other possibility, the one in which as I Kings 19 has it (verses 11-12):

    And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake: And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.

    But the Lord was not in the wind — it might be nice if the evangelists of righteous doom would remember that verse, before they inform us that a hurricane like Sandy is simply God reproving Cuba, Haiti and the eastern seaboard of the United States!

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