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A few years ago, I received an e-mail from someone named David J. Danelo. “Hi Claire,” he wrote. “I’m a Philadelphia-based field researcher, and will be passing through Istanbul next week en route to a West Africa project. I am interested in learning more about your work in Turkey. Would you be free for dinner on the evening of Tuesday, 2 April? Perhaps around 19:00 somewhere near the airport — I’m scheduled to arrive at 16:40 and depart again at 00:30. Look forward to hearing from you. All the best, David.”
After five minutes of Googling his name, I decided he sounded legitimate. From his website:
David J. Danelo writes about international affairs, consults on border security and management, investigates geopolitical risk, advocates for and coaches U.S. military veterans, and conducts global field research.
A 1998 U.S. Naval Academy graduate, Danelo served seven years as a Marine Corps infantry officer, including a 2004 Iraq deployment as a convoy commander, intelligence officer and provisional executive officer. After leaving the Marines, Danelo’s initial freelance assignments came in 2005, when he reported on U.S. military strategy from Ethiopia, Kenya, and Djibouti, from the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina, and postwar observations from Vietnam for a widely read U.S./Vietnamese newspaper. From 2006-2007, Danelo edited an Iraq War blog and wrote for the Los Angeles Times, New York Post, Marine Corps Gazette, Military.com, and Parade Magazine.
Hailed “a love letter to grunts” and “a superb account of war,” Danelo’s first book, Blood Stripes: The Grunt’s View of the War in Iraq, narrated the heroism and endurance of five enlisted infantrymen during a 2004 deployment. The Military Writers Society of America awarded Blood Stripes a 2006 Silver Medal, and General James Mattis listed the book among mandatory reading for Marines deploying to combat. For his second book, The Border: Exploring the U.S.-Mexican Divide, Danelo traveled the entire US-Mexico border for three months, seeing the area through an eclectic mix of local eyes. The Economist endorsed his “personal and readable account,” and The Border earned a spot on the U.S. Customs and Border Protection commissioner’s reading list.
We spent a pleasant evening together, and had the easy rapport certain expats have when they’ve both been away so long that it isn’t clear where home is anymore. We talked about his work and mine, about US foreign policy, and about our growing sense that the profession of foreign correspondence is dead. We would both, he said to me, have to accept that; and the sooner the better, and carve out new careers for ourselves. He had devised the strategy of calling his reporting “field research,” and had hooked up with a think tank that sponsored him to do some interesting work. He gave me a copy of a book he’d written: The Border: Exploring the US-Mexican Divide.
In 2007, I spent three months navigating the 1,951.63 miles of the US-Mexico border. I want from the easternmost point, a spit of beach south of Boca Chica, Texas, to Border Field State Park, California, where a rusty fence spills into the Pacific Ocean at the border’s western limit. I wandered from Brownsville to San Diego and Matamaros to Tijuana. This can be hazardous country for curious writers; in recent years, journalists have been intimidated, threatened, and even shot along the line that Mexicans call The Frontera. Thanks to good fortune, I emerged unscathed.
“Is it possible,” he asked, “to secure one of the most complex borders on the planet?” To read his answer, I suggest you buy the book; it’s the best I’ve read on the subject. Also, the only way people like him can keep doing in-depth foreign correspondence, or “global fieldwork,” as he’s rebranded it, is if people like you buy books like his.
I fetched the book from my shelf because I wanted to read it again in light of the attention the issue has recently received. I wondered what had happened to him and looked him up again. According to his bio:
In June 2011, Danelo was appointed to direct policy and planning within the Department of Homeland Security. While serving in government, he stabilized and led a policy and planning team, helped create the U.S. Border Patrol’s four year strategic plan, and developed U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s first-ever integrated planning guidance, enabling agency leaders to align five year funding projections with U.S. national security strategy. He returned to the private sector in August 2012.
I think we can read between the lines there: A one-year stint with the USG usually means that someone’s resigned in frustration.
Two years later, he wrote a fine piece for The American Interest called “The Courage Crisis.” Worth reading in full, especially in the context of the immigration debate taken into the non-stop limelight by Donald Trump. Charging both political parties with denial and cowardice, he asks, “Why does courage matter in policymaking?”
Isn’t that more appropriate for measuring combat valor than metering conference room debates? Courage is an intangible; it cannot be fed into a database or revealed by a statistical analysis. Yet courage is relevant because it defines the limits of action. Leaders with courage can expand the realm of the possible, as FDR once did, when he reminded us that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. Without it, would-be leaders spread malaise and leave the public paralyzed in a crisis of confidence.
The presence or absence of this mystical quality is especially crucial when there is compelling evidence for both sides of an issue. And if we do not see “it” in a President, we refuse to accept his administration’s bold policies on contentious issues like border security and immigration reform. No matter how convincing or urgent the logic for action becomes on our teeming shores, we steadfastly refuse to hand our chief executive the keys to our golden doors unless we detect a stout heart guiding his outstretched hand. President Bush’s immigration reform proposal was brave in one sense: He went against his party base to proffer it. President Obama’s immigration policy, on the other hand, has only served to heighten the partisan divide.
In the United States, border security and immigration reform occupy a strange category in that they are simultaneously foreign and domestic policy concerns. There are practical threats to public security that border security must address, and there are issues of economic prosperity that border management must encourage. From terrorists to narcotics to Ebola, border authorities are charged with preventing people or things from entering the United States that could cause the public harm. At the same time, from tourists to supply chain components to customs revenues, authorities must speed the passage of people and things into the United States that bring benefit. These duelling requirements are imposed on customs authorities at every U.S. port of entry, and they are woven into the fabric of the immigration laws those officials must enforce.
But as our divided Congress illustrates, the American public does not know how to handle the geopolitical challenge presented over the past three decades through our recent immigration waves, whether those waves take the form of legal guest workers who overstay employment visas, illegal migrant women hiking through deserts to give birth, or young children from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala emerging on our South Texas shoreline. When we talk about a “crisis” on national and international media, we are not just referencing that moment’s events along the southern border. We are really talking about a much broader question: What kind of nation will we become?
In 2005, the renowned political scientist Samuel Huntington proposed one explanation for the existing geopolitical tension in his final book, Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity. The immigration wave from Latin America over the past three decades, Huntington said, is incompatible with the core of American identity and threatens the very fabric of Western civilization. “All societies face recurring threats to their existence, to which they eventually succumb, Huntington wrote in the book’s foreword. “Yet some societies, even when so threatened, are also capable of postponing their demise by halting and reversing the processes of decline and renewing their vitality and identity.” Huntington’s prescription is straightforward: “Americans should recommit themselves to the Anglo-Protestant culture, traditions, and values that for three and a half centuries have been embraced by Americans of all races, ethnicities, and religions.” In short, Huntington argued for constraining the Latin American migration wave lest the power and promise of what it means to be American be lost forever.
Fortunately for migrant advocates, there is an alternative geopolitical argument. Robert Kaplan, in his 2010 book The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us about Coming Conflicts and the Battle against Fate, argues that we need not fear the threat of Latin American migration into the United States because it is necessary—even beneficial—for the two societies to merge. “The organic connection between Mexico and America — geographical, historical, and demographic — is simply too overwhelming,” Kaplan wrote. “America, I believe, will actually emerge in the course of the twenty-first century as a Polynesian-cum-mestizo civilization, oriented from north to south, from Canada to Mexico, rather than as an east to west, racially lighter-skinned island in the temperate zone stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific.”
Kaplan welcomes migration and sees tremendous benefits to bridging the national divide.
Which viewpoint best suits the American interest? Which prescription should we use to frame policy? This is not an insignificant question. For Team Huntington, no policy on immigration reform that reduces controls or quotas for any Latin American country is welcome. No policy proposal passes muster if it specifies insufficient punishment for “criminal illegals” or inadequate funding for border security. It matters not whether migrants are legal guest workers who fail to speak adequate English and overstay their visas, or eight-year-old orphans fleeing abusive and violent communities. “Illegals” denote not just people who have broken a law but people whose very presence endangers the American way of life. “Illegals” take American jobs. “Illegals” are people who only the naive think can be assimilated. Team Kaplan sees all these issues from the opposite perspective.
The fact that the battle lines in this debate have hardened around partisan bases makes the situation that much worse. In successive elections, the Democratic National Committee has presented the Republican position as racist and xenophobic. This is an unfortunate line, for, inflammatory adjectives aside, Huntington’s overall analysis is correct: The wave of Latin American migration over the past three decades into the United States, driven largely (as hundreds of migration scholars have illustrated) by increasingly restrictive U.S. border controls, is unlike any that has happened before in American history. The Democratic Party’s denial of this truth only hardens Republicans, who look at immigration reform and see only a mounting siege on American culture and partisan calculations. …
Both the book and the article are worthy of your time.
Upon looking him up, I discovered he’d written a new book called The Return: A Field Manual for Life After Combat. I ordered it for my Kindle and read it in less than half an hour. I again had the sense that I was communicating with someone who understood some aspects of my life. I have not, of course, been in combat, but even though he argues that no one who had not experienced it could understand it, I did understand parts of what he’s talking about very well.
“What is exile,” he asks?
Returning from combat in a foreign land — taking off the warrior’s uniform and coming back as a civilian — is an achievement that should theoretically culminate in euphoria. It’s supposed to be a triumphant feeling. The victorious end after a long journey. What happens instead? As soon as you’re back, you wish you’d never returned. …
Returning warriors have a hard time talking about this fear. Civilians think they fear the enemy, or killing, or death, or memories. Warriors may have feared some or all of these things before combat, but they rarely encounter these fears in the fight. What most warriors fear is shame — failing to perform honorably for their mates. Warriors fear blaspheming their beliefs, and maintaining their martial beliefs is what keeps them going.
Exile triggers this virulent and primal fear. For many warriors, the ultimate violation of their ethos is becoming a civilian again. The civilian world — the place that values peace, happiness, and calm pursuit of personal dreams — embraces the antithesis of warrior values. In combat, warriors overcome fear by motivating themselves to live up to their peers, leaders, and ancestors. Without this inspiration, a warrior in Exile is terrified and hollow, lacking a purpose and dream.
The passage was in no way intended for me, but nonetheless seemed to describe something I haven’t been able to articulate about why returning to Paris after giving up reporting on Turkey has been so disconcerting. I found the rest of the book useful. Even if I wasn’t the intended audience, the counsel he offered was meaningful.
Do we have among us veterans of the military who sympathize with the sentiment? Ones who don’t? Has anyone had a non-combat experience that left him or her finding something familiar in that passage?
What of his thoughts about the border? Agree, disagree?
Finally, one more piece I came across while I was wondering what had happened to David Donelo. In 2013, he wrote this article: Anarchy is the New Normal: Unconventional Governance and 21st Century Statecraft. I think the ideas he raises are interesting and worth discussion:
When I was commissioned a Marine Corps officer in 1998, I was told to believe non-state entities were dangerous to U.S. national security. Whether forecasting the end of history or the clash of civilizations, the foreign policy scholars my seniors encouraged me to study pointed towards “ungoverned spaces” as the global hotspots where American warriors were most likely to fight. The concern grew when Afghanistan’s stateless areas served as staging grounds for the 9/11 attacks, and again in Iraq when the Coalition Provisional Authority blamed postwar instability on a lack of good governance.
Having removed my uniform and traveled through many ungoverned — or, more accurately, unconventionally governed — spaces, I question the value of building national security policy around the need to develop states. Assumptions that good governance can only exist through state structures often result in flawed, ineffective policy responses that satisfy bureaucrats without altering ground conditions. Consider West Africa, where American officials are more concerned with financing capacity building programs to support dysfunctional states (Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, and so on) than identifying and influencing religious and tribal power brokers, even if they don’t hold formal elective office. And in Mexico, law enforcement in the six northern states collapsed without disrupting U.S.-Mexico trade volume, which grew from $332 billion in 2006 to a record $493.5 billion in 2012.
In Syria — or, more accurately, the coasts, mountains, rivers, and deserts that used to be Syria — Iranian, Saudi, and Russian sophistication is running circles around Western impotence. Washington policymakers have trapped themselves with binary options for responses to the civil war’s regional tensions. On the one hand, supporting even the most moderate opposition forces elevates Sunni extremists. On the other, allowing the Assad regime to retain power in Damascus further increases Iran’s regional influence. Given this dilemma, does the United States have an interest in developing flexible techniques that would produce alternative policy options matching the street savvy of our competitors? Assuming we do, how do we build those more nuanced approaches into our foreign policy toolbox?
As the 21st century unfolds, anarchy should certainly not be an aspiration. The nation-state system is clearly the most productive, peaceful and profitable way for people across the world to coexist. But it is not how many of the world’s most troubled regions actually relate to each other, or to their local and international neighbors. Consequently, Washington should become comfortable leveraging city-states, conglomerates, and clans alongside great powers, grand strategy, and good governance. The practice of statecraft must evolve to consider using, rather than preventing, the power of statelessness. As Dr. Bull concluded, “It is better to recognize that we are in darkness than to pretend that we see the light.”
Read it through and tell me what you think. Do you think this makes sense, and if it does, do you think Washington would be capable of “becoming comfortable leveraging city-states, conglomerates, and clans alongside great powers, grand strategy, and good governance?”
Or is that just so far from the way Americans think as to be culturally beyond us?Published in