I get a lot of mail. Every now and then, though, I get an email that I can’t handle, that is asking questions that are so deep and so profound about what it MEANS to live in a fallen world, that is written with such keen yet unpolished first-hand observations … that I have no choice but to publish it.
Those emails are almost always by soldiers.
There’s a long tradition of the soldier/writer, going back to Xenophon and the Anabasis (March of the Ten Thousand). Xenophon wrote his chronicle 2,500 years ago, and it’s as fresh and as meaningful a book as any you will read today.
Yeah, tell me again how far humanity has “progressed” over time.
There are too many outstanding soldier/writers to even begin to list here. And by soldiers I don’t just mean warriors, but also firefighters and police … protectors all. In hopes of starting a conversation, I’ll call out two books that have been particularly meaningful to me – Matterhorn, by Karl Marlantes, and Young Men and Fire, by Norman Maclean.
I’m publishing these unpolished emails (actually, one comment and one email) verbatim, with zero editing by me. I’m doing this because, like I say, they’re asking questions (either explicitly or implicitly) that I can’t answer.
I’d like to ask YOU, the Epsilon Theory reader, to join in this conversation so that WE can figure this out TOGETHER. I know that sounds corny and hokey to some, but this is what being a pack is all about.
And yes, I know that posting a comment here requires a Premium subscription. That’s entirely intentional, because I have yet to meet a troll or a creep who’s willing to pay real money to spew online. But if you want to comment here and you can’t afford the subscription, then email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll post your comment for you.
Here’s the first soldier story, the very first comment to appear on Epsilon Theory:
Just wanted to say thank you. Grew up dirt poor but smart as shit and got sucked into the worst of our narrative-driven ‘elite’ institutions (Ben Bernanke was my econ professor – vomit).
Went to actual war a few times in the interim for my troubles. I remember being on a patrol base in Iraq, late 2008, a few random explosions here and there to punctuate the discussion of the US economy falling apart. Telling my soldiers (a bunch of 18-year-old kids from shithole places in the south and midwest like me) how those guys knew what they were doing, necessary to save the economy, yadda yadda yadda. They called bullshit, I disagreed at the time. They were right. Heaps and heaps of bullshit.
Wife has a similar story. Both of us spent the better part of a decade wasting our lives ‘changing the world’ for big tech and big law. We lit it all on fire a few years ago and haven’t looked back. Have a three-year-old daughter now and have tried to live something close to what you have here since she came around. Couldn’t put it into words as well as you have. Godspeed.
P.S. You should read the Stormlight Archive if you can spare time for a fantasy epic- best encapsulation of how to be a decent human in a fallen world I’ve read in a very very long time.
– Joseph McConnell
And here’s the second soldier’s story, a long email that deserves your attention. And mine.
Hello Dr. Hunt. I am hardly an investor or acolyte of the financial industry but have been following Epsilon Theory since sometime in 2016 prior to the election. I’m not sure if I initially stumbled onto one of your podcasts or perhaps it was that photo of the Iraqi boy on a red bicycle, framed by an oil-field inferno near Mosul, that crossed my twitter feed. Either way, I recognized the hallmarks of an honest broker and have followed ET since. Honesty seems to be a universal characteristic among outsiders.
I am writing to say that I would like to be among your pack, however, I am still presently trying to adopt or adapt to the context of civilian life in America. You see, I too am another ex-military officer who not so long wore a uniform and participated in many things that can only truthfully be described as worse than useless. I took note that the very first comment beneath Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose was scribed by a fellow service member who has similarly abandoned the path of conformity. In my own case, I joined the Army in 2006 already aware that it was a substantially harmful context to try and work within. Even today, I still cannot fully account for the impulse that makes me seek out those places I don’t really belong, but it sounds close enough to some instinctual version of Kant’s do right and perish.
The experience of deploying to Afghanistan is what forced me to finally acknowledge that the decision-making driving so many absurd outcomes in this century was not something that could be significantly affected or influenced from abroad. I hardly used to give a whiff about US domestic policy until its effects became unavoidably concrete. My youthful conceit was that I always preferred and sought to live outside of the US. No surprise, I wasn’t born in the US and spent much of my formative years in other countries. But it was quite a failure of imagination on my part to have successfully separated the realms of foreign and domestic for so long. Historical reality, more commonly referred to as war, managed to kill off that notion. And soon after returning from deployment, my coping mechanism of choice became a steadfast search for better information sources to reveal something about what the hell was happening in our new millennium? Accountability has gone out of style. All institutional and even individual failures are being administrated out of existence. Creditors and shareholders afforded the status of super-citizens. And at some point human determination itself became wholly irrelevant to the infallible logic of markets.
When did this all happen? Wasn’t somebody supposed to be guarding the walls of our social contract while my generation was still crawling towards maturity? Or have we been doomed since Karl Polanyi found a name for the total transformation of societies into markets. Ya know… I watched the movie Network (1976) at some point during my ROTC college years, but the relevance of Ned Beatty’s speech to Howard Beale’s character didn’t really sink in at the time. (https://youtu.be/yuBe93FMiJc) I even had a few great professors during my time as an undergrad, including my military history instructor, who did right during one of our after-class discussions and actually told me the answer to the following question: What is the most significant threat to US national security? I responded with typical noise like nuclear proliferation or domestic terrorism or long term ecological devastation. But then he just told me—the greatest threat to our security was a majority of Americans not understanding how the world works. It’s stuck with me ever since. Although it took me quite a awhile longer to really consider the scope of its implications. And still longer yet to consider that I should attempt to do anything about a global security environment that what was inherently being shaped by a collection of pathologies and power at home.
Afghanistan repaired that deficiency. Pretty soon I was devouring obscure panel discussions on youtube with hilariously small numbers of views. Podcasts like Dan Carlin, Radio Open Source, and even the wayward likes of Joe Rogan became far more compelling than anything to be found on NPR or NYTimes. Mark Blyth, Ambassador Chas Freeman, Andrew Bacevich, Barbara Ehrenreich, David Dayen, Walter McDougall, Thomas Frank, and numerous others like yourself became the voices I could assign some measure of trust. Quite an education and minus any insultingly inflated tuition fees. The end result of which, in addition to the incredible narrative arc that culminated in the 2016 election, ultimately convinced my wife and I that we needed to set aside our old desire to transition into foreign aid/development work. Somehow, dealing with the same set of troubles here at home seemed the only honest thing left to do. Besides, neither of us are crass enough to tell anybody in exotic foreign locales how to fix themselves when our own house was on fire.
So, we decided to stay in the relative liberal refuge of the Pacific west coast and have once again been trying to put ourselves to use. My wife has always remained the more practical between us and immediately returned to work as a nurse. I struck out to support all manner of progressive campaigns and activist candidates that want to see something better for people being preyed upon by this increasingly abusive economy. Not surprisingly, I put in my share of support for Sen. Sanders in the lead up to 2016 and have continued on other like-minded efforts since. That guy others like him represented the same sort of leadership and courage that I recognized in people of conviction with whom I had served in uniform. Nevertheless, I still largely remain an outsider to any sort of excessively branded party politics. And thus far I haven’t been successful in being co-opted into either civilian public service or paid political work. Ideological discipline, or let’s be blunt and call it conformity, has never been one of my strong qualities. Even though I was damn good at soldiering, that was only because I carried a good reason with me in addition to a heavy pack. When that reason retired, so too did I from the military. Too soon to have any actual retirement either.
Presently, my particular mixture of ardent loyalty and stark realism has only been tolerated in a volunteer capacity. Evidently, transitioning into administrative or technical public service in my state or locality seems to pretty much require the same academic pedigree as any civilian who never did time in the military. Also, I think some of us veterans remind technocrats a little too much of what failure looks and sounds like. I certainly know the value of losing, and the way I encounter hardship and loss is quite different from those who suddenly felt that the world became dangerous as of November 9th, 2016. Maybe it’s from getting onto a Blackhawk for the last time every time, or maybe from growing up in places with intense human suffering and poverty, but I seem to have a far more horrific sense of humor than the most of the urban metropole really wants to hang around with. Let alone alongside of. Thus I have not found my pack even among the crowd trying to steer our way back to some socio-political balance. Reading your missives on a regular basis is not helping either.
Or maybe they are. I very much appreciate the cold water assessment of Things Fall Apart and the burgeoning attempt to try and organize around a process. Not because I was a military staff officer who dealt in doom and gloom predictions and applying a deliberative decision-making process, but because I actually do believe that the rifts America is experiencing are here for good reasons. Hefty chunks of people are being discarded and dismissed by an economy that finds little competitive logic in engaging with them in any dignified or humane manner. The utterly stunning growth and advancement of the 20th century truly was incredible but appears to have been built upon the relatively low-hanging fruits of modernity. The last vestiges of shared experience that nurtured sufficiently broad solidarity and national identity were surrendered right along with the US manufacturing base. And in the National Intelligence Council’s most recent unclassified assessment, aptly titled Paradox of Progress, its introduction describes a human world that is operating on countless competing realities.
One other tidbit of wisdom that I remember sharply from college days came from French ex-resistance fighter turned philosopher Jacques Ellul—complexity will become the greatest enemy of democracy. I can’t assign any tremendous blame upon a majority of Americans who didn’t magically upgrade themselves to better understand and adapt to an unprecedented rate of progress. As Rick Perlstein once commented, “I respect the aristocracy of learning… but there has to be a place for people who, you know, aren’t brilliant.” I do not reserve any such comparable forgiveness for a majority of elected officials who purposefully misunderstand or misrepresent the world we live in. As such, they proliferate a world that would just as soon delete entire communities and populations like obsolete data from a computer recycle bin. Ever since last year’s 500th anniversary of Luther’s theses I’ve been wondering where would any new set of reforms be nailed to? There is no more church door, no more physical location where flesh and blood human beings can assert ourselves as the proper source of how we wish to encounter our fate. I remember a guy named Rory Stewart who once traversed across all of Afghanistan and later Iraq on foot. He eventually became an British MP and years before Brexit remarked that “there is no power anywhere” in modern Britain. Such it is with our own constituents and fellow citizens being attacked by their inboxes and other abstractions. Most are left to defend themselves only with five physical senses and an assortment of antiquated public institutions. At least those feudal pitchforking serfs could generally determine that power was consolidated in some baron’s nearby castle.
So I applaud all attempts like yours to look at the systemic wreck we are facing with a notion to nonetheless stay human along the way. Although I have more options and flexibility than many others of my peer group, I continue to find it challenging to adapt to a good path from here. Public service would still suit my personality and abilities well, although hiring managers can tell that I’m not well-suited to just pretend we can patch-work our way along until a liberal notion of “normal” returns via the ballot box. A gentleman writing for The Baffler recently commented how the Colorado River Research Group is recommending that authorities and organizations no longer use the term drought to describe the ecological changes happening in the American southwest. That term suggests a temporary deviation from normal. Aridification is much more appropriate. (https://thebaffler.com/latest/this-is-not-a-blip-timms)
Returning to more schooling remains available through the GI Bill, yet I have grown intensely skeptical at the lack of meaningful output from academia. Also the aforementioned tuition scam really is insulting. Last year I worsted myself sufficiently to pursue a law degree but was so late in applying that the local university could only use me to pad its waitlist. Given the drift of the American courts especially during the past few weeks, I’m having a hard time seeing how leveraging the law will involve anything more than playing piecemeal defense against the growing exercise of consolidated power. At best, the training and credential are likely something that would be still recognized by the professional class for some other eventual employment. But I am trying to identify additional viable options that may answer the moment. I’ve never had a problem doing things I didn’t particularly like as long as I could identify a right reason for it. But it’s certainly grown harder to find those reasons than it was in 2006 when I joined the Army.
This evolved into quite a message and I thank you for reading all the way through. I hope it has helped to betray whether I may be one of the pack and perhaps that can lead toward something useful. Because I chose to pursue a path that is not frequented by many intensely thoughtful individuals, conversing directly with others like yourself has been disappointingly rare in my professional life. So I would greatly value hearing your thoughts on how an ex-Army officer in good health with no debts and a loving wife might continue to fight the good fight. I don’t think it’s overstating to say that deciding to stay in America was the most dangerous assignment we could have adopted. Thus far, the only two instances of a firearm being directly targeted at either of us have both befallen her in the line of duty as a healthcare professional. So I’ll take whatever cleared eyed advice I can get for how to survive and thrive in our great and terrible US of A. Hopefully with full heart and full life along the way.
Your comments and thoughts are welcome. Please.