Sources and Methods #31: J. Kael Weston

Alex’s PhD Tool Recommendations

Spaced Repetition Foundation

J. Kael Weston’s Website

JK Weston’s email for readers of his book, loves to hear from you:

Show Notes:

7:00 - Joined the foreign service after failing out of my PhD program

10:48 - How do you do it [implement US foreign policy] on the ground? You call a lot of audibles. It’s all about relationships.

17:16 - The farther you are from a place like Fallujah or the farther you are from Anbar, Baghdad, Basra, you’re going to be dominated by domestic considerations matter more than what’s going on in the ground. I say this in the book - American elections matter more than any Iraqi or Afghan election, and I believe that.

20:15 - I was always trying to say that we’re not here to occupy your country, that we’re not here to suck out all your oil. The Marines are here to fight, and they’ll fight hard. And I’m here to say there’s a better way forward, where the troop levels go down. And I had another message for Washington - that even a guy here full time, I only knew 1%. Year by year I knew 1%.

21:40 - It behooves us as a country, even as a superpower, how little we can learn in a seven month tour, or a year tour, or even a three year tour.

24:10 My book is an exercise in resurrection in words, I’m trying to bring back in words, real characters, who deserve at least a few pages in a 600 book. And it’s got applications for today. I didn’t want to write a book with five policy lessons from Fallujah. What I wanted to do was write a book so that if you’re a SEAL in Coronado or your General Dunford or whether you’re just an average concerned citizen, you’ll understand that if you take an Iraqi female, there are going to be repercussions. And in the two longest wars in our history, have we learned those lessons and repercussions?

27:15 - I did not enter Fallujah looking at the world there in black and white at all. The two colors were grey and red. Way too much red, and grey everywhere. Some of my military colleagues, and I don’t fault them, had a harder time with that. If you were X then and you want to be Y now, that can’t work.

28:40 - When you listen to the people you’re there to interact with, they can tell you what you want to hear. It’s not as if they don’t want to come to some kind of arrangement with you. And I saw that in guys in the third or fourth tours who got that better…. I found that some of our best allies were folks who had been fighting us a year or two before, because they saw how bad things could get.

30:13 - War is about pragmatism on the ground. You can’t get on your high horse and say well, that guy was a bad guy three years ago. You can make a point, but you’ll never end a war if you don’t reach out and find more stability with more people.

31:39 - Warfare is about people. It’s about the cost to people in a war. People don’t win in a war. Never. Countries may win in a war, but never people. The people in Fallujah are still losing.

36:50 - In these wars we confused troop levels with commitment.

39:00 - I think we escalated a war, unnecessarily. We escalated in terms of troop levels - it’s like a big inverted V. We went up quickly and then the temptation was to  drop quickly. And what I would’ve liked to have seen, which I think would have allowed for more consistent people to people interaction, is to go low to go long. I’ve been advocating that for over a decade.

42:43 - We should be wary of where our limits. One of the best lessons to come from Afghanistan and Iraq is we have limits. The American superpower - which we didn’t see in 2003. I remember when we were at the height of our national power, people forget it was before the mortgage meltdown, before everything we went through, our troops on the fourth, fifth, sixth tour, we were all muscle at the time. Twitch muscle. And what we now see is we have limits. I think this [understanding] will eventually make us a stronger power, a more responsible power. I also think that focusing on the homeland alone is also a recipe for disaster.

52:42 - The problem (on sending people with language skills to countries they are working on) was urgency, and I hope that’s a lesson that’s learned. When you’re sending 150,000 soldiers to Iraq, this isn’t a priority. I don’t believe that the best representatives of the United States always are the experts in the region because at some level there’s a distance that’s helpful as well. I went native with the Sunnis in the West (of Iraq) and the Marine Corps, and I don’t think that undermined what we were doing, but you need a balance.

54:55 - The best diplomats are the ones who speak the language, know the history, and know the arc of that part of the world, for sure. And Amb. Crocker, Ford, and I could name a number of them, they’re out there.

55:55 - It’s a resurrection book. It’s also an accountability book. I believe that some of the literature out there is missing the lowercase ‘p’ for political frame. that wars get started and decisions are made and we shouldn’t just pretend it’s about me and my platoon. That’s an important story. But there’s also the story about the United States of America going to war. And because of my job I felt like I had curtains that I could pull back, in as an objective way I could, and in the best writing I could. So it’s not a counterinsurgency 501 lessons learned book, it’s - these are the stories, these are the people.

56:54 - The mechanics are two shoeboxes full of audiotapes. I used to speak into tape recorders in Iraq. I didn’t even rely on these as much as I could because I almost had too much information. So one day I may do another kind of book. The audio. You know, one day Sheikh Hamza is killed, I’m venting into an audio recorder and you can hear the call to prayer in the background in the middle of Fallujah and that’s all incredible audio. And it’s also in terms of writing where the details came from.

And  I also had a pile of those military green notebooks.

59:15 - The best ‘Mirror Test’ from these wars will come from them [the Iraqis and Afghans]. And I can’t wait until there’s an archive of - I hope one day - the Fallujans writing about the Americans in their city. And I might be able to help that. I hope that someday we’re reading the raw, unfiltered voices of the war. Because I’m still a filter, I still have my biases, I still made my decision on what to focus on. That’s why I ended the book with the soldier’s journal, because I wanted just his voice to be raw and pure, how it is when you’re in the middle of Sadr City. And why I end with the friends and family for the Marines who were killed in that helicopter crash.  

1:00:47 - I know many veteran writers who are very disciplined people who write 1,000 words a day. I’m not one of those people. If I’m motivated and the coffee is flowing, I may write a bit. I spend most of my time thinking about what I’m going to write. This book was actually in formation in my mind between National Parks out West because I needed to start thinking about how to dig into my seven year archive. I had too much information. I had too many stories.

1:02:40 - I still think the best books of these wars are yet to come.

For a non-fiction writer, I sought a fiction editor. I was searching for my weaknesses.

On how to launch a career like his:

1:06:07 - I would say the State Department is doing a much better job of looking like the rest of America. It’s not all Pale Male from Yale. And that’s good because the world needs to see us in all of our diversity and our strengths and weaknesses.

1:06:41 - I also would say that there’s no set game plan to pass the exam [Foreign Service Exam]. I don’t think you can just read every New York Times paper that comes out and start with the culture section and finish with A1. Read widely, go overseas, I’m always an advocate when you’re out of college - go see the world. You’re only going to be able to understand America by living the rest of the world. I believe that fundamentally. You’ll only be able to represent the United States well if - not just over a summer, or a two week tour to Venezuela or Italy or Japan - but to really cut yourself off from your country for awhile. And a lesson in so many ways. And then by the time you’ve had that experience - whether it’s a language program, Peace Corps, military - you will become the better diplomat, because you will know what our country looks and sounds like, oceans away. And it’s that empathy thing, you now know how they see us because you’re among. The good and the bad.

The best ambassadors we have are not our official ambassadors in our embassies. They are the ambassadors in the generation that say, Ok, the Americans still represent this, even though that.

[We find our greatest safety, we find the greatest stability when] We’re that leader that people want to follow not because they’re fearful of us, not because of our military.

So yes, go overseas, go to a hard place. Go to places that maybe are going to challenge you to your core. And then if you want to join the State Department or USAID and they ask you the question ‘so why are you qualified and or what do you want to do’ - that’s your best opportunity. Is to say here’s what I lived, here’s what I experienced.


Kael’s Picks:


1973/74 British Television Series ‘World at War.’ Episode 18. Narrated by Lawrence Olivier. This episode, titled ‘Occupation Holland’ has moved me more than anything I’ve ever seen in my whole life. They focus on the Dutch experience.


Love Vigilantes New Order. For service members, it will be incredibly moving.


War Comes to Garmser by Carter Malkasian

Sources and Methods #12: Louie Palu


Suzanne Schroder's blog

Suzanne Schroder on Twitter

Louie Palu 101:

Louie's website

Louie on Twitter

"Four Burning Questions for Louie Palu, photojournalist"
"Louie Palu Talks Global Conflict"
"Louie Palu: The Art of War"
"Dangerous exposure: Photojournalist Louie Palu on working in conflict zones"
"“Photographs Are There To Empower You”: Louie Palu Talks Mexico, The Drug War And Photography"

"Kandahar Journals"

"Portrait of an Artist: Louie Palu"

"Prison Photography: Louie Palu"

Show Notes:

2:45 - British photographer Don McCullin inspired me to become a photographer, saw his work and photographs, and immediately connected with it.

4:55 - Freelancing was exhilarating at the start, taking a photograph and then seeing it in paper’s the next day, but I knew quickly I wanted to work on long term projects.

5:32 - First major project were the mines in Northern Quebec and Ontario.

6:20 - I don’t usually get commissioned to do work, I do my own projects and then try to publish them. Eventually got hired at the Globe and Mail.

7:02 - Why do I cover war? I used to say because it was important, and of course it is. But really, there’s nothing personal in that answer, and it didn’t satisfy me. What I realized was that it all connected to my parents, to my roots. My dad's friend was thrown in a POW camp during WWII serving in the Italian Army, and he used to have to fight for food, literally competing with dogs. And that story really stuck with me, as I grew up with these stories, and it really has informed my work.

9:34 - The first conflict I covered was in Kandahar. I was a Canadian, and I heard we were about to start a combat mission there, and I wanted to document it, to start one of my long term projects. It wasn’t just a historical / patriotic thing, it was ‘what’s happening with this country, and our country.’

11:02 - My photography in Afghanistan wasn’t about Italian, or Canadian, or even Afghan, but it was about a human experience.

14:03 - Kandahar has astonishing history, so much to document.

17:01 - I wanted to avoid being a photographer who followed the shooting, or ‘bang bang’ as photographers call it. Did lots of researcher, and really tried to figure out how I could physically get where things were happening, and fill in the holes in the embedding system.

27:00 - Absurdity and war certainly go hand and hand.

31:49 - How to prepare for heading out in Kandahar? Basic respect and researching about everybody in that place as much as possible, and learning about the small things. Everyone wants to learn about the big things, but it’s really the small things.

33:10 - The Taliban don’t want to destroy Afghanistan, they want it to cohere. Afghanistan has always been a weak state but a strong nation.

35:03 - I think it’s important to see war from all sides. Only until you reach inside yourself and understand your own humanity is inhumanity revealed. Until you understand that, you’ll never get it.

52:02 - War is never straight forward, many people think that. It’s a lot of shades of grey. I think the important thing is training - and a lot of journalists went to Afghanistan but they were inexperienced, and this showed. Neutral and objective reporting wasn’t always there. It’s about looking at everybody as an individual.

54:25 - Palu’s Garmsir Marine Portraits. And his Concept Newspaper.

56:15 - I’ve covered the Mexican Drug War, and nobody wants to believe how violent that place is. 100,000 dead since 2006 - it’s like a little Syria with a functioning economy.

1:10:20 - One of my favorite photographs from Guantanamo doesn’t have to do with the detainees - I really started thinking about the environment of this place, and took a picture of a chair. It’s just a chair. But you don’t need to see any more to understand that something probably not that great happened there, and I thought it was really powerful.

1:17:13 - The big next project: Kandahar Journals, from 2009 and 2010 when I was in Kandahar. And I’ve been working on a story to go underneath all the stories and writing and photographs from my time there. It’s also about Kandahar being this forgotten front in the war as well. Working on a book as well. I’m also working on publishing parts of my archive and make it more accessible to the public.

Sources and Methods #9: Rohini Mohan


Rohini Mohan 101:

Author site / blog

Rohini on Twitter / Instagram

The Seasons of Trouble ( / goodreads / google books)

Book excerpt - "The Abduction"

Interview with Guernica magazine - "Prachanai" (Trouble) in Sri Lanka, Past and Present

Show Notes:

Section read can be found here:

9:04 - Covering the 2004 Indian Ocean Earthquake was an awakening point for my journalism, when I realized there was an entire other world out there and I knew nothing about it.

11:21 - At the time (2004), it was 1,000 or 2,000 words tops, not longform - that idea that people will not read a long piece that has changed a lot since then. People will read it if it is well written and engaging.

12:44 - I was interested in Sri Lanka first, not necessarily a book. I was in NY at Columbia getting a MA degree, and I graduated in 2009 after it was over… extended interest in the effects of the conflict and also as the numbers started coming out... made me start thinking I had material to tell a larger story.

17:46 - The first thing to do was to write down the history, because I found it the hardest thing to explain to someone who might not know anything. The history is various, it’s not one, as conflict history is, and that’s what I felt most insecure about, so that’s what I started writing about. And then I had to decide how many people to write about, and what the structure of the story would be.

19:40 - I also started looking for gaps [in information] and trying to fill those gaps.

24:40 - In Sri Lanka, there’s no doubt that knowing the language was helpful in building trust. People are very when they know you know the language - not that it’s always inviting or welcoming, it can be more responsibility if you know the language. When people knew I knew Tamil, some people wanted ideological agreement [with what they were saying]. Some of the people wanted me to take sides.

31:15 [On routines for interviews] - I do as much reading up on the person - even people I’m meeting for drinks - as possible. It’s become a routine. If I’m meeting people in power, I do develop a list of questions (as well as how many ways I can ask the same thing) because I expect them to evade the questions. And one habit is to be quiet after the interview - I don’t feel the need to fill the silence. The person will usually go back to something they said earlier or ask me a question, and that gives me a small glimpse into their personality or what’s on their mind. The other routine is to end the interview and then begin it again. I mean, it’s always at the door that people say the most interesting things.

36:20 - The way [government] intimidation works is that they put as many barriers in front of you and it’s not clear until later what the consequences will be. They are almost waiting for you to break the rules. As a foreign journalist, you can be easily controlled through visas, so that was always on top of my mind.

41:40 - [On morning routines] As a journalist, I mainly just reacted to deadlines. But this was a longer project mainly just working for myself. The first thing I would do is turn off the wifi and try to read something. If I did anything else, it would kill the calm with which I wake up. So I would read something when I woke up, even if it wasn’t related to the book, that would put me in a calm place. Once I started understanding that the day was gone, it was gone. It’s mind games with yourself. I also went away, to a place where there would be no network, no friends you want to meet, just get work done and do nothing else. If I wasn’t doing anything else, I would just read. I always try to read in the morning. Have your coffee and read something.

45:46 - One trick that helped me finish the first draft of the book: think of the book as a collection of scenes. That helped a lot. Just go from scene to scene (of course you have to choose the right ones). And you can always move the scenes around. It helps because when you wake up, you can know that you’re going to write two scenes, which can help quantify your work in a way.

48:18 - I used Scrivener to write the book. But I did most of my planning by hand. I used flowcharts, which changed around a lot. I tried to intertwine stories with history.

52:02 - Single most useful tool for creating structure: creating flowcharts [by hand]. In the end, it was flowcharts I had written on long plain sheets and laid them all around me until I felt I was drowning in them.

56:30 - Editors were very helpful in the writing process. I studied UK English, consume all kinds of English, speak Indian English, and so when I wrote, it was a mix of everything. Editors help me fix that.

1:03:30 - [On writing] In the end, you are just left with a feeling, but there are so many parts to it. There’s the part where you just lose yourself, where it’s instrumentation, and there are parts where suddenly you hear the lyrics, and you wonder what the song is about, where this comes from. I thought about that whenever I started to get confused or wonder where to go in my writing. Also, I have these very real people who had spent so much time with me, telling me real things, taking risks - if I had to say one thing about writing it, it would be a sense of responsibility to those people.

1:05:34 - Influences on her writing, that helped as she structured her own book:

Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families by Anthony by J. Anthony Lukas

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo

I also tried to read as many non-Western books as possible, books set in places outside of those areas.

Picks of the Week:

Rohini’s Books:

Traitor by Shobasakthi (written about here in Granta as ‘one of the best untranslated writers.’)

A Case of Exploding Mangoes by Muhammad Hanif

Rohini’s Film:  Katiyabaaz (a documentary)

Rohini’s Song:  Ith Naheen by Sanam Marvi