by Jon Custis
The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary. -H.L. Mencken
It is no surprise that Mencken would be quoted by a Small Wars Council member who has spent a considerable amount of time discussing the perils of poor governance, and contributing to the knowledge base resident within the Small Wars Council and Small Wars Journal. What is surprising is that member Dayuhan (Tagalog for foreigner) is not a Small Wars practitioner in the traditional sense; he is neither a military man nor a representative of a traditional element of power. His experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Philippines, and then as a dayuhan who returned to the islands after his volunteer stint, have shaped his views on issues that are important to the Council/Journal.
I recently had a virtual visit with Dayuhan, and asked him to frame his world for readers and members who have made note of his impact on the Small Wars Journal empire. His thoughts on governance, advice for Madame Secretary Clinton, and who he’d rather have backing him up in a bar fight, are the first in a series of interviews spotlighting members of note.
During your formative years as a young man, were there any events or experiences that now serve to frame the way you look at the world?
All of youth is formative. Growing up in an impeccably decent, morally upright, liberally-inclined academic environment is conventional, but it’s formative. My father is an outdoorsman in the old school hunting and fishing sense; I took that up and turned it into a bit of an obsession. Joining the NRA and adopting the politics of the American Rifleman didn’t always make for agreement in the liberal academic salon, but it produced what might politely be called an early awareness of the political spectrum. I’ve appreciated a good argument ever since.
Joining the Peace Corps (the only available route to the desired National Geographic experience) and landing in Eastern Mindanao… that was formative. There was a lot going on at that time in that place; if the Peace Corps had known half of it they probably wouldn’t have sent volunteers there. The NPA were in the process of moving from a foothold to a major presence. I landed in a community of recent migrants who had come to Agusan to escape the sectarian fighting in Cotabato in the early 70s, and spent two years steeped in the stories of that conflict. There was enough there to produce a lasting interest in insurgency.
Coming up against the ground reality of American support for the Marcos regime was a radicalizing experience, and as any American raised in the spirit of liberty would, I came away sympathizing with the rebels, and with a permanent distrust for the American political right. Going back to the US and working briefly in the Ralph Nader empire had some impact, primarily in producing a permanent distrust for the American political left.
Going back to Mindanao in ’82, with vague intentions of writing The Great Book that would Expose It All… too long a story to tell here, but very educational. Down and out in Davao and Manila… again not stories to tell here, even if the statute of limitations has expired, but formative.
Landing in the middle of the ’86 uprising that expelled Marcos was formative, and cathartic, and an antidote for cynicism. I’ve no illusions about the event and its impact, but as a moment in history it was about as good as they get. I also learned that the media often get it wrong, even (maybe especially) when they are present en masse, and that what gets written into the collective memory isn’t always what actually happened.
Manila in the Cory Aquino years, the madhouse of coup attempts and dreams meeting reality… ever since then I’ve had a bit of an obsession with post-dictatorship transitions.
Raising children is the single most formative thing a human being can do.
Stumbling backwards into writing about the financial world, just in time for the 90s roller coaster… very educational.
Moving to an indigenous community in the mountains of north Luzon in an internet-enabled retreat… certainly formative. Of course that’s well outside the “young man” bracket, but I don’t acknowledge age unless it’ll score some points in an argument. Formative is still going on.
What's the most eclectic and little known fact about you?
From the SWJ perspective, probably that I spend as much of my spare time as possible riding mountain bikes, paddling white water, and teaching local guys to be river guides. The people I ride and paddle with would probably see my SWJ persona as “eclectic and little known”.
You served a stint with the Peace Corps in the late 70's. Ever get a stern talking to or have a superior glance at you sideways and narrow their eyes, due to your views on the world?
We had so little exposure to our superiors (using the term very loosely) that there were few opportunities to annoy them. They didn’t know or care about our views of the world; as long as we didn’t get caught smoking dope, procreating with some village girl, or otherwise creating visible scandal they were content. Once in the field we were pretty much ignored. Volunteers are much more closely supervised now; the program was pretty sloppy in those days.
You and member Bob's World (COL (ret.) Robert C. Jones) seem to disagree most vehemently over the prospect of enlisting the Taliban to participate in substantive peace talks, and the likelihood that they would be willing participants in a substantive reconciliation process. What research or experiences have led you to your positions on the matter?
We disagree over a number of things. I’ve often thought it would be amusing to display those dialogues and ask people which participant is the ex PCV and which is the retired Colonel!
I agree with Col. Jones that bad, weak, or missing governance is a major case of insurgency. He holds that truth to be more self-evident and more absolute than I do, but in general it’s a point of agreement. I also agree that a truly substantive reconciliation and shared power between the Taliban and the Karzai government would be an ideal solution in Afghanistan. We disagree on the extent to which American intervention can make that happen, and on the advisability of committing ourselves to an effort to make that happen.
Col Jones sees the problem (if I have this wrong I trust him to correct me) largely in terms of political structures, focusing primarily on the Afghan Constitution. I see it more in terms of political cultures, and the difficulty of imposing reconciliation on parties that dislike each other, distrust each other, and have little or no inclination to share power. If you install a structure that isn’t consistent with the political culture it will be subverted, corrupted, or simply ignored. I believe that political cultures can and do change, through an evolutionary process. That process takes time and it’s often messy, but I don’t think it’s possible for an outside power to circumvent or shorten it. Even if it was possible, I’m not sure it would ultimately produce stability, because the process plays a major role in determining what a stable outcome will be.
I don’t think we should try to define how Afghanistan will be governed, because once we take on a project like that we tend to become invested in it and have a hard time letting it go. If our objective is a stable democratic Afghanistan, we don’t need a better set of tools for achieving that objective, we need a more realistic objective… in my less than humble opinion, of course. I could be wrong.
What led to those positions?… that would go back to that lasting interest in transitions out of dictatorship. Everything I’ve seen and read since developing that interest suggests to me that while governments emerging from these transitions are invariably flawed, those flaws can’t be corrected by some outside deus ex machina rounding up all the parties, setting them down at a table, and pointing the way to a “right” formula or the perfect structure. I wish it could be that simple, but I don’t believe that it is.
That points back to a mantra of mine: the whole concept of “nation-building” is flawed, because nations aren’t built, nations grow. We can no more build a nation than we can build an oak tree. We may be able to help cultivate one, but even there, caution and subtlety – not America’s strongest suits – are required to avoid doing more harm than good.
What are your top three books of all time? Do you have anything on your nightstand right now?
There’s a 2-year-old in the house, so the nightstand is reserved for Dr Seuss and the like. The corner of the refuge room that’s reserved for current reading has a small pile of local history: the Luzon Cordillera in the early days of the American colonial administration. Interesting period, populated by a number of stranger-than-fiction characters.
Top of all time is a tough question. I read a lot of history, and somewhat less in the current events analysis field, but few of those would go top 10, let alone three. I often find that books from those fields that once had a major impact are less impressive when revisited down the line: the impact seems to be as much about where you are when you read it as about the content. A really good history book is not one that defines your views on the period, it’s one that makes you want to go out and read more.
The ones I keep coming back to… I’ve probably re-read Jorge Luis Borges more than anything else, without ever being tired of him. One Hundred Years of Solitude is another I come back to, possibly because I’ve spent a bit of time straddling that blurred line between real and surreal. As a working writer I keep coming back to Oscar Wilde, Bernard Shaw, P.G. Wodehouse, just for perfection of prose. The best piece of “Small Wars fiction” I’ve encountered is Leo Tolstoy’s short story “The Raid”, which seems to me close to perfect. … I could go on. That’s not three, for which I apologize, but I guess the idea comes across!
Where do you see the Small Wars Journal in five years? What aspect(s) of it needs protecting, so it doesn't change?
This would be a good place to say that the SWJ Council is, bar none, the most effectively moderated online discussion board I’ve ever seen. Too many times to count I’ve seen intelligent, substantive discussions on other sites overwhelmed by shrieking ideologues and partisan buffoonery; SWJ manages to keep that off without censoring ideas. They could be accused of censoring morons and wankers, but that to me is admirable, if politically incorrect... and yes, I know that’s subjective, but it’s nice to see somebody with the cojones to make the call. I hope that doesn’t change, though it will surely become more difficult as the site becomes more popular.
I realize that all parts of the site will inevitably grow, and probably need to grow… I hope that growth can be achieved without sacrificing the feel that the site has, which is a hard thing to accurately describe. I’d hate to see it become an industry.
I’d love to see more non-US participation, and a broader range of contributors… it would be great to see some former or even current insurgents represented! I’d like to see more participation from the diplomatic, development, and “civilian observer” sides of the Small Wars world, but that will emerge naturally as the site grows.
Could you name three blogs of note that you follow?
I used to read Daniel Drezner and Marc Lynch, but not religiously and less so since they were absorbed by Foreign Policy. I’m not a huge fan of the blog format: it lends itself to a sort of drive-by style that emphasizes casual observation over thorough thinking. Once a blog becomes popular there’s pressure to update it constantly, and even very smart people have a hard time being smart every day. How many hours a day do most of these people have to devote to the blog, unless it’s all they do? I tend to follow issues rather than individuals, and to read essays that received real attention rather than off-the-cuff blog posts.
If you had five minutes to chat with Madame Secretary Clinton, what advice or comment would you offer?
I’d ask the same questions about almost anything we’re up to overseas:
1. Precisely, concisely, and without any hint of diplo-political bovine excrement, what are we trying to accomplish here?
2. Are those goals practical, realistic, and – with the resources and the time we’re willing to commit – achievable?
3. If #1 can’t be answered as requested, or if the answer to #2 is anything but a firm “yes”… do we really need to be in this?
A NGO setting up for a mission to a volatile area consults you to provide cultural awareness and problem--solving training. What's the first book or article you'd tell the team to read?
They’ve read too much already. I’d have them stay up late with a few old-timers, get drunk and listen to stories. Wake them up at 3 the next morning, give them 10 minutes to pack for a weekend, take them as far past the end of the road as their physical condition permits, and drop them in a village, alone, with instructions to observe and learn. Pick ‘em up in a week or two and see who’s gonna make it.
Before I’m accused of being “anti-intellectual” (which has already happened on SWJ), I’ll say I’ve nothing against reading; it’s essential. Without that time on your own in the dust and mud, though, the reading doesn’t mean anything. The time in the field is the catalyst and the context that makes sense of all those words… and no, driving into the village in an SUV for a “consultation” doesn’t count. Adaptation, problem-solving, resourcefulness… trying to learn these things from books would be like trying to learn to swim by reading about swimming. The theoretical background is a very good thing, but it will not keep you afloat.
But to stop evading the question, the reading list would depend heavily on where they were going and what they were supposed to do when they got there!
Tea, coffee, suds, double on the rocks, or a cocktail?
Coffee in the morning; if the spoon dissolves when you stir it, it’s about strong enough. Later in the day I’d have to go with a beer… unless somebody shows up with Lagavulin, in which case somebody’s made a friend.
Ninjas or Pirates?
If we’re going to a party, definitely pirates; they have more fun. In the unlikely and unwelcome event of going to a fight I’ll go with ninjas… they’ll need every trick in their kit to make up for the liability of having me on their side.