Run-Ins with the Secret Police, Service, and Celebrity Culture

I write towards the end of a productive, if unusual, day that saw me in several parts of Berlin. After working for many days in the BStU and the Bundesarchiv, mostly on the story of the DDR in occupied Afghanistan, I found myself not only with hundreds of pages of transcribed notes (everything from bureaucratic memos to lists of Afghan Communists studying abroad in East Germany), but also lists of names. One attraction – but also challenge – of working on recent history as with this project is the fact that so many of the actors are still alive. And in the case of the materials from the BStU, the primary archive for the Stasi, I had names and current addresses of several higher-ups in the organization, perhaps most interestingly Willi Damm, the Director of the International Relations section of the Stasi. But I was even more interested in interviewing Hartmut Kretschel, a more junior Stasi officer who was the point man in Kabul throughout much of the late 1980s and worked closely with the KhAD, the Afghan version of the KGB. And after some creative sleuthing, I was able to determine his address: he currently lives as a pensioner in a dreary Soviet-style twenty-story apartment building in Marzahn, deep in what was East Berlin.

A typical vista in scenic Marzahn

The hunt was on. Trying to hunt down the former member of a notoriously oppressive secret police agency at his home raises a couple of interesting ethical questions. I would normally feel slightly uncomfortable about just showing up at someone’s apartment and asking if I might speak to them, let alone showing up with notebook or computer in hand and asking that we arrange an interview, but many of the people who worked for the Stasi did just this as a living, and couldn’t be turned away. Not only that, but someone like Kretschel and his co-workers who helped build up the KhAD in Afghanistan helped to create an institution notorious for torturing and executing without trial tens of thousands, if not more Afghans. Stasi members, at least the higher ups, formed part of a DDR élite, an “uncivil society” of tens of thousands that enjoyed perks while many ordinary East Germans lived in poverty or, in some cases, terror. The fact that so much of this élite now resides in the crumbling buildings it helped erect for itself, living on pensions coming from all German taxpayers, in a world utterly different from the lively, young Berlin I inhabit, adds to the irony. Given the historical background, and the risk/reward calculus, I hopped on the S-Bahn and bus to Marzahn, and, after roasting under an unusually hot Berlin sun beating down on a concrete wasteland, found the address.

I looked up and down the doorbell board, and found the name. I was about to press it when an old man walked out of the stifling apartment building and asked me if I needed help. I replied that I was looking for Mr. Kretschel, that I was a researcher / student, and so on, and I wanted to see if he was home and if it was possible to talk with him. “Of course!” the man responded jovially. “He’s my neighbor!” Great, I thought. I continued to explain my purposes to the friendly neighbor as we and a Turkish child lugging a bicycle took the tiny elevator up to the 16th floor of the Plattenbau. As the neighbor continued to explain to me, Mr. Kretschel was working on a history of the war in Afghanistan, taking his own experience as the starting point. Things looked promising: Kretschel seemed interested in history and writing it, so perhaps he might be open to scheduling an interview. We walked up to Kretschel’s door, and the neighbor rang the doorbell. We heard some rustling behind the door, and an old, surly-looking man opened up, his wife by his side. The neighbor introduced me to the skeptical-looking Kretschel, and I explained who I was and what I was doing. But as soon as I mentioned Afghanistan, he became super-defensive. “Too suspicious!”, he interrupted me, “he must be a spy.” I thought of something to do. “No, no, no, wait,” I explained, “I’m just a student.” I quickly took out my Oxford library card and showed it to him. “I don’t care, too suspicious.” The neighbor tried to intercede, saying that this seemed like a nice young man and there was no need to — SLAM! — Kretschel slammed the door in our faces. “Well,” the neighbor said, “that was odd.” What can you say? It’s mildly encouraging to know that Kretschel is alive and that he still exists, but there’s only so much you can do to force explanations or memoirs out of ex-STASI agents. I exchanged a few words with the kind, elderly neighbor, and took the next train out of Marzahn – this weird bestiary of East German pensioners living in socialist urbanism.

Still, the main thing I wanted to write about in this post is less my failed journalistic exploits than to highlight some high points – and contradictions – in American foreign policy today, particular among the people who practice it. I was delighted and impressed recently to see in The Washington Post Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s profile of Carter Malkasian. Malkasian, as the article describes, was on the road to having a conventional academic career before events intervened. He got a D.Phil. in History at Oxford, working on the history of 20th-century wars, and has written a couple of books on the Korean War and Counter-Insurgency in modern warfare. I have often been skeptical of what I might call National Security Studies (academics reading back into history with the lens of present tactics, explicitly trying to use history to develop policy for the present), but Malkasian’s life afterwards shows how scholarship can interact with policy implementation and foreign policy in productive ways. After a year at Loyola Marymount University (a university with a gorgeous campus quite near where I was born), he became more closely tied with military think tanks and eventually ended up in Iraq as a researcher with the Marines. In 2006, he went to Afghanistan, and has spent years there since then, mastering Pashto and living in small villages in the south of the country as a negotiator with local élites and U.S. Marines there. Unlike many academics, he has been immersed in the world, but he’s also found ways to make serious academic study lead in to a career and job that – hopefully – leads to peace and prosperity for Afghans and the possibility for a peaceful, calm, American exit from Afghanistan as quickly as possible. True, as US Ambassador in Kabul Ryan Crocker has emphasized, all US personnel in Afghanistan make huge sacrifices – hopefully ones that benefit the Afghans, too. As such, Malkasian, he emphasizes, is just one of many doing their job there.

Sahib Carter Malkasian

Overall, I think there’s much to admire in Dr. Malkasian’s example. His work seems to exemplify some of the virtues I’ve touched on before in my post on “humanists in foxholes.” In my ideal world, scholars and intellectuals should remain critical but not reflexively distrustful towards the major institutions like the military-industrial-intelligence complex. As I have posted in previous posts, scholars and characters like Louis Dupree and Carl Schorske found creative ways to marry their intelligence towards their love of and fascination with exotic cultures abroad. Unlike many private contractors today, they remained married with cultures from Afghanistan to German-speaking Europe not out of lust for a big paycheck from the U.S. taxpayer, but out of an inherent fascination with the place. This made them more, not less, effective spokesmen for the best aspects of America, and it helped created a generation of teachers who could educate young Americans on the different cultures the country would have to deal with in the late 20th century. In contrast with the spokespeople of a nice-sounding but often content-free “digital diplomacy,” people like Malkasian, Dupree, and Schorske actually knew something about the cultures, they knew the languages, and they realized that diplomacy was often better realized while drinking liver-annihilating amounts of vodka (Russia) or stupefying amounts of tea (Afghanistan).

While Malkasian appears to fit into this tradition, however, aspects of Chandrasekaran’s reporting illustrate how the general culture today makes it difficult for people like Malkasian to prosper. The journalist describes Dr. Malkasian as a “slightly nerdy war-zone academic,” for example. While this might be true in Dr. Malkasian’s case, I dislike reading descriptions like this because their underscore a stereotype that often becomes self-fulfilling, namely that people who study topics in depth become “nerdy” or “academics,” as opposed to soldiers, marines, and people in the military establishment (“tough guys” or “meat heads”), or as opposed to people from International Relations departments or law faculties (“policy wonks” or “policy thinkers.”) Not only is this stereotyping not true: I’ve had the pleasure of meeting several members of the American armed forces, both in Tajikistan as well as at Oxford who were scholars or intellectuals in their own right. The best professors I have known, be they historians or lawyers, had a keen eye not just towards scholarship but how to be public intellectuals and part of a broader conversation on American policy. And in a time of mass unemployment, when the value of the humanities and legal scholarship – not to mention the cost of maintaining these faculties – has been questioned, finding ways to get more work, or better work, out of smart people, rather than siloing them in faculties to teach siloed knowledge to debt-laden undergrads and grads – finding ways to mix these worlds, or at least drop the stereotypes, might be a good idea.

I spent my sabbatical in the Ottoman Empire and all I got was this lousy turban

Along these lines, I’ve had numerous conversations with friends at Oxford – who study subjects from literature to “Global Governance and Diplomacy” to International Relations – about how the United States might train a cadre of leaders or thinkers who can think of creative solutions to our diplomatic and international challenges in the 21st century. And one theme rings out again and again. Many young people, Americans especially, feel a kind of responsibility or at least interest in giving back, of finding a sense of mission: be it in humanitarian work in India, like one colleague of mine at Oxford, or in studying institutions in South Sudan while maintaining an eye towards a military career. Many people find the maturity and sense of mission to love the work completely for its own sake, and to find that sense of fulfillment in helping others. The opportunities for doing good work are, of course, not only found in the developing world but all across America, too.

But at the same time, young Americans today live in a culture where a growing wealth gap and celebrity culture makes it difficult to fulfill this sense of mission. Some friends have questioned the validity of throwing themselves utterly into humanitarian or volunteer work, especially inside of the United States, when higher-level policies often explicitly seem to entrench a wealthy class and prevent poorer Americans from reaching life milestones: owning a house, having children, having a decent career and retiring. By the same token, while no one ever became wealthy by being a humanitarian worker, or a diplomat, Americans of past generations could do these things and still not delude themselves into thinking that they could have the American dream. Today, with mounting student debt loads and dead-end jobs (which, friends have told me anecdotally, can be common even in the aid industry), young thinking people can legitimately ask themselves whether it makes sense to mortgage their future … to help others even more shut out of a middle-class lifestyle.

Our nation's intelligence and diplomatic professionals: important, and looking good while doing it, but not as famous as Mr. Damon

Celebrity culture makes the tradeoffs that already went with a life dedicated to aid or diplomacy – family, first of all – even more complicated. Malkasian is a great example of someone who does a wonderful job and shuns publicity. Walter Russell Mead, an American intellectual and writer, has recently posted on the work of a US diplomat in Karachi (whose name escapes me for now) who has done tremendous work there in the last two to three years, as well. Likewise, many of the CIA researchers and agents who worked on the Osama bin Laden hunt toiled for years in anonymity to help the USA find some form of justice after 9/11. Young Americans, or at least my friends, see these deeds and respect them.

But look elsewhere, and you find a universe of book deals, publicity tours, and celebrity policy thinkers whose qualifications seem less relevant. I don’t want to engage in ad hominem attacks, but when looking at the rolls of younger Americans who have begun to occupy prominent positions in Congress, in the State Department, in the policy community, I am disturbed by the kind of homogeneity that marks their resumes. Many of them (but not all) are from normal American families. They worked hard, were not already in the élite, but still managed to pursue an élite education – in many cases, Ivy League undergrad, fancy scholarship to England, then Harvard or Yale Law School. Their connections are impeccable, be they with the late Richard Holbrooke or Strobe Talbot or Leslie Gelb or Richard Haass.

Nice if you want to practice law, but not clear what it has to do with foreign policy

But the point is that that previous generation of American policy élites – the Holbrookes, Talbots, Gelb, Haass, etc. – didn’t become famous or get to where they were by networking through élite institutions. Holbrooke famously worked in Vietnam for many years in the 1960s, and got to where he did through real accomplishments (as distinct from mere accolades). Strobe Talbott was an accomplished scholar of Russian history, translated Khrushchev’s memoirs, and worked as a journalist for many years. Gelb and Haass published dozens of books. What I worry about, in other words, is that American élites seem to be reshaping in a way where accomplishment – of the kind that Malkasian represents – no longer really matters. I fear that we are training an élite that possesses impressive resumes, accolades, and credentials, but no longer undertakes adventures or focuses on accomplishment outside of the élite institutions. It may no longer be self-reflective enough to engage in policy at the same time as memoirs, letters, or history. Unplugged from the traditional professions or activities that once defined a policy élite – journalism, diplomacy, scholarship, law (practiced as a profession, not just as a qualification), corporate business – you end up with an élite that looks prestigious, but has little to fall back on besides connections and surface prestige. While I was not entirely impressed in the 2008 election about how President Obama lacked experience, more and more as I reflect on current American élites I worry that this criticism may be true for large swaths of the élite in the Democratic Party today.

This, finally, leads to the juncture that many of my friends and I interested in foreign affairs talk about. What’s the best route to go? Accomplishment, but the fear that you’ll be shut out of higher-level discussions in the future, even with your experience? Or to take out yet more student loans for a credential (in most cases, a prestigious law degree) that is utterly divorced from trade (the business of law) and entirely about enhancing your resume? For now, many of us will continue to try to muddle through – hopefully finding rewarding careers, healthy marriages and relationships, and sane lives along the way – but the current situation still seems highly contradictory to me.

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