learning some limits

Every research project has it’s stages and I’ve crossed over from the “read everything you can” stage to the “now, write it” one. Weeks of research on Iraqi tribes, the al-Anbar Awakening, and Iraqi politics must somehow be compressed into a paper, and even a big paper is still a significant condensation of all that information absorption.

It’s harder than I thought, paring down so much data into a paper topic that a) reflects your research b) is focused and c) isn’t so focused that it’s trivial. I had a tentative topic going into this research project and I pretty much knew that the process of research would change the topic, which it did, but I didn’t guess how hard a slog it would be to come up with a paper that fits the above three criteria.

I’ve been writing this paper for about a week and I’m about 7 pages in. Yeah, I know, pretty slow. A lot of time is just spent trying to figure out how best to get to my point with enough exposition but not so much that I’m drowning in introductory material. An argument requires so many sub-arguments and those each require a host of other points, statements, and facts; you’re not just supporting a theory or idea, you’re building up a whole castle with all the necessary buttresses for support, and moats to defend from critiques, and flags to mark different transitions, etc.

I have now a better appreciation for how hard it is to write good quality analysis. It’s easy to present an articulate reshuffling of conventional narratives or even an eloquent echo of old ideas, but to come up with an innovative, organized, and meaningful analysis of a subject is tough stuff.

The process of research has given rise to another realization: I’m not sure I want to do a whole lot more research right away (read: grad school can wait). And I’m even more doubtful that I want to do straight-up analysis for a living or as a career. I have some ability with analyzing stuff. I’m no professional and I have a lot to improve on, but I want analysis to be part of what I do, but not all of it.

Don’t get me wrong: I love thinking and will have a discussion on virtually anything, so I’m not about to give up on the project of inquiry and reason. However I get the feeling that the problem is not a shortage of good analysis (there’s plenty out there) but a shortage of good leadership to use it.

For example: The post-war handling of Iraq is a complex affair with many variables and a number of factors beyond our control, but suffice it to say that a large number of mistakes were made and the situation by 2005 was on the verge of falling apart. I know this is simplistic, but just go with it. There were two steps to turning this around, a) the intellectual realization that we were fighting an insurgency that required counterinsurgency doctrine and b) the change in leadership that would make a counterinsurgency strategy possible.

Of these two steps, I think that b) was the hardest. I wasn’t a fly on the wall of the Pentagon or the Joint Chiefs of Staff but reading Tom Rick’s “Fiasco” and “The Gamble” leads me to believe that the transition to a leadership capable of implimenting the strategy was harder and more complicated than identifying the need for, and then formulating, the strategy itself.

I could be wrong, but it’s an obervation I’ll share.

Anyways, time to get back to writing this beast.

Salaam,

Mike