How Defense Officials Spent $150 Million in Afghanistan, When They Could Have Spent $0

My latest piece for The Week ran yesterday, in which I write about the Task Force for Business and Stability Operations, a Defense Department office that was created to “do capitalism” in war zones. I don’t want to spoil the ending, but they didn’t do well and are presently under investigation for myriad accusations of fraud, waste, and abuse. The piece can be found here.

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As part of this little personal blog experiment, I thought I’d share a bit of my process for this type of story. Earlier this week, I received a heads up that the allegations were about to be made public, and I pitched a story on it to my editor at The Week. I chose The Week because I knew the story was a good fit, and because I’ve written several pieces for them about waste in Afghanistan. Also, I really enjoy working with Ben, my editor, who’s a really smart guy and an all-around good human being. I also appreciate that he doesn’t waste time with my pitches. The “yes” or “no” happens quickly. It’s hard to overstate how rare this is for an editor, let alone one for a major publication.

N.b. that in general, I don’t mind when someone rejects a pitch. There are times when I know I’ve got a good story, and that editors are mistaken in rejecting it, but I deserve a lot of the blame when that happens. It’s easy to get lazy on a pitch—especially a “sure thing”—and I’ve done a lot of good stories a disservice by not selling them with proper care, and as a result, not selling them at all. I actually think I’ve gotten worse about this over the years, and I am actively trying to correct that.

But a simple “no” is fine with me. A writer can’t curl up into a ball every time he or she receives a rejection. What I do hate is having a query ignored. When editors don’t respond to a pitch, a freelance writer is dead in the water. Do you try with another publication? Do you wait a little longer? This is especially problematic with time-sensitive stories. I realize that some editors are fielding 100 pitches a day, but simply as a professional courtesy, a “no” should be sent. Professional writers (usually) don’t need “nice” no’s. We just need a “no” so that we can move on—we know it’s not personal.

In this case, Ben gave the pitch a quick approval, and I added it to Trello, where I track my ongoing jobs.

The story wasn’t exactly Benghazi, so there’s nothing particularly interesting or exciting regarding the journalistic legwork involved. I did research, contacted the relevant parties, called the Department of Defense for their side of things, contacted SIGAR for photographs, etc. Pretty much everything I write involves some form of this. Sometimes it’s exhilarating and you speak with cool people you’ve only read about. Sometimes there’s confrontation. Sometimes the story is all a big misunderstanding and something new and exciting takes its place. You do your best with the resources you have. In this case, nobody was going to fly me to Afghanistan to get to the bottom of things, and so the telephone was my best tool available. (Note to editors: I’m happy to fly to Afghanistan to get to the bottom of things if you’ll send me.)

I wrote the piece over a couple of hours at Starbucks. My writing process is messy. I probably wrote a dozen ledes, and wrote several passages that didn’t work or quite gel. The process doesn’t exactly make me feel nervous, exactly, though it does induce some level of concerned anticipation. Why aren’t the words flowing? Why aren’t they perfect? Where does this fit? Why did I go into the business? And so on. Once the first draft is written, I feel a lot better about life in general. I let the story sit for a bit, and returned to it with fresh eyes, strengthening the poetry of the piece; cutting away the needless prose; rewriting weak or inelegant phrases, sentences, or passages; and just generally crossing my t’s and dotting my lowercase-j’s.

I filed the piece, and received an edit a few hours later. Ben is a great editor, and his suggested changes were good ones. I again revised and filed, and the mysterious machine at The Week did the rest. I have no idea what happens between filing the final version and its publication the next day. Once the piece does go live, I beat the drum on social media. I know there’s a kind of gaucheness to promoting your own work, but I feel like it’s a necessary part of the job and do it anyway. I have a good Twitter following and there’s not yet been a stampede to the exits, so I assume I’m doing OK.

And there you have it.

(Image credit: An unnamed whistleblower in Afghanistan)