Cash, Jewels and Gold: The Tale of Britain’s Biggest Heist

The “Bad Grandpas” and the Hatton Garden Heist
By Dan Bilefsky

When I was a young reporter in Texas, a 50-something woman piloting a small plane made an emergency landing alongside a busy San Antonio highway, creating a bit of a furor. After the basic five W’s had been covered in a roadside news conference, I asked about her family situation. I can’t recall the headline The San Antonio Light ran the next day, but I know it used some variation of grandmother, echoing my lede. A peer castigated me. “You’re trafficking in stereotypes. What does her being a grandmother have to do with landing a plane safely?”

Our culture’s “affectionate” ageism is still going strong, especially when it comes to crime. Good lord, we’ve had two versions of “Going in Style,” and Danny Ocean — George Clooney edition — always has a senior citizen in the mix whether he’s working with 10, 11 or 12 confederates.

So in 2015, when nine men were arrested after what would be called the largest burglary in Britain’s history, it was probably inevitable that the British tabloids dubbed them “Bad Grandpas” and “Diamond Wheezers.” Rupert Murdoch’s newspaper The Sun, which coined the “wheezers” headline, went on to note that the combined ages of the nine suspects was 533.

Let’s see, 533 divided by 9 — that makes the suspects’ average age just shy of 60, which happens to be the birthday I celebrated a few weeks before reading “The Last Job: The ‘Bad Grandpas’ and the Hatton Garden Heist.” I readily cop to being a grumpy old woman, albeit one with a longstanding affection for caper stories. A good heist tale is a good heist tale; a dull one can’t be rescued by the fact that the thieves are pensioners. Yes, the Hatton Garden job was big and brazen in execution, undone by the gang’s almost comical hubris. But is it a great story, with the zeitgeist kick of, say, the 2009 Bling Ring?


Dan Bilefsky, a New York Times correspondent who arrived in London about the time Hatton Garden Safe Deposit Ltd. was burglarized, is a brisk, enthusiastic storyteller. And the crime was undeniably a sensational one that seized the public’s imagination well before anything was known about the suspects. The size of the haul alone made it a big deal: The thieves, working over the long Easter weekend, jimmied open 73 safe deposit boxes, taking away cash, gold and jewels valued at $20 million at the time.

Bilefsky draws on interviews, court testimony and transcripts from the Metropolitan Police to put together a meticulously researched procedural. But the early sections of the book are weakened by the fact that the mastermind, Brian Reader — 76 at the time of the burglary — provided no additional information to what was already in the public record. Bilefsky is left to make deductions about Reader’s motivations, ranging from “a fearlessness borne of age” to “a bravado perhaps conditioned by age.” My hot take? Reader was a thief. Thieves steal.

However, the men’s ages do matter when the case goes to court. The prosecutor Philip Evans — vividly rendered here; the book is at its best when focused on the good guys — realizes he has to combat the narrative that these are harmless old men who swindled some vague, faceless banking entity. Bilefsky reminds us that the plundered safe deposit boxes belonged to individuals — “Holocaust survivors; young entrepreneurs; retirees; immigrants … who had arrived penniless to Britain in the 1960s after fleeing strife or civil war.” Ultimately Hatton Garden Safe Deposit was forced into liquidation; much of the loot has never been recovered.

“People don’t seem to look at it as a robbery,” Hatton Garden’s new owner said in a 2016 newspaper interview. “Here they say, ‘O.K., they were just some old men chancing their luck.’ It’s strange, but there you go. I can’t explain it, but I’m no psychiatrist.”

Bilefsky doesn’t try to explain it, either, and maybe it’s not fair to wish that he had tried. Meanwhile, the third film adaptation inspired by the heist — yes, third — was released in March. One review asserted most of the criminals were in their 60s and 70s. Nope, only three of the nine, but I guess that’s not as, well, sexy.


Behind the Cover: A Look Back at a Year Designing The New York Times Magazine

A lot goes into designing a magazine cover, from type treatments to photography to the best possible cover line. The finished product needs to catch readers’ attention but also begin to tell a story.

We spent a year documenting our cover process in short videos. Each week, our editor in chief and design director talked through their decisions and the challenges along the way.

We’ve just wrapped the series, which gave us a chance to look back at what it meant to us.

Gail Bichler, design director: Coming up with a meaningful cover image can be messy. It sometimes includes false starts or means simultaneously going down several different paths.

Jake Silverstein, editor in chief: These weekly conversations with Gail became a kind of therapy, I think for both of us. Making covers is the ultimate design/edit collaboration, so it’s great to be able to sit and talk through the twists and turns of an idea at the end of the road — revisiting the light-bulb moments, rehashing some of the disputes. I’ll miss it.

Gail: Internally, we have so many interesting discussions about our covers, and some of the thinking behind our choices is pretty nuanced. Talking with Jake about the decisions we made helped clarify my own thoughts on why we did what we did.

Jake: We take that real estate so seriously, and I want readers to know that.

Below are some of our favorite videos from the series. (The complete archive is here.)

March 13, 2019

The Music Issue

Jake Silverstein, editor in chief: “Cristiana Couceiro’s collage of the artists selected for our list of the 25 songs that matter right now is dynamic and fun — I can imagine readers turning the magazine around to study the image for who made the list. The shape created by the cluster of all those different musicians has a wonderful organic quality to it.”

Read the Music Issue.

August 12, 2018

War Without End

Jake Silverstein, editor in chief: “Tyler Hicks’s image captures a dramatic moment as a soldier from Viper Company dashes up a hillside after a Taliban ambush, with smoke grenades billowing behind him. The pink smoke and green leaves, along with the slightly blurry quality of the photo, give the whole thing a surreal apocalyptic beauty, which perfectly complements the cover line.”

Read the cover story: “War Without End.”

October 28, 2018

The Food Issue: Candy Around the World

Gail Bichler, design director: “This year’s Food Issue takes a global approach to candy. For our cover, Massimo Gammacurta used a silicon mold to make a lollipop that looks like the earth and then photographed it capturing its beautiful, sticky imperfections and bubbles.”

Read the cover story: “War Without End.”

September 16, 2018

Maya Rudolph

Jake Silverstein, editor in chief: “Maya Rudolph is such a game subject that we wanted to try something a little weird and collaborative. The photographer Alex Prager’s sister, Vanessa, a painter, created a portrait of Rudolph that is inspired by a work by the 20th-century American portraitist Alice Neel. It was then cut to allow Rudolph’s real face and hand to come through, creating a surreal image that blends fact and fiction, much the way she does as an actress.”

Read the cover story: “How Maya Rudolph Became the Master of Impressions.”


The Remarkable Ben Hecht – The New York Times

What follows is a brisk, readable tour through Hecht’s wartime alliance with the right wing of the Zionist movement — the Revisionists led by Ze’ev Jabotinsky — and his support for the Irgun, their clandestine paramilitary affiliate, led by Jabotinsky’s young lieutenant Menachem Begin. She describes Hecht’s awkward lunch at the “21” Club in New York with a young Irgunist, a Palestinian Jew named Peter Bergson, who persuaded Hecht to help him create a Jewish army to fight against Hitler. Later, galvanized by news of the mass exterminations taking place in Europe, the team mounted a bold campaign to pressure the United States government to make the rescue of European Jewry a wartime priority. Their efforts were fought not only by Roosevelt and the State Department, but also by establishment Jewish groups, fearful that Judaizing the war would trigger more anti-Semitism. Jewish-owned newspapers like The New York Times and The Washington Post agreed, burying news of Hitler’s Final Solution..

Hecht wrote furious columns for the short-lived liberal newspaper PM, excoriating the passivity of American Jews. (His friend Groucho Marx congratulated him after one particularly angry screed. “That’s what we need,” Groucho wrote, “a little more belligerency, professor, and not quite so much cringing.”) Hecht also wrote a long exposé in The American Mercury called “The Extermination of the Jews,” later excerpted in Reader’s Digest. These were, Gorbach says, “the only substantive coverage” of the Holocaust “to appear in mass-circulation magazines.”

In order to make an end-run around the political and media establishment and bring the story directly to the American people, the Bergson group bought full-page ads in major newspapers, usually written by Hecht himself. “Action — Not Pity Can Save Millions Now!” was a typical headline.

Hecht also coaxed his famous actor, producer and musician friends to join him in mounting “We Will Never Die,” a large-scale pageant — essentially a supersize Broadway musical, written by Hecht, with a cast of hundreds. The production sold out Madison Square Garden, the Hollywood Bowl and venues across the country. Tens of thousands saw it. Hecht also wrote a pro-Irgun Broadway play, “A Flag Is Born,” with an unknown Marlon Brando playing a Jewish refugee. The box office receipts helped pay for a ship, rechristened the S.S. Ben Hecht, meant to smuggle displaced Jews into Palestine.

Every step of the way, the brashness of Hecht and Bergson was met with spectacular resistance from the more timid leaders of established Jewish organizations: Rabbi Stephen Wise even compared Bergson to Hitler. It didn’t matter. Public opinion was on their side and the campaign attracted the support of senators, congressmen and Supreme Court justices.

Hoffman ably synthesizes an unwieldy amount of material. But she is hamstrung by her dislike of Bergson and Hecht’s affiliation with the Revisionist movement, which evolved, after Israel’s founding, into the right-wing Likud party of Begin and Netanyahu. She unfairly treats Hecht as a bit of a crank in this regard, ignoring the fact that at the crucial moment, Bergson and the Revisionists were the only ones persistently raising the alarm and demanding a more aggressive American response to the tragedy.


How to Win at Taking Your Child to Work

You also need an exit strategy, if possible. Have a caretaker ready to whisk your child out of the office if things go south, Williams Yost said.

Give other options if the official day doesn’t work. Whether your kid’s behavior is not ready for prime time, or for whatever reasons you feel your office isn’t a great place for him, you can create other opportunities to expose your child to your work. “Regardless of the company or organizational size, I think days like these are important,” said Harts. “And, we can also reimagine what success looks like around bring your kids to work day. Maybe it’s a pizza party at a local restaurant. Or renting out the movie theater for an upcoming film. There are many ways that companies can invest in their talent — it doesn’t have to be a one-size-fits-all.”

If your kid does have a mega-meltdown … Remember that most people, especially parents, will be understanding — because they’ve been there, said Laura Moser, a writer (and former colleague of mine at Slate) who ran for Congress in Texas last year.

Moser’s daughter, Claudia, then 2, infamously threw herself facedown on a carpet in front of President Obama at a White House Passover Seder, because her mean mommy wouldn’t let her strip naked and put on a sheet. “When Claudia had her tantrum I wasn’t even nervous or worried about it, because the Obamas have children and understand the children’s outbursts and vagaries don’t reflect on you,” Moser said.

Moser also tried to take her children with her when she was campaigning for Congress, without much success. The kids found it boring, which is understandable. Moser has connected with other mothers of young children running for office, and some of them had the same experience — their kids wanted minimal involvement. There were definitely moments when Moser wanted to tell her children, “People won’t vote for me if they think you’re a brat, be quiet!”

She realized pretty quickly that she could only bring the kids with her in small doses. And when she did, her advice is to bring entertainment. “Bring a tablet. People might judge you” for letting your kid stare at screens, Moser said, but if it keeps them from causing a scene at work, it’s worth it.

P.S. If you’re enjoying this newsletter, sign up to receive it in your inbox every Wednesday, or forward it to a friend with a toddler nudist. Follow us on our beautiful Instagram @NYTParenting.


How to Travel Without Leaving a Trace

Niagara Falls and its surrounding parks see millions of visitors a year, and all that foot traffic results in a lot of trash — 832 metric tons each year from the Canadian areas alone. Still, park sanitation workers were surprised to find a piano, broken into pieces, among the items left in the garbage one day.

“People dispose of all kinds of things,” said Steve Barnhart, the senior director for parks, environment, and culture at the Niagara Falls Parks Commission in Ontario. “But that was really unusual.”

Although odd things occasionally surface at tourist hot spots, the bulk of the waste in the garbage cans comes from much more common, repeat offenders. Here, in time for Earth Day, are some items that major tourist destinations often find tossed out by travelers — and some ways that you can avoid adding to all that rubbish along your own journey.

Plastic, plastic everywhere

Travelers often use disposable items as conveniences that they can simply toss afterward. But when a site hosts millions of visitors and hauls out hundreds of tons of trash a year, as many popular tourist destinations do, all those disposable items add up fast in ways that are quickly apparent on the ground.

Although that smashed piano caught Mr. Barnhart’s attention, he cited disposable plastic items — such as the brightly colored ponchos that visitors wear near the falls (which the park workers collect after the tours and bale together to recycle) and single-use drink bottles — as the kinds of items he and his fellow park workers see much more often among the waste removed from the parks surrounding Niagara Falls.

Angie Renner, the environmental integration director for Disney Parks, also pointed to plastic bags, cups, bottles and straws as some of the more common items that end up in the receptacles at Walt Disney World and the company’s other theme parks. And Jamie Richards, a park ranger and spokeswoman for Yosemite National Park, noted that plastic water bottles and cardboard coffee cups (including their plastic lids) frequently show up in the trash.

The most effective way to reduce the number of disposable items in the trash is often to just stop purchasing so many of them in the first place.

“Something that certainly helps us out is trying to reduce your single-use plastic water bottles,” Ms. Richards said. “We have plenty of filling stations throughout Yosemite National Park and that just really helps reduce a lot of the waste that’s generated in the park.”

Mr. Barnhart also cited the installation of water-filling stations for reusable water bottles in Niagara Falls’s parks as a way they have encouraged the reduction of trash.

Different drinkware options can replace other paper and plastic disposables. If you’re going to drink hot coffee or tea, carry a travel mug. If you like having a straw, bring your own reusable one. If you prefer to keep your drinks ice-cold, bring an insulated water bottle so that you’re not tempted to buy chilled bottles on site. Or if you want to carry the smallest pack possible, go with a collapsible bottle. (Wirecutter has recommendations for these in guides to the best water bottle and the best travel mug.)

Skip the printouts

Sophie Grange, a spokeswoman for the Louvre, listed maps and entrance tickets as some of the most common items the museum sees in the 1,200 tons of waste it carts out a year. The museum does recycle paper, but for visitors who are carrying a smartphone, paperless alternatives can be an even better option.

“The best way to reduce waste is to not produce any,” Ms. Grange said in an email. Instead she suggests that visitors who want to reduce their trash footprint download e-tickets and use the museum’s app or refer to posted signs for guidance on directions.

In addition to providing options for visitors to skip the printouts, she said the museum also tries to find ways to keep its own printed materials out of the landfill too. For instance, it sends promotional banners for temporary exhibits to a company that turns them into bags; the banners even go to archaeological schools for use as coverings to protect dig sites.

Although tickets and maps for many tourist destinations are offered electronically, some travelers prefer to keep their tech to a minimum or may be traveling in areas where dicey connections and power failures are common. If paperless travel isn’t practical for you, the best thing to do is to have a place ready to hold your papers so that you’re not leaving a trail of them behind as you move. You can use a travel journal or notebook (Wirecutter recommends the Traveler’s Notebook), customized with an inset folder, to keep loose papers together until you can sort through them at home.

Unwrap new gear before you leave home

Disposable cups, bags, and utensils may be the first kinds of items that spring to mind when you’re thinking about how to reduce waste. But the packaging your gear and supplies come in can also be just as big of a problem. And when you’re on the road, you may find that places to dispose of that packaging are much more limited than they are at home.

In Yosemite National Park, Ms. Richards often sees this problem in action, especially when campers bring new gear directly from the store into the park without unpacking it.

“A lot of visitors don’t think about the amount of packaging material that comes if you buy a new sleeping bag, or a new tent,” she said. Before leaving home, “if you have the chance to pack down and condense, you can reduce the cardboard and plastics that you bring into the park.”

You can also cut down on the amount of packaging you’re carrying by planning ahead and bringing a reusable packable bag to carry groceries or other supplies instead of picking up a disposable plastic or paper sack when you do your shopping. In fact, according to the United Nations Environment Programme, more than 60 countries have already put restrictions on single-use plastic bags, so carrying your own not only reduces your trash footprint but also means you’ll be better prepared in locations where bags aren’t available.

Ria Misra is an editor at Wirecutter, a New York Times company that reviews and recommends products. More at

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A Photographer Confronts His Family’s Tragic Past in Colombia’s War

Andrés Cardona remembers the scenes in his family photo albums, little rectangles of memories as faded as the images themselves: birthdays, baptisms, weddings, Halloween and Christmas gatherings. Over time, these everyday moments that once filled his family’s life in Colombia went from mundane to morbid.

“From one moment to the next, I started seeing dead people, cadavers,” Mr. Cardona said. “My father’s burial, the murder of a cousin, photos of people who had been murdered during the armed conflict.”

As a photographer, Mr. Cardona, 30, was used to documenting Colombia’s bloody history as a decades-old civil war inflicted on strangers. But like so many of his countrymen, members of his family were killed after accusations that they were rebel supporters. His great-grandfather, father, mother, uncle and other family members — mostly farmers who advocated land reform and labor rights — were sentenced to summary executions at the hands of the military.

Over the last three years, Mr. Cardona has confronted his family’s history, drawing upon portraits, family pictures and re-creations of murder scenes to bridge the past to the present with the hope of making sense of — and accepting — all that happened.

“It is so easy to document another person’s pain with a camera,” he said. “But when you document yourself, that’s where I began to feel that I also lived through this and hid it. It was either I do this story or let it be forgotten. I cannot allow that. I told myself it was time, even if it hurts. But I must do it.”

By the early 1950s, the civil war that started in 1945 between conservatives and liberals had claimed his great-grandfather’s life, Mr. Cardona said. He recalled how his grandmother Maria Vargas told him that she was unable to retrieve her father’s corpse, as dogs picked at the body.

Mr. Cardona was born in San Vicente del Caguán, in Caquetá Department, but moved several times throughout childhood after his father, Hernando Cardona Vargas, and his uncle Aldemar Vargas were executed and dumped in a mass grave. They were missing for eight days, until their corpses were unearthed.

“My grandmother and mother took us with them to the military base to get their cadavers,” he said. “They took us to the battalion where the people who killed him were asked to give them a proper burial. No one could see their faces because they were disfigured by bullets and too much time had passed.”

Mr. Cardona admitted that his childhood memories were murky, but that his recollections of the burial remained vivid, as did the trips to the cemetery where he and his brother clambered atop a statue of Jesus.

When his mother, Luz Mercy Cruz, began looking into the circumstances of the double murder, she also sealed her fate. Their only offense, Mr. Cardona said, was that they supported better working conditions and guaranteed human rights. Still, in many parts of Latin America, those convictions are punishable by death.

Mr. Cardona’s mother, who supported her two children by sewing and making artisanal crafts, started getting warnings that she was being followed. Eight months after her husband’s murder, she was leading a workshop on human rights at a community gathering in the countryside, close to the mountains where guerrillas were hiding.

“The army came and surrounded the place where they were meeting,” he said. “They took out the leaders and took out my mother. They killed seven personas, saying they were linked to the guerrillas.”

To this day, he has no idea where his mother is buried.

Mr. Cardona was raised by his grandmother in Puerto Rico de Caquetá, where paramilitary forces — whose gaze he had been taught to avert — had imposed a 6 p.m. curfew for several years. He remembers hearing the noisy chaos of government bombs being dropped nearby.

One of the themes surrounding Mr. Cardona’s work about his family’s past deals with the nightmares he started having of drowning or being killed by a gunman in his home. Early in the project, he found Polaroid prints of his uncle Euclides, a guerrilla commander, dressed in a camouflage military uniform. The prints were among several photos that the family kept buried in the backyard for years.

“A lot of photos had to be buried because the paramilitaries could go into a house and search,” he said. “Who knows how many would have died if they found those pictures.”

Mr. Cardona intends to continue his project. He will also keep searching for his mother’s body. It is a painful process, he admitted, but one that is shared with countless countrymen who he said were waiting for later generations to help make sense of the country’s traumatic history.

“This project isn’t about the dead,” he said. “It’s for the living. It’s a struggle, but it’s also therapeutic and can heal. I cannot live with this pain anymore. I am not a man of hate.”


With Sensuality and Coolness, a Debut Novel Considers the (Partial) Truths We Tell About Ourselves

Invited to a picnic by another student, Nunu is overwhelmed by what she perceives to be the easy camaraderie of the others in the group, and turns back before they see her. Forcing herself to order a proper meal in the cafe, she brings the food home and leaves it to rot in the refrigerator.

Savas’s novel unfolds in a series of 72 short, non-chronological chapters, pieces of a mosaic that demand careful attention as you attempt to fit them together. (Chapter 28 is a single parenthetical sentence of less than 40 words.) Gradually we understand that Nunu is writing from present-day Istanbul, where she has finally settled, and that we are reading her recollections of her past in that city and in Paris and London.

The unreliability of memory; the ways we talk to ourselves and to each other; how we can act as detectives in our own lives, combing the past for clues; how places can seem clearer from afar than when we are there — all these themes are touched on in Savas’s spare, disarmingly simple prose. She writes with both sensuality and coolness, as if determined to find a rational explanation for the irrationality of existence, and for the narrator’s opaque understanding of herself.

There is, for instance, Nunu’s lonely, bewildering childhood; her father, whose promise fizzled to nothing before his premature death; her mother, who fell into a kind of bewildered depression; her home, in which most everything was left unsaid. There is an interlude in England, where Nunu attends university and goes through the motions of normalcy with Molly, her friendly roommate, and Luke, her thoughtful boyfriend.

And there is her time in Paris, where she is adrift until she is rescued by the unconventional sort-of friendship she forms with M., an older male writer known for his lyrical writing about Istanbul. They send finely crafted emails and go on meandering walks, talking about writing, exploring the difference between art and artifice, spinning tales for one another. M. relishes Nunu’s company, scavenging her stories for material, and speaks enthusiastically of the “invisible thread” connecting them.


How Not to Get Duped When Buying a Used Car

Car buying services like Carmax and Carvana take the negotiating (and, for a lot of people, the stress) out of going to a dealership. Their price is their price, and that’s it. Phillip Reed, an automotive writer at Nerdwallet, said that most of the time those prices are at the higher range of what a car of that make, model and mileage are selling for elsewhere, but for a lot of car buyers it’s worth it to avoid the worry that they’re getting ripped off. He said trading in your car is an easier process, too, and can take a lot of the frazzled nerves (and haggling) out of the entire transaction.

How will you pay for it?

You generally have two options for buying a car: pay in cash or take out a loan. For loans, monthly payments are at an all-time high, and they tend to have longer terms than ever before.

“Ten years ago, most loans in the used car space were 60 months. Now the most common loan bucket is 72 months,” Ms. Zabritski said. This is generally because of two factors: New cars are becoming more expensive, and larger cars, like S.U.V.s, are making up a higher portion of all used car sales, she said.

Since many of us budget on a monthly basis, most loan providers are going to focus your attention on that monthly payment and getting that as low as possible. But Mr. Reed said it’s crucial to figure out how much the car will cost over the life of the loan, since adding another 12 or 24 months to the term of the loan can easily add up to several thousand dollars, Mr. Reed said. Loan rates tend to be slightly better for new cars, so figuring out what the car will cost over the life of the loan might show that buying a new car would be cheaper once the car is fully paid.

Mr. Reed recommends getting prequalified for a loan from a bank or credit union then taking that with you to a dealership to see if they can beat it. This can make negotiating easier, too.

“If you say, ‘I’m preapproved, let’s just talk about the price of the car,’ it simplifies things and you don’t lose track of the value of the car,” he said.

If you’re buying a car directly from its owner and you want to finance the purchase, you’ll typically need to provide the lender (usually a bank or credit union) with your financial information along with the car’s vehicle information, bill of sale with the purchase price, pictures of the car and any financing still left on the car from the person you’re buying from. You can also expect to pay a higher interest rate than you would get on a car from a dealership, because it’s a riskier bet for the lender. (This is why it’s important to calculate how much a car will cost over the life of the loan, which you can do here.)


A Former Marine Looks Back on Her Life in a Male-Dominated Military

A Memoir of Disobedience
By Anuradha Bhagwati

As a young woman at Marine Corps Officer Candidate School in 1999, Anuradha Bhagwati received a letter. “I fear I am the reason you joined the Marines,” her father wrote. Indeed, Bhagwati was fleeing the demons of a harsh upbringing. But the answers to her existential questions were more complicated than she’d anticipated; in the Marine Corps, Bhagwati found a culture of entrenched misogyny and sexual violence. She became not only a Marine, but also an activist.


Bhagwati’s memoir, “Unbecoming,” offers a distinctive lens on the Marines: She is South Asian, bisexual and a forceful, frank writer. The daughter of two well-known Indian economists, she graduated from Yale and dropped out of graduate school at Columbia, where her parents taught. In the Marine Corps, she held posts in Okinawa, Thailand and Camp Lejeune, and excelled as a marksman and runner. She also faced vicious sexual harassment. When she tried to get the Marines to address it, she ran into bureaucratic cover-ups and was thwarted by the conventions of chains of command.

Bhagwati writes beautifully about the body, describing everything from the pleasures of the basketball court to martial arts training in the Marine Corps with brutal clarity. (This book also has some of the best descriptions I’ve read of what it is like to be the only woman of color in a roomful of white men. “In the national security world,” she writes, “my Brownness and my gender were so loud and obvious in a sea of white dudes that it often felt like I was screaming even when I said nothing. The Marines had prepared me well for this.”) Although she does not see combat — a fact that haunts her — training leaves her with numerous injuries; the creeping physical toll of her service is undeniable.

ImageAnuradha Bhagwati, 2011.CreditCliff Owen/Associated Press

But Bhagwati’s book stands out most as a chronicle of overcoming psychological trauma. She assesses the authorities with a matter-of-factness that excludes neither the emotional pain of discrimination nor the persistent pull of those in power. When she eventually files and wins a case against one of her tormentors, the victory is hollow: Marine chain of command means that little happens to the perpetrator. In her fight to make sure other women have real recourse, she leaves the Marines and leads the Service Women’s Action Network to lobby for change. The job is energizing and exhausting by turns. She is as careful an observer of civilian hierarchies as she is of military ones, and raises important questions about inequality, activism and storytelling. Navigating the media and Capitol Hill are additional trials.

Misogyny and gender segregation in the military make violence against women possible around the globe, she argues. What lessons are men absorbing through the military’s double standards? She extends her empathy to fellow servicewomen, the families of veterans and foreign civilians, especially women interacting with the United States military. “What would it mean for male veterans, then, to acknowledge the way in which women have been harmed by men’s military service? Would such a ceremony ever be conceived to ask servicewomen’s forgiveness, or the forgiveness of wives and children, or the forgiveness of tens of thousands of women and girls around the globe?” she asks.

Bhagwati is interested in forgiveness; she is generous, earning our trust by offering understanding — and a scrupulous detailing of good works — even to those she criticizes, a varied list that includes First Lt. Dan Choi, Representative Jackie Speier, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Joe Biden. She offers critiques of politicians, the military, her fellow veterans and the media. But she does not lapse into self-righteousness because she does not spare herself. The book is at its most powerful when she writes about who she became in response to the violence the military trained her to commit. Ultimately, “Unbecoming” is a chronicle of letting that violence go.


How Pete Buttigieg’s Meaningless Erudition Made Him the ‘Smart’ Candidate

Late this March, a Norwegian news outlet sprang a surprise question on Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., and candidate for president. The previous week, the writer Anand Giridharadas, who has close to half a million Twitter followers, tweeted that he met Buttigieg and introduced him to a Norwegian friend. “Instantaneously,” he wrote, “Mayor Pete starts talking to her in Norwegian, like a magic trick.” Apparently Buttigieg had read a Norwegian novel in translation and been so taken by it that he learned the language just to finish the author’s untranslated works.

The Norwegian crew wanted to hear it for themselves. In a video that circulated on social media, the reporters smile like proud parents as Buttigieg haltingly says, in Norwegian, “I’ve forgotten so much Norwegian,” followed by a few words about a book and a Norwegian pastor and then an apology, in English: “Sorry, I just ran out of Norwegian.”

The footage, shot by The Washington Post’s Dave Weigel, meets all the demands of social-media authenticity — it was shot on a phone, with the terrible audio, pixelation and skewed perspective that assure you a real human has captured a spontaneous moment. It traveled the same viral routes as Giridharadas’s tweet, acting as evidence that Buttigieg was the cleverest man ever to run for president. It hardly mattered that the main thing Buttigieg seemed able to say in Norwegian was that he had forgotten a lot of Norwegian.

As these stories spread, accompanied by more video evidence, Buttigieg became a case study in what a friend of mine calls “internetty smarts” — intelligence reduced down to a collection of references and images. Like all internetty things, this type of intelligence plays to the viewer’s vanities and prejudices. In this case, it seemed driven by the sorts of people who study literature, read magazines like this one and wring their hands about public-school segregation while quietly sending their kids to elite private schools. Did you know Mayor Pete can speak eight languages? (At least enough, according to his memoir, to order a sandwich.) Did you know he was a Rhodes scholar? Journalists leaned into the image. Ryan Lizza of Esquire asked Buttigieg if running for president was more like “Ulysses” or “Finnegans Wake”; Buttigieg’s answer was mostly incoherent, but to be fair, the question didn’t make much sense either. After watching Buttigieg speak, The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik gushed: “Damned if he isn’t just as impressive as people say: people-smart and policy-smart and funny and eloquent and can cite Joyce without reaching. … The Harry Potter for our Voldemort? Ah! Hope.”

In his weeks on the national scene, Buttigieg has built a brand squarely aimed at a certain kind of liberal intellectual — the type whose prose-driven, subjective, humanist view of the world has lately fallen out of style, replaced by data analysis and ideology. His unassuming face now seems to be everywhere. The blitz has felt less like a presidential campaign than a liberal-arts variety show — a best-case scenario for what happened to Max Fischer from “Rushmore.” A few weeks after the musician Ben Folds told a story about playing a duet with the candidate, a Buttigieg adviser tweeted a video of Mayor Pete “tickling the ivories” before a talk at Scripps College. Even his choice of song — Spoon’s “The Way We Get By” — fit the brand, nailing a demographic of upper-middle-class dads who wax nostalgic about their college radio shows and the professors who taught them to love James Joyce. As Notre-Dame burned, Buttigieg offered his sympathies in French.

I don’t doubt that Mayor Pete, a Harvard graduate and the son of two professors, is genuinely smart. Nor do I think the excitement about his candidacy has been driven entirely by the polyglot fetishes of my media colleagues. He speaks in a calm, thoughtful manner with a touch of a young Dustin Hoffman’s charm. The candidacy of an openly gay man has genuine symbolic importance. And while he has yet to produce meaningful policy ideas, he has drawn some cultural lines by playing up his Midwestern roots, gently scolding “coastal elites” and the left’s obsession with “identitarianism.”

But “internetty” intelligence, like all memes, turns a human being and a lifetime of experiences into a matching game: You see a photo of a bookshelf, recognize the titles of books you wished you had read and conclude that the man standing in front of them must be smart in the way you want to be smart. This connection is not about politics or electoral outcomes; it lies in a more personal space. Imagining yourself in a book club with Pete Buttigieg becomes this election’s having a beer with George W. Bush. If the news media has an “identitarianism” problem, it’s not so much that people bunker down into racial, gender or sexual groups, but that a whole class of journalists and thinkers never seems to be able to wander out past its own pool of references — all so admiring of the same things that some are blinded to the similar backgrounds of almost every other Democratic candidate for president.

Julián Castro — a former mayor of San Antonio, a city roughly 15 times the population of South Bend — went to Stanford and Harvard Law School. Cory Booker was a Rhodes scholar, too. Amy Klobuchar went to Yale, and Kirsten Gillibrand, another Ivy Leaguer, speaks Mandarin much better than Buttigieg speaks Norwegian. (For all the Buttigieg fans gushing about Harvard, it seems worth pointing out that our current president also attended an Ivy League institution, as did Bush.) But to a certain kind of liberal, none of those bona fides seem to matter quite like a casual reference to “Ulysses” and a few words in an unexpected language. Gillibrand’s Mandarin can be written off as the résumé-building accomplishment of a striver, while Norwegian, which has no practical value for an American president, is taken as a sign of intellectual curiosity and authenticity — the sort of whimsical surplus achievement that often upstages workaday accomplishments.

Elections, of course, aren’t about qualifications. Each of our last two presidents spoke to some furtive aspiration among the electorate, embodying a general style voters were eager to identify with. Buttigieg does this for a narrower audience: With his air of decency and grab bag of gifted-and-talented party tricks, he doesn’t so much represent the will of the Democratic electorate but rather the aspirations of its educated elite, maybe especially those who see a shrinking market for their erudition.

This form of identity politics has its consequences. We are constantly arguing over the workings of American meritocracy, in schools and then colleges and then jobs: How do we get past the old networks of privilege and prejudice and accurately evaluate people’s abilities? Is the answer hard numbers and standardized tests? Or is it some “holistic” view of each person, which scrutinizes their spark and talent the same way a college applicant’s extracurricular activities are evaluated for sincerity? Who gets to make those calls?

My fear is that such a system might look a bit like Buttigieg mania: an insidious game in which entire lives of experience, or even exactly matching credentials, get overshadowed by the dilettantish longing of the upper middle class. The Mayor Pete bubble should serve as a portent of what might happen if we strip away every objective measure of merit, however problematic or biased, in favor of how someone’s idiosyncratic talents make us feel. Consider that the person Giridharadas and others have described as the opposite of Donald Trump isn’t Elizabeth Warren, a self-made public intellectual and policy expert from a more rural and blue-collar background than Buttigieg’s campus roots, but an erudite 37-year-old mayor who seems most intent on dazzling the country with his academic feats of strength.