All posts by zoe


Zoë Wool is Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Rice University. She works on the intimate, carnal, clinical and political making of fleshy life for severely injured American soldiers. Zoë is author ofAfter War: The Weight of Life at Walter Reed (Duke UP, 2015).

Teach America Great Again

This entry is part 3 of 3 in the #teachingthedisaster series.

By Rucha Ambikar

The day after Trump won the election, I went into my class as usual. I was setting up the smart podium, when a student in the first row turned back to another student to chat. I couldn’t overhear everything that went on between the two of them, but I did hear the student in the first row loudly exclaim “Well if you don’t like it; you can go to Canada.” Even though it was before class time, I gave this student the side-eye, wagged my finger at them and said “we don’t use that kind of language in this classroom. We’re going to practice being polite to each other in here!” The student apologized to me and class began. I don’t know if they apologized to the other student. This was the first day after the election and I wish I could say that this was the last time I heard exclusionary language in my classes. But I wasn’t surprised; throughout that semester I had been teaching to red ‘Make American Great Again’ hats.

I teach at a rural university in Minnesota where I am the only anthropologist on campus. It is not as much cache as it sounds. I teach large service courses where students in my classes are there only for the liberal education credits they receive. Most neither know nor care what anthropology is, and if anything, are prepared for college only as a hostile climate that may challenge their faith, their belief in creationism, their comfort with their ideas and self image. I wish I could say that this is a Trump-era problem, but the fact is that my classes at this university have always been this way. Barring a few welcome exceptions, students are not interested in learning anything that challenges their worldview, and certainly not from a foreign woman with an accent, who isn’t even Christian.
Post-election, when it feels like the entire climate in the country has shifted to resemble one I normally face in my classroom, I’m contemplating how we, as anthropology professors can continue to teach. Whom do we teach now, and to what purpose?
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Teaching the Anthropology of Elections in times of Trump

This entry is part 2 of 3 in the #teachingthedisaster series.

This is post in the #teachingthedisaster series comes to us from Maria L. Vidart-Delgado. Maria lectures in the Anthropology Program at MIT and is also the co-founder of Department of Play. 

I taught a class on the 2016 U.S. presidential election (syllabus here) to a group of undergrads at MIT with diverse political commitments, social sensibilities, and with different levels of exposure to anthropology. I faced two challenges. One was getting my students to think anthropologically about electoral politics and democracy more broadly. I mean moving away from analyses that mimic prevalent political punditry (do elections work?), to a comparative mode of analysis attentive to how different groups of people experience, understand and perform free, fair, legitimate elections. The second challenge was to build a common ground to listen to each other in an emotionally charged political environment. I found that in cultivating an anthropological perspective we built a common place to question the assumptions shaping our political preferences, and to discuss the implications of those preferences.

I made an effort to cultivate in my students what Clifford (1988:19) calls an “ethnographic attitude,”  one that sees “culture and its norms—beauty, truth, reality—as artificial arrangements susceptible to detached analysis and comparison with other possible dispositions.” This “relativistic” approach (and I mean it facetiously) was fruitful to study electoral campaigning in its own terms. As charismatic assemblages—of experts, supporters, techniques, political ideals, political networks and media infrastructures—working in concerted action toward electing a candidate (Nielsen 2012; Stromer-Galley 2014). We saw that these assemblages deploy strict top-down management tactics to fuel and spread a collective enthusiasm for a political cause, and produce dominant storylines that ultimately become the bases for political judgment and policy design (Laclau 2008). 2016 provided abundant case studies, like Brexit or the Colombian Peace Referendum.
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This entry is part 1 of 3 in the #teachingthedisaster series.

On Wednesday morning, amid the turbulent mix of feelings that washed across the country and beyond its borders, an anxious existential question took hold of many of us: “what the f***k do we do?” Some seriously considered the need to flee for their lives. Others took to the streets. More than a few folks I know spent the day drunk or in bed. And, by the end of the day, safe spaces for decompression and community care emerged on many college campuses. Part of my own response, one shared by many other faculty, has been: TEACH.

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The Erasures of “Thank you for your service”

Here in the US, it’s Veteran’s Day (in Canada it’s Remembrance Day, in England it’s Armistice Day, and it’s worth thinking about what those differences mean). The utterance you’re most likely to hear is “thank you for your service.” As an anthropologist who works with injured soldiers and their families, that has become one of my least favorite utterances (I’m hardly alone). This year, thanks to a provocation from my new institutional home, I find myself particularly committed to getting us to think about the experiences, and the violence, that well meaning platitude erases. To help us do that, here is an excerpt from my new book,  After War: The Weight of Life at Walter Reed.

One summer night James and I stand smoking near McGinty’s small patio that spreads across the sidewalk, his two prosthetic legs protruding from his khaki-colored cargo shorts. They catch the eye of a middle-aged man, slightly drunk and ambling along with a few friends. He stops and turns to us, ribbing James by asking, “What happened to your feet?” James replies with one word and a slightly smug smile: “Bomb.” The man, still standing there in front of us, unignorably close although he ignores me entirely, nods slowly with sincerity and says, “I believe it. Thanks, thank you for what you do.” Then he moves along and rejoins his waiting friends.

We go back to our cigarettes and conversation, but whatever ease or unselfconsciousness or ordinary sense of being in common James might have had upstairs at McGinty’s has been perforated by that sentiment and its implicit fictions. An encounter that begins with a recognition of the glinting traces of horrible violence and pain, traces that James makes more present with his one chosen word, bomb, are unspoken and perhaps unspeakable within this frame of gratitude. Instead they are spoken as a conspicuous vagueness: “Thanks, thank you for what you do.” Continue reading

Empathy: A Companionate Redux

I thought I would kick off the last morning of the year by chiming in on the comments to Dr.LibertyBell’s very generative second post on empathy here at SM.  But I seemed to have found the post and comments so generative, that I now find myself rounding off the last afternoon of the year by posting this companionate redux instead.

On the Particularity of the Empathetic Subject

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Thinking about the Somethings to be done about Syria

With breathtaking paternalism, the Obama Administration has decided ‘something must be done’ in Syria.  The “something” it has in mind is the dropping of dozens of Raytheon’s BGM-109 bombs (aka the Tomahawk cruise missile) throughout Syria, particularly around its capital, Damascus.

Everyone agrees that this will not end Assad’s hold on the country, it will not improve the lot of Syrians, and “it doesn’t, obviously end the death of innocent civilians inside of Syria.”

None of this is their intention. Their intention is to spank Assad using a spectacular and display of tactically useless military violence that risks Syrian lives and protects American ones, all while pretending such violence somehow does not constitute “involvement in the civil war in Syria, [which] would not help the situation on the ground.”

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Valuing Life, Death, and Disability: Sorting People in the New York Times

[This post is a departure from my usual topics related to war, but since thinking about injured soldiers (as I do) means thinking about moral categories of embodied personhood, I hope the connection will be clear.]

I want to begin by applauding the New York Times and Danny Hakim for devoting considerable energies to their Abused and Used series exposing the deadly peril within NY state’s system of care for people with developmental disabilities. It’s not exactly a hot topic for an exposè.

But I was angry that in their contribution to the series this weekend, Hakim and co-author Russ Beuttner fed into ideas about people with disabilities that are part of the same deadly system their work has the potential to undermine.

Their focus on broken rules and poor regulation presents people with developmental disabilities as troublesome things to be managed and “dealt with.” Even their retelling of the story of James Taylor’s death conveys his life through burdens felt by others. Despite the candor and care of his mother and sister, visible in this accompanying video, Mr. Taylor’s life is primarily depicted as dead weight.

To be fair, the coverage reflects a double bind: these lives are not valued, so the series focuses on death and abuse in order to get attention. But in focusing on death and abuse, the series suggests it is deaths rather than lives that are worth attention, intervention, and resources.

So why do we care more about how some people die than how they live? As Mr. Taylor’s sister puts it: “these sorts of people are not valued in society”. This is true, but unsatisfying. We need also to ask what makes some people, but not others, people of “these sorts”.

The Used and Abused series confirms a common sense answer: These people are sorted by the biological facts of impairment; the neck that doesn’t support the head any better than a newborn, the brain that is ‘developmentally equivalent’ to a three-month-old’s. Those are facts of Mr. Taylor’s impairment due to cerebral palsy as described by Hakim and Buettner.

But this common sense is nonsense. Mr. Taylor was a 41-year-old man, not a baby. Comparing him to an infant is an (evocative, ubiquitous, offensive) analogy, not a statement of biological fact. And the strength of his neck does not explain why he was made to live in conditions that killed him.

I did fieldwork with injured U.S. soldiers rehabilitating at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. As the NYT, Washington Post, and others have reported, soldiers often sustain brain injuries with major cognitive consequences. But we don’t evaluate injured soldiers the same way as Mr. Taylor—even when their brains are injured or literally missing.

Yet there may be no quantifiable difference between how someone with cerebral palsy can think and how a brain injured soldier can think. Nonetheless, we actively support the life of an injured soldier but merely try to prevent the death of people like Mr. Taylor.

The difference between these two “sorts of people” (or kinds of people, as Ian Hacking might put it) is one we make. It is rooted in morally weighted social facts, not biological ones. It is about the lives we value as a society and those we do not to. This is a basic human inequity for which we bear collective responsibility. Luckily, it is one all of us can work to change.

Costs of War: Doing the Numbers

If you Google “$3.7 Trillion” and “war” today, you’ll find a torrent of news coverage about the newly released Costs of War report authored by the Eisenhower Study Group based out of Brown’s Watson Institute for International Studies.

I was part of the interdisciplinary group, co-directed by Catherine Lutz, that co-authored the report which aims to comprehensively explore the vast scope and scale of the impacts, the many kinds of costs, of the U.S. military response to 9/11. So, not surprisingly, the mood strikes me to tell you something about it.

There were more than 20 of us who contributed to the project, and anthropologists were well represented alongside historians, journalists, political scientists, economists, and others.

One of the great strengths of the report and it’s interdisciplinary approach is that it brings together numbers (like international civilian casualty rates) and issues (like impacts of deployment on the children of U.S. service members) that are often disarticulated or overlooked all together.

Now, for better or worse, numbers make good headlines, and this report is chock full of them. We noted that:

The wars have created more than 7.8 million refugees in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan; U.S. veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are 75% more likely to die in car crashes than their civilian counterparts; Military responses to terrorism have been successful in only 7%of the 268 examples since the late 20th Century; An M-1 Abrams tank gets about half a mile per gallon of gas; In the U.S., the proportion of hate crimes against Muslims has risen 500%since 2000, even though overall hate crime rates have gone down; And, as everyone from The Washington Post to The Toronto Sun noted, the report estimates an (incomplete) price tag of between $3.2 and $4 Trillion.

These numbers are compelling. And, true to the axiom “if it’s integerial, it leads,” (that’s how it goes, right?) numbers make good copy.

But as an anthropologist with a healthy disciplinary skepticism of faith in statistics and all their quantitative kin, and one who worked with injured soldiers and their families and wants people to know about their struggles, I was torn between the power of contagious numbers, and their simplifying and sometimes anesthetizing effects.

Thinking that some of you folks might be too, I thought I would share a few other findings of the report; findings that speak to the power of absent numbers:

The $4 Trillion number leaves much uncounted. For example, it doesn’t count ‘solatia’ payments that the U.S. makes to the families of some Afghan and Iraqi civilians killed or the cost of Predator and Reaper drones (we do know, however, that Predators cost $4.5 million each, and that more than one third of them have crashed).

Project Co-director Neta Crawford’s contribution on casualties begins with a poignant description of the historical, logistical, and political reasons that a death, especially, but not only, that of a civilian can be made uncountable.

Political scientist Alison Howell and I note the way that sensational statistics, like divorce rates, can mask the strains on military families, the very things for which they’re supposed to stand as proxy.

Matthew Evangelista’s contribution offers some important historical lessons using unexpected numbers often disappeared from amnesiac comparative histories of terrorism including those related to organizations active in the 1970s like Germany’s Red Army Faction, Italy’s Brigate Rosse, and Quebec’s Front de Liberation du Québec.

So, though Reuters has made $3.7 Trillion the headline of the Costs of War report, it seemed you might be interested in other ways the rest of us are doing the numbers.

What Tim Hetherington Offered to Anthropology

Tim HetheringtonOn March 15th, I moderated a panel at RISD called Picturing Soldiers: The Aesthetics and Ethics of Contemporary Soldier Photographs featuring photographers Lori Grinker, Jennifer Karady, Suzanne Opton, and Tim Hetherington, who as killed today in Libya.

One of the amazing things about the work of each of these artists is how resonant it is with what we do as anthropologists. Like ethnography, their images are not simply about ‘documentation.’ They are about conveying something of lived experience that allows us, provokes us, to ask questions about how some particular lives come to look they way they do. They invite us to linger on the lives of soldiers long enough to think about how they are, and also are not, like others.

It strikes me that in our disciplinary conversations about what various modes of anthropological engagement might look like, we often fail to recognize the possibilities of such resonances. These possibilities are especially promising when the lives we explore are characterized, in one way or another, by war. Here, issues of politics and ethics lie both close to the surface and close to the bone. Tim Hetherington’s work was powerful proof of these possibilities.

For example, he said many times that he hoped Restrepo, his thoroughly ethnographic Afghanistan war documentary, co-directed with Sebastian Junger, would offer a new and more productive starting place for thinking about the war and US military intervention.

As Tim put it in an excellent interview at Guernica where he responds to Leftist criticism of the film:

While moral outrage may motivate me, I think demanding moral outrage is actually counter-productive because people tend to switch off. […] Sure, the face of the U.S. soldier is the “easiest entrée into the Afghan war zone” but it has allowed me to touch many people at home with rare close-up footage of injured and dead Afghan civilians (as well as a young U.S. soldier having a breakdown following the death of his best friend). Perhaps these moments represent the true face of war rather than the facts and figures of political analyses or the black and white newsprint of leaked documents.

In a more personal mode, Tim offered the experimental film Diary, which reflects something of the compulsions, rhythms, and senses of his movement into and out of ‘zones of killing’, as he suggested we might think of such spaces. Here too, we can find resonances with anthropological explorations of the particular vertiginous experiences of being in and out and in such spaces of violence, and of the uneven geographies of deadly violence.

News continues to unfold about the incident in Libya that may have also killed photographer Chris Hondros, and that seriously injured photographers Guy Martin, Michael Christopher, among others. And as we continue to hear more of Tim Hetherington’s death, and more remembrances of his life and work, I’ll also be thinking about what his work, and the work of other artists and journalists, has to offer us anthropologists; the places where our various projects meet, and the possibilities for thinking and acting that might begin from there.

Breaking Ranks

Since we’ve just entered the 10th year of U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan (well, 10 years this century) it seems a good time to say a few words about Breaking Ranks: Iraq Veterans Speak Out Against The War (University of California Press 2010) co-authored by Matthew Gutmann and Catherine Lutz.

Breaking Ranks recounts, largely through interview excerpts, the stories of six Iraq War veterans who became involved with Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) and other military anti-war organizations and participated in the larger GI Rights Oral History Project. It takes us from their decisions to join the military, through combat, anti-war epiphanies, homecomings, and involvement in anti-war activism.

The patchwork composition of the book reflects the veterans’ attempts to piece together a narrative of their lives defined by the watershed of their experiences in Iraq. While book’s overall structure parses these experiences into a general arc of life—from enlistment, to the shock and fog of war, to political awakening, to struggles with trauma, to activism—it doesn’t smooth over the rough edges of these experiences or impose too clear an order on the muddle of reflexive memories that the soldiers offer.

As the authors note in the introduction, the book is an account of how these six people (five men and one woman; three soldiers, one sailor, one Marine, and one National Guardsman) found their way to a public, anti-war position and of “the striking and original ideas each developed to understand the war and what it meant. Their critiques are not simple matches to those of the civilian antiwar movement or to our own as authors” (8). Thus Breaking Ranks suggest that while it is possible to speak of a single anti-war movement, that singularity subsumes a multiplicity of different meanings and the ones we hear here are not always foregrounded.

Gutmann and Lutz’ Zinn-ian project of documenting the grassroots critiques so often written out of American History is well complemented by their anthropological attention to the little details of daily life (in the military, at war, and after) that aggregate into feelings of frustration and individual acts of political resistance, suggesting the complex and divergent paths through which soldiers come to, as they say, “speak out”.

Thought the text of the book is devoted to six stories, it is also peppered with facts and events that position these very diverse lives within a single post 9/11 historical moment which is also linked, by both the authors and the subjects, to the American legacies of the Vietnam War and its contemporary anti-war motifs.

In their curation of the stories, Gutmann and Lutz also demonstrate the ways that war insinuates itself into civilian life in America, making military service seem like the best possible option for many Americans whose lives are made hard or unstable by the exigencies of family expectations, national pride, poverty, and youth. The Introduction and endnotes are also full of data and resources for further reading about the ‘dark side’ (as Alex Gibney might say) of America’s war in Iraq.

Lately, ‘the good war’ in Afghanistan is consuming more and more of America’s attention and resources and, in the months since Breaking Ranks was released this summer, American combat operations in Iraq have been declared over (again) and the ‘draw-down’ of combat troops and ‘civilian surge’ there have begun. In this context, we can read in Breaking Ranks deeper questions about the different justifications for American military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq at the level of individual experience and public discourse alike, as well as about the fundamental nature of wars in which nation-states confront non-state entities through the sanctioned, violent acts of their citizens. As our attention, and perhaps attitudes, to America’s two main post-9/11 military operations seems to be shifting, Braking Ranks can help readers think about how things have (and haven’t) changed in military life and policy at home and down range.

In addition to being a powerful documentary record and conversation starter about the Iraq War, Breaking Ranks strikes me as an important, accessible, and eminently teachable book that speaks of the conflicted experiences of soldiers in war, the political failings of America’s doctrine of pre-emptive war, and the contingent evolution of personal conflict into political action. It would be well suited to undergraduate classes on war, trauma, social movements, public or activist anthropology, and—given its format—methods courses that discuss life-story interviews and practices of ethnographic writing.

[A bit of full disclosure: Royalties from Breaking Ranks are being donated to IVAW; an organization with which I did some fieldwork in 2008 and which I’ve personally supported]

Raw and Cooked Facts in Wikileaks’ “Afghan War Diaries, 2004-2010”

Unless you’ve been living under a rock (where you probably don’t get WiFi and won’t be reading this), you’ve heard something about the release on Sunday of 92,000 primary documents culled from classified US military field reports from Afghanistan compiled by and given in advance to the New York Times , Der Spiegel, and The Guardian.

There is much think and say about this event and these documents. Apropos recent conversations at SM, I’d like to point out that there are probably better places to say some of these things.

One thing that strikes me as relevant for comment here is the way that ‘facticity’ and authority based in being there are at the heart of some discussions.

Take for example this interview from NPR’s All Things Considered between co-host Robert Segal and Wikileaks mastermind Julian Assange.

Here are the most relevant bits:

Julian Assange: The full story is only going to emerge over the coming weeks as that material is correlated to the witnesses who are on the ground, both the US soldiers and Afghanis

Robert Segal: [Challenging Assange’s comparison of The Afghan War Diaries to the Pentagon Papers] These are raw reports that are not confirmed and edited

JA: This material has its strength in that it is not an analysis, not written at the higher levels so it can be publicly massaged, it is in fact the raw facts of the war

RS: Some people would dispute your use of the word ‘facts,’ or indeed there might be something oxymoronic in ‘raw facts’

JA: The majority of reports are immediate reporting from the field from US military operations

What I see emerging here is an interesting conversation about textual authority, and one that resonates with our own disciplinary claims to authority based on ethnographic experience (see Clifford, Marcus, Gupta and Ferguson, etc. for some classic wailing on that old chestnut).

Assange begins by saying that these raw facts will only be fully cooked into a truthy pie once they are compared to the testimony of “witnesses who are on the ground.” And yet, when Segal notes the criticism that these raw facts are, in fact, too raw to be facts—that they need a little correlation before they can be safely consumed—Assange suggests that it is their very rawness that makes them good: Instead of truthy pie, he changes his order to sashimi.

The thing is, be they raw or cooked, pie or sashimi, these documents are not unadulterated. They are not like snapshots of the war, with all the claims to verisimilitude that visual medium implies (it’s worth mentioning that this connection between verisimilitude and the visual is also one way that witnessing stakes its authoritative claims). So, they are not like photographs. They are documents written within the generic constraints of military field reporting for a particular intended audience of surveilling authorities as official archival records.

Drop weapons are a concrete example of the things that are written out of these kinds of documents. Drop weapons are enemy weapons (like AK 47s) that US forces carry with them so that if they accidentally kill a civilian, they can ‘drop’ them by the body and have documentable proof that the civilian was actually an insurgent.

Drop weapons are useful because they alibi omissions (of the killing of civilians) from the After Action Report (AAR) which is part of the official record. But they are also useful because they enable the inscription of other things (the killing of insurgents) in the official record.

For a different and very interesting example directly from the Wikileaks docs, check out this corrective by Noah Shachtman, one of those on the ground witnesses.

The point is, however we choose to digest these documents, we need to consider them within the institutional and social context of their production, and whatever they are, they are not a diary.

HTS and Anthropology: Political Terrain

Jason Motlagh posted a nice short piece about anthropology and HTS at on Thursday. Motlagh points out some key issues at the heart of the HTS acrimony and makes note of both the AAA’s CEAUSSIC statement and the campaign by the Network of Concerned Anthropologists (NCA).

Despite the piece giving voice to many of us HTS critics’ greatest hits, there are a few more that I feel the need to shout out myself.

Motlagh writes:

Its backers contend that civilian specialists — particularly anthropologists — with in-depth field experience are best suited to “map” Afghanistan’s complex tribal structures and fault lines. […] The prospect of getting blacklisted in U.S. academia has sapped the pool of seasoned anthropologists. Today recruits are more and more likely to have a degree in political science, history or psychology. Some only have a bachelor’s degree.

Certainly some of the credit (or blame, depending on how you slice it) for the lack of anthropologists in these positions goes to the efforts of the NCA and the AAA, but I think the balance is due to the fact that well trained and experienced anthropologists know you can’t ‘map’ culture as if it were mountains: it’s neither static, bounded, nor quantifiable. As Hugh Gusterson points out in theHuman Terrain film, HTS is built on a faulty metaphor.

Because of a fundamental confusion about what anthropologists are and do, and the (understandably) instrumental and operational bent of the program, “in depth-field experience” was never HTS’s main hiring priority. Given a definition of anthropology as a methods suite for gathering information about some thing called culture, it’s technical ability, not experience, that matters most.

Among those speaking for HTS (perhaps from within it, but that’s not totally clear) Motlagh cites Brian Ericksen, “a burly former Army ranger with a political science degree who works with Marines in insurgency-wracked Helmand province.” Erickson dismisses critiques of HTS, saying “For me, the politically motivated criticism just isn’t valid.”

But the politically motivated participation in national military action is? Does Mr. Ericksen’s comment “when your country is at war … you support your armed forces in the vested interest of the country” imply that people should make such decisions on anything but political grounds (which, as I’m sure Mr. Ericksen knows, they actually do all the time)? In any case, dismissing criticism of HTS because it’s politically motivated is, frankly, kind of ridiculous. It’s political criticism of a political project unfolding in a political arena. Seems like solid ground to me.

And for those HTS proponents who dismiss critics by claiming all we do is say ‘nay’, I have something more substantial for you to chew on:

You want to give soldiers and marines some information on the social, cultural, and political worlds they are about to enter? Great idea. The soldiers I worked with at Walter Reed often wished they’d had more of it.  But let’s be realistic. As a one former Marine who had served with a Civil Affairs unit in Fallujah told me “think of a soldier who gets as many hours of training on Iraqi culture as you can imagine, 40 hours, 60 hours, and then you send him over and after a month of living with the awareness that all the white guys are safe and all the brown guys might not be, what do you think? That training can’t hold.”

You want to have people in patrol units who have learned qualitative interview techniques and whose job it is to talk to people and get information about social structures in the local area? Terrific.  I’m not sure why you can’t just have Civil Affairs folks doing that, but hey, why not make it its own MOS (Military Occupational Specialty)?

You want to have people devoted to providing officers in the field with contextual information about their AO (Area of Operations)? More power to you. Some version of this is already happening. If a National Guard medic I know prepared an in depth presentation on the dangers of Camel Spiders before deployment to Iraq, I’m not sure why other soldiers couldn’t do the same for other kinds of information within the existing practices of training and support.  I’m sure the new crop of warrior scholars graduating from various military colleges is up to the task, don’t you?

Clearly, I think that a special, subcontracted HTS project unhelpful no matter who is staffing it. But if General Petraeus wants to have some ‘human terrain’ mapping, he should stop thinking that anthropologists are the folks for the job (or that such mapping is ‘ethnographic’) and start training his own cartographers. It would save everyone a lot of aggravation and ink, not to mention $150 million a year.

Language and the Media in Fort Hood

Below is an occasional post by Zoë H. Wool. Zoe is a doctoral candidate in socio-cultural and linguistic anthropology at the University of Toronto. Her dissertation is titled Emergent Ordinaries at Walter Reed Army Medical Center: An ethnography of extra/ordinary encounter. It focuses on the dialectic of the ordinary and extraordinary in the lives of soldiers who are marked by violence.

There is much to be said, and felt, about the shootings at Ft Hood on November 5th.

As a socio-cultural and linguistic anthropologist whose dissertation fieldwork was on a military base (I worked mostly at Walter Reed with a brief stint at Ft Dix), and who writes about the dissonance that emerges when discourses of the ‘war on terror’ and soldiers’ experiences collide, I’ve been feeling the need to say a few things myself.

I think we need to be paying close attention to the ideologies of language that are emerging in media coverage and online chatter about the apparent shooter, Maj. Nadal Hasan. Those who have been following the coverage will be aware that people are obsessed with how to name (or nominate) Hasan.

Call him Crazy

One set of names at stake has to do with being crazy.

In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, commentators rushed to the figure of the PTSD suffering soldier, invoking exactly the stereotype of the ‘crazy vet’ that Ken MacLeish has written about here, reinforcing the myth that PTSD makes people (or perhaps just soldiers?) kill other people.

As it became clear that Hasan had not been deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan and had not been in an active war zone, this category morphed into another one that, as far as I know, was newly coined: that of “secondary-PTSD” caused by the assumption of his repeated exposure to the first hand accounts of soldiers’ combat trauma while Hasan was working as a psychiatrist at Walter Reed.

As the night of the shooting wore on, and more information about Hasan found its way to news outlets like the New York Times, the category of mental illness took on another shape: Hasan’s supervisors at Walter Reed and at a Masters’ program at Uniformed Services University of the Health Science had apparently been concerned that he might be psychotic in some more run of the mill, non-service connected way.

The ‘T’ Word

There is also the parallel, and more heated, discussion about whether or not to call Hasan a terrorist. The cover of the November 23rd issue of Time Magazine which features Hasan’s face with “Terrorist?” across his eyes (which are rendered in negative) is perhaps the most iconic iteration of this question.

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