Tag Archives: Military violence conflict

Good bye (and good riddance) to Human Terrain System

Both Counterpunch and Inside Higher Ed ran stories recently on the end of Human Terrain System or HTS. What was HTS? A program run by the army and employing social scientists, including some anthropologists, to help them learn more about the people (i.e. ‘human terrain’) in Afghanistan and Iraq. Booted up in 2005, the controversial program attracted massive criticism from anthropologists, including a report from the AAA and a formal statement arguing that it was fundamentally unethical. Now, a decade after the idea for embedded social scientists in American’s invasions was first floated, the program has officially folded.

There were many problems with HTS. Not only was it unethical, the quality of work it produced was, iirc, pretty lousy. Moreover, it actively supported American military action which was not only morally wrong, but a tremendous strategic error with an enormous price tag in dollars and lives. According to Counterpunch, HTS’s slice of the pie was US$725 million dollars. It’s hard to see HTS as anything except an object lesson in ethical and scientific failure. It didn’t even engage interesting ethical questions about collaboration with the military, applied anthropology, and ethics. It was just fail. Anthropologists everywhere can be glad it has now been relegated to ethics section of anthropology syllabi.

Perhaps one good thing that has come out of HTS is that the AAA managed to show strong ethical leadership throughout this period. This is in stark contrast to the American Psychological Association, which colluded with the CIA to produce ethical standards that made facilitating torture acceptable to its members. To be honest, I’m not really sure this indicates the strong moral fiber of the AAA so much as its lack of relevance to American actions abroad, at least until a network of concerned anthropologists pushed it to act (or, perhaps, to act in and through it).

At the end of the day, anthropology took a stance against HTS, and history has born this stance out. Goodbye and good riddance to HTS.


Violence against women x 2

This probably belongs on Sociological Images, but I am going to post it here anyway.  I just read this brief 2010 article about violence against women in Russia, after reading through this fact sheet from the World Health Organization.  Then when I looked back at the article, I noticed something that seemed off.  Here’s a screenshot, see if you can figure it out:

Women as targets of violence, in more ways than one.  Sometimes it’s more overt, sometimes it’s a hidden under the surface–like this ad that just happened to be posted alongside an article about violence against women.  It’s one of those ads that changes every time you refresh the page.  It’s just kind of one of those quotidian digital moments that can bring various strands or currents of our social world together.  Different forms of violence, different layers, coming together in a supposedly coincidental moment.  But sometimes these kinds of moments tell us a lot about larger issues, problems, and pervasive forms of violence.

Illustrated Man, #6 – Burma Chronicles

Guy Delisle gets around, notably to places most of us don’t go. Pyongyang, perhaps his best known work, is a graphic memoir of his travels in North Korea. An animator by training Delisle was granted a two month work visa to oversee the production of a children’s cartoon in that isolated nation. A similar work situation found Delisle temporarily placed in Shenzhen, China, an experience that was also turned into a travelogue. Comic fans and other curious characters can find previews of these works over at Drawn and Quarterly, he also keeps his own website with a blog in French (the man is Quebecois).

In this installment of Illustrated Man, we turn our attention to Burma Chronicles, Delisle’s most recent foray into the graphic representation of a westerner’s encounter with an Asian culture. Why Burma Chronicles you ask? They shuttered our local Borders Books and I got it on clearance, that’s why. I for one am not thrilled at that company’s implosion (unlike some snarky others). Shit man! I live in a city of 180,000 and now we have one bookstore left, a Barnes and Nobles. Okay, two if you count the used store that specializes in romance novels.

Back to the comic. Guy’s wife, Nadege, is an admin for Medecins Sans Frontières, and she brings them to Rangoon while MSF attempts to reach a remote and stigmatized ethnic group who reside along the border with Thailand. While Nadege is away Guy spends a lot of time caring for their infant son Louis, socializing with the NGO crowd, trying to squeeze in a little work on the side, and making wry observations about everyday life under the military junta.

Continue reading

3 Cups of Orientalism

I haven’t read 3 Cups of Tea, and I don’t really have any intention of doing so. (I haven’t yet seen any compelling argument for why I should read the book.) However, I did read another book in the genre, Leaving Microsoft to Change the World, by the founder of Room2Read. I was interested because we became involved in a project to support a library/informal school in India while making our last film, and I wanted to see if I could learn anything from the book. While it was mostly about what a great guy the author is (I guess that is a requirement for this genre), I did like the fundraising model they use—in which local communities are expected to buy-in to the project. We are working on trying to replicate that on a smaller scale in the library project. (If you have any relevant experience and would like to help – please contact me.)

I tend to be very skeptical of such efforts, but I think anyone who sees the film will understand how important the library is to the community – and we wanted to have some kind of mechanism in place so that when the film cames out people could support the library. But we’ve also learned that it is important not to go too fast or try to do too much. For this reason, I really liked Timothy Burke’s piece on the 3 Cups scandal: Continue reading

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]

The Semiotics of Islamophobia

Via the PostSecret website, it is unclear whether the poster intentionally picked a photo of Sikhs or if this was unintentional irony. Not that the sentiment would have been any less offensive if the person wearing a turban was actually a Muslim. It certainly didn’t matter to the families of victims of post 9-11 hate crimes whether the victim was Muslim or not. I bring this up because William Dalrymple has an op-ed in the NY Times about the proposed Islamic center planned for lower Manhattan (for those living under a rock, see William Saletan’s piece in Slate for a good roundup of the issues surrounding the center):

The problem with such claims goes far beyond the fate of a mosque in downtown Manhattan. They show a dangerously inadequate understanding of the many divisions, complexities and nuances within the Islamic world — a failure that hugely hampers Western efforts to fight violent Islamic extremism and to reconcile Americans with peaceful adherents of the world’s second-largest religion. Most of us are perfectly capable of making distinctions within the Christian world. The fact that someone is a Boston Roman Catholic doesn’t mean he’s in league with Irish Republican Army bomb makers, just as not all Orthodox Christians have ties to Serbian war criminals or Southern Baptists to the murderers of abortion doctors. Yet many of our leaders have a tendency to see the Islamic world as a single, terrifying monolith.

Dalrymple’s main point is that the Sufis behind the Cordoba Initiative are themselves “infidel-loving, grave-worshiping apostate[s]” in the eyes of the Taliban and Osama bin Laden. We’ve been here before:

In 2006, the investigative reporter Jeff Stein concluded a series of interviews with senior US counterterrorism officials by asking the same simple question: “Do you know the difference between a Sunni and a Shia?” He was startled by the responses. “One’s in one location, another’s in another location,” said Congressman Terry Everett, a member of the House intelligence committee, before conceding: “No, to be honest with you, I don’t know.” When Stein asked Congressman Silvestre Reyes, chair of the House intelligence committee, whether al-Qaeda was Sunni or Shia, he answered: “Predominantly – probably Shia.”

Clearly the United States would be better off if our leaders, journalists, and citizens knew a little more about Islam. But there are also some lessons here about the semiotics of racism which I would like to think offer some insights beyond the 24 hour news cycle.

A Liverpool working-class accent will strike a Chicagoan primarily as being British, a Glaswegian as being English, an English southerner as being northern, an English northerner as being Liverpudlian, and a Liverpudlian as being working class. The closer we get to home, the more refined are our perceptions.

The above quote is taken from a discussion in Asif Agha’s masterful book Language and Social Relations. Agha’s focus here is on the limits of of performativity. By pointing out that the hearer’s own prior socialization provides an important context for the successful performance of identity, Agha sets the stage for one of the book’s central themes: that identity is not only mediated by discourse, but also requires a process of negotiation between speaker and hearer—and that this process of negotiation can be transformative, changing the possible range of identity positions available to both parties as well as society at large.

I quite like Agha’s argument, and in chapter after chapter he makes a convincing case for it. Particularly interesting is his discussion of kinship terms, in which he shows how a mother might refer to her in-laws using terms which, taken literally, would place her in the role of her own child vis-a-vis her relatives, but are nonetheless lexically differentiated from the terms a child might use. In doing so she claims her rights as the mother of the child without reducing herself to the status of a child.

While the discussion of a Liverpool working-class accent shows that Agha is aware of the limits to such performativity, I would have liked to see more discussion about situations where one party refuses to negotiate. Agha’s approach to limits implies that performativity might fail because of one party’s lack of socialization, but what about if one party has a will to ignorance? I think such willful ignorance is behind much American confusion with regard to Muslims, and so I’m not sure how much use historical, ethnographic, or journalistic accounts of the various divisions within Islam can help.

It seems to me that part of the problem derives from the very idea of a “just war.” As Judith Butler argues, such a concept requires the “division of the globe into grievable and ungrievable lives from the perspective of those who wage war.” For some section of humanity to remain “ungrievable” requires a willful ignorance which refuses to engage in the kind of dialog which would allow for negotiated meanings to emerge. Thus, Islamophobia is in some ways a prerequisite for waging a global war on Terror, even as our leaders insist otherwise.

Time’s “What Happens…” Cover

The July 29, 2010, cover of Time Magazine features a portrait of a young woman from Afghanistan, her dark eyes arresting the reader and where her nose would be there is only a terrifying scar encircling a single, fleshy hole. The headline is “What Happens If We Leave Afghanistan” and the subheading reads, “Aisha, 18, had her nose and ears cut off last year on orders from the Taliban because she fled abusive in-laws.”

Even without the headline it is a deliberately provocative photograph and one that will surely sell a lot of magazines. Contextualized by its headline the cover is pure propaganda. It makes plain the strange ideology of America’s foreign wars: We are at war with (fill in the blank) for their own good. What happens if we leave Afghanistan? Women will have their noses cut off, willy-nilly. You don’t want that do you? Presumably if we leave Afghanistan then Afghani civilians will no longer be accidently killed or mutilated by drone attacks either… those survivors didn’t get a Time-Life photographer though.

Both are acts of violence, Aisha’s disfigurement at the hands of the Taliban and civilizan casualties at the hands of the American military. But the former graces the cover of a major, mainstream media publication because it resonates powerfully with American traditions of belief about “other” people. The Taliban are barbarians and their violent behavior is symptomatic of their temporal displacement, they are literally living in the past rebelling against modernity. And so it is the duty of Civilization to intervene and save them from themselves by making them more like us. By force if necessary.

In conference papers I have argued that the genesis of this ideology is to be found in the formative conflict of the American nation, the Eastern and Western Indian Wars. Throughout the nineteenth century in political, academic, and journalistic circles American violence against Indians was seldom justified in crude materialist concerns like the acquisition of land. Instead experts created a panopoly of deficiencies inherent in the tribes’ supposed savagery that needed only to be replaced by the Protestant work ethic and the spirit of capitalism for them all to become productive members of society. “Kill the Indian and save the man,” was one such rallying cry that Americans should keep the “promise” made to all Indians — to save their souls, teach them English, and make them modern. To make them into versions of us.

Two forms of violence, one is disturbing and senseless, the other distressing but necessary. Two forms of violence, the former justifying the later. What are the means by which American people distinguish between the two? What accounts for the absence of Afghani civilian casualties on the cover of Time? For anthropologist Gabriele Marranci the legitimization of Civilization’s violence can be understood through culture, especially Christian eschatology.

In the West, anthropologically, suffering from acts of war or terrorism (terms which, in today’s Afghanistan, are often used to include national resistance, secular insurgency and territorial disputes) seems to be classified into two distinct categories. On the one hand, the western-induced suffering is perceived as ‘ethnical’ and ‘lawful’, superior and enlightened, an act of ‘love’, a bitter medicine for the salvation of the ‘ignorant’ (understood as ‘not knowing’), the ‘sinner’ through the redemption of blood, and as death with a view to societal resurrection and rebirth. On the other hand, however, there is a perception of a need for punishment of the barbaric actions of the ignorant, of the infliction of evil for the evil committed by people who are somehow disgusting for rejecting the ‘Truth’.

That is, violence and suffering are not condemned for the effect they have on human beings, but are condemned and rejected only if they are not the ‘right’ violence, ‘salvific’ in nature and ‘just’ in cause – in other words, a transubstantiational violence. Hence, destruction and suffering, in this case, is a part of redemption, while the Taliban’s violence is merely destructive.

In this light the old theoretical tools of anthropology — myth, ritual, sacrifice, the gift — all seem fresh and relevant again in the context of international violence and geopolitics. Baudrillard’s hyperreality could be useful too as the circulation of signifiers, let loose from their signifieds, flows permiscuously from Central Asia through the great nodes of global capitalism and on into the blogosphere.

So readers, what is your interpretation of the Time Magazine cover? I’m not asking about the content of the article, but the image and it’s headline. Does it suggest to you a realism that offers a way of understanding living Afghani people? Does it offer any insight into the nearly decade long war that has cost so much in American life and treasure? Or does it, as I argue, stand as evidence of an American epistemology of the Other, showing how Americans arrange what it is that they think they know about the people of the world?

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 Wikileaks.org 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.

Wounds of War and the Dilemmas of Stereotype

Below is a guest post by Ken MacLeish. Ken is a doctoral candidate in anthropology and the Program in Folklore, Public Culture and Cultural Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. He conducted 12 months of intensive fieldwork with soldiers and military families at and around the U.S. Army’s Ft. Hood in Killeen, TX. His dissertation explores the impacts of war and military institutions in everyday life via the concepts of attachment, vulnerability and exchange.

At the end of July this year, media outlets all over the country picked up a story from Colorado Springs, home to the U.S. Army’s Ft. Carson, about a spate of violent crimes committed by soldiers. Most of the soldiers were from a single infantry battalion that had served two arduous tours in Iraq and had seen some of the bloodiest (for U.S. forces) fighting of the war—in Ramadi in 2004 and Baghdad in 2006. Between these two tours, the 3,700-person brigade to which the battalion was attached sustained over half of all the casualties of all units at Ft. Carson. The crimes include ten arrests for murder or manslaughter, along with kidnapping, rape and other violent crimes. There were also suicide attempts, some of them successful. Many of the soldiers who were charged had engaged in excessive or indiscriminate violence against civilians in Iraq and also demonstrated dire combat stress reactions both in Iraq and at home. But the stories gathered by Colorado Springs Gazette reporter Dave Phillips suggests that the unit commanders were interested neither in punishing the soldiers nor in helping them. They were indifferent or even hostile to parents, wives, and girlfriends and to soldiers themselves who sought assistance. So they languished without help, self-medicated with drugs and alcohol, and went on to commit more violent acts, Phillips writes.

The story is familiar: young men are trained to kill, sent to war, produce and are exposed to brutal levels of violence for long periods, and then return home traumatically altered by that training, action and exposure with only a neglectful and ill-prepared institution to turn to for help. The news stories focus on the excessive, random and sometimes intimate nature of the violence: a gun held to a girlfriend’s head, a drug dealer repeatedly tased and then shot, an anonymous passerby run over with a car and then stabbed to death. They link the violence it directly back to excessive, shocking and randomly targeted behavior in Iraq: soldiers killing Iraqi livestock, shooting unprovoked and indiscriminately at civilians, and equipping themselves with non-regulation tasers and hollow-point ammunition. And ultimately the stories root the violence in the trauma glossed as the “horror” and “hell” of war, trauma that left these particular soldiers unable to return to “normal” life back at home. And they criticize the Army for its mercenary neglect of troubled soldiers, for the blind eye it turned to the people in Iraq and in the U.S. who were harmed by them, and for its internal culture that stigmatizes as weak soldiers who seek help for combat trauma.

Continue reading

Human Terrain in Oaxaca

Con Oaxaca, por Brad Will

Image by Libertinus via Flickr

For the past several years, my research has led me further and further into the world of counterinsurgency, military anthropology, human terrain, and other aspects of a military regime of knowledge. What concerns me, most of all, is the way that knowledge generated by social scientists can be used (and, if the past is any indication, will be used) to the disadvantage of the people on, from, and with whom anthropologists and other social scientists generate that knowledge.

This issue is hardly limited to anthropologists, though we have traditionally held a kind of loose monopoly on the world’s most vulnerable peoples. Nowadays, social scientists of every stripe traipse through the same terrain anthropologists once considered their own – and we, of course, have no problem returning the favor.

So when a friend forwarded me a story about geographers in Oaxaca mapping the “cultural terrain”, my disciplinary ears perked up. At issue are many of the same issues at play in debates over anthropologists’ and others’ involvement with HTS in Iraq and Afghanistan, although in many ways I find the situation I’m about to describe more frightening still, as it presages wars or conflicts as yet unfought – even counterinsurgencies to insurgencies yet to surge. Continue reading

Audio from “Anthropology and Counterinsurgency” Conference at U of Chicago Now Available

where i learned Anthropology

Image by monsieur paradis via Flickr

The University of Chicago has posted some of the audio from the “Anthropology and Counterinsurgency” conference held there last spring (2008). Some of the speakers are not included, whether because they opted out or there were copyright issues or what, I don’t know. But among the speakers included are:

  • David Price’s great plenary keynote, “Soft Power, Hard Power and the Anthropological “Leveraging” of Cultural “Assets”: Distilling the Theory, Politics and Ethics of Anthropological Counterinsurgency”
  • Jeremy Walton’s discussion of Turkish pulp fiction and action flicks, “Inclement Storms, Hungry Wolves: Consuming the War on Terror in Contemporary Turkey”
  • Hugh Gusterson on the Pentagon’s penchant for simplistic, technologized solutions to human problems – with a discussion of the Phrase-a-lator, a handheld device that translates spoken Arabic to English (apparently the fish-in0the-ear scenario isn’t panning out) – in “The Cultural Turn in the War on Terror
  • Roberto Gonzalez on the theoretical implications of the concept of Human Terrain, “’Human Terrain’ and Indirect Rule: Theoretical, Practical, and Ethical Concerns
  • My own historical contextualization of the failures of anthropological counterinsurgency and the incompatabilities between anthropology and military action, “The Uses of Anthropology in the Insurgent Age”
  • And lots more great stuff!

The full-length papers will be collected in the University of Chicago Press’ forthcoming book Anthropology and Counterinsurgency, due out in February 2010 (to the best of my knowledge).

The more recent conference “Reconsidering American Power” was also recorded, and I hope that audio will be available from that quicker than the year it took to get audio up from last year’s conference. I’ll let you know when that’s available.

Letters from the Front

Just some quick pointers to various military-related materials around the Web.

1147444_bleak_iFirst, Roberto Gonzalez sent me this link to a BBC Radio 4 show on the embedding of anthropologists in military units in Iraq and Afghanistan. The show features Gonzalez, Michael Gilsenan, Hugh Gusterson, Montgomery McFate, Marcus Griffin, and others. Listen quickly, as it appears to only be posted until the end of April.

Next up, Laura Nader speaks about her recent book (with Ugo Mattei) Plunder: When the Rule of Law is Illegal. Any opportunity to hear Nader bring her tremendous mind to bear on the issues that define our lives is not to be missed!

Finally, from the Wired Danger Room comes this odd report about the military’s efforts to reproduce anthropological analysis using computer modeling. Now, I’ve been pretty dismissive of the military’s ability to grapple with the implications of anthropology – there is, I firmly believe (and find borne out over and over in the historical record) a fundamental disconnect between the logic of military action and the logic of anthropological practice. But even I’m a little shocked (and a little amused…) by the justification given for looking into the use of computerized behavioral modeling:

More intriguing about this proposal, however, is the reasoning for why virtual anthros may be better than the real thing: “Today in DoD, this analysis is conducted by anthropological experts, known to carry their own bias, which often leads to faulty recommendations and inaccurate behavioral forecasting.”

Let me know how that works out for ya, guys.

Reconsidering American Power conference at University of Chicago, April 23-25

The University of Chicago’s Workshop on Science, Technology, Society & the State is hosting a follow-up to last year’s “Anthropology and Counterinsurgency” conference next week. Entitled “Reconsidering American Power“, the conference aims to expand beyond questions related to the militarization of anthropology to consider more generally the relation between the social sciences and the American state.

I’ll be presenting a paper during Friday’s panel session, “Uses and Abuses of Social Sciences: Disciplines of and for What?” Entitled “Are We Ready Yet for Action Anthropology?”, my paper is intended to counter arguments that anthropologists’ refusal to cooperate with military and intelligence efforts like HTS, PRISP, and the Minerva Consortium necessarily condemns anthropology to irrelevance. My hope is that by examining the model of action anthropology, which has gained little traction in academic anthropology in the 50 years since Sol Tax and his students proposed it, a way of meaningfully engaging contemporary issues might emerge that avoids the troubling issues raised by direct subordination to military and intelligence agencies.

Other participants include David Price, Catherine Lutz, Hugh Gusterson, Jeff Bennett, Robert Vitalis, Matthew Sparke, Sean Mitchell, Kevin Caffrey, Amahl Bishara, Rochelle Davis, Roberto Gonzalez, Keith Brown, Chris Nelson, and a variety of U of Chicago folks from anthropology and the other social sciences, including honorary Savage Mindster Marshall Sahlins. (Note: I’m listed as “editor” of Savage Minds, a title I neither asked for nor knew was being ascribed to me! I’m also listed as an “independent researcher”, despite my 6 years affiliation with the College of Southern Nevada…)

On a related note, the paper I presented last year will be out early 2010 from University of Chicago Press in a collected volume of essays from the conference. (Can we talk some time about academic publishers demanding all copyrights? For free?) As far as I know, the book will be titled following the conference, that is Anthropology and Counterinsurgency. Look for it in an academic bookstore near you!