Tag Archives: war

Remembering the Mexican Revolution with Aunt Julia

Growing up in Austin, Texas, Diez y Seis — Mexican Independence Day — always seemed to hold an official, albeit minor, status in the state capitol. This was not a holiday that we observed in my family in any formal capacity. Much like Cinco de Mayo we might find ourselves at a Mexican restaurant that night just by happenstance. After all we ate Mexican all the time! As we waited for our enchiladas I would proclaim, “Today is Deiz y Seis,” as if realizing that the Longhorns were on TV. Unlike the Fourth of July, it never warranted parades of children on decorated bicycles and riding lawnmowers. More than likely it would be a human interest story at the end of the local nightly news.

While a student, and at the encouragement of my mother, I recruited my grandmother to help me collect ghost stories from her oldest sister, Julia, the most renowned storyteller and tamale maker in my family. In addition to learning a little bit about linguistics and a lot about transcribing interviews I also heard for the first time the tale of how her family came to Texas from Torreón, Coahuila. In honor of Diez y Seis and with all due respect to the still precarious status of immigrants and refugees in the United States I am retelling it to you today.

Special thanks are due to my mom Janis, Grandma Pauline, and Aunt Julia who guided me to that kitchen in south central Austin, January 1997, where I first heard this tale.  I had to exercise a little poetic license to weave that conversation into a single narrative but its really Julia’s story. Believe me, when its family holding you to account you’re going to do your best to tell the tale right!

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Ephemeral Layers: Coffee, Snapchat, and Violence

For decades, ephemeral layers at archaeological sites have been the bane of my existence. The moment I read, hear, or have to confront it at an excavation, my soul does a smh. How can we reconstruct anything meaningful in this ephemerality? To be honest, that frustration is simply a privileged standpoint of archaeologists who work in ancient cities, towns, or any mostly permanent settled space – which is where my training and research has focused. Ephemerality is a challenge and requires me to contend with materials and surfaces in a way I am only starting to understand.

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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

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.


Unconventional Anthropology: Re-Reading Gerald Berreman

Is anthropology alive? Gerald Berreman asked this question in 1968. The Vietnam war was raging. Some anthropologists were collaborating with the U.S. government and military. Others were advocating for a value-free, politically-neutral social science. Berreman was not among either of these groups. Instead, he was participating in the UC-Berkeley Vietnam teach-in in 1965, was exposing CIA-academic schemes in the Himalayas, and was asking hard questions about social responsibility for anthropologists all the while conducting important research in India on caste, polyandry, race, religion, environment, and more. Long interested in experiences as well as structures of social inequality, he called social inequality “the most dangerous feature of contemporary society.” Anthropology, he believed, must speak to this danger and thus should not only announce its knowledge, but also act on its “implications and consequences.” We must see that “our knowledge is used for humane changes.” Anthropology must engage the world.

Reason, passion, and courage: these are the traits Gerry Berreman argued an anthropologist needed to address the problems of our times. These traits are as important now as they were when he wrote this forty-five years ago in Current Anthropology. He advised that anthropologists needed moral sensibilities and not just technical proficiencies to recognize the implications of our research. We needed to be involved with public policy. We needed to be responsible. We still need to be all of these things. Continue reading

Made in China: Notes from the CIA Gift Shop

What might an anthropology of the covert look like? I think of the covert as a particular type of secret, one grounded in deception and shadows, and populated by individuals pretending—in part—to be someone other than who they actually are. My current research project is about the CIA as agents of US empire during the Cold War. It is about being invisible, being undercover, and being a legitimate ethnographic subject rather than just a historical or political one. Yet, what sort of ethnography can be written about covert, undercover subjects? How does one humanize the CIA?

I’ve been turning this question over since October 2009 when I found myself at CIA Headquarters. Two weeks before, a mysterious envelope arrived in my on-campus mailbox in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Colorado. The return address read “CIA Fine Arts Commission.” I remember looking around the office to see if this was a joke. The CIA Fine Arts Commission? For real? The CIA had an art department? It didn’t help matters that the envelope looked sort of homemade, as if someone had printed the mailing and return addresses on a home laser printer. Perhaps they had. At any rate, I opened the envelope up in the main anthropology office, thinking it was somehow safer to open it there rather than alone back in my own office.

There was no explosion. Phew. Continue reading

Too-Close Encounters: The Mashco-Piro and the dilemmas of isolation and contact

[Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Glenn Shepard]

Just over a month ago a Peruvian indigenous federation circulated remarkable video footage showing about a hundred isolated (so-called “uncontacted”) Mashco-Piro Indians just across the river from a Piro indigenous village along the Rio de las Piedras in Peru. They  appeared to be asking for food and trade goods like rope and metal tools. The Piro and Mashco-Piro languages are close enough to allow communication. Hoping to avoid direct contact and the possibility of disease contagion, forest rangers at Monte Salvado floated a canoe laden with bananas across the river. After a tense three-day standoff, the Mashco-Piro eventually disappeared back into the forest. No one is quite sure why the Mashco-Piro — who have so steadfastly avoided such contact until recently — suddenly showed up. Many suspect that illegal loggers active throughout the region have disrupted their usual migration routes.

In late 2011, a different group of Mashco-Piro living near the border of Manu National Park shot and killed Shaco Flores, an old Matsigenka friend of mine, with an arrow. Having lived among the Piro for many years and learned the Piro language, Shaco had been patiently communicating and trading with the Mashco-Piro for over twenty years, always maintaing a safe distance but slowly drawing them closer with his gifts, food and conversation. But something happened on that fateful day in late November: perhaps the Mashco-Piro were spooked by Shaco’s appearance with several relatives at the manioc garden on a small river island where he had been allowing the Mashco-Piro to harvest his crops; perhaps there was internal disagreement among the Mashco-Piro whether or not to accept Shaco’s long-standing offer to bring them into permanent contact. We may never know.
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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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We need more mainstream social science, not less.

Nicholas Cristakis’s recent op-ed in the New York Times “Let’s Shake Up The Social Sciences” has a lot of things going for it. I appreciate his call for more hands-on teaching of research methods, interdisciplinary collaboration, and the application of social scientific knowledge. To make this point, unfortunately, he mischaracterizes the social sciences as “stagnated”, “boring”, “counterproductive”, and “insecure”. He calls on us to “change[] the basic DNA of the social sciences” in order to “evolv[e] with the times” as the natural sciences have. What’s more, his piece mischaracterizes the natural sciences in important ways. Christakis’s piece is remarkably data-free and lacks any concrete reference to the social-scientific work it stigmatizes and merely asserts our dysfunction. Of course, he didn’t have much space and was writing for a popular audience, which probably explains this fact. An account of how the social and natural sciences actually work, however, makes clear that the difficulties of the social sciences stem from quite different sources then those that Christakis points to.

The first and most obvious difficulty that the social sciences face is funding, pure and simple. Compared to the natural sciences, we receive peanuts. In Fiscal Year 2013, the NSF got roughly 5.5 billion dollars from Congress to spend on research. Before you press the ‘Read More…’ link in this article, ask yourself “what percent of that was spent on social sciences?”

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Using George Zimmerman as an object lesson in the anthropology of policing

(Savage Minds is pleased to run this guest column from Kevin Karpiak. Kevin is Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Criminology at Eastern Michigan University.  His work focuses on policing as a useful nexus for exploring questions in both political anthropology and the anthropology of morality.  He is currently completing a manuscript based on his dissertation research (UC Berkeley 2009), entitled The Police Against Itself: refiguring French liberalism after the social, which provides an ethnographic account of the ethical work undertaken by police officers, administrators, educators and citizens as they experiment with new forms of sociality “after the social moment” in France.  He also maintains both apersonal blog and a group blog on the Anthropology of Policing. -R)

Over the past year and a half, I’ve been exploring the tragedy involving George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin in a course I teach entitled “Policing in Society.”  My goal is to use the event as a concrete opportunity that can give students practical experience in using the tools we learn in class for conceptualizing “police,” “society,” and their relationship.  An added benefit is that it allows students to form and articulate their own positions in regards to such issues.

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Reading non-ethnographic non-fiction

In yesterday’s post I discussed my discovery that I have non-ethnographic writing options. In today’s post I touch on the corollary, my discovery that I have non-ethnographic reading options.

What I like in ethnography

My reading of the decade prior to last November consisted almost entirely of anthropological and linguistic literature and of ethnographies and published primary sources when given the choice. During that period I began reading 18th century military journals as sources of data and came to appreciate the way their authors used language, as in the following example from a 1761 journal describing a scene from the area where I spent my youth:

The prospect from some of the Hills pleasant, though not very extensive, occasioned by a circumstance extraordinary enough & perhaps not to be parralled—viz. That go to the highest Mountain you can see yet when on the top of it you see others still higher. This we experienced every Day’s March.

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Vale Ward Goodenough

As some readers out there may know, Ward Goodenough passed away this week. A Micronesianist who had done a little work on Papua New Guinea, his death prompted an spate of remembrances on the Pacific Anthropology list I belong to. By any account he was a remarkable man — a prolific author, a careful fieldworker, a mentor to a whole generation of anthropologists, and an innovative theorist to boot. At a certain point in anthropology’s history a lot of people looked at him and saw the future of anthropology. Now that he has passed away I thought I might ask — respectfully — how and why it happened that Goodenough is remembered as an area specialist and not a theorist. It’s an interesting question partially because of what it says about the twists and turns of anthropological theory, but also because of how it speaks to the way our discipline is configured today. So I should say up front that I’m interested in talking about him and why he is important, even if he is not the road that anthropology took. I don’t want to use his passing to speak ill of him.


Goodenough was a Yale man — his father taught there, and he got his Ph.D. there. He came off the edges of the Boasian tradition. Like Julian Steward, he went through Cornell before heading off to Yale to do his degree. He missed Sapir and ended up taking courses from Malinowski, Linton, and Murdock. Murdock became his mentor, he came out of Yale ready to turn anthropology into a Real Science. It was a good time for it: the cold war was on, and anthropology was ready to Apply itself. People like Goodenough, Frake, Conklin, Lounsbury, Romney, and others were interested in making anthropology more quantitative, and brought a lot of energy to that task.

They ended up being sidelined, however. I think of the post-war period in anthropology as a series of overlapping moments. The componential, formal modeling, ethnoscience, cognitive sort of moment of Goodenough got started just a few years before Geertz (and a bit later, Turner) got going on symbolic anthropology. Goodenough’s paper on “Componential Analysis and the Study of Meaning” was (iirc) in 1956. Geertz began publishing interpretive stuff in the early 1960s. Neoevolutionism also got going in the early 1960s. Structuralism, that genius school of social thought, managed to look like kinship algebra to the ethnoscience people, myth interpretation to the symbolic anthro types, and structural Marxism to the evolutionists. So as a result everyone read Lévi-Strauss.

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You Too Can Have Mixed Results with Blackboard

Every semester I switch up my Introduction to Anthropology class a little. The big change this spring was that all the graded assignments were online. I tried this through a couple of different methods, one of which was Blackboard test course tool. It is relatively easy to figure things out on your own on Blackboard but the system itself doesn’t really invite one to explore. And it’s so unattractive. There’s all this stuff you can do with Blackboard that I’ve never tried before! I decided to give the test course tool a shot after my officemate gave it a hearty recommendation.

Overall, I’d have to say it’s been a net plus. It’s weird, but I actually missed some of the physicality of grading paper assignments, but maybe not enough to go back to analog assignments. Continue reading

Around the Web Digest

There hasn’t been an Around the Web Digest since the Savage Minds home site went down and we had to set up its temporary digs here. That means we’re over due for a round-up of February and March! You can receive (semi-)daily links via our twitter accnt @savageminds or by liking our Facebook page. If you’ve seen something around the web that you’d like to share with the Savage Minds community, mention us in a tweet with the link. You can also email me at [mdthomps@odu.edu].

Here’s a sample of what we’ve been reading. To the links!