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Anthropology and Global Counterinsurgency

A Conference at the University of Chicago

Department of Anthropology

Note: see the conference schedule for more detailed information, including information about the April 25 keynote by Joseph Masco and the April 26 plenary by David Price.

Session I
Categories of Conflict and Coercion: The Blue, the Green, and the Other

April 26: 09:00-11:30

This session seeks an anthropological perspective on forms of conflict and order emerging in the contemporary world.  We address how forms of coercion and violence are rendered legitimate, lawful, necessary, criminal, terrorist or otherwise, and how these categorizations relate to types of social and political order.  How is violence deployed, legitimated, and delegitimated in the contemporary global order? Why and by whom?

The Blue and the Green reference the two ideal types of coercion legitimated in the world of post WWII nation-states: civil and military.  The police, as civil authorities, are generally rendered very differently than the military, in a simple division of coercive labor: the police, often dressed in blue, are visible embodiments of the state’s monopoly on legitimate force, designed to be interlocutors, while the military dress in green or whatever enables stealth and protection, designed to be effective combatants.  As starkly as the police present themselves as an embodied threat of force, they are also expected to respect, repair and sustain the rules of public order, and are its guarantors, while the military are fully in their element when and where an adverse party threatens legitimate order more violently and totally.  Even in the era of nation-states, the boundary between the Blue and the Green has been unstable and rules vary for deployment of military in domestic spaces and for deployment of police beyond state boundaries.  Yet if a Blue and Green conceptual framework marks out the imagined and represented horizons of legitimate coercion in the post WWII world, there seems to be an expanding gray area, a congeries of more controversial categories of coercion: private security services, terrorism, paramilitaries, organized and disorganized crime, revolution, holy war, and above all, insurgency and counterinsurgency.

These papers explore how types of coercion and conflict manifest in various ethnographic contexts, and how they are named and renamed by officials and others, thereby sustaining or contesting regimes of legitimacy.  While recognizing that the Blue and the Green are hegemonic categories through which officialized interventions are justified and understood, we examine the mediations, and the subtleties of tone and hue, that continue to color these debates.

Session II
Ethnographic Experiences of American Power in the Age of the “War on Terror”

April 26: 11:45-13:45

This session explores the ways in which American power is experienced, understood, and imagined in the age of the “War on Terror” across national and cultural domains.  Both the subject of critique and the object of aspiration, an apparently unipolar and definitely bellicose United States has become conspicuously central to political and social imaginaries worldwide.  Of course, the mediations of these imaginaries are subject to local specificities of history, culture, and politics—the domain of ethnographic inquiry.  These papers ground analyses of changing experiences of US power through close attention to distinct ethnographic settings as well as to continuities with relations of power that existed before the US’ current wars.

The consumption of The United States as a brand-commodity converges and diverges with the critique of American power across different ethnographic contexts.  How does the United States, as an imaginary object of anxiety (often embodied in tabloid conspiracy theories) relate to the material practice of American power?  What are the contextual dynamics that allow for a simultaneous understanding of the United States as a beacon of nationalized justice and an imperial enforcer of globalized inequality?  How does American power in action transform institutions (e.g., courts of law), resituate populations, and redefine individuals (e.g. detainees)?  Finally, how do these competing forces play out upon persons, bodies and scholarship of American anthropologists, as they negotiate the uncertainties of fieldwork in the globalized “field?”


Session III, Parts 1 & 2
Destructions and Constructions of Conscience: 

Counterinsurgency and the Study of Culture

April 26: 16:00-18:30 and April 27: 09:00- 11:30

Papers in this double session address historical and contemporary relationships between Anthropology and the US military, with special attention to counterinsurgency theory and practice.

As the US military has found itself increasingly hard-pressed to fulfill its ambivalent global mission against “terror,” powerful voices within this bureaucracy have pushed for a focus on knowledge of culture and counterinsurgency.  A new Army and Marine counterinsurgency manual, written in response to this call, seeks to incorporate anthropological terminology and methodology into the resurrected (and now globalized) concept of counterinsurgency, while anthropologists are increasingly recruited by the military.  While some hail this conjuncture as a highly moral “anthropologizing of the military” others condemn it as a “weaponizing anthropology.”

There is a long history here.  The contemporary discipline of Anthropology developed as ethnographers charted the cultural frontiers of expanding European empires.  But the relationship between anthropologists and expansionist metropolitan power was then, and has always been, ambivalent.

In Vietnam, for example, as some US anthropologists became part of counterinsurgency efforts, others wrote some of the era’s most trenchant analyses of the US military.  Notably, in 1966 Marshall Sahlins wrote of “The Destruction of Conscience in Vietnam.”  What is the situation of American conscience in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, especially as “War on Terror” becomes globalized counterinsurgency?  Paradoxically, United States’ pursuit of “Full Spectrum Dominance” in military spheres seems to conflict with its pursuit of global hegemony in ideological spheres.  Even some of the troops charged with building and sustaining that dominance are in significant ways well advanced in doubts about core values they defend and enact, though they are far more sharply limited in their vehicles for expressing dissent than their Vietnam War predecessors.

These papers inquire into the histories of anthropological involvement with militaries, the relationship of cultural theory to martial (and colonial) practice, current debates within US Anthropology, and the so-called “cultural turn” within the Department of Defense.  How does the anthropological concept of culture achieve instrumentalization within the specific culture of the military, and how do these deployments reorient the concept itself?  Can culture theory make the US military more ethical and/or effective, in what ways, and can engagement with the US military in its counterinsurgency theory and practice make Anthropology more ethical and/or effective?  What kinds of engagements, by and between both, create and destroy what kinds of conscience?

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