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Anthropology and Global Counterinsurgency

A Conference at the University of Chicago

Department of Anthropology

Note: see the conference schedule  and panel abstracts for the order and context of presentations.

Greg Beckett
Blue Helmets, Black Masks: Policing and Provisionality in Haiti, 2004-2006

On February 29, 2004, President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was flown out of Haiti on a US military plane after what he called a "coup" and a "kidnapping." His opposition, backed by the US, called it a "popular rebellion" and quickly appointed a "Council of Sages" to name an Interim Government. The international community supported this move, accepted the provisional government, and sent a UN police force to the country. In this paper, I explore the state of exception of the Interim period, placing particular emphasis on the issues of policing and provisional rule. If the interim was a suspension of the constitution, and the law, how was violence, force, and coercion made legitimate and necessary, or criminal and "political" during this period? I argue that there were two different claims to the legitimate use of force made in the interim. The first was represented by the "blue helmets" of the UN police force,which ostensibly index a legitimate form of violence that generates and upholds social and political order. The second was made visible by the spectral appearance of armed actors in black masks. Known first as the Chimères ("ghosts"), and thought to be a paramilitary organization linked to Aristide's government, the interim period saw an explosion of masked men and armed actors increasingly identified (by the provisional state and the UN) simply as "gangs." Who were these masked men? How did their disavowal as "criminal gangs" or "terrorists" provide the ground for a claim to the legitimate use of force by the UN mission and the Interim Government? And why, if they were merely criminals, did those in black masks frequently describe themselves as legitimate civilian armies fighting an illegitimate occupying force, which they referred to as "the third US Occupation of Haiti"?

Jeff Bennett
The 'Bad' Kill or Another Predictable Tragedy in Iraq?

This paper analyzes the complex currents and circumstances that led to SGT Evan Vela’s killing of an unarmed Iraqi captive in May of 2007 to highlight the ‘friction’ that was generated when a small American “kill team” operating in hostile territory was pressured by military planners to increase enemy body. Drawing upon interviews with people close to the case as well as transcripts from 3 murder trials related to it, the paper seeks to explicate the ethos of the scout/sniper team at the center of the controversy to explain how and why the ‘bad’ kill occurred and what it meant to those who participated in it. By focusing heavily on the social-psychology of small combat teams and the social and political organization of the military, the paper hopes to move beyond mere criticism of the war to pose a series of open-ended questions about the goals and potentials of a present day ‘anthropology of the military.’

Amahl Bishara
Passports, News, & Weapons: The Intimacy of U.S. Power in the Occupied Palestinian West Bank

Existing understandings of how Palestinians view the United States are, at best, based on opinion polls and, at worst, on reductive neo-orientalist stereotypes of Palestinian and Arab societies. In fact, a complex – and often intimate network of relations between Palestinian society and the United States constitutes Palestinian experiences of U.S. power. These networks can best be understood ethnographically and with close attention to the different timescales through which sentiments and evaluations may form and shift in periods of crisis. This paper analyzes three nodes of connection between the U.S. and Palestinian society: legal identity, foreign aid, and news media. Each of these nodes has urgently affected Palestinian lives during the second Intifada, and potentially has both creative and destructive aspects. Crucially, each also plays out in relation to variations and hierarchies within Palestinian society.

One night of attacks in the West Bank city of Nablus in the summer of 2004 exhibits how these three nodes are imbricated with one another. As Israel conducted an incursion apparently implemented in order to arrest or assassinate Palestinian militant targeted an area in the middle of the city, located on the border of a refugee camp and a middle class Palestinian neighborhood. That night, five people died: an Israeli army officer, two young Palestinian militants, and a father and son whose house came under fire apparently because of the proximity of the militants. The father and son were killed by U.S. arms fired from U.S.-built F-16s or Apache helicopters. Yet, moments before the father was killed, he came to the window during a lull in the fire and pleaded the army not to shoot: “We are people of peace. We have American passports.” Afterwards, this became a poignant detail in Israeli and U.S. press accountings of this story. The militants, who were from the nearby refugee camp, were mentioned in passing if at all in most news stories, even though one had been shot in the head in an apparent extrajudicial execution. This story demonstrates interconnections between regional forms of state power and U.S. military and discursive power. Palestinians usually view the United States in relation to their own political weakness. For example, it is because Palestinians with West Bank identity cards or Palestinian passports so often face difficulties with state authorities and armies that the U.S. passport takes on such significance. Palestinians literally see themselves by way of – and therefore in terms of – U.S. news, U.S. passports, and U.S. weaponry. In places like the mountainous city of Nablus, the whole city may watch as U.S. arms are used to launch large-scale attacks on their communities; likewise Palestinians routinely take note when a road is being re-constructed by US AID funding. Palestinians view both as highly political – and potentially dangerous – processes. A dynamic of watching and participating also occurs as Palestinians watch themselves in the local news and have experiences of being interviewed by U.S. and other Western news outlets. These various experiences shape their reflexive and critical views of local politics, and even structure forms of political activism.

Kevin Caffrey
The Destruction of Conscience and the Winter Soldier

On March 13-16 some of those who wore the boots on the ground for the US occupation forces returned to tell about it, and what they told tears at the popular understanding of the US “doing good over there.”  So too did it damage the deeply-held American conviction that “we take care of our own.”  These men and women of our armed forces told a tale of destruction—destruction of their sense of honor, destruction of their faith in American leadership, destruction of Iraq, and, in some cases, the destruction of their ability to live their lives.  And the testimonies given at this event—called “Winter Soldier 2008” after a Thomas Paine quote distinguishing between real and “sunshine” patriots—provides ethnographic access to investigate the destruction of conscience in Iraq, a line of inquiry that follows from Sahlins’ initial theme from 1966.  Winter Soldier 2008, like its namesake in 1971, had the straightforward goal of gathering soldiers together so that they could share their experiences with fellow soldiers; reinforcing publicly what they saw, lived, and did.  This was and is again a necessary move precipitated by the need to refute the cowardly but durable fiction that atrocities in theatre were the work of “a few bad apples.”  Straightforward though it was/is, this plain notion is a pivot around which an entire portion of the American war machine swings.  Once this fable of rotten fruit is revealed to mask a real structural propensity of military occupation to tend towards extremes, the way is clear to discuss the fate of conscience and whether its demise is an accident.  Ethnographic testimony shows that fluid rules of engagement—made so by the conditions of the occupation—are an indicator of a seemingly unavoidable destruction of conscience in Iraq.  Indeed, this destruction continues to be felt even after they return.  

Paola Castaño
The Categorization of People as Targets of Violence:
A Perspective on the Colombian Armed Conflict

This paper is an analysis of the Colombian armed conflict through the lens of the categorization of the civilian population.  The central question that I address refers to the way in which the categories of 'victims' and 'cooperants' operate as forms of legitimation and delegitimation of violence from the perspectives of the armed actors and the state. The paper discusses how these categories are consequential in terms of drawing the line between combatants and civilians, and shows their increasing normalization in certain instances of their usage (official documents, academic texts, press reports, institutional labels and the discourse of the armed actors).

Rochelle Davis
Cultural Sensitivity in a Military Occupation: US Military in Iraq

US Military personnel serving in the invasion and occupation of Iraq since 2003 have been asked not only to overthrow the Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein, but also to rebuild the country they destroyed and re-train the military and police forces that were disbanded.  Interviews with these US military personnel reveal the contradictions of receiving training to be culturally aware and sensitive while at the same time militarily occupying a country.  The US servicemen and women's encounters with Iraqi army, police, insurgents, and civilians reveal their own expectations about how Iraqis should behave and feel and how and why they believe some Iraqis defy while others live up to those expectations.

Kerry Fosher
Yes, Both, Absolutely: A Commentary on Engagements with the Military

At a recent conference, an audience member asked which was more important: working for change within military organizations or working for change from a more objective vantage point in academia. I answered, “Yes, both, absolutely.” The audience member’s question raises a series of interesting issues. In a discipline that prides itself on its scope, why do we feel the need to choose? What are the dangers and opportunities inherent in having members of the discipline occupying different places on a spectrum of engagement? In this commentary I explore these questions through tracing my own involvement with various national security-related topics and organizations, highlighting the practical and ethical decisions I have made and those that face me now. I also examine the implications of research relationships among anthropologists in the academy and those who have chosen to work within more controversial institutions.

Roberto J. González
"Human Terrain" and Indirect Rule: Theoretical, Practical, and Ethical Concerns

Since 2006, the Pentagon has recruited anthropologists and other social scientists for counterinsurgency work in Iraq and Afghanistan under the auspices of the $60 million "Human Terrain System" program (HTS). HTS relies upon the expertise of social scientists embedded with US Army brigades. Military commanders and news reports portray the program as part of a "hearts and minds" strategy, but some social scientists are armed. The Executive Board of the AAA expressed disapproval of HTS last year, but the program grows apace, with approximately 25 Human Terrain Teams (HTTs) scheduled for deployment in 2008. Former team members report gross mismanagement by HTS directors and employees of BAE Systems (a private military contractor responsible for recruiting and training HTT members), raising questions about the safety of HTT data about Iraqis and Afghans. They also report a lack of ethics training in a program routinely placing social scientists into contact with civilians in perilous environments. HTS and "new" counterinsurgency approaches raise a series of questions: What are the origins of the contemporary "human terrain" concept? What are the goals of HTS, and how is its data being used? What models or theories of culture are used by program participants, and why? What are the similarities and differences between such forms and early 20th century anthropological efforts to promote indirect rule in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East? What conflicts of interest or ethical dilemmas might anthropologists face when they are employed by a military occupation force.

Hugh Gusterson
The Cultural Turn in the War on Terror

Clausewitz theorized “friction” as the major impediment to rational, predictable, controllable war.  In Iraq and Afghanistan, the military has belatedly realized that “culture” is a source of such friction.  Now, as military contractors rush to hire anthropologists and other social scientists, the military is experimenting with “ethnographic intelligence,” “human terrain teams,” “smart culture cards” and so on.  Military culture initiatives have repressive and facilitative modalities.  We see the repressive modalities at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, where cultural knowledge has been used to enhance torture.  Facilitative initiatives have sought to deploy cultural knowledge to smooth away cultural misunderstanding and friction. Both kinds of initiatives are based on the misrecognition of opposition to occupation as reaction to cultural insensitivity.

James L. Hevia
Small Wars and Counter-Insurgency

This paper addresses the emergence in the late nineteenth century of the notion of “small wars” and the tactics and strategies related to them. Inevitably these wars were either within or on the frontiers of European empires or were interventions into weak states that posed problems to the expansive activities of imperial powers. Special attention will be given to the relations between intelligence and ethnology in sources on small wars and comparisons made to the phenomenon of Human Terrain Systems in contemporary discussions of counter-insurgency.

Kurt Jacobsen
Repetition Compulsion?: Counterinsurgency Bravado in Iraq and Vietnam

The intellectual roots of Petraeus-era optimism regarding counterinsurgency lie in a raft of works by scholars (Mark Moyar, Zalin Grant, and others) who assert that the US  withdrew from Vietnam just as pacification programs were vanquishing enemy forces. This upbeat analysis forms part of the martial credo of the Bush II administration. The motives behind this verdict of course are related to partisan geopolitical agendas (such as the Project for a New American Century), usually thought of as a rational exercise, no matter how far-fetched.  Bush's invasion and occupation of Iraq nonetheless bespeaks an accompanying irrationality that is worth considering as well. Repetition compulsion is an effort to relive a traumatic situation in order to get it right, as perhaps in truly 'kicking the Vietnam syndrome.' Psychoanalysts note that children resort to repetition, ultimately and unintentionally, to master a sense of loss, as may well soon be the case in this instance in the international arena.

Beatrice Jauregui
The Blue-in-Green: Countering Insurgency by Civil-izing Security

Among proponents of liberal democracy, there exists a general consensus that a legitimate normative order is secured by institutional means of coercion that are controlled by a civil rather than a military authority.  By extension, if military intervention has been internally or externally authorized in a time of war or emergency, there are widespread calls and promises for an eventual de-militarization or “reduction to policing” of the primary means of security.  I represent this globally hegemonic ideology that all roads lead to civil governance under the analytical rubric of the Blue-in-Green.  This paper launches from the question of what is at stake when a naturalized Blue-in-Green framework of authority is invoked to validate attempts to (re)establish "democratic order" by suppressing autochthonous uprisings.  While the current US-led campaign in Iraq represents one of the most internationally prominent and vexing illustrative cases of this invocation of the Blue-in-Green, we may discern countless other examples that are perhaps smaller in scale, more national-legal (as opposed to foreign-occupational) in character, and ostensibly progressive.  Here, I examine the dynamic as expressed in the explicit division in 2004 of the previously unified paramilitary organization in the Maldives—the National Security Service (NSS)—into separate military defence and civil police components.  I argue that the civil-izing mission of founding the Maldives Police Service (MPS) may be analyzed as a moment of Blue-in-Green counterinsurgency, quite literally.  With great ceremony, on 1 September, 2004, the Maldivian government stripped a significant number of security personnel out of green uniforms and dressed them in blue, then began a mass recruitment drive to further staff the new police service.  This formation of the MPS was a direct response to recurring popular uprisings that arose in protest of a large number of past human rights abuses by the NSS (and allegedly provoked new ones).  It was also a rejoinder to claims that the NSS was nothing more than the private army of President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who has been head of state for the last thirty years.  As the cornerstone of a broad national reform agenda, the birth and development of this new civil police organization is intended to signify to the Maldivian people—and as, or perhaps even more importantly, to the UN-led international community—that the state’s control of the means of coercion manifests in a non-military body.  In so doing, the reigning authorities hope to legitimize their sovereign power by performing an adherence to liberal democratic values, with mixed and still-emerging results.

John D. Kelly
The Moral Economy of War: Galula Fetishism and its Consequences for Pax Americana

The new joint handbook for counter-insurgency is noted for its cultural and anthropological turn.  But its embrace of the counterinsurgency theory of David Galula, a 1960s French military theorist, is more significant for the framing given to global counterinsurgency by the handbook.  Galula categorizes insurgency and counterinsurgency as asymmetric sides of “revolutionary war,” and uses Mao as both theorist and paradigm of revolutionary war and insurgency generally.  Portraying the planet as beset by insurgencies, the handbook calls for ethnographic modes of intelligence to help with particular conflicts, and this is the major theme of the anthropological turn.  However anthropology has little input on the bigger picture: what the Bush administration in general, and one of the handbook’s lead authors, Colonel John Nagl now call “the long war” against terrorists and insurgencies.  Nagl and others use the theories of Galula to find Maoist-style campaign programs behind every local military conflict that they identify as “insurgency.”  The Long War as Cold War nostalgia is devastatingly alive in this larger framing.  Galula’s theory was built upon utter failure in practice in Algeria, a fact that motivates a new military generation to call for greater resolve.  Meanwhile, basic questions about war powers and democracy worry American citizens, and others, every time US military power is used.  The nostrum that “no democracy has ever gone to war with another democracy” is clearly false, but the logic whereby it should be true is felt as much as reasoned in disquieted public cultures.  At stake is nothing less than the moral economy of war in the new world order.   Anthropology can provide better service to the US and other militaries by clear analysis of the causes and consequences of military interventions, than by building tools for intelligence gathering where boots are already on the ground, especially because they are.

Joseph Masco (Keynote Address)
Bad Weather: On Planetary Crisis

How, and when, does it become possible to conceptualize a truly planetary crisis?  The nuclear arms race of the Cold War -- with the minute to minute possibility of nuclear war -- installed one powerful concept of planetary crisis in American culture.  The biopolitical stakes of nuclear war produced not only a new national security system in the United States but also increasingly organized American society around the atomic bomb.  The science enabling the U.S. nuclear arsenal, however, also produced unintended byproducts: notably, a radical new investment in the earth sciences.  Cold War nuclear science ultimately produced not only bombs but also a new understanding of the earth as biosphere. Thus, the image of planetary crisis in the U.S. was increasingly doubled during the Cold War -- the immediacy of nuclear threat matched by concerns about rapid environmental change and the cumulative effects of industrial civilization on a fragile biosphere. This paper examines the evolution of (and competition between) two ideas of planetary crisis since 1945 -- nuclear war and climate change. In doing so, the paper offers an alternative history of the nuclear age and considers the U.S. national security implications a shift in the definition of planetary crisis from waring states to a warming biosphere.

Sean T. Mitchell 
Paranoid Styles of Nationalism After the Cold War: Notes from an Invasion of the Amazon

On August 22, 2003, just three days before a takeoff expected to finally establish Brazil as a space power, the Brazilian VLS-1 rocket exploded, destroying Brazil's launch pad on the eastern fringes of the Amazon. The blast incinerated 21 Brazilian technicians, sent waves of smoke and fear through nearby villages, and renewed accusations of U.S. sabotage at the Brazilian base and of U.S. plans for domination of the Amazon.  Based on nearly three years of ethnographic research (beginning months after the blast) on the conflicts surrounding the launch center, this paper traces Brazilian narratives of a U.S. invasion of the Amazon.  Bracketing the truth or falsity of those narratives and drawing on a few of Hofstadter's seminal insights into paranoid politics, I analyze both a paranoid style of Brazilian nationalism and the paranoid projection of U.S. power that is its principal referent.

Christopher T. Nelson
No Better Friend, No Worse Enemy

Most Americans became aware of this phrase during the April 2005 trial of a Marine lieutenant of killing two Iraqi civilians. A hastily written sign bearing this ominous warning was left on the wreckage of the car driven by the murdered Iraqis. This incident could easily be explored or dismissed as simply an example of the corrosion of conscience. Instead, I will consider it as part of a constellation of practices and relationships that includes the embodied transformation of individual and collective subjects, the mastery of the past and the struggle to create a moral community.

Mihir Pandya
The Cold War Present: The Logic of Defense Time in Southern California

The military industrial complex, as it is labeled, is something to which we almost automatically assign a conspiratorial rationality. In this paper, I suggest that an exploration of the temporal dimensions of the defense business shows that its coherence is limited; yet, its influence remains formative. For example, in the defense economy, a variety of constituencies have their own cultures of time. They include not just communities, but institutions and processes as well. Here, diverse populations, government departments, corporate cultures, large scale projects, strategic orientations, and funding structures, move in ungainly syncopation. I suggest that the defense economy’s scale and complexity produce environments that are fractious, fluid, and, at times, incoherent. One consequence is that there are non-synchronous Cold War remnants alive in the imagination and landscapes of places like Southern California. Through the test case of the Stealth Aircraft, this paper explores the logic of defense time, and how it structures contemporary conflict.

David Price (Plenary Address)
Soft Power, Hard Power and the Anthropological “Leveraging” of Cultural “Assets”:
Distilling the Politics and Ethics of Anthropological Counterinsurgency

This paper draws upon specific historical instances of anthropological contributions to insurgency and counterinsurgency campaigns to consider theoretical, political and ethical dimensions of anthropological contributions to counterinsurgency. Distinctions between political and ethical elements of specific uses of counterinsurgency are made to delineate differences between the fundamental ethical problems that arise in any research settings from the political issues raised by using anthropology for specific political ends. Both ethics-based, and political-based arguments against using anthropology for “soft” or “hard” forms of counterinsurgency in the current context are considered in light of anthropology’s disciplinary history and our understanding of the uses of anthropological knowledge by state powers striving for control in global economic power struggles.

Presumptions that culture can be willfully played as an instrument of control are considered in the context of larger theoretical questions about the nature of culture. Chief among the fundamental questions raised are: Under what conditions can counterinsurgency work? Do “hard” or “soft” counterinsurgency campaigns stand better chances of “success?” When militaries turn to counterinsurgency, it is too late?

While military-linked “hard power” episodes of anthropologically informed counterinsurgency have drawn wide-ranging criticisms, many anthropologists are reluctant to view various “soft power” aid programs as counterinsurgent in nature, though past architects including Rostow, Millikan and Lansdale, conceptualized such programs in this way. Recent developments in Iraq and Afghanistan indicate that anthropologists and anthropological knowledge will be increasingly called upon in coming “hard” and “soft” counterinsurgency campaigns around the globe.

Problems with harnessing anthropology for counterinsurgency go far beyond the uses of anthropology in armed “hard” counterinsurgency settings; there are fundamental ethical and political problems raised by using anthropology not for the representation of studied populations, but for manipulation. I examine specific historical instances of anthropological contributions to counterinsurgency campaigns during the Second World War and the Cold War to illustrate how anthropological knowledge has been harnessed in the past. I argue that using anthropology for manipulation towards ends of conquest and subjugation necessarily raises serious ethical problems regardless of whether these programs are “hard” or “soft” forms of counterinsurgency.

Brian Selmeski
Anthropology for the (Military) Masses: Observations of an Intellectual Insurgent

Military anthropologists work in a variety of domains, from human remains recovery to cultural resource management to direct operational support. Although the last pursuit attracts the greatest disciplinary scrutiny, it is neither representative nor the most transformational of these efforts. This presentation addresses the work of a small number of anthropologists working within the professional military education (not training) system. Collectively, their efforts are changing the armed forces’ approach to culture, which in turn contributes to changes in the military’s own culture. The presentation grounds this argument in a concrete project that will infuse anthropology to Air Force education in ways that fortify students’ conscience in preparation for the cultural, ethical and moral challenges they face on operations.

Jeremy Walton
Inclement Storms, Hungry Wolves: Consuming the War on Terror in Contemporary Turkey

This paper attempts to coordinate an ethnographic interrogation of the discourses that situate and constitute American power in the age of the ‘War on Terror’ through a focus on the commodification these very discourses.  In contrast to the triumphalist tone of civilizational superiority that characterizes the official discourse on the War on Terror, propagated by the American state bureaucracy and military, the hegemony of American power achieved through the ‘War on Terror’ has become an object and site of intense anxiety for both state and non-state actors across the globe.  During my research in Istanbul, Turkey, from 2005 to 2007, I became fascinated in the productive aspect of this anxiety—namely, for Turks of nearly every demographic stripe, anxiety over American power is a commodified and eagerly-consumed product.  My paper attempts to illuminate this commodification and consumption of anxiety by examining three preeminent products of this anxiety, the film Kurtlar Vadisi: Irak (Valley of the Wolves, Iraq), the novel, Metal Firtina (Metal Storm), and an article from the weekly tabloid magazine, Aktuel.  In each of these texts, ‘America’, identified with American military presence in Iraq, spills over porous geographical and political borders to threaten the sacredness of Turkish sovereignty.  At its most general level, my analysis will focus on what we, as anthropologists, can learn from the commodification of military and political discourses, an economic and cultural process that is crucial to the operation of postmodern power itself.

Dustin Wax
The Uses of Anthropology in the Insurgent Age

Much of anthropology's history has been essentially counter-insurgency--providing information conquering forces have needed to establish and maintain control in the face of organized cultural, political, and military opposition. Most of the postmodern and postcolonial critique has been aimed at highlighting the biases, interests, and just plain errors that anthropology's counter-insurgent history has introduced into the discipline and its work. After briefly exploring anthropology's history, with special attention to the work of anthropologists in the Japanese internment camps of WWII, I examine five fundamental and, I think, irreconcilable oppositions between anthropological practice and military practice.

For more information, contact: seantmitch at gmail dot com