24 November 2011

AAA 2011: A Review of Some Presentations on Military, Security, and Intelligence Topics

Report and commentary by AJP member Maximilian C. Forte:

For those who could not make it to the recently concluded conference of the American Anthropological Association in Montreal, or who were there but found themselves compelled to attend/participate in any of a number of other important sessions, here is a summary and review of some of the highlights of presentations made around topics dealing with the military, national security, and intelligence. Originally, I was invited by five different session organizers to present papers on their panels, and after some vacillation, I agreed to present on two, dealing with WikiLeaks and secrecy, and the other dealing with research about the covert and military operations. I attended a few other sessions that had similar themes, and this is the substance of this report. Hopefully, and in the spirit of "accessibility," more people in the future will produce blog reports of the contents of sessions for those who might otherwise miss out completely.

Sharing some of the ideas, details, and interactions that came out of the recently concluded conference meets with a couple of limitations: a) I cannot reproduce entire papers received, because in most cases these are intended for publication; b) in other cases I did not take detailed notes, and so some presentations are not even mentioned here; and, c) there is always the risk that I may not be accurately representing what was said, especially in those instances where I am relying on memory (I have tried to minimize those).

Deployment Stressed

The first session I attended at the AAA conference was "Deployment Stressed: Legacies of the War on Terror in Home Front Communities," organized by Jean N. Scandlyn of the University of Colorado at Denver. (Here I should point out that the University of Colorado had a prominent presence in this conference in particular where military and intelligence topics were the focus.) Recently I came across "Deployment Stressed"  which is also the title of this related project blog at the University of Colorado. Christopher King, anthropologist and social science director of the U.S. Army's Human Terrain System also attended this event as a member of the audience, as well as the other events discussed below.

Andrew Bickford (George Mason University) presented an extremely insightful and incisive paper titled "Super Soldiers and Super Citizens: Armored Life in the United States." Bickford described how in the U.S. (and this could be applied to Canada, and elsewhere), soldiers have been constructed by the state as almost mythical creatures, with the role of myth helping to render soldiers unquestionable. These are the agents of violence, where violence created and sustains the state, which is always prepared to use violence--in that order, the soldier is cast as "the best possible citizen" that the state can produce. Again, it is worth noting how in Canada we also hear government ministers declaring soldiers to be our most special citizens, our most valued citizens, as if their work was the most productive and useful, and as if their "sacrifices" (they volunteer, and get paid) were more important than the sacrifices of others made on a daily basis in the non-violent sectors of society. From there, Bickford began to focus a great deal on medicine and health technology, as a means he argued of mitigating the effects of war, not to end war, which of course would be the clearest solution to preventing the harmful effects of war. The role of advanced medicine, applied to soldiers' bodies, is to create an illusion that they are "superhuman" and thus eminently deployable. Medicine makes war palatable, and makes war seem clean. An array of drugs and psychotherapies are administered in order to shield, enhance, and prolong the life of the soldier, and to demonstrate the inherent superiority of the American soldier. Bickford reconnects these medical procedures and rationales to what he calls "the military imaginary"--which involves the processes and tropes by which states make soldiers. The internal regulation of the soldier becomes the external regulation of the state--the soldier is the state in action. Militarized medicine becomes part of the production of an "armored life" (we can see the influences of both Hegel and Agamben in Bickford's theorizing). The internal armouring of the body of the soldier is the armouring of the state. Bickford ended with some much needed, provocative questions: if the specialists and authorities can banish the fear of warfare, what else can they banish? He asks how the impact of killing, who matters most, why some are killed, etc., are the kinds of questions that are held away by the processes of making medically enhanced super soldiers.

David Bayendor (University of Colorado Denver) presented his work under the title of "Human Terrain Redux--A 'Halfie' Talks Anthropology and the Army," which was also quite unusual for being a presentation by someone both in the military, and anthropology, who is critical of militarist ideology but not without some reservations. While acknowledging the fetishizing of warfare, and the heroizing of the masculinity, "courage" and "sacrifice" of soldiers that forms part of "the military normal" (an idea he credited to Catherine Lutz, involving the militarization of social institutions, values, etc., shaped by and prepared for war), he added that he did not view the military as a total institution. He thus devoted some time to describing the military as an intermediate institution, between the military and the civilian, yet still forming a world that is largely off limits to civilians. As Bayendor noted, quoting from Laura Nader, powerful groups are notorious for resisting being studied. (Throughout the presentation, Bayendor quoted repeatedly from the works of anthropologists critical of militarism/militarization, adding his own perspectives as someone who is also part of the military.) Speaking of powerful institutions, Bayendor who is apparently no fan of HTS, noted how HTS members appear to be very excited about being in a powerful institution, suggesting that whatever their original intent for joining HTS, their perspectives became altered by being in close proximity to high-ranking officers, on bases, and so forth. Speaking of ethnic and generally marginalized minorities who make up a large part of the U.S. fighting force, including foreign citizens from Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America, Bayendor made the point that often it is the victims of the power system that are drawn into service to support the system, participating in their own oppression in effect. Bayendor also commented on how "support our troops", "thank you for our service" and what I would call the yellow ribbon industry, work to keep critical questions at bay. He ended his presentation in speaking of the military's appropriation of anthropological knowledge by means other than HTS, and showed a slide featuring a list of key texts in anthropology from the U.S. Army's own online database--a list he had accessed as late as three days prior to the conference and which featured a number of prominent titles, including Malinowski's Practical Anthropology and Gluckman's Rituals of Rebellion.

Sarah J. Hautzinger (Colorado College) further explored some of the themes raised above, in her presentation titled "Battle-Speak on a Domestic Homefront." (I noted how choosing to term the local and the domestic as the "home front" is itself an example of "battle-speak," which the title of the session seemed to reinforce, though the irony may have been intentional.) Hautzinger discussed the domestication of war metaphors in the U.S., with the adoption of terms such as "battle buddies" and "deployment" among those not militarily deployed abroad, or in any actual armed conflict. Among the facets she raised were "battle" as metaphor, as metonymy, and as synecdoche. The effect is to reinforce war as a paradigm for symbolically ordering understandings of the world, even as those adhering to this paradigm are involved in trying to aid those suffering from war. Hautzinger also raised the point that in talking about the losses suffered from war, the focus is almost always on U.S. losses alone. This was an interesting paper for addressing issues of cultural militarization and hegemonization (her word), in how individuals can become complicit in their own subordination, as they buy into paradigms that sanitize and euphemize war, even when they directly face its bloody consequences. Her work, as I suggested, took some of the panel's themes on language a bit further, speaking in terms of civilian-military code-switching and the use of insider argot to build solidarity across civilian-military lines.

Jean N. Scandlyn (University of Colorado Denver) in her presentation, "Promises, Promises: The Military and Opportunity Structures for American Youth," was clearly pressed for time--and in a long session, my own attention began to wane. As a result, I came away with just three particularly interesting arguments made in this presentation, but which I present in a disjointed fashion given the state of my notes: 1) that those motivated to join the military in pursuit of economic and/or educational benefits (these are often the same), are also those suffering from higher rates of PTSD; 2) most recruits come from southern states--the south-east and south-west--from economically disenfranchised conditions, where there is also a long tradition of military service...and she suggested that the relationship between the two is not merely incidental; and, 3) practices that depersonalize "the enemy," beginning with the use of silhouette targets used in weapons training.

Christopher King, Human Terrain System:

Originally, seven papers were scheduled for this session, with no time at all for discussion--as was strangely common at this AAA conference, remarkably not what one would expect in a conference if there is no room for actually conferring. With one cancellation, we had about 10 minutes of discussion that was dominated largely by a very talkative Christopher King from HTS. He was not presenting any papers at the conference, but was present at almost all of the events of direct relevance to military, security, and intelligence themes, and I had the chance to converse with him on several occasions, especially as we tended to sit together or very close. I am not sure if King was aware that he raised some eyebrows when--speaking as someone representing a program that for a long time stressed that it was not about "gathering intelligence"--said that he could put a number of the panellists in touch with people he knows in the "Department of Intelligence". He seemed to be eager to get the panellists to communicate with the military, which of course they already were since their research was grounded in that communication. When he began to say that one of the "nice things" about the military is that it can "really be self-reflective"--thereby missing the point of evidence to the contrary--he seemed to wear some patience thin and the moderator interjected to move on to someone else. On the other hand, King is neither an abrasive nor aggressive person, so the panel could have suffered much worse.

It was at this event that I overheard one young woman approach King, who stood in front of me, to ask him about working for the military--and he gave her his card. Interesting move, that of choosing a session critical of militarization in the hope of finding someone from the military in the audience so as to market oneself. One of the panel participants later asked me what King was doing at the conference, and if the AAA had not censured HTS.

Human Terrain: War Becomes Academic

I had the great pleasure of finally seeing James Der Derian's now well-circulated film, Human Terrain: War Becomes Academic. And who better to sit next to for the whole film and discussion, if not HTS' Christopher King? At this event, King did not take part in the discussion--it would not have been a welcoming crowd. I stayed silent, as it was important for me to observe American anthropologists, whom I have never heard from before, weigh in on these topics, only to discover that if they were in any way a representative sample then HTS meets with fairly wide condemnation among AAA members.

The room was packed with people, many standing, and the discussion afterwards was quite animated, in-depth, and intelligent. During the film, members of the audience got quite loud on occasion, either laughing at some of the speakers (the Marine officer who proudly boasts, "we are not killers...we are professional killers," or the suggestion that Arabs, because of their inherent cultural difference, yes, really would fear being stripped naked, jeered at by women, and having angry dogs barking at their crotches--"unlike American men," as one audience member joked), or even hissing at Montgomery McFate, quite sinister and dark by way of contrast to the man sitting next to me. Overall, King, who said that he too had never seen the film before, seemed to think it was fair and liked it. I also thought it was a remarkable film from which I even learned a few "new" details (that is, new to me).

Der Derian definitely deserves all of the praise he has received for this film, for the complex questioning, editing, and narrative structure. There was some debate about "balance" in the film--yes, we hear from almost all sides (the Afghan side is, of course, once again mute...a little more than a small omission from almost all debates about anthropologists joining the military, or even in debates about the occupation of Afghanistan). Some felt that, nonetheless, the film clearly, and on balance, swings the argument against HTS. Even those closest to one of the featured protagonists, the late Michael Bhatia (HTS' first fatality), are clear in saying they argued against his joining HTS in the first place. Others instead feel that the film kicks a bit of sand in the eyes, dulling anti-militarist perspectives by encouraging identification with, and sympathy for Bhatia, while raising "good intentions" of "helping to improve" (improve what? war? conflict?) by aiding the military in becoming more "culturally aware"--not that HTS serves to offer classes in hand signals, or the etiquette of drinking tea, which by now surely have been abundantly learned anyway.

Perhaps the sharpest and most memorable part in the whole film for me came from Hugh Gusterson when he explained that the U.S. military, and politicians, make the fundamental mistake of thinking that the continuing conflict facing occupation forces is simply the result of "cultural miscommunication," rather than resistance against foreign domination and social engineering at the point of a gun. The assumption, he noted, is that if U.S. troops could better understand local cultures, then there would be less conflict, which ignores the totally separate motivations for resistance. Invasions and occupations are not the result of some sort of "cultural" mishap, so that the turn to culture--and particularly static and outmoded, functionalist conceptions of culture at that--can only deceive U.S. military practitioners that programs like HTS are a solution, a way of winning the war. As Gusterson said, when you ask the wrong questions, you can only come up with the wrong answers.

As for Bhatia, there was some discussion about how he could delude himself into thinking that by going from being a researcher to a practitioner, he could change the world, and yet remain unchanged himself.

Anthropologies of the Covert

Organized by Carole McGranahan (University of Colorado Boulder), "Anthropologies of the Covert: From Spying and Being Spied Upon to Secret Military Ops and the CIA," was a very long session lasting four hours, on which I served as a discussant.

HTS' Christopher King attended this event also, that is until Roberto González finished his presentation.

David H. Price (St. Martin's University), led the session with his historically dense investigative research into CIA ties in funding the AAA via a front organization called the Asia Foundation. His paper, "The CIA, the Asia Foundation, and the AAA: How the AAA Linked Asian Anthropologists to a CIA Funding Front," is part of a larger work in progress. Price demonstrated the significant extent to which anthropologists, like other social scientists, were linked to military and intelligence agencies throughout the Cold War period, even if unknowingly. As he indicated, if we exclude foundations such as the Ford, Rockefeller, and Carnegie foundations, the CIA was involved in nearly half of the research grants offered in the 1960s. Not seeing the case of the Asia Foundation in isolation, Price reminded us that, "the CIA approached the AAA in 1951 and established a covert relationship with the Executive Board through which the AAA secretly gave the CIA the raw information it collected for its detailed roster with the understanding that the CIA would keep information from this roster for its own uses."

Carole McGranahan followed with "Sympathy for the Devil: The CIA, Tibet, and the Humanity of Empire," in which her stated intention was to "humanize" the CIA by two routes, one being by highlighting their affective ties to Tibetan resistance fighters, symbolized by tearful embraces, and two, by arguing that the CIA engaged in covert humanitarianism. Another stated goal was to challenge what in her spoken version she called the "knee jerk reactions" of critics of the CIA, and what in her written version she referred to as "leftist critiques." It was a fairly interesting and controversial paper that seemed to provoke mixed reactions, especially when viewed in contrast with some of the presentations that followed, like the next one.

Anna Roosevelt (University of Illinois Chicago), in "THE HEART OF DARKNESS IS WHITE: The role of the NATO countries in the chaos and killings in Central Africa," presented a shocking litany of a very long history of intense, and often grotesque, Western interventions in the Congo and Rwanda, while also featuring some of her own investigative documentary research that uncovers and exposes the identity of a leading military intelligence agent behind numerous local plots. As I said in my discussion after these three papers, Anna Roosevelt does not write like any Roosevelt I know--and yes, she is related to all of the prominent Roosevelts that readers will know.

Briefly, in my discussant's remarks I said: 1) that I would like to see David Price theorize his work more, and that the case he features seems to contain a lot of ambiguities; 2) that Carole McGranahan ought to explain how an affective approach to some CIA agents can in any way become an anthropological theory of empire, and why in opposing herself to unnamed leftists, she creates the kind of binary that she disdains; and, 3) that Anna Roosevelt's work might be useful as part of a critical dialogue with "responsibility to protect" and other forms of "humanitarian interventionism" that call for foreign military intervention in the Congo--as if more such intervention will fix the problems caused by foreign military intervention in the first place.

One productive coincidence came when both Roberto González and I discussed various research methods for gaining information about military and intelligence agencies. I listed documentary research (such as Price using Freedom of Information Access); interviews and participation in public events; the role of deception as in covert ethnographic research to penetrate state agencies; the use of leaks; and, antagonism. In his excellent presentation, "Methodological Notes on Researching Military and Intelligence Programs," Roberto J. González (San Jose State University), spoke of documents, followed by interviews (with public writing about the contents of documents prompting some from the military and intelligence communities to come forward), and self-analysis (which, in part, involves reflecting on reactions to one's research). Interestingly, a former geospatial intelligence agent on the panel, Nate Keuter, said that he saw the work being done by González as similar to that of an intelligence analyst--and this tied in with his own presentation that argued we could look at the CIA as a research organization (except it's one that kills).

An exceptional paper, with a long-term view of anthropological research of secrets going back to James Mooney and Franz Boas, my favourite passage in González's paper came toward the end when he explained, ever so politely, that, "...this kind of anthropology often requires the use of theoretical concepts or hypotheses to make sense of certain phenomena. An example of this might be the use of the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis, which can help explain how terms like human terrain lead to the treatment of humans as dirt (or at best, as territory to be conquered) by those who have uncritically adopted the phrase." I believe that it was on this note that HTS' Christopher King, whose presence was indirectly noted by González in his talk, left the room.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...