Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Don't point that head at me

Intellectual pointy heads. That's what many military troops seem to feel about academics who express respect for indigenous peoples and different cultures. But in 2007 the US military launched a Human Terrain Systems project that recruited social scientists, including political scientists and sociologists, but primarily anthropologists, in order to make the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan easier.

Human Terrain: War becomes academic, is a new film from Udris, and it examines this problem using 25 interview participants--some far more than others--and telling the story of one young anthropologist's tragic seduction and death by IED.

Michael Bhatia tells a fellow HTS embed that he always felt that he should have served in the military. "What do you think you're doing right now?" was the response. Bhatia even asked questions of the locals about how many men were off getting training to join the insurgency, something that skirted quite close to gathering intelligence for the military, which is what he swore they were not doing. The viewer senses that Bhatia really genuinely wants to help the locals, wants to honor and protect them, but he is just another infidel to many, since he is there under the protection of the US military and to serve that military and that occupation. His research in Afghanistan was clearly tilted toward security issues.

While Montgomery McFate and other enthusiasts for more anthropology service to the military make their excellent points, Catherine Lutz makes the clearest points of all when she sums up by noting that the basic question of whether to go to war is skipped by those who are involved. The job of the social scientists is not to help make war and occupation more humane and more successful, but to devote ourselves to figuring out how to stay out of war in the first place. McFate and those who argue for more academic service to military ends are operating downstream from that question and therefore miss the true center of this issue.

The film is well worth seeing, with points and counterpoints belying any facile analysis, but which ultimately does suggest that we may not be able to change the game, but we can at least stand as firmly as possible against the game changing us. Jarat Chopra, one of Bhatia's mentors at Brown University, threaded complex viewpoints into a multitextured opinion, as he is also a military culture expert, but on behalf of the UN peacekeepers rather than any national military. Even the US military HTS members are kinder, gentler, more professional killers (one of them refers to himself almost exactly like this) rather than just bloodlust killers of civilians.

For the peace side, for the nonviolent side, these questions roll over into Lutz's far more profound challenge to the decision to go to war in the first place. It is all about human agency, about never ceasing in our efforts to change that master narrative, to push the conflict toward negotiation and discourse, dialog and collaboration, rather than escalation, bigger guns and more cleverly concealed IEDs. The film is worth watching and, I hope, will show our young budding scholars that embedding with the military is simply serving an agenda of coercion and occupation. It is an effort to warp hearts and minds, not to really help create conditions that will foster friendship. I will never be friends with the troops who are from another nation and who have big guns and occupy my country, never. It doesn't take an anthropologist to understand that human universal. What it takes are many citizens offering nonviolent resistance in host and client states both.

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