Log in

No account? Create an account
09 January 2008 @ 04:05 pm
Anthropology, War, and Complicity  
Funny. I was thinking this morning about a post I wanted to write about anthropology's inadvertent complicity with state projects of exclusion in the way they define the boundaries of national populations in knowledge production (more on that at a later date), when I came across this from Reuters:

The latest tactic in Iraq: anthropology

By Peter Graff Wed Jan 9, 8:08 AM ET

As David Matsuda tells it, he's probably the last person you'd expect to see in a U.S. military uniform climbing out of an                 armored vehicle in Iraq.

An anthropology professor from the East Bay campus of California State University near San Francisco, he's a self-described     peacenik who opposed the war in Iraq, did his academic research in Guatemala and never carries a gun.

"I'm a Californian. I'm a liberal. I'm a Democrat," he says. "My impetus is to come here and help end this thing."

Matsuda is part of the U.S. military "Human Terrain Team" (HTT) program, which embeds anthropologists with combat                 brigades in Iraq and Afghanistan in the hope of helping tactical commanders in the field understand local cultures.

The program is controversial: the American Anthropological Association denounced it in October, saying it could lead to             ethics being compromised, the profession's reputation damaged, and worst of all, research subjects becoming military                 targets.

Matsuda says the concern is based on a misunderstanding of what he has signed on to do.

"There's been a knee-jerk reaction in the anthropology community, that you've been co-opted, that you're a warmonger, like     you're clubbing baby seals or something," he said. "I came here to save lives, to make friends out of enemies."

Soldiers in northeastern Baghdad -- an area transformed over the past year from one of the most violent parts of Iraq to one     of the best illustrations of the security improvements of late 2007 -- say they are grateful for Matsuda's expertise as they             make the transition from fighting to peacemaking.


"It's a huge asset," said Staff Sergeant Dustin "Boogie" Brueggemann who, as a tactical psychological operations specialist,     has spent the past year trying to win hearts and minds in Adhamiya, until a few months ago one of the most violent                     strongholds of Sunni Arab militants in Iraq.

"The guys who were out with him were saying: 'Dr Matsuda's so smart!' Soldiers even on the lowest level now, we see the          big picture just by listening to him talk," he said.

"He gave me so much information that had I known it a year ago I could have done things differently," he said. "He gave me     a history of the Ubaidi tribe. A lot of people here are members of that tribe. I knew a little bit about them, but I didn't realize         just how big they were."

Further up the command chain, Lieutenant-Colonel David Oclander, deputy commander of the 5,000 soldiers of the 2nd             Brigade Combat Team of the 82nd Airborne Division, said Matsuda had given a presentation on how Iraqis resolve conflicts     that proved valuable in approaching Shi'ite clerics.

"The HTT has been a great help in making sure that when we dialogue with them, we dialogue with them in a way they             understand and appreciate," he said.

Matsuda says he arrived at exactly the right time, when a sudden sharp decline in violence opened new opportunities for         engagement in his unit's area.

The brigade is a classic example of last year's new U.S. strategy in Iraq that saw greater numbers of troops deployed to Iraq     and more emphasis on interaction with civilians.

Before the troop buildup, the entire area of northeastern Baghdad -- including about half of the capital's population -- was         covered by just a single battalion of about 800 U.S. troops who suffered some of the worst casualties in Iraq.


Now the area is covered by the brigade's six battalions, including four combat battalions each covering separate                         neighborhoods as diverse as Sunni Arab stronghold Adhamiya and Sadr City, the giant Shi'ite slum of more than 2 million         people.

In the past six months violence plummeted, as Adhamiya's Sunni tribal leaders turned against al Qaeda militants, and                 Moqtada al Sadr, the Shi'ite cleric whose Mehdi Army militia controls Sadr City, declared a ceasefire.

In December 2006, there were 450 killings in the area, mostly by sectarian death squads trying to drive rival groups out of         their neighborhoods. There were just 15 killings last month, mainly by ordinary criminals, said Oclander.

On Saturday, Matsuda -- wearing a U.S. military uniform but unarmed -- spent two hours with soldiers from 3rd Squadron, 7th     Cavalry lingering on a street in Adhamiya where a few months ago U.S. forces would have had to fight either in or out.

They meandered in and out of shops, bought falafel sandwiches and ate them on a street corner while playing with local             children who already seemed to know their names. Periodically they knocked on doors and asked permission to come             inside homes for a chat. They never turned down an offer of tea.

Most of local people were friendly, although they complained about a lack of electricity and their suspicion of the Shi'ite-led     government and its security forces.

Matsuda said he had learned a lot that day -- about who was moving into vacant houses and who was renting them out, how     a local clinic got its medicines, how shop owners were getting funding to reopen their shops.

"We have a window of opportunity here to make a difference for these people. We have to take it," he said.

(Editing by Andrew Dobbie)

As the article mentions, there has been a strong reaction to the involvement of anthropologists with the military from within the community (it was a major topic of discussion at the Anthropology meetings in DC in December). I'm not sure I know where I stand on this one. It is definitely very complicated. How does one assess help and harm in these situations? How is information collected by anthropologists used? I think it's also interesting and necessary to place this in the context of anthropology's historical entanglement with colonialism and imperial states. It's not a new thing to use anthropologists as part of the apparatus of governance. Today a lot of old-school anthropology seems naive at best and racist at worst, but many anthropologists thought that by humanizing the "natives," they were reducing violence against them. And maybe this is true. But in many cases, anthropological "data" was used to justify colonial rule and define cultural traditions in ways that negatively impacted people. So it's a tough call. But it's not some new trend, like this article makes it seem. The US government used anthropologists regularly as part of its expansionist campaigns in the Philippines and the South Pacific, for example. Any way, interesting stuff. Feel free to comment and get a discussion going!