Where are the soldier-academics?
Lawyer and human rights activist Asli Bali alerted me to this recent article in the Guardian:
“A study by an Israeli psychologist into the violent behaviour of the country’s soldiers is provoking bitter controversy and has awakened urgent questions about the way the army conducts itself in the Gaza Strip and West Bank.
Nufar Yishai-Karin, a clinical psychologist at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, interviewed 21 Israeli soldiers and heard confessions of frequent brutal assaults against Palestinians, aggravated by poor training and discipline. In her recently published report, co-authored by Professor Yoel Elizur, Yishai-Karin details a series of violent incidents, including the beating of a four-year-old boy by an officer.
The report, although dealing with the experience of soldiers in the 1990s, has triggered an impassioned debate in Israel, where it was published in an abbreviated form in the newspaper Haaretz last month. According to Yishai Karin: ‘At one point or another of their service, the majority of the interviewees enjoyed violence. They enjoyed the violence because it broke the routine and they liked the destruction and the chaos. They also enjoyed the feeling of power in the violence and the sense of danger.’
In the words of one soldier: ‘The truth? When there is chaos, I like it. That’s when I enjoy it. It’s like a drug. If I don’t go into Rafah, and if there isn’t some kind of riot once in some weeks, I go nuts.’
Another explained: ‘The most important thing is that it removes the burden of the law from you. You feel that you are the law. You are the law. You are the one who decides… As though from the moment you leave the place that is called Eretz Yisrael [the Land of Israel] and go through the Erez checkpoint into the Gaza Strip, you are the law. You are God.’
The soldiers described dozens of incidents of extreme violence. One recalled an incident when a Palestinian was shot for no reason and left on the street….
Warning for the faint-hearted: the descriptions of violence only get worse; the one at the end of the article made me physically ill.
It is key to note here that the Israeli psychologist who conducted the study, Yufar Yishai-Karin, was prompted to undertake and publish this study as a result of her own experience as a soldier in the Israeli Defense Forces in Gaza, and the 21 soldiers and officers she interviewed for the study were ones she had worked with. It seems likely that she never could have elicited the kinds of revelations that she did if she were not herself an Israeli fellow soldier with a close relationship to the soldiers she interviewed and an intimate personal knowledge of the what it is to be an occupying soldier.
In some of the recent calls for anthropologists to study the published memoirs of soldiers, the implicit assumption seems to be that soldiers provide the data and anthropologists provide the metanarrative. The Israeli study, in contrast, is an example of the soldier-academic. It is a powerful position from which to critique the Israeli military. (There are almost daily reports of Israeli military violence by Palestinians and outsiders that have not generated this level of public debate.) The soldier-academic is perhaps a position that we are more likely to find in Israel, where the mandatory army service puts almost all citizens in the role of soldier at some point of their lives, than in the U.S. , where soldiers are largely drawn from the undereducated lower classes. Are there any Culture Matters readers aware of American soldier-anthropologists who are writing about the current war?