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Where are the soldier-academics?

26 October, 2007

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?

L.L. Wynn

10 Comments leave one →
  1. 26 October, 2007 12:39 pm

    I’m not sure about US soldier-anthros, but David Kilcullen is a prominent Australian soldier who is also an anthropologist. He has been at the forefront of the “militarisation” process. Here’s an article that mentions him.

  2. gregdowney permalink
    27 October, 2007 10:06 am

    I don’t know about soldier-anthropologists writing about the war (except for Marcus Griffin, discussed on some previous posts), but I would still draw attention to Dave Grossman, a US Army officer and psychologist, who has written some really strong work on military training and the effects of war. I think if there are anthropologists deeply embedded in the military who believe in what they are doing, they will likely recognize very quickly that they’re most likely to find an audience for what they might write outside of our field rather than inside it. So I expect we’ll be more likely to see any notice of their publications in the NYReview of Books rather than in Current Anthropology or Anthropology Today.

  3. 27 October, 2007 3:49 pm

    According to a new article in The Economist (“Armies of the future: Brains, not bullets”, Oct 25), a new manual on counter-insurgency by Gen. David Petraeus sketches the model soldier of the future as a graduate with linguistic skills and a sense for history and anthropology. So watch these pages.

  4. 27 October, 2007 4:51 pm

    Petraeus is a Princeton alumnus (if I remember correctly, he did a masters degree at the Woodrow Wilson School for Public Affairs) so it is not surprising that he would imagine an academic-soldier. Yet it doesn’t seem to be necessarily the sort of soldier-academic that I’m wishing for. Greg, Jovan, thanks for the names.

  5. 27 October, 2007 5:03 pm

    Oh and Ali, I forgot also to say thanks for the Economist citation. I’ll have to read the article before I mouth off.

  6. 29 October, 2007 12:12 am

    I wonder if any anthros will ever get close enough to the Palis to document the endemic violence, homophobia, and misogyny of that society.

  7. 6 November, 2007 10:49 am

    There are a number of anthropologists who are Palestinian (is that what “Palis” refers to?) and many anthropologists from other backgrounds who married Palestinians (is that “close enough”?), including myself, and a great deal of excellent ethnographic literature on Palestinian societies. Mr. Simon, thanks so much for your thought-provoking musings, but perhaps you would like to dabble a little more in the anthropological literature before you come to any conclusions about the endemic anything in Palestinian society.

    Meanwhile, Louise Wynn (hi, Mom!) just wrote to tell me that she found a 1991 novel on the soldier-academic that long predates this particular debate. It’s called “Zero Casualties” by Tom Jagninski. Here’s the synopsis:

    The U.S. Army is lobbying Washington to kick The CIA out of Laos, claiming the agency is dragging its heels interdicting enemy trials; what they really mean, though, is that with the Vietnam War winding down, everyone is desperately looking to pull some kind of victory from the jaws of defeat. As part of its conterlobbying, the CIA sends twenty-eight-year-old soldier-anthropologist Stephen Reaford into the Montagnard Village of Ban Ban, a base far behind enemy lines. Reaford, an upperclass Bostonian, has naively gone to war to ‘live history’ and gather some material to finish his Ph.D.

  8. Third Tone Devil permalink
    16 November, 2007 12:35 pm

    I thought I’d reproduce here a post by Bill Kaghan on Anthrodesign that, I think, makes some good points on the HTS. (Tell me if this is against the netiquette!)

    From: wkaghan
    To: anthrodesign@ yahoogroups. com
    Sent: Thursday, November 15, 2007 10:52:45 AM
    Subject: [anthrodesign] An informative article on HTS

    At the risk of beating a dead thread, I just posted an article on
    HTS that I found quite informative. It was published in 2006 (which
    in the world of large bureaucratic organizations may mean that it is
    a little outdated) and outlines the basic purpose of HTS and how it
    is organized.

    Having read the article, here are a few observations from someone
    who is primarily an organizational sociologist.

    1. The basic premise behind HTS is (as I suspected) tied to
    counterinsurgency efforts and based on a theory of why insurgencies
    occur and why inhabitants in a country like Iraq “harbor”
    insurgents. I find this particular theory to be very problematic
    (and I think that my concerns much of what Julian was talking

    2. I find the theory to be very similar to a lot of management
    theories in the area of organizational behavior and human resource
    management. These theories are heavily influenced by behavioral
    (and to some extent cognitive) psychology. Management theorists do
    sometimes deal with the concept of culture but they tend to do it in
    a very “instrumental” (and potentially ethnocentric) manner which I
    suspect would make a lot of anthropologists uncomfortable. (It
    makes me uncomfortable but I got my Ph.D in a Business School so I
    am somewhat acculturated. )

    3. The ethnographers are buried in a fairly elaborate organizational
    structure and the people in the field seem to be tied pretty closely
    to a central command located away from the field. There seem to
    be “armchair” academic analysts who analyze the “intelligence”
    collected in the field. (I wonder who these academics are.)

    4. However, the team in the field also reports to a unit commander.
    In this sense, these people are essentially “warrant officers.”
    That is, they are staff members (like IT specialists or linguists)
    who support the commanding officer but have no direct decision
    making authority. What I wonder about is whether the people on
    these teams are actually in the military or whether they are
    contract employees (like Blackwater or a lot of people doing
    economic development in Iraq.)

    I’ll end by noting that “nation-building” is certainly about design
    so it is a topic that anthrodesigners should have some opinions on.

    Best, Bill

  9. Moishe permalink
    27 February, 2008 5:33 pm

    Hmm someone should publish an article on the experience of defending ones homeland from terrorists. A thick description of the thoughs and feelings behind such experiences. But I suppose that wouldnt fit into the standard political agenda.
    Oh well


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