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Iraq, occupation, culture and the military: brief roundup

12 September, 2008

There has been a fantastic discussion going on here on Culture Matters that I wanted to draw attention to, for those who don’t meticulously follow the stream of comments on older posts.  After I ate humble pie over my simplistic and error-filled rendering of Steve Featherstone’s recent article on the Human Terrain System in Harpers, I have stepped back and enjoyed a really interesting dialogue between Steve and a couple of commentators: Gonzo, who supports collaboration with the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Joneilortiz, who fiercely opposes it.

What I think it particularly interesting in their discussion (which incidentally is remarkable for the way that two anonymous commentators can spar over an issue which they clearly feel passionate about, but at the same time engage respectfully without resorting to name-calling, which so often happens in debates over anthropology and the military) is the way Joneilortiz reorients the framing of the issue, pressing us to think about what occupation means for Iraqis, not Americans, and what the ethical obligations are for anthropologists who oppose the occupation.  Here’s an excerpt:

…the condemning of the occupation neither closes the chapter nor ends the discussion. On the contrary, it’s the point of departure for much more pressing questions: for example, if any alliance with the US military is violent and by definition colonial, what, then, is the proper (or ideal) role for an anthropologist on this unavoidable subject?

Further, if you are an anthropologist who opposes the occupation (and resists the discipline’s appropriation by the military), are you then obligated to support the insurgency? I mean, if the occupation is illegal, shouldn’t anthropologists be working with the Iraqi people and not the occupiers, the insurgents and not the military (if with anyone at all)? Is it logically sensical to oppose the war and ‘not’ support its resistance? Why is debate over anthropologists’ involvement with this war limited to talk of the military? Why not theorize or discuss how anthropologists might help those they admit are under attack? Why, once again, are Iraqis invisible in this discussion?

A provocative question.  If anthropologists oppose U.S. occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, should they work with the insurgents?

And on the topic of Iraqi perspectives on occupation, I just posted to Khaldoun (the other blogging hat that I wear) some info about a book of short stories by Iraqi author Kulshan al-Bayati that the publisher labels “Iraqi resistance literature.”  The book is only available in Arabic so far, but I hope that someone will want to translate it and publish it in English.

Finally, back to the topic of culture and the military, the U.S. House of Representatives Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee just met two days ago to hear testimony on transforming the U.S. military’s foreign language, cultural awareness, and regional expertise capabilities. Videocasts and webcasts are available online. On that same page, if you scroll down you can also find the audio transcript from the previous subcommittee meeting on the topic of “Defense Language and Cultural Awareness Transformation,” which was July 9, 2008. Both provide interesting insight into the way the U.S.  military is increasingly taking up the topic of “culture.”

–L.L. Wynn

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