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The story behind an HTS picture

22 September, 2008

[Note: after I posted this article (which Major Holbert didn’t edit at all), he told me he’d been getting some flak for it and asked me to remove the personal information in it. I have done so, and so below is an edited version of the original post. –LLW]

Major Robert Holbert was part of the first Human Terrain Team deployed to Khost province, Afghanistan, in early 2007. I first saw his picture when I was reading an article about the Human Terrain System by Roberto González (“‘Human Terrain’: Past, Present, and Future Applications,” Anthropology Today 24(1):21).

 U.S. Army Maj. Robert Holbert takes notes as he talks and drinks tea with local school and Andar Special Needs School administrators during a cordon and search of Nani, Afghanistan, on June 2, 2007. Holbert is attached to the Human Terrain Team, 4th Brigade Combat Team.    DoD photo by Staff Sgt. Michael L. Casteel, U.S. Army. (Released)

U.S. Army Maj. Robert Holbert takes notes as he talks and drinks tea with local school and Andar Special Needs School administrators during a cordon and search of Nani, Afghanistan, on June 2, 2007. Holbert is attached to the Human Terrain Team, 4th Brigade Combat Team. DoD photo by Staff Sgt. Michael L. Casteel, U.S. Army. (Released)

But then I started seeing the picture other places, too. It is used on blogs to illustrate the Human Terrain System (see, for example, here), and on the official Human Terrain System (HTS) website (though it seems to rotate with other pictures so I can’t provide a stable link). When I finally found it on a military photo source website, I understood why: it’s a free picture from the military (on

As I was researching this article, someone I was talking to about HTS wrote to me and said, “By the way, Lisa — the army fellow in the bottom photo taking notes is Bob Holbert …a ‘typical’ US Army white dude, but also a practicing Muslim, ardent Obama-phile, and all-round super guy.” I thought that it would be interesting to track down Major Holbert and ask him for the story behind that photo. On 21 August, we had a chat on the phone and I took notes. Since he told me so many more things than I could ever include in the article I’m writing about anthropology and the military, I asked Major Holbert if I could post our interview on Culture Matters.

“I would like that, to be perfectly honest,” he said. “I’m a flaming liberal in uniform and I feel completely vindicated through this program – in that they’re finally getting it, that you can kill people all day and still lose the counterinsurgency. It’s when you understand the population that’s when you win. And the problem is our own hubris and we talk down to the little brown people and the people with this alien religion.”

I told him that I’d give him the chance the review my notes since I wasn’t tape-recording the conversation and let him tell me if I’d correctly represented him. Holbert, who is a genuinely funny and really laid-back guy, said, “I don’t want to sound like an asshole, that’s my only request!”

LLW: So as you know, I’m really curious about that picture that circulates of you on a Human Terrain Team in Afghanistan. I thought it would be interesting to tell the story behind that picture: who were you talking to? What were you talking about? What brought you there, how were you introduced to those people? But maybe it would be best if you started first by telling us more about your background and how you ended up on a Human Terrain Team in Afghanistan.

RH: I’m an infantry officer, do you know what that means?

LLW: Not really.

RH: A foot soldier. An officer – but, see, we have branches in the military: engineers, infantry, field artillery…. I went through ROTC in college, I was in a guard unit so you serve as a non-commissioned officer, a sergeant. Then when you get the degree you get your commission. Reserve commission. Army National Guard, Army Reserves.

So basically I’m in this reserve unit in Lincoln Nebraska. A drill sergeant unit, you know – we trained basic trainees on infantry skills.

But I also had this social studies background – I’m a teacher and I used to teach social studies. And one of my NCOs – that’s a Non-Commissioned Officer – was looking through job listings on the army knowledge website, and he’s like, “Sir, this is perfect for you!” It said they were looking for combat arms branch qualified officers with a social science background. He said, “A couple-month tour, and you’ll get a break from teaching, you need a break.”

So I just sent my name in. And three days later I get this phone call from Ft Leavenworth, saying, “How soon can you start?” Because I had background in Islam and had taught classes on Central Asia, and that’s not really common [in the Army]. Pretty rare, actually.

LLW: What year was this?

RH: 2006. I thought it would just be a 3-month tour and would be a good experience. I had no idea I was going to Afghanistan. I thought I would be an analyst. Then I got there and it [the Human Terrain System] was still a growing program, just an embryo of what it is now. And then pretty soon I said, you know, I want to go to Afghanistan [on a Human Terrain Team]. I think I can do this, I think it’s sort of my destiny here. So I put my name in to be on the first team to Afghanistan with an anthropologist and 2 other reserve soldiers.

It’s hard to teach infantry dudes. If you’re in a fight you absolutely want dudes from the 82nd Airborne on your side. I love working with them. The brigade commander, Schweitzer, he got it: that it’s not about killing people, it’s about understanding the local population and fulfilling the needs of the local population. It’s when you establish a relationship with the locals and trust each other, that’s when you win. It’s non-lethal methods that win this war.

So we were cultural advisors to the 82nd Airborne. Have you seen the congressional testimony? I’ll send you the congressional testimony. We reduced lethal operations – or what they call “kinetic” operations in the devil-speak of the military – we reduced “kinetic” operations by 60-70% in some of the districts. I’ll send you the testimony. That was huge. And all it was about was Sesame Street: too easy. It’s about treating people the way you want to be treated. It’s so simple. But just because it’s simple doesn’t mean it’s naïve. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have your guard on. You can be hit at any time, you have to be on guard at all times. So you can’t be naïve about it. It’s about being savvy. That’s what wins this war.

And it [this military strategy of getting to know local populations] is going to increase with Obama if he gets in. I don’t know if you heard tonight but the Pentagon approved his plan for Afghanistan. You know… The fight’s in Afghanistan, it’s not in Iraq. Afghanistan is where the bad guys are, and Pakistan, not Iraq. Because you know the soldiers did the right thing. It’s the politicians, the leadership who let us down. We just assume that we’re Americans and everybody loves us and we’ll just show up and everyone will throw flowers at our feet and think we’re really neat. But we’re talking about a culture that’s thousands of years old and we’re only 228 years old, or something like that, and we don’t get the relevance of that.

LLW: What is the relevance of that?

RH: The relevance of that is: We’re just some snot-nosed kids on the block, trying to tell Grandma and Grandpa how to run their home. We have no respect for Islam, we look at it as though it’s some monolithic religion, when it’s completely different in so many countries.

LLW: So tell me the story behind that picture.

RH: Right, that picture of me and the schoolmaster.

We were inside a clinic that treated children who had lost limbs to mines and people who needed physical therapy because of their injuries. The schoolmaster in that picture was telling me that the Taliban had burned out his school and destroyed his school supplies. Being a school teacher myself, we hit it off right away. I was looking at him more like I was a student and I was learning from him about what was really needed for the school. The fact is that they have to have security because they need to protect the school supplies. Otherwise the Taliban will come in and destroy whatever they can find. It’s ironic, right? Because Taliban comes from a root word meaning ‘student.’ I asked him if I could take notes, I always do that with the people I talk to in Afghanistan, so I was just taking notes on what was destroyed, how it was destroyed, his frustrations about how he can’t provide for his students because of the Taliban, al-Qaeda. It was just a bitch session between two educators. And his bitching was far more critical and significant than any of mine ever was. Because his kids wanted to go to school. Mine didn’t!

LLW: But step back and tell me the basics of how you got in there. Like how did you even go and get introduced to this schoolmaster?

RH: I was with my sergeant and I was assigned to a rifle platoon from the 82nd Airborne, then we hooked up with a civil affairs team that was attached to the rifle platoon, and we were also working with the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police. And so part of the deal was we were going out and doing assessments of the area of assessment for this platoon, so we went to this one village.

LLW: How did you even know where to go and who to talk to?

RH: Our interpreters knew where to go, they knew who to talk to in the area, then they just let us do what we do best, which is a quick interview, get the person’s story. And they [the school teachers] found out I was a teacher and that open a lot of doors. Then my interpreter told them that I had converted to Islam, and then they were really interested in talking, they were fascinated by that. Why does an American convert to Islam? It was a really strange concept. So that opened up a lot of doors.

LLW: Who took the picture?

RH: A combat photographer, they come from Division. A reserve soldier who was activated for Afghanistan and he went along with us to take pictures of who we talk to, I mean, not really of who we talk to, but of the settings, what we do.

We don’t do targeting!

LLW: Yes, tell me about that. You don’t do targeting?

RH: That’s part of the issue with the AAA, this is where I get really pissed off, and as a liberal myself, I think I can say this: I get really pissed off at the sniveling liberal attitude towards the military system.

This was the first opportunity we had to change the military thinking and make them realize that you don’t need to kill everything and call it a success. You still have to be able to kill when you have to. But you also need to know that it’s about building relationships, establishing a rapport with the local population. To go forward and just kill people is losing. Look at the Soviets. They killed over 2 million Afghans and lost, so you know it ain’t going to work. It’s trying to teach them how to balance the velvet glove with the naked fist.

The social sciences are very powerful in this aspect. Anthropology is just a sexy word – don’t get me wrong, I like anthropologists! – but it’s about social science in general, about economists, about historians, sociologists, psychologists – everyone has something to bring to the game. It’s about how to use those skill sets more effectively to reduce casualties among the local population and local soldiers. When we get it, really get it, people’s lives are saved. That’s what attracted me to the program and made me volunteer.

You know, the average age of a combat soldier is like 19, we’re talking kids who fell asleep in social studies class… [edited] We have to teach them that it’s okay to have an open mind. And the push back that I get is “You’re going to soften my soldiers so that when shit breaks out and there’s a gunfight, they’re going to be too touchy-feely to return fire and do what they’re trained to do” – and that’s not it! I’m not saying we need to develop dual personalities in our soldiers, but maybe it’s a good idea to be more balanced. We need to be more savvy. We are not fighting this smart.

LLW: But what about research ethics? Yes, you’re telling me that you can change the way the army things. But what about the effect on local populations? I mean, you were talking about Taliban, about an enemy, about bad guys. And you’re in a war, and the army kills people. Are you sure that the information you get while you’re talking to people would never be used for targeting? What if that schoolteacher who was telling you about how the Taliban had burned down his school, what if told you that those Taliban were in that mountain pass, that village, that clan?

RH: It’s not a pristine project. This is not Operation Phoenix or Camelot resurrected. But if there is actionable intelligence that will save soldier and civilian lives from being killed, I’m going to hand it over. I am. Who gets killed more, soldiers or Afghan civilians? Afghan civilians. If I know that there’s a suicide bomber coming, then I’m going to prevent it. I’m going to prevent soldiers and Afghans from being killed. But I don’t go out looking for people to target and say [to my commander], “You need to whack so-and-so.” No. We don’t tell him to go whack people. We say, “If you do this, there are the possible effects of your reactions. This is how you’re going to piss off the local population.”

You know, we led a mosque renovation project and wow, rocket attacks were gone. And now the Taliban has to deal with the fact that we set up a joint effort between soldiers and Afghans to work together to refurbish the mosque. And now the Taliban has to think, you know, they’ve put out propaganda for all these years that Americans hate Muslims and Islam, but now their cousin Fareed is working with Americans to rebuild a mosque, how does that fit into their propaganda? It’s about engaging the population, about learning from the locals. And we are the middle piece in that, between the brigade and the local population.

I’ll give you an example of what we do. We went into one village and my sergeant and I were with this civil affairs team and the platoon leader, his mission was to go in early morning to search the mosque and the homes ahead of us. And we said, “No. Bad idea.” It was Friday. This village was teetering between going pro-Coalition or falling back into the hands of the Taliban. They hadn’t seen Coalition for 8 months so just out of survival they have to side with the Taliban, because if you don’t, they drag you or your kids out into the street and kill you, shoot you or cut off your head. So are you going to tell an Afghan family, “Well, sorry about your son, but just hang on, we’ll be there eventually”? No parent wants to watch their child shot or beheaded. We know that they side with the Taliban because they have to. So we have to win them over to the Coalition.

We said okay, don’t go in and search the place before prayer or during prayer. We’ll just have a little street shoura, a meeting. So we went in. There were no kids in the street when we first went in, bad sign. Eventually people started to trickle out and we started to talk to them. And then they invited us for lunch so we had lunch with them. It went great. When we were leaving, they told us that between the end of the village and the orchard, that there was an IED, an improvised explosive device. They didn’t know exactly where, but they knew that the Taliban had put it there the night before. They told us about it. And if we had pissed off the villagers and disrespected them, you know, gone in searching every house and mosque, if they thought we were full of shit, they wouldn’t have told us about that IED.

It was a double-stacked TH6. Those are anti-tank mines, Italian made. Big. Huge. They would have – there would have been massive casualties. They didn’t know exactly where it was but they knew it was out there, and if we’d pissed off the village and disrespected the elders, gone in there before morning prayers, we would have been screwed.

It’s about navigating that cultural landscape. That’s where we come in. We don’t know everything, but we know enough to not piss people off, and it’s about building relationships and learning. You go in as the student. And you want to learn. And the Afghans are completely gracious. And that’s what we don’t get because we come from this machismo culture that thinks, that’s all bullshit, the humility is archaic, and if you go in and threaten people and ask like bad-asses, you get results. How would we feel if we were an occupied country? That’s all you have to ask yourself. How would you feel if it was your country? It’s so simple, yet it’s so hard to teach to the grunts. You have to gruntify the information so they get it. These are guys who are taught to kill, that’s all they know.

Iraq is completely different from Afghanistan – there I think it’s a case of too little, too late. I think the Human Terrain Teams have to go in at the zero phase of a conflict, before hostilities are breaking out. Kandahar? That’s a freaking gunfight, what are cultural advisors going to do for a gunfight, except participate in one?

LW: OK, well let me ask a hard question, the kind of question I can imagine opponents of HTS posing. Yes, you’re saying this saves lives, and probably that’s true. But at the same time, it facilitates a military occupation of another country. You say it’s about winning a war. But talking about winning, it takes the war for granted. In the end, you’re facilitating the U.S. occupation of another country. How would you answer that?

RH: [sighs] I’m not going to completely disagree, it’s not… God. It is what it is. OK, you say we’re an occupying army, we’re an occupying army. If that’s how you look at it, that’s how it is. What else do you call it when you’re not from the country and you’re in it? But if you’re going to fight it, then you’re there. This is an opportunity to change the culture of the military, this is our golden hour as progressives, and yeah, we’re in a country, we’re occupying it, but I’m trying to work myself out of a job, you know. We don’t want to stay there. And we’re only going to do it [right] when we realize that it is what it is and we have to deal with the facts on the ground. And the facts on the ground are that the military is not prepared to deal with the counterinsurgency in which you need to quit killing so many people and you need to start building up the population. And it is a counter-intuitive proposition to the fighters, to the war fighters. Because they’re trained to kill. And now you’re telling them, “You need to quit killing, you need to establish relationships.” You know, and they’re saying, “The only relationship I want to establish is the one that comes out of the business end of my M4.” So how do you break that [mentality]?

We can’t apply an American solution to every cultural context, because it doesn’t jive. We need to adapt, and it takes hard work and lots of thinking and these are guys who don’t have time to think, they have to react and act before the enemy has time to react. They’re brothers and sister who are very bitter, they have been on multiple tours, they don’t understand why Muslims don’t like them and why they don’t think they’re the good guys.

And me too, I was completely aggravated when I was over there. The mosque that they renovated, it was 100 feet away from center of operations. They had Port-A-Potties in front of the mosque – 10 feet in front of the mosque! What does that say to the local population? They don’t think of these things! Fox News is the enemy. Because they jade the thinking of every solider who goes over there. We’re not very agile in our thinking. And it’s a cultural thing here because humility is considered a weakness in our culture. It’s not considered a strength. Whereas in Afghanistan, there’s no honor without humility. It’s a culture that has a poet-warrior archetype. You know, I’d interview people and they’d give answers back in poetry, it was beautiful. And we don’t get that. We don’t see the duality, we don’t see the ability to… We don’t see the coexistence. There’s a far more holistic approach to the universe and to culture and relationships in Afghanistan than there is in our society. We want business up front, and fuck drinking tea! Well you know what? You’re in Afghanistan so you’d better shut the fuck up and drink tea. When in Rome.

–L.L. Wynn

19 Comments leave one →
  1. Third Tone Devil permalink
    22 September, 2008 5:25 pm

    This is really fascinating, Lisa! I wish lots of people read this. The question that I had after reading this was why this guy was in the army. I think in most of Europe, becoming a soldier is seen as some kind of failure or perversion, like becoming a drug addict. Clearly, though, in the US it is not (nor in Australia, nor in China). And secondly, the question I already asked you: why is everyone only discussing the role of the HTS in causing or averting killing? What about its role in helping civilian administration and governance? Or is there no such role? I am surprised if HTS people never think of it.

  2. 22 September, 2008 8:57 pm

    Thanks, TTD. I think it’s fascinating, too, and I was grateful to Major Holbert for letting me publish it and use his real name and everything. If I can find the time and enough people who are willing, I’m going to do a series of interviews with HTS people and publish them here.

    The few HTS people I’ve interviewed talk about this a lot: that they are there to help rebuild, and that this is part of the moral obligation that they feel to both countries, the US and Iraq / Afghanistan. Critics contend that rebuilding is indeed essential but that it is a role for institutions other than the one that did the destroying in the first place. This is where I see the biggest disjuncture between how proponents and opponents of HTS see things: is the US military a humanitarian organization (at least in part)? Or is adding “humanitarianism” to their portfolio just a strategy for securing consent for their role in the destruction of Iraqi governance and infrastructure?

    Back to what you said about joining the army in Europe: is there no program anywhere in Europe whereby you can pay for your college education by joining the army? Military scholarship programs are clearly what motivate a great many Americans to join the military in some capacity, but that may be something specific to the costs and the way higher education in the US is funded (or *not* funded as the case may be). I’d be curious to know what is the relationship between education and the military in Europe — or even Australia for that matter.

  3. Benni permalink
    23 September, 2008 12:28 am

    First of all, thank you, Lisa for posting this account!

    I just wanted to point out two or three things that came to my mind while reading.
    To your comment, Third Tone Devil: The largest part of the debate about the HTS, apart from seeing it as a part of the gradual militarization of social sciences and academia in general, especially in the context of the so-called “War against Terror”, is the lack of transparency of the program (also see the latest SavageMinds-post on this: ). We get small pieces of information on the actions from time to time, but no really detailed accounts on what they are actually doing, who is actually being questioned how and which answers are used for what aims later on, etc.. Are locals only questioned on their own biographies and background, or also on the bios of others who might not be content about this information going to the US-military? In what ways is the information gathered combined and used by the US-army? The stories of internal criticism on the recruitment strategies, structure and objectives of the HTS not being listened to (e.g. as in the case of HTS-member Zenia Helbig) give a strong impression of a very badly-organised program, led by people probably involved in spying and disillusion. Together with other “scandals” such as the spying on AAA-members and criticisers of HTS by military personal, this generates in an atmosphere of distrust. I can also underline the point (which in the meantime Lisa was quicker to write down than me) that if the US-government is really interested in helping Afghani civilian administration and governance, why do they let the military take care of these issues, and not other governmental branches or NGOs?
    Major Holbert says he wants to change the military culture and kind-of sensitize the army towards the needs of the local population. As long as we know so little on the HTS-program in detail it’s hard to tell if the tactic on joining the army to fulfil this mission under the restrictions of a heavily-debated program inside a somewhat rigid structure of the US-military is really the best way to do so. But, of course, this has already been debated in other places more thoroughly, and he himself, at least, seems very convinced. After attending a HTS-introduction at the latest EASA-conference, I was surprised to hear a representative of the HTT say that they don’t even try to listen (indicating the shutting of ears) if someone local comes up to them telling them about planned attacks against civilians or military personal, because that could lead to “targeting”, which they supposedly don’t do. To be honest, this account didn’t seem very convincing to me. Holbert’s account, then again, sounds quite different. It would be great to have such a series of individual interviews with HTS-members to clarify these views and tactics.

    On the issue of military and education in Europe: The degree of a military influence on education probably varies in each European country, and from discipline to discipline.
    I can say a few things of the ocuntry I live in, Germany. As the fees for higher/university education in Germany were not very high until a few years ago, it was not common to join the German Bundeswehr (=army) mainly for reasons of education. This might change due to higher university-fees that have been introduced in many parts of the country since one or two years ago.
    Then again, many people who choose a career in the military anyhow also use the opportunity to study something in an army-university for the time after they end their military service (from 1973-1998, 32000 people studied at one of the two Bundeswehr-universities, Hamburg and Munich). Next to a variety of technical studies, the social sciences you can study here are mainly history, education science, economics and politics, as well as some related sciences. As far as I know, anthropology has not been taught in one of these universities (yet), even though vacant spaces for teachers in these universities have been advertised on large national anthropological websites.
    Until now there is only one regular German anthropology department that has shortly been offering internships in the army through one of their professors, which is the University of Bayreuth.
    I’ve conducted a couple of interviews on this topic, and it seems that most or all of the (6 – 7?) German anthropologists working for the military as anthropological advisors there are mainly in it for the money. This is probably also due to the fact that anthropology itself is often regarded as one of the “soft” sciences in Germany, and it’s often still hard to get a well-paid job with an anthropology-degree.

  4. 23 September, 2008 12:29 am

    I can understand why people might be attracted to silly fairy tales that give “explanations” for things science hasn’t tackled. But I wish I knew what sort of mental defect drives people to pursue mythological explanations for questions science has already answered.

    The Glorious Qur’an and the Holy Bible are full of glaring contradictions and absurdities that fly in the face of human discovery, common sense, and even other pronouncements from within the same books. Put them all in the mythology museum and evolve to atheism for world peace.

  5. joneilortiz permalink
    23 September, 2008 2:26 am

    This guy makes the most elementary cultural understanding sound like enlightenment.

    As Afghanistan enters stage 2 of colonization, our (rather telling) expectation of direct, unmediated brutality has the curious effect of making basic, obvious, and in no way remarkable ideas of “tolerance” and “cultural sensitivity” sound like signs of a benevolent, liberating, humanitarian force.

    And yet, the true situation cannot be hidden. Holbert’s decidedly non-anthropological training, and his penchant for violence (as when he describes learning “How to kill people and break things. Which is a lot of fun, frankly”) can’t help but break through the surface. His main talking-point, which we’ve heard a thousand times from HTS – “that it’s not about killing people, it’s about understanding the local population and fulfilling the needs of the local population” – is so banal we should find it disturbing that it’s *supposed* to be reassuring or surprising or exceptional. I mean, we’re supposed to be happy that *instead* of killing people, he’s talking to them?

    There’s a reason this guy is a poster child for HTS. For one, he’s Muslim – which is in actuality meaningless, but for PR value sounds just great. And he’s supposed to be an educator (and a “flaming liberal”, a Democrat, an Obama-supporter, etc.). It’s as if by trumpeting these qualities loud enough we will forget that he is a soldier in an occupying army. We are supposed to look past this fact, as if it’s not the premise of everything that follows, and see him as just a regular guy trying to help out (which, on one level and one level only, is probably true). “It was just a bitch session between two educators.” Sure. Is that what that picture looks like to you? Is that what’s really going on here? And yet, that’s just how powerful this kind of rhetoric is: it’s able to convert a clear image of an occupying soldier talking with a colonial subject into an image of two educators – a simple symmetrical relationship – reaching a common goal.

    Still, he’s careful to point out that his so-called fieldwork may produce “actionable intelligence” that can be used in any number of ways. Sly as a fox. (Maybe the real trick about HTS is that they’re not really an anthropological force for understanding *them*; they’re for quelling *us*.)

    American anthropologists eat this stuff up. It makes them feel like the occupation isn’t so bad after all, that maybe some good can come of it, and that just maybe even they can play a roll in bringing democracy. It lets them pretend there aren’t forms of violence other than direct assault, torture, and aerial bombardment, and as long as it *looks* nice and there isn’t any blood showing, it must be good. This is the new, Democratic Party’s face of imperialism – softer, more managerial, economic, British-like.

    Reading the enthusiasm of the commenters (less here than elsewhere), I can’t help but wonder over their appraisal of these ‘reconstruction efforts’. (Do you think the British didn’t rebuild Indian schools?) It’s as if the colonial goal of a peaceful well-subjected colony is somehow indicative, ironically, of a non-colonial endeavor. Of course they’d rather be doing other things than killing! Of course they want to set up (puppet, unelected) local administrations. That’s what they’re there for. Of course they want to move on from invasion to management, from guns to laws. I just don’t understand why people label this ‘reconstruction’ or ‘humanitarianism’ when we, or rather they, couldn’t be in a worse spot. I mean, now even the very goal of a colonial takeover is regarded as proof of just how non-colonial the occupation really is! There’s no longer even a criteria for falsification.

    Perhaps the cartoonish image of empire as brutal for brutal’s sake is partially to blame; somehow, the reasons *why* the US invaded several nations has been lost in crying foul over the *means* by which this was done. Apparently, it needs to be constantly reminded that these local administrations the military is setting up are foreign-run, unelected, and nondemocratic by definition. All the US is doing is increasing the stability of its new colony – which is to say, furthering its grip on its new territory. This is only good in a very narrow sense, a sense that will soon enough seem rather ridiculous (e.g. when, several years from now, it becomes even more apparent that the US is now just permanently administering a territory, and any semblance of calm is merely indicative of how successfully they have subjected the nation.)

    Historians of the future will laugh at these discussions. A nation takes over another nation, destroys its infrastructure, and is then praised for partially rebuilding it under the sign of its own, forced, foreign law.

  6. 23 September, 2008 2:37 am

    Hi Lisa. This is fascinating stuff – sorry, my superlatives are unoriginal. Nice work providing depth in an area of public understanding that’s sorely lacking.

    Can you drop me a note off-line? We’re conducting a symposium at CTlab that’s directly related to the subject, and might be of interest to you.


    Mike Innes

  7. Third Tone Devil permalink
    24 September, 2008 1:02 am

    Sure, if your view is that the US is illegally occupying Iraq and therefore deserves to come out of it as badly as possible, then, as Joneilortiz writes, contributing or not contributing to reconstruction is a moot point. I, obviously, do not share this view. I am not sure if the British rebuilt Indian schools (when?) — but they did build them, in the contemporary sense. That was good — and the fate of postcolonial Indian education (compared to, for example, Indonesia, where the Dutch did not build schools for natives) attests to that.

    But this has nothing to do with the question I asked. I didn’t mean technical sides of reconstruction, however important they are. And my guess is that the US Army is probably not equipped to be a humanitarian institution — at least there is nothing in its record that suggests otherwise.

    What I meant was whether HTS anthropologists ever fantasize about being able to influence the higher echelons of US political leadership on the matter of what constitutes a just, equitable, fair, representative, viable structure of political governance. It strikes me — not just me, but also, say, the International Crisis Group — that the US went into Iraq (and to a lesser extent, Afghanistan) driven by the kind of container view of culture that colonial authorities had. Let’s count all the religions, ethnic groups, and tribes; let’s describe their characteristic cultures and values; and let’s create parliaments in which they can all have a say. This belief contributed to the creation of a politics where ethnoreligious parties and leaders who were willing to put on an ethnoreligious cloak had an artifical advantage over those that did not wish to run as representatives as one or another group constituency.

    In other words, I am not talking about the US army’s counterinsurgency operations at all. I am talking about the fact that we may well be seeing the tragic consequences of a view of culture that we know to be wrong, and this is a situation in which correcting this view is not a matter of demonstrating our broad-minded hybridity but of creating a liveable place.

    Benni, thanks for the information on the German army. I doubt that fees would really change the situation; rise of German nationalism might.

  8. joneilortiz permalink
    24 September, 2008 4:17 am

    The case in point is Burma under British rule (1896-1940s). They were invaded for economic reasons (which were handily justified, at the time, by all sorts of ‘spreading freedom’ statements from the British) and then brutally managed – e.g. the strategic systematic destruction of villages and subsequent appointment of British or British-friendly local rulers.

    This is also literally the case in Iraq (and perhaps in nearly every colonial situation). The point, however, is that Burma experienced something like a period of economic growth *after* the British managed to settle things – which is only to say that brutal counterinsurgency operations *do* work, and one nation *is* able to turn another nation into a stable, wealth-producing colony. Treating this transition as a moment of liberation seems naive and short-sighted.

    The greater point is that, as with Burma, after ravaging a country for several years, the occupier then builds it up – because it’s an investment and that’s why they’re there. So, let’s say it’s 1890 and the Burmese insurgency is pretty much crushed and a sense of calm and stability has finally prevailed, would you support British ‘reconstruction’ and ‘administration’ efforts, the very ones all that killing was done for in the first place?

    It’s a trick question, obviously – because the Burmese, too, probably supported these efforts to an extent, but isn’t that only because they had no choice and for them anything stable was better than the alternative? It’s a cruel situation to be offered a little help from the very ones who made you need it.

    So all I’m saying is that people should be a little more cautious in their support of the new humanitarian/administration phase of the occupation, because this phase is not a “post-occupation” moment: on the contrary, it’s the whole reason *for* the occupation, the invasion, the bloodbath, etc.

    So, when you say,”That was good” that the British rebuilt schools “and the fate of postcolonial Indian education (compared to, for example, Indonesia, where the Dutch did not build schools for natives) attests to that”, you should realize that you’re offering a disturbing proposition (that many Indians would find outrageous). I mean, the alternative you give is simply *another* colonial experiment, where the colonizer wasn’t as “generous” to its subjects. That, in my opinion, is the colonial sentiment par excellence. (I mean, should India be grateful to the British?) Perhaps the better, more obvious alternative would be to simply be an unoccupied, autonomous nation.

    In any event, I don’t think we should be thinking of these efforts as generous, a gift to the Iraqis; it’s really just the hardening of their subjection, a transition to an American colonial administration that is more permanent and more juridical.

  9. Third Tone Devil permalink
    24 September, 2008 4:01 pm

    I agree with Ulf Hannertz (or maybe it was Thomas Eriksen) who wrote somewhere that the job of anthropologists is to make simple answers to complicated questions a little more difficult to accept. It seems to me that you, Joneilortiz, are defending the simple answers.

    For example: why is it better to have an unoccupied, autonomous nation? For whom? Sure, I like deliberative democracy (my personal predilection that a lot of people do not share), which means I think people should be able to decide what happens to them. My problem with the shape of Iraq today is not that the Americans are there. Why would that bother me, per se, more than Saddam? What sort of nineteenh-century view is this? My problem is that people’s choices in leading their lives are, in many ways, more constrained than they were under Saddam (though in other ways less so).

    I don’t think India should be grateful to the British, as Britain acted not out of charity but what is perceived as self-interest and common sense. But certainly, Indians do acknowledge the things Britain did right. The analogy with Iraq does not stand, however, since the US does not run anything there. It seems to wish to have no influence on, and takes no responsibility for, internal or even foreign affairs, as long as they do not concern “security” and energy. So this is not a colonial situation, but something in some ways worse.

  10. Laleh permalink
    26 September, 2008 7:02 am

    Third Tone Devil, you are hiding under the niceties of anthropological thinking when you assume that somehow foreign/imperial rule can be more benevolent or equally malignant as local rule.

    Have you ever read ANYTHING about imperialism? Do you know anything about its political economy, its long term impact, its footprints, the cultural holocausts it wreaks? I bet not.

  11. Third Tone Devil permalink
    26 September, 2008 12:35 pm

    I read Lenin’s Imperialism as the Highest Stage of Capitalism. Had to. Does that qualify?

  12. 7 October, 2008 9:43 am

    Jovan Maud sent me a link to a Sydney Morning Herald article “about the failure to win hearts and minds in Afghanistan. The assessment of the British ambassador: that the military presence is part of the problem, not the solution.”

  13. Ryan A. Brown permalink
    13 October, 2008 2:48 pm

    To Lisa and Major Holbert,

    Thank you for this wonderful interview. There are many very decent and brilliant soldiers and social scientists in Human Terrain (I guess now Minerva). For the most part, I agree that anthropology (and many social sciences) have a ridiculous, sniveling superiority complex when it comes to dealing with institutional power. Why is it OK or even lauded to run with, shelter, house, and abet violent insurgent movements, but not institutional militaries? Are we so simple-minded that we think we can easily locate evil in our simplified view of power hierarchies? We end up looking like militant vegans wearing leather jackets, pretending that we are somehow outside institutional power in our comfortable university homes.

    Enough already, let’s open our eyes!!!


  14. 21 May, 2010 9:22 am

    We should have chai (tea) ? I’ll buy.

  15. Meghan Kleven permalink
    16 March, 2014 12:58 pm

    Hi There,
    I happened upon this article/post from Google, actually when I was looking for Mr. Holbert. You see, I was one of his student teachers in 2004 and have since lost touch. I had no idea that he was not still teaching and would like to reconnect. Could you help me?
    Meghan (Olson) Kleven


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