Riposte to Imperial Anthropology in Iraq: On the Civility of US Forces

“Patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels.”
~ Samuel Johnson

“In the United States, doing good has come to be, like patriotism, a favorite device of persons with something to sell….Whenever you hear a man speak of his love for his country, it is a sign that he expects to be paid for it.”
~ H. L. Mencken

“The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them.”
~ George Orwell

“The more we do to you, the less you seem to believe we are doing it.”
~ Dr. Joseph Mengele


Michael Massing’s new article in The New York Review of Books, titled, “Iraq: The Hidden Human Costs of War” reminds us that what the American public thinks it knows has been pre-filtered by what it does not want to know about soldiers killing in their name in Iraq:

there are limitations imposed by the political climate in which the press works. Images that seem too graphic or unsettling can cause an uproar. When, for instance, The New York Times in January 2007 ran a photo of a US soldier lying mortally wounded on the ground, the paper was angrily accused of showing disrespect for the troops. More generally, the conduct of US soldiers in the field remains a highly sensitive subject. News organizations that show soldiers in a bad light run the risk of being labeled anti-American, unpatriotic, or-worst of all-“against the troops.” In July, for instance, when The New Republic ran a column by a private that recounted several instances of bad behavior by US soldiers, he and the magazine were viciously attacked by conservative bloggers. Most Americans simply do not want to know too much about the acts being carried out in their name, and this serves as a powerful deterrent to editors and producers.

In roughly the same time period as the emergence of publications, news reports, and debates concerning those who use anthropology to embed themselves with US occupation forces in Iraq (and Afghanistan), books have been published by US soldiers about their experiences in Iraq. I have not seen these books quoted or otherwise referred to in our debates, and yet they have much to offer to make the debate more sober, to cool the inflamed and swollen glands of patriotism and various other self-absolving pathologies of imperialism.

It’s odd that they should have been ignored by those who claim to have knowledge of both the situation in Iraq and the modus operandi of US forces. Either they are the experts they claim to be, in which case they are trying to deliberately avoid these sources, or, they have little knowledge at all and embed themselves with the aid of self-imposed naïveté, not to mention audacity and silent edacity. Either way, their contributions to a public debate furnish evidence of the extent to which rapacity, nationalism, and the inferiority complex of a discipline in an insatiable pursuit of recognition all generate their own portable, applicable, “truths”.

One of the centrepieces of the debate has been whether US forces have committed war crimes, have indiscriminately killed civilians in Iraq, and whether anthropologists should be abiding by the everyday realities of a foreign occupation that has visited so much harm at the hands of US forces. Insurgents are re-labeled as “terrorists,” reducing them to fanatical savages who have no intelligible, logical, or reasonable right to resist US domination, and thus dismissing the most forceful of reminders that the US is not wanted in Iraq (indeed, that in the long term the US cannot stay in Iraq). Having dismissed the opposition, US HTS-anthro-apologists can proceed as if there were no issue of Iraqi informed consent, even while they routinely evade the issue of consent and instead produce multiple fabrications of what constitutes being informed. Their ethics seem to have been rewritten: you have been informed of who I am, I wear the uniform, and the discussion ends there, I do not require your consent.

While on the one hand apologists for anthropological embedding in Human Terrain Systems have protested a false innocence (i.e., demanding that human rights violations be documented, referenced, substantiatiated…because bombing civilian cities otherwise does not cause them to blink, let alone ask questions), on the other hand some dismiss the issue of civilian deaths as regrettable, but normal, accidental, and thus not intentional. Both positions ignore the everyday brutality of occupation. They have reduced their vision of soldiers committing human rights violations to simplistic vignettes possibly derived from the standard movies set in WWII–civilians lined up in front of a trench, and shot in the head on the clear orders of a commanding officer, or, civilians marched to their deaths in gas chambers, in a clearly defined camp, with a clear command structure, looked at and watched by guards. With such simple imagery, we can say that Idi Amin committed no human rights violations.

(Thus far this whole debate has been an open anthropological debate, by the way, in the sense espoused by this blog’s project: presentation, discussion, feedback, public engagement, and a shared responsibility for anthropology exercised by many actors, anthropological and not, academic and not.)

Let us remind ourselves of the idea of “collateral damage” and what that can imply. One of the implications is that such deaths have already been factored into calculations of civilian deaths resulting from any particular action–these deaths have been given a name. One cannot make the case that the deaths are either “accidental” or the result of “ignorance”, let alone “cultural misunderstanding” as some HTS anthro-apologists would have it. There is nothing accidental, erroneous or ignorant about consciously knowing that your actions will kill civilian noncombatants. “The terrorists deliberately target civilians”–deliberately targeting versus knowingly killing: one has probably seen wider gulfs in puddles.

Speaking of Generation Kill, by Evan Wright, Massing extracts the following passage on the first American attacks on Nasiriyah:

Even in the best of circumstances, Wright notes, artillery fire is imprecise, which leads him to wonder why reporters and antiwar groups concerned about collateral damage in war pay so little attention to it:

The beauty of aircraft, coupled with their high-tech destructive power, captures the imagination. From a news standpoint, jets flying through the sky make for much more dramatic footage than images of cannons parked in the mud, intermittently belching puffs of smoke.

But the fact is, the Marines rely much more on artillery bombardment than on aircraft dropping precision-guided munitions. During our thirty-six hours outside Nasiriyah they have already lobbed an estimated 2,000 rounds into the city. The impact of this shelling on its 400,000 residents must be devastating.

Entering the city with the Marines, Wright gets to see just how devastating the impact has been. Smoke curls from collapsed structures, and houses facing the road are pockmarked and cratered. The corpses of Iraqi attackers are scattered on the road leading out of the city. Run over repeatedly by tracked vehicles, “they are flattened, with their entrails squished out,” Wright notes, adding:

We pass a bus, smashed and burned, with charred human remains sitting upright in some windows. There’s a man in the road with no head and a dead little girl, too, about three or four, lying on her back. She’s wearing a dress and has no legs.

Heading north, the Marines find themselves amid the palm trees and canals of the Fertile Crescent, but all around are signs of death. Along the highway are torched vehicles with “charred corpses nearby, occupants who crawled out and made it a few meters before expiring, with their grasping hands still smoldering.” Lying beside one car is the mangled body of a small child, face down, whose clothes are too ripped to determine the gender. “Seeing this is almost no longer a big deal”.

There is more than just the collateral damage justification, and Wright documents the American use of cluster bomblets in civilian neighbourhoods of Nasiriyah. There is also the everyday brutality where the unnecessary killing of civilians is accepted as routine, the modus operandi–not a planned massacre, no specific orders given in each instance, and in some cases done as if by an unthinking robot. From Michael Massing’s review, “Iraq: The Hidden Human Costs,” we have the following:

In House to House: An Epic Memoir of War, Staff Sergeant David Bellavia–a gung-ho supporter of the Iraq war–casually recounts how in 2004, while his platoon was on just its second patrol in Iraq,

a civilian candy truck tried to merge with a column of our armored vehicles, only to get run over and squashed. The occupants were smashed beyond recognition. Our first sight of death was a man and his wife both ripped open and dismembered, their intestines strewn across shattered boxes of candy bars. The entire platoon hadn’t eaten for twenty-four hours. We stopped, and as we stood guard around the wreckage, we grew increasingly hungry. Finally, I stole a few nibbles from one of the cleaner candy bars. Others wiped away the gore and fuel from the wrappers and joined me.

This incident is notable mainly for the fact that the platoon stopped; from the many accounts I have read of the Iraq war, when a US convoy runs over a car, it usually just keeps going.

Wright has more to add on the destructive impact of even a small unit of Marines, added to observations of what have been, in fact, indiscriminate killings of civilians:

In the past six weeks, I have been on hand while this comparatively small unit of Marines has killed quite a few people. I personally saw three civilians shot, one of them fatally with a bullet in the eye. These were just the tip of the iceberg. The Marines killed dozens, if not hundreds, in combat through direct fire and through repeated, at times almost indiscriminate, artillery strikes. And no one will probably ever know how many died from the approximately 30,000 pounds of bombs First Recon ordered dropped from aircraft.

Wright argues that the American view of war has been sanitized, that Americans do not really know, and do not want to know about the effects of their campaigns on the lives of others, effects so extreme and wild that “Remember 9-11” rings with the hollow, pompous, and sanctimonious commemoration of what in scale and intensity was one of history’s most minor events.

One is left wishing that among those anthro-apologists who seek to draft anthropology into the conduct of counterinsurgency, that less of the patriotic piety, less of the hypocritical complaints against elitism, less of the protest against silenced perspectives (a protest aimed at silencing protest), would have been beneficial. In the space opened up by a more mature debate–and these HTS anthropologists, after all, are for the most part being hired from the bottom of the discipline’s barrel–one could have benefited from a more sobering analysis of “events on the ground”, the kinds of things anthropologists should be interested in.

More on the series of books reviewed by Massing can be seen in The New York Review of Books, including One Bullet Away by Nathaniel Frick, House to House by David Bellavia, and Chasing Ghosts by Paul Rieckhoff.

Evan Wright is featured in an interview about his book with Angleo Matera at:

and a chapter from Generation Kill can be accessed for free at:

2 thoughts on “Riposte to Imperial Anthropology in Iraq: On the Civility of US Forces

  1. Pingback: Questioning the “Top Misconceptions” About the “Human Terrain System” « OPEN ANTHROPOLOGY

  2. Matthew

    Evan Wright, author of Generation Kill, is publishing a new book next month about his experiences with different subcultures in America. Description:

    “From his work as a reporter at Hustler magazine, to his National Magazine Award–winning writing for Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair, Evan Wright has always had an affinity for outsiders—what he calls “the lost tribes of America.” The previously published pieces in this collection chart a deeply personal journey, beginning with his stark but sympathetic portrayals of sex workers in Porn Valley, through his raw portrait of a Hollywood überagent-turned-war documentarian and hero of America’s far right. Along the way, Wright encounters runaway teens earning corporate dollars as skateboard pitchmen; radical anarchists plotting the overthrow of corporate America; and young American troops on the hunt for terrorists in the combat zones of the Middle East. His subjects are people for whom the American dream is either just out of grasp, or something they’ve chosen to reject altogether. Sometimes frightening, usually profane, and often darkly comic, Hella Nation is Evan Wright’s meticulously observed tour of the jagged edges of all those other Americas hiding in plain sight amid the nation’s malls and gated communities. The collection also includes an all-new, autobiographical introductory essay by the author.”

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