If we reject the dogs of war then surely we will not accommodate their fleas

I have been reflecting back on some of the muddy double-speak to be found in the late parts of the blog of the Executive Board of the American Anthropological Association, and I mean specifically on the part of those scrambling and labouring to concoct tortured little twists of an argument in the elusive hope of redeeming the value of anthropological embedding in counterinsurgency teams. What I want to do here is to first continue to analyze some of the rhetoric, and some of the context of their utterances, with a few words about the content of those utterances.

The Imperial Anthropologist Turns to Grey Shades of Dim
Academics are routinely accused of speaking jargon-laden and thus hermetically sealed languages, of trading in the esoteric, of being too ambiguous and unintelligible. Heterodox critiques in anthropology (often misleadingly labelled “post-modernist”) have also been faulted for expressing themselves through convoluted tropes of ambiguity.

Who would have expected that this tradition, old and new, would prove to be so convenient, so expediently useful to the band of apologists for anthropological counterinsurgency? Indeed, any utterance that achieved any kind of clarity in opposing Human Terrain Systems (HTS), was faulted precisely for being “too black and white”.

In my mind, the opposites of clarity and decision are confusion and indecision. Faced with complex realities, the ultimate aim is not a muddled and obtuse direct transcription of complexity itself, but some form of intelligibility, and that requires clarity.  So one has to ask: of what use is the grey zone in a rhetorical contest?

Grey. Opaque. Dark. Enigmatic. Doubtful. Illegible. Indeterminate. These are all great intellectual resources for those engaged in concealment, for those retreating to a zone beyond scrutiny. Or they would have been great resources, had they been used with more finesse and subtlety instead of laying themselves bare and open.

Grey: It’s the New Whitewash!
You cannot judge us…you cannot say that embedded anthropology is wrong…you cannot say that it is unethical, in fact it may be so ethical that it renders you unethical…no real evidence that the war it supports is wrong, I mean, it could be, I was against the war, but you know…US domination cannot be refuted or resisted…you can only accommodate…try to do whatever the right thing might be…however imperfect…in whatever circumstances…pragmatism…best we can…let’s see…who knows, you don’t, I might…don’t judge…whatever.

Then came someone who said our argument was a “losing” one (there goes ambiguity and uncertainty, all of a sudden) and I felt like writing and transcribing for him: PWN3D! (“owned!” for those of you not of the online, multiplayer, video game generation).

I suspect that the primary aim of the green anthropologists who visited that blog, the ones with premature ambitions of gold-plated salaries in a world of uncertain academic employment, was to elicit some measure of shielding ambiguity from all of us who are opposed, some “a-ha!’ like revelation that they could use to shroud themselves with the next best thing to legitimacy: dubious illegitimacy.

They were there not because they were “uncertain” and simply wanted to “learn more”–you don’t throw yourself into a debate, passively aggressively, if you just wish to learn more. No, you keep quiet and watch and listen. That’s what ethnographers do, as some of these smart asses sought to remind us.

No, they were there because they needed to whitewash their reputations and maybe their consciences, and the best whitewash is grey. They hope to have statements of supportive opacity, written in public, for their return from Iraq, for when they need another job and do not wish to answer for their decisions (however indecisively certain they were).

Indeed, they routinely dismissed not just any form of clarity, but only one: the one that criticized the embedding of anthropologists in HTS teams. Claiming to be undecided, while dismissing one side of the debate–did they imagine themselves to be playing with fools?

Their constant inversions–the “no, you are!” trope of the elementary school yard–means that they had little in the way of an argument before we gave them one. They thought within the parameters we set for them. They had no argument, because ambitions and greed do not need arguments. So, let’s be sloppy and slapdash, let’s just take what the critic says and flop it around lazily, and say: No, you are!

(See: Of Mirror Images, Fanatics and Cartoon Characters)

They resisted any move towards clarity, any precise and careful reading, and opted for selectivity, for gloss, for doubt. Why? Because they are hiding. Those who did not use anonymous identities instead opted for something much worse: the anonymous argument.

Vine Deloria Jr. once blurted that anthropologists were those whose brains had been sucked out of their heads. Before one winces or grimaces, let me just say: between Deloria and myself, he is the kinder of the two. It seems to me that some anthropologists, and disturbingly quite a few of the younger ones in this instance, are those who merely had some fluffs of grey stuff blown into their heads (A.A. Milne).

What Remains after Imperialism Goes Ambiguous
The proponents, as falsely indecisive as some claimed to be, in favour of HTS, counterinsurgency, and a new imperial anthropology, left the scene of that blog not only without an argument of their own, or the endorsements they sought, but also without good answers to questions they were asked, and some which they themselves asked.

Consent–no discussion of what Iraqis might want, of Iraqis having any say as to whether they could be “studied” by HTS anthropologists. That went without saying, because what came without saying is that these anthropologists simply do not care about this issue. It is not significant to them. What matters is that the US military is there, and they are there because of that. This is, pace Brian Donohue-Lynch, where imperialism does collide with ethics and makes the two discussions inseparable. Consent, in a war zone, gained by someone who is part of the occupation? Routinely, this question is largely ignored. This kind of clarity is inconvenient.

The fact remains that all we have ever known about Iraqi opinions is that they repeatedly reject the US occupation, blame the US for continued instability and sectarian strife, and want to see an immediate withdrawal. If they reject the dogs of war, then surely they are not ready to accommodate the dogs’ fleas.

No harm–assisting one side of a combat situation cannot satisfy any criterion of “no harm”. Instead, the argument was that it would “lessen harm”. The evidence for that? None. It is an assertion.

Future ethnography–the Code of Ethics of the American Anthropological Association, Section B(3) states: “Anthropological researchers should do all they can to preserve opportunities for future fieldworkers to follow them to the field”. Having had HTS anthropologists foisted on them, and maybe suffering the consequences, it is difficult to see how in the future Iraqis would accept more foreign, and especially American, anthropologists working in their midst.

Damage to the discipline–Section B(2) of the Code states: “Anthropological researchers bear responsibility for the integrity and reputation of their discipline, of scholarship, and of science”. To the extent that, already, major outlets of the mainstream and international media have widely reported and circulated news of the embedding of anthropologists in counterinsurgency, significant damage may have already been done to all of us. In Trinidad & Tobago, where I did most of my research over several years, and where I avidly followed the news media, I do not ever recall seeing an article about anthropology. In fact, I would venture to say there has been none in the past 20 years. Yet, recently, even here it has been reported that anthropologists are joining US counterinsurgency efforts.

Non-exploitation–the issue of the gigantic salaries reportedly being paid to HTS anthropologists, ranging from around a minimum of $100,000 to $400,000 US, and the influence this might have on anthropologists chosing to join, was either ignored completely or lightly tossed aside. Why? When you conceal so much, this degree of concealment thus reveals that this is the primary motivation. It is what is least stated, in an argument of determined opacity, that bears the greatest weight.

Doing some good–some anthropologists claim their intention is to help Iraqis and to do some good. What that does not answer is why they do so without consulting Iraqis first or why, all of a sudden, this is a world without NGOs. One went so far as to claim that NGOs were assisting the US military–without reflecting on the meaning of “NG”, and was then, of course, unable to substantiate the assertion when asked. “The only game in town” argument does not work.

But, this does not stop some hopefuls from continuing to reproduce flawed notions–click here for a recent example on this blog.

4 thoughts on “If we reject the dogs of war then surely we will not accommodate their fleas

  1. Iraq has an elected government, allied with the US. Nothing in the technical skill of anthropology demands one helps or hurts a particular government or side in a war, any more than such a demand should be made of Chemists, Physicists, etc. You can’t claim to be a “science” and then constantly import all of these fashionable, backdoor moralisms.

  2. I am not so sure that morality is at all fashionable in academia. The problem we are addressing has to do with a precise set of professional ethics, so we may not even need to dive into the deep end of the debate, morality.

    I doubt that the majority of anthropologists would claim that their discipline is a “science”, and the term is more of a hindrance and comes overly loaded with too many hang ups. One should note, however, that many scientists, especially physicists, have over many years (since Einstein himself, at least, and possibly before) rejected research that supports the weapons industry, so they are not at all “neutral,” or more precisely, amoral, about their work (not all of them anyway). It would be incorrect to suggest that because this current debate is being carried out by anthropologists, that we have somehow gone against the grain of scientific discussion. We are latecomers if anything.

    Yes, the Iraqi parliament was elected, so we need to pay attention to what it has voted for. As I indicated, they voted for the rejection of US troops–the very point of my post is that embedding with these troops goes against Iraqi wishes for the elimination of that presence and thus fails the first major test of ethical anthropological research: consent.

    Perhaps anthropologists should stay out of Iraq completely? This might appear to meet your argument that nothing says that anthropology should help or hurt a government. If we are not there, we cannot help, and we cannot hurt. I am not sure if this is where you were heading or not, so please feel free to post any follow up comments, and thanks for writing.

  3. Yes and no. Yes, they make individualized decisions anyway. No, the professional ethics people will not butt out, because this affects everyone in the discipline. That’s why we have professional ethics–we are not interested in constantly having to pay for the sins of others.

    You will want professional ethics in any case–think of this whenever you may go to the hospital, submit to surgery, speak to a lawyer, etc. When it’s your turn, you are counting on such ethics to be in place. I think Iraqis deserve the same as anyone else.

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