“Why can’t we shoot these kids?” (1.6)

I do not actually go looking for videos of abusive American troops in Iraq, first because there are too many and I would not be able to choose which to post here without flooding the page, and secondly because I prefer to come across them randomly through others since this suggests a network of interests and circulation of these videos which gives them added weight as more common reference points.

Here we are then with a video of U.S. forces in Iraq complaining about not being allowed to shoot children who throw rocks — a new policy, by a new sergeant, if I heard correctly. These “liberators” are being showered with rocks by a gauntlet of persistent and fearless children. One of the children shows us which English words he has learned from U.S. occupiers, and is thus able to shout “FUCK YOU” at the troops, if you listen carefully. Let’s watch the video before I comment further:

One must ask: just how many videos of how many instances such as these are needed before one hears people beginning to at least doubt or lose some enthusiasm when urging others to “support the troops”? One can hear this cheering more often in Canada too, with reference to Canadian occupiers in Afghanistan. My question is: no, why must I support them? Were they drafted? Did they have a choice in where they went? And when considering the possibility of being sent to someone else’s country, to kill the locals there, what was their motivation? Rather than support the troops, I would prefer: “troops, explain yourselves.” There is a less polite slogan I would prefer to that, but I am relenting today.

Secondly, when some “anthropologists,” such as the disreputable media star wannabe, Montgomery McFate and her Human Terrain System, advocate for embedding social scientists in the military, they take at least two things for granted (in fact they take much more for granted, such as the fact that they never expected to be exposed and criticized as viscerally as some of us have done, but I focus on two points for now):

(a) That they are entitled to be in Iraq and Afghanistan. The notion that these places belong to others, supposedly the people they claim to be studying and whose rights they claim to respect, is simply never voiced. Since U.S. forces are in these places, then they, as American “social scientists” are therefore entitled to be there. That is buying into the very logic of occupation itself. There is absolutely no point in saying “we also thought the invasion was a bad idea, but…” — invasions and occupations are inseparable, one does not get the chance to nuance one’s way out of taking responsibility for one’s actions. One supports the invasion by endorsing the occupation that follows from it, and by supporting the objectives of that occupation. One cannot then protest about the lack of “measured judgment” from critics when one’s lack of scruples is what mandates the search for alibis. It is not the job of the critic to defend the indefensible, nor to defend McFate.

(b) That they can help to lessen the chances of innocent civilians being killed by U.S. forces. Do they know what is a ‘sure fire’ way of totally eliminating any possibility of U.S. forces murdering kids who throw rocks? By getting their unwanted backsides out of Iraq. They pretend to be unaware of this “option”, because advocating for that would mean, first, no salary from BAE Systems, and second, joining the anti-war forces. What their argument does is to engage in pure emotional blackmail: either you support us, or these goons go back to the heavy firepower and murdering civilians (remember, the same goons we were urged to support). Read McFate’s own words to the San Francisco Chronicle:

“My fear is that … he’s [General David Petraeus] going to go over there and it’s going to be too late, and he’s going to fail. And the whole thing is going to be delegitimized: the counterinsurgency doctrine, non-kinetic force, delegitimized,” she said softly. “And then what’s the Army going to do? It’s going to fall back on what it had before … technology and firepower.”

Blackmail. Either we get our Human Terrain System and our share of the tax pie wasted on the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, or the killing begins again in earnest … except that the killing never stopped, and the notion that it has lessened is a fabrication of creative statistical analysis, that “this month was less deadly than last.” If one chooses a short enough timeline, then almost any argument becomes feasible, and no less absurd.

So what’s a good American anthropologist to do? These individuals, such as McFate and the small minds at the “Small Wars Council” claim noble and humanitarian aims (even while chastising the rest of us for being “moral” and “self-righteous”, which really speaks to their actual sense of self in damning ways). Their claim is to want to lessen the killing of innocents. But they do not, not under any circumstances, wish to criticize the war, when now most of their fellow citizens and the majority of the planet has shown open revulsion to the war. They think that they can “anthropologize the military.” But that never happened on the many previous occasions detailed in David Price’s publications, and will likely not happen. Moreover, what does it really mean to “anthropologize” the military? In my view, it would effectively mean getting the military to disarm itself and seek informed consent before entering another country. I have no idea of the extent of the distortion of “anthropology” that has unfolded in McFate’s mind since her moment of genius on a cocktail napkin:

Despite her return to American shores, McFate found herself still grasping for purpose until one night in 2002 when she ended a long talk with her husband about their futures by scribbling a sentence on a cocktail napkin: How do I make anthropology relevant to the military?

“It’s one of those times where you get goose bumps all over your body,” she said.

Absolutely, one can understand the excitement, especially as the honest side of the napkin read, “How do I make myself useful to the military?” The quote above says as much: looking for purpose, talking about their futures. There is no notion of changing the military here, which is why it is important to scrutinize the psycho-pathology of McFate’s discourse, especially since she has elected to project herself as the headline-grabbing spokesperson of the Human Terrain System, and of a new wave of anthropology.

Now if one really wanted a culturally sensitive military, non-lethality, and work against naked aggression against nations that never attacked the U.S., does one do that by putting on a gun and a uniform? Some may object to “hand on hip” poses of anthropologists, while seemingly advocating “hand on holster.” At every turn, the proponents of embedding anthropology undo their own stated arguments — they are the most awfully conflicted individuals it seems, with an unstable set of shifting narratives.

Never does it occur to them that there are other ways of training people to be more humane and better informed. For example, better educating Americans so that they do: (a) not vote for war mongers; (b) not buy into hate mongering; (c) not ignore the costs of their lifestyle for the rest of the planet; (d) learn about other cultures from young, and a learn some basic respect and ways of interacting with people of other cultures; (e) work toward serious job alternatives, without this desperate narrow-mindedness that it’s either Walmart or the Marines; (f) learn to question the state, state power, and the reasons why militaries exist in the first place.

Anthropologists against lethality, invasion, and bald adventurism have choices that do not reduce to one: join the military. Their primary aim ought to be helping Americans to escape American culture, a culture of violence if there ever was one.

(And for once, please stop resorting to facile myths and silly caricatures and stereotypes about academia being safe and easy, an insult that McFate often likes to repeat: many if not most academics these days are temporary, underpaid workers. Safe? Two floors below mine, four faculty members were shot dead. Two other shootings have occurred at post-secondary institutions in Montreal itself, one a small massacre. The U.S. has plenty of its own. Anybody who claims these institutions are “safe” … is probably someone who is ringed by armed men in uniform who serve to protect her overpaid hide.)

25 thoughts on ““Why can’t we shoot these kids?” (1.6)

  1. “Cultural misunderstanding” — is that what is behind these troops’ behaviour? Does understanding that they are invaders require “cultural sensitivity” training?

  2. An excellent post, and right on in almost all ways. I respectfully submit, however, that soldiers taken as a class should not be understood somehow as Kantian individuals, capable of a decontextualized moral compass – they live within an institutional situation which destroys precisely any possibility of that sort of moral choice-making, are told that their only duty is to murder Iraqi citizens, and then told (catch-22, anyone?) that in some cases they are not allowed to do that (primarily for PR purposes). Zimbardo et al. have shown the power of institutional situations repeatedly.

    Getting the soldiers the hell out of imperial wars is a crucial step to removing them from the potential harm they encounter, and more importantly, from the harm they routinely inflict on others.

  3. Also, you may consider (I don’t know how this works in Canada) that with the stoploss program, there is indeed what is widely considered a ‘backdoor’ draft – soldiers who volunteer for one contract period are unilaterally retained beyond that contract’s provisions, at the order of the U.S. (awol) president.

  4. […] from the suicide statistics of U.S. war veterans, the atrocious behavior of many soldiers and their cheerleaders at home. With my institutional focus, I tend not to look so hard at the individual soldiers, but at the […]

  5. Most of my friends and family members in the military joined because they wanted to learn a trade or couldn’t afford College. I don’t know anyone who signed up to just to ‘do some killin!’
    The military is recruiting poor young minority men who see the military as a ticket to a better future. Often, the choice is between selling drugs or joining the military.
    And I LOVE how you talk about how unsafe you are at a Canadian University with private security. How dare you! Why don’t you try living in East Saint Louis, the Tenderloin District, or Flint Michigan. A few people died in your University, but there are poor neighborhoods in America were more people DIE EVERY DAY! What are you doing about that?
    Coffee shop Communists talk and talk, but when was the last time you visited Flint, Michigan and explain to poor folks with no job prospects why they shouldn’t join the Army so they can afford to go to College and make a better future for themselves?
    The world outside white elite academia is a tough place, and people have to find ways to get the education and training they need to survive and provide for their loved ones.
    You don’t understand the prospects facing poor minority men because you are white, privileged, and arrogant.

  6. Sorry about the spelling and grammar.
    I just despise being talked down to by white elites who are out of touch with the reality millions of Americans live with everyday.

  7. Johnathan, if he was talking down to you, it would mean you are the kind of person in the video. I think your patriotism blinds you enough that you haven’t thought about how much better off poor Americans would be if you hadn’t supported a kadzillion dollar war in Iraq.

    But its nice to hear that even among those who support the war, that they realize the money was NEEDED elsewhere, so by supporting the troops you’ve diverted money from where it was needed.

  8. Unfortunately, while I am white, and I have had my privileges, I am not sure about Concordia being an elite institution — it’s a public university, with endless night classes because the majority of our students work. And, sorry, but universities are no place for gunfire…I don’t know why you would make light of that. But I would not say that it is “less safe” than the places you list. If I was condescending towards you, my apologies. I remain unconvinced that the military is the only available option, however, and I speak as someone who, regardless of privileges, has known hunger, and has been penniless. You’re talking to someone who financed his studies since high school through scholarships and loans, not personal wealth.

  9. Max and John,
    The poor and vulnerable in America who make up much of the armed services did not start, nor ask for, this war. It is the wealthy elites in power who started this war and continue to wage it. They are able to do so because there are thousands of American citizens who feel that the military is the best opportunity to escape their circumstances. When Max talks about servicemen joining the military with the goal of invading foreign countries and killing people, he is completely ignoring the social circumstances that drive impoverished Americans into the military. That is what bothers me. It is arrogant and condescending because it completely misunderstands the real-life situation facing the average minority youth. A 22-year-old Afro-American male cannot support a family working at KFC. The military provides health care benefits for family members, free college tuition, childcare, and a real education for children living on a base (as opposed to that provided in many inner-city or rural communities). I would LOVE for those same opportunities to be available outside of the military! But the reality is that soldiers have families to feed and they are making cost-benefit decisions to try to have a better future for their children by learning a trade and/or going to College. I am not a hack on here to promote the military or killing, etc. But I think everyone should step back for a moment and appreciate that the military provides a lot of working class Americans with a sense of hope and opportunity for their future that they otherwise might not have. That is why most people join the military. NOT because they are blood-thirsty butchers.

    I appreciate that Concordia may not be elite and I apologize if I inaccurately characterized either you or your institution. I’m a big fan and I read this blog regularly. But, I felt I had to respond to the disdainful attitude toward soldiers and their motivation for joining the military. I hope you understand.

  10. I did not mean to trivialize school shootings. My point, which I made poorly, was to emphasize that you have opportunities and hope for a future that many impoverished Americans would kill for (literally, like in the Marines).

  11. Johnathan, I think I can see your point better. While blogging can tempt me to engage in Stalinist airbrushing and go back and change the post, I think your comments serve as a useful counterweight. I think that the video, and others that are even worse, left me very upset with specific individuals, and as usual the temptation to generalize can present itself. I don’t think I would want to characterize all soldiers as a mass of blood thirsty butchers. And you’re right not to blame the structures of limited opportunities on the soldiers themselves.

  12. jon, thank you for facing these academics. they have a point but fail to aim at the right target. having said that, it does make interesting reading for a soldier and that might be max’s target.

  13. Yes, it has been a thought provoking discussion, for me and I hope for other readers as well. I just have some lingering doubts here, and they concern whether in some of the discussion above there is a kind of “no choice” theory. Discussing that at any length will take us very far away from the issues above, but I just wanted to post some notes.

    I can in fact accept that some individuals will feel that there are so few viable alternatives to poverty and unemployment that they feel constrained to join the military.

    What I have more difficulty accepting is the idea of “no options” — which might be true of slaves, and perhaps in some areas of society people have reached a near slave-like set of constraints.

    My question is this: Doesn’t cultural conditioning play a role in shaping what one thinks of as a viable alternative? Or personal history? Or something other than raw material facts? Otherwise we would have trouble explaining why not ALL poor people enlist — why some opt for the drug trade, the sex trade, foraging through garbage dumps, or whatever else. I don’t want readers to get out their violins and wipe away imaginary tears as I say this, but even when the only way I ate was by stealing food, and stealing it every single day from shops and places of work for at least two months (incidentally, food never tastes as good as when it’s stolen) … the idea of entering the military simply never entered my mind.

    I think that because military service is so pumped up in the U.S. as a noble and worthy thing, and the culture also tells you that you need degrees, a house, cars, kids, 401k, etc., that this is what also limits “choice” beyond raw material facts. In other words, “needs” have been manufactured from “wants.”

    Of course, I could just be wrong, and it wouldn’t be the first nor the last time.

  14. […] by Carl on July 13, 2008 I admire and enjoy the work Max Forte is doing at OPEN ANTHROPOLOGY. His post on shooting kids is typically interesting and provocative. It’s working from this video shot from the cab of a […]

  15. Max,

    You raise some very interesting and thought provoking points.

    When you were in a particularly difficult financial situation where you could not afford to provide basic necessities, you resorted to crime to meet that need.
    How do you think you would have reacted at the time to a friendly military recruiter (perhaps desperate to meet recruitment quotas) promising an end to all your problems? I’m especially curious, is there ever a situation where you would advocate crime as a sustainable alternative to military service to provide basic necessities?

    I think that in a way people are confronted with this very question every time they fill out a job applications and are asked if they ever served in the military and if they have ever been convicted of a crime?

    Thanks for the encouragement Zak.

  16. We will have differing views of what constitutes crime. The systemic view is that profit and military service are not crimes, because the legal systems that ultimately rely on a monopoly of violence say they are not crimes. The anti-systemic view is that when the disadvantaged seek avenues other than ones laid out for them, such as counter-theft, that these are crimes only as fictions of the legal system.

    Besides, “crime” is an amorphous term: saying I would recommend crime could also mean recommending such things as rape, child molestation, etc. So my immediate response is to say I do not advocate crime, but I do advocate rethinking what crime means.

    Zak is a funny fellow — he refers to me by occupation. Had I been a waiter, would he have said, “thanks for facing these waiters”? Anyway, I asked for it, I put my occupation first in my profile, and I think I need to revise that. Thanks Zak.

  17. Given that ALL amerikans are within the richest 20% of the global population, they hardly count as truly poor. Simply put, nobody starves to death in amerika.

    As to the $oldiers having no “decontextualized moral compass” please explain the phenomenon of Iraq war resisters (deserters, etc…). These individuals made a moral choice, and the right one.

    As to the concept of a “poverty draft.” Being the 20th richest person out of a group of 100 people, is no excuse for volunteering to kill the 80 after you in line.

    In sum, the concept of viewing $oldiers as victims is just another expression of amerikan exceptionalism. amerikans do not apply the same rules for themselves that they apply to others, (i.e the Nuremburg principle).

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