Derek Gregory: The Cultural Turn in Late Modern War and the Rush to the Intimate

Dr. Derek Gregory is a Professor of Geography at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver,  a graduate of Cambridge, and the recipient of numerous awards. His recent books include: The colonial present: Afghanistan, Palestine, Iraq (2004); David Harvey: a critical reader (edited with Noel Castree) (2006); Violent geographies: fear, terror and political violence (edited with Allan Pred) (2007); and, The Dictionary of Human Geography (5th edition) (edited with Ron Johnston, Geraldine Pratt, Michael Watts and Sarah Whatmore) (2009/forthcoming) — an excellent range of publications as anyone can see from the Google-archived book samples linked to above. Besides, any author who “dares” to speak in terms of a “colonial present” is almost automatically venerated on this blog, and this is without mentioning his numerous articles on empire, postcolonialism, and Orientalism, which are listed in his profile. Derek Gregory has entered discussions of the cultural turn in U.S. counterinsurgency, from a critical and independent perspective, with some important new contributions. One of these contributions is his recent article in Radical Philosophy, available for free online, titled ” ‘The Rush to the Intimate’: Counterinsurgency and the Cultural Turn.” As he says in his own chosen extract from the article:

what lies behind the cultural turn are a series of other figures – including T.E. Lawrence – and a highly partial appropriation of the humanities and social sciences (especially anthropology) that continues the Orientalism that underwrites the ‘war on terror’ and perpetuates the colonial present. The cultural turn also provides new opportunities for private contractors, and so extends the neo-liberal armature of late modern war. And it reassures the American public that the US military (if not the US government) has learned from the horrors of Abu Ghraib. The new counterinsurgency doctrine uses biomedical metaphors to promote US intervention as essentially therapeutic – a gesture which is also therapeutic for the American public, if not for the people of Iraq.

A much longer, relentlessly argued and extremely detailed version of the journal article above can be found by clicking here. One might also check the post on this blog that immediately precedes this one, and one will see that there is a growing range of distinguished scholars whose independent analyses  of the militarization of the social sciences and the appropriation of culture are arriving at similar conclusions.

The Cultural Turn and Domestic Politics

Derek Gregory speaks of the U.S. Army’s counterinsurgency manual FM 3-24, and its extraordinary injunction against imposing American ideas of what is normal and rational, extraordinary “given the conduct of American foreign policy, the pursuit of accumulation by dispossession, and the violence of military occupation in Afghanistan and Iraq.” However, the lesson that was instead drawn from the momentary lapse into cultural relativism was that the U.S. military needed to better understand the culture of insurgents, so as to defeat them. As he writes and elaborates further:

A key objective was to generate actionable intelligence about insurgency to inform lethal targeting, so that cultural knowledge was not only a substitute for killing but also a prerequisite for its refinement. The presentation of the new doctrine also, however, focused public attention on non-kinetic operations and non-lethal targeting, and re-presented counterinsurgency as a form of ‘armed social work.’

This is an important observation, since too much of the PR coming from programs such as the Human Terrain System obscures the military mission of the military. Indeed, Derek Gregory notes that in the PR battle, “culture” has become the military’s newest tool for domestic propaganda efforts, drowning the voices of those who criticize programs such as HTS:

While these scholars [critical anthropologists] were right to expose the historical roots of ‘mercenary anthropology’ and to sound the alarm at its ethical implications, arguments about the selective appropriation of anthropology and the proper citation of sources (in the Manual) and informed consent and ‘enabling the kill-chain’ (in relation to the HTS) have been drowned out by a chorus of commentaries on the effectiveness of the new doctrine: thus, ‘Army social scientists calm Afghanistan, make enemies at home.’ Indeed, Kahl claims that counterinsurgency has become ‘part of the zeitgeist’…

Gregory understands that part of the mission of the culturalization of the war, and the militarization of the social sciences, is a domestic political campaign to sustain the war itself:

The cultural turn has been remarkably public. Countless articles have described the new Mission Rehearsal Exercises, videogames and simulations; clips are available on the websites of news media, companies like MetaVR and Forterra, and YouTube. When FM 3-24 was posted on the web it was downloaded two million times in the first two months, and the paperback edition published by Chicago University Press became an Amazon bestseller. Some of its lead authors made a round of television appearances: Nagl on John Stewart, Kilcullen and then McFate on Charlie Rose. This publicness is, in part, a response to the mediatization of late modern war, and armies of democratic states should explain themselves to the public to whom they are accountable. But this carefully staged space of constructed visibility is also always a space of constructed invisibility. And what has been made to disappear, strangely, is the conduct of the war.

Deflecting Attention

The “cultural turn,” as he explains further, has displaced attention in a number of ways:

(1) It has deflected attention from the continuation of violence, trumpeting the “non-kinetic” components of military action instead — in fact, in the same period that the cultural turn was being promoted as a way of saving lives, U.S. air strikes in both Iraq and Afghanistan increased sharply from 2006 to 2007, while non-combatant deaths resulting directly from U.S. military actions increased by 70% in Iraq and Afghanistan in the same period;

(2) The cultural turn also deflects attention from the role of the military occupation in provoking violence. Attention has indeed been deflected: as has been argued on this blog in countless posts, what is constantly sidelined by anthropologists and others who defend HTS is the constant reiteration by Iraqis of their desire to see an immediate exit of U.S. forces. U.S. occupation forces are themselves seen by a majority of Iraqis as the leading cause of continued violence and instability, and any hint of Iraqi agreement with an extension of the U.S. presence occasions massive protests, both within parliament and on the streets. This high level of opposition has been the case from the first moment any opinion polls were taken by Americans in Iraq, during the early days of the Paul Bremer administration. And, of course, the violent and widespread insurgency itself indicates the extent to which the U.S. presence was welcome in Iraq.

(3) The U.S. military is redefined and repositioned as “an innocent and virtuous bystander.” This is a direct result of the cultural turn, as Gregory explains:

the cultural turn places so much emphasis on cultural difference and division that the multidimensional violence in Iraq is reduced to an ethno-sectarian conflict from which the United States is causally absent. Many commentators have concluded that the American military’s new reserves of cultural tact and ethical sensitivity mean that the responsibility for continuing violence lies with the Iraqis alone, a logic measured by the distance from Newsweek’s cover of 15 October 2001 – ‘Why they hate us’ – to Time’s cover of 5 March 2007: ‘Why they hate each other’. The locus of the problem remains the same (‘them’), but Time removes ‘us’ (US?) from the frame altogether.

The Successful “Surge”…in Ethnic Cleansing in Iraq

A sharp set of insights comes from Gregory in connection with the alleged success of “the surge,” which has not been a success resulting from the mere increase in the number of U.S. occupation forces, but more importantly the role played by U.S. forces in aiding and enforcing ethnic cleansing:

the American political and military apparatus has been directly implicated in a process of sectarian involution. In a typically colonialist gesture, the Bush administration reactivated and institutionalized sectarian divisions in the political constitution of its ‘new Iraq’, and American military commanders have cut deals with local militias to buy a precarious peace that entrenches those divisions. The diminution in ethno-sectarian violence that started in the closing months of 2007 is inseparable from the ethnic cleansing that preceded it and that is memorialized with visceral clarity in the blast-walled fiefdoms of Baghdad. There are additional reasons for the diminution in ethno-sectarian violence, including a fragile ceasefire with the Mahdi Army, but, for all its newfound cultural awareness, the military is markedly reluctant to acknowledge the impact of the violent recomposition of Baghdad on its body counts.

The Orientalist Return

The rush to the intimate structures new sites of imperial governance, as Gregory argues: “It is thirty years since Said’s critique of Orientalism drew attention to the close connections between culture and power and, as Eyal Weizman has reminded us, ‘cases of colonial powers seeking to justify themselves with the rhetoric of improvement, civility and reform are almost the constant of colonial history’.”

The cultural turn has reproduced the Orientalism that Gregory argues has underwritten the ‘war on terror’ since its inception:

In its classical form, Orientalism constructs the Orient as a space of the exotic and the bizarre, the monstrous and the pathological — what Said called ‘a living tableau of queerness’ — and then summons it as a space to be disciplined through the forceful imposition of the order that it is presumed to lack: ‘framed by the classroom, the criminal court, the prison, the illustrated manual’. American interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq are paradigmatic cases of a martial Orientalism; in fact, Davis describes the Pentagon’s vision of urban warfare as ‘the highest stage of Orientalism’.

T.E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”) has become a totemic figure of unquestioned inspiration for the Pentagon’s new “cultural warriors,” a reference that we see repeated across a wide variety of commentaries, interviews and reports. Gregory expands on this:

The Orientalist cast of the cultural turn is strengthened by its constant citation of T.E. Lawrence. The title of Nagl’s book on counterinsurgency Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife, is taken from Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and I doubt that it is a coincidence that the Human Terrain System is based on ‘seven pillars’. Its lead authors describe Lawrence’s writings as ‘standard reading for those searching for answers to the current insurgencies’, and the pre-deployment primer dutifully reprints Lawrence’s ‘27 Articles’. Kilcullen’s seminal memorandum was entitled ‘28 Articles’, and his admiration for, even identification with, Lawrence could not be plainer. No army will ever have ‘more than a small number of individuals’ with a gift for ‘cultural leverage’, he declared, mavericks ‘in the mould of Lawrence’. Lawrence is a totemic figure, a powerful representation of a close encounter with an other who remains obdurately Other. But his talismanic invocation also repeats the classical Orientalist gesture of rendering ‘the Orient’ timeless: calling on Lawrence to make sense of modern Iraq is little different from expecting Mark Twain to be a reliable guide to twenty-first-century America. And yet the cultural turn places America outside history too, because there is little recognition of the part that its previous interventions in the Middle East play in provoking opposition and resistance.

This is the kind of constant, intertwined and multilayered critique that sustains and propels Gregory’s arguments, which also makes them such fascinating and illuminating contributions, a welcome and refreshing change from the constant trumpet blasts from the second tier mass media (although they are still valuable of course, as fodder for analysis).

What I have not covered in this review is Gregory’s equally compelling material on the geographies of late modern warfare, the video game simulations, the visualizations of the enemy city, and the ways that Iraq has been rescripted and remodelled. That I leave to the interested reader.

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3 thoughts on “Derek Gregory: The Cultural Turn in Late Modern War and the Rush to the Intimate

  1. Dylan

    thank you for laying some of the main talking points out. The connections between colonialism in the past and the present are particularly resonate. I have been thinking lately about the difference between a moral argument about the use of anthropology/ists in the military and the argument based on data that the civiian leaders of an imperial power who put actually bodies (soldiers) on the ground are plain wrong in their assertions that counterinsurgency as a form of war is in some way more benevolent. I find myself often making the moral argument when my scientific half wants to be able to put the emphasis on facts and data. The main problem i have with that tho is there are few ethnographies of the military and the ones that would matter would never be given permission to be printed. Its like there is a perpetually reinforcing ideology around the military that keeps its detractors off the data ground and forced into a moral argument.

    Do you know what I mean?

  2. Maximilian Forte

    Thanks Dylan. Yes, I do know what you mean and I need to think about it some more. The sticking point for me right now, as I write this, is the apparent option above between either ethnography or moral argumentation. I think there are other ways around this pair.

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