When the subject matter in more than just a few “isolated” incidents turns to
- using white phosphorous to burn civilians in their homes in Fallujah
- bombarding civilian populations in Iraq with cluster bombs delivered by artillery shells
- using shells coated with depleted uranium that then cause thousands of cancers and birth defects among civilians
- bombing dozens of women and children in villages and wedding parties in Afghanistan
- torturing innocent civilians during “extraordinary renditions”
- handing over captives to be tortured by Afghan warlords-turned-governors and their forces
- murdering prisoners
- mercenaries employed by the U.S. government massacring a square full of civilians in Baghdad
- raping teens, executing their families, and setting them ablaze
then one can be certain that a few voices who protest for human rights and fight against war will make themselves heard in the U.S. However, they have routinely been more than matched by those who praise such actions as justified in the “war on terror,” and more than drowned out by the rushed attention or overwhelming silence of both the media and in our sphere of interest, academic bloggers. The justifications will range from lazy “war is hell” pronouncements, to disingenuous claims about “human shields”, to mendacious distortions of the events, to stone-faced “mistakes were made,” to brazen claims that unhinged maniacs low in the command chain are all to blame, to more truculent and blood thirsty cheers for more because ultra-violence is all that the “sand niggers” and “camel fuckers” can ever understand.
But when I write of the killing of an academic hired by a military contractor like BAE Systems and serving in the Human Terrain System, or of the burning of another, and I fail to produce the appropriate eulogy for the dead and an adequate elegy of the heroism of the survivor then — as if suddenly — outrage pours into this blog, and suddenly the cold and the truculent turn warm and humane.
And yet, neither of these persons just mentioned could fit even the stretchiest definition of “innocent civilian”. Both of these volunteered for a war effort, to get paid handsome sums, and apparently when the reporters are not around it’s “fuck anthropologists, fuck ethics” all the way. Both of these individuals were members of an occupying force, shielded by two types of mercenary (the “private contractor” and the volunteer soldier, the pay levels are what differentiate the two the most), ready to engage in armed violence themselves given the Human Terrain Team members who carry weapons. They form part of an effort to “rewire” Afghan cultures and the larger society they inhabit, as part of a grotesque imperialist debauchery called “the global war on terror,” where “global” means “America and some NATO friends”. It is not even remotely a war of self-defense, as neither the Taliban, nor Afghanistan as a whole, ever attacked either the U.S. or any of its NATO allies. It has only been the recipient of such attacks, and some fight back.
Indeed, had no one fought back in either Afghanistan or Iraq, one wonders what might have been the trajectory of U.S. imperialism, if it would have run itself into such a costly crisis situation as it has, accelerating the demise of U.S. dominance. It’s a matter of speculation of course. One can speculate that hundreds of thousands of Iraqis peacefully protesting in the streets, in the face of American brutality, might have achieved the same or more. One can speculate that since these twin wars of occupation and counterinsurgency were fought on borrowed funds — with a special thanks to East Asia and certain Gulf states — that any action, any military build up in the U.S. would have eventually mounted costs that the U.S. can no longer afford. All we know is what happened: resolute, sometimes massive, sometimes spectacular violence in opposition to U.S. invaders and in resistance against U.S. occupation.
Civilian academics employed by the Human Terrain System necessarily encounter these forces in person, and such encounters will continue to happen. It may even be that attacks against such persons will become even gorier, planned in advance, to dissuade anyone from taking the place of those who die while in “the field”. Perhaps some will be captured and tortured, or beheaded live on the Internet — there is no limit to the grisly possibilities in a conflict such as this. What such militarized academics cannot do, nor can their mourners and cheerleaders, is to magically transcend the game which they joined, to stand apart from and above the bloodbath. They play this game, and this game promises no victory.
What is striking about the few times any outrage is manifested on this blog is that it comes only when the mourners and cheerleaders speak up in defense of their slain or wounded colleagues in the Human Terrain System. Otherwise, one never — ever — hears from them. And some of these distinguished persons with wonderful pedigrees from prestigious institutions will not lose time in launching into diatribes and petty personal insults to push their point across.
So why the selective display of outrage, the only partial, momentary display of warm and fuzzy sentiment?
A large part of the answer has to be not just that they feel little or nothing at all for those they do not know, having been trained by their media to view war from the bomb’s point of view anyway, but that also the lives of civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq simply do not count as much for them. They are not of the same value, they are less entitled to have their dignity respected, they are simply less, even less human. They are different, but different in an inferior sort of way.
It is therefore a valuable lesson that one can learn from reading this blog and others like it, because we come into first hand contact — contact of an ethnographic sort in fact — with the intersections between the values of careerism, nationalism, racism, and imperialism. What the Human Terrain System brings to light with such clarity — with such clarity that one has to wonder at the degree of impaired judgment that prevents so many American readers from seeing it — is how notions of service, hard work, and altruism are bent to suit military goals, praised as heroic even, and with utter disregard and contempt for victims on the other side. It is not just a matter of careerism alone, or else all the other work at building a cheering section for the Bhatias and Loyds would be wasted. Nationalism adds the necessary blinkers, seeing the careerism as service to something larger than narrow self-interests. Imperialist ideology converts nationalism from something about love and pride for homeland into something more trenchant, a right to rule the world. But what does not get said often enough, not even on this blog, it is racism that serves as the underlying glue that binds all three, that justifies a career at the expense of others, that mandates that a nation has a manifest destinty to dominate and lead, and that dismisses the value of other human lives and that fails to recognize the humanity of the oppressed.
And in these senses, American nationalism, imperialism, and more narrowly the Human Terrain System are all fundamentally racist. Having condemned all of these, it would be perplexing in the extreme to suddenly offer supportive platitudes once one side starts to finally get hurt. Complain if you must, but don’t expect an approving reception.
It is easy to be humane when one’s view of humanity refuses to recognize the rage of those who act against invaders who have shown extreme hostility to everything and everyone other than themselves. It is easy to sound humane when wondering why the brutal counter-brutality of the oppressed fails to meet with universal disapproval. This is nothing more than patting oneself on the shoulder, looking in the mirror and repeating, “You really are great, you know that? You are a wonderful human being, everyone likes you, and you’re better than every one. You are Number One.”
Try to keep things in perspective.
Armed strangers are not entitled to warm welcomes.
Who proclaimed that if you are not with us, then you must be against us?
Who labeled entire nations as “rogue” and “failed” even when dismissing international law, ignoring massive worldwide protests, and slouching toward Baghdad with an economy owned by foreign creditors and based on little more than hedge funds, derivatives and other forms of speculation that created fake money?
Who produces lyrics about freedom and democracy while holding others at gunpoint?
So many more questions, and so few willing to even consider them.
Sympathies do not come cheap. What would be worse still is to simply waste and misplace sympathies, to shed a tear for the conqueror while turning away and saying “oh well” about the conquered. So much has been perverted already, by a nation and even a species in rapid decline, so many suicidal habits inculcated, that it is always amazing to see when someone notices this constant sleight of sight, that props up the butcher and denounces the meat.
Don’t blame me if you can’t understand why you are hated by some, reviled by others, and distrusted by many. Your acceptance is not mandatory, and I bet you are surprised to hear that.