While originally lamenting the “distraction” from discussing the invasion of Gaza by shifting the focus to the story of a single person, the now deceased Paula Loyd, I realize that was the wrong reaction. The story of Loyd is not that of a single actor, unless one focuses it that way, and it encapsulates many of the same colonial and imperial themes to be found in the war against the people of Gaza. In that vein, I offer some further commentary.
In the mass of the usual racist and jingoistic commentary to which Danger Room plays host, and perhaps we should thank them for these fragments of insight into the mentality of some of their readers, as an example of the intellectual monstrosities being generated or nurtured by an American culture of war and fear, I was particularly impressed by those who nonetheless tried to bring some balance and perspective to the discussion provoked by Loyd’s death, in particular these two comments:
My heart goes out to all of the Paula Loyds not blond enough, not pretty enough, not white enough, not Christian enough, not American enough to warrant mourning when maimed or murdered for having the temerity to live on top of natural resources America claims as its own.
A little perspective…
She wasn’t killed walking her kids to school or to the local library. She was killed as a willing member of an imperial force which deprives sovereign human beings of life and property in direct violation of international and moral law. (source)
These aren’t just social scientists. They are employed by the US military to conduct research with a goal of helping the military more effectively carry out the occupation. If I were living in a country that had a much stronger foreign power occupying it, I would probably consider such people valid targets as well. (source)
Otherwise, a great many of the other comments ironically serve to undo whatever they allege was the great good done by Loyd in building bridges of understanding, lessening opportunity for American cultural offense, and loving the Afghan people she was trying to supposedly help. Instead, they opt for extremely vulgar expressions of racism and hatred against Afghan people. It seems that Loyd’s work would have had better application at home, perhaps as a missionary among the readers at Danger Room itself, as it degenerates into a substitute for the Aryan Nation’s website when it is not serving as the Pentagon’s better buying guide to the newest military gadgetry. But that is just my opinion.
The larger issues raised here have to do with what some consider to be imperial and right behaviour. It is a serious mistake to reduce imperialism to aggressive military action alone — indeed, in the literature on imperialism since the late 19th century, military force is neither the central nor necessary component in understanding imperialism. This is apparently irrelevant to those who claim that Loyd was unarmed — as if that mattered, since she was traveling in the company of both soldiers and at least one mercenary, Don Ayala. Attached to a military unit, and the fact that she was a low ranking army officer, seems to vanish as some translate her into a “noncombatant” akin to a nurse, doctor, or priest. As expected, for some her image has morphed into one of a saint, even a Joan of Arc. At the extreme, she is cast as some kid doing a social science project for school. As an American, killed abroad by an opponent of American domination, in the minds of some she automatically becomes a hero; heroism is also transferred to the mercenary, Don Ayala, and for some the death of Loyd offers convenient cover for Ayala. So many transfers are being made, that soon the entire Human Terrain System will be made to look like a battalion of righteous Joans of Arc. Indeed, there is little doubt that was the cynical intention behind some of the propaganda that was mounted in blogworld just in time for the leaked news of Loyd’s death.
At another extreme, she is raised as a martyr for the great American feminist cause, which right wing America only discovered once it invaded Afghanistan and decided that it would assume the right to chart another nation’s course and rewire its society to be more aligned with American interests. There was a moment, early on, when it also seemed the American state might even adopt an animal rights discourse, when the media began to release videos of golden puppies being used by Al Qaeda in Afghanistan to test poisonous gas — except that they were more likely American videos, filmed in the U.S., and that story was dropped.
There is a growing theme here: the aggressor casting himself/herself as a victim. In “Hate brings her back to loving town,” Cary Clack deploys stock images contrasting the superior American with the Afghan barbarian, as if reverse engineering a postcolonial studies course in English. It almost works as a sketch for a movie on the Lifetime channel. Examine some of the tropes deployed by the writer about Loyd:
- reaching out to a stranger when it happened
- trying to remove the veil of mystery and suspicion
- making herself a bridge between cultures
- a charming young girl eager to learn and full of joy
- one of the world’s beautiful people
- they too often meet human nature’s evil side
- her comfortable upbringing is part of what gives Loyd her sense of mission
- had a sense of security and a safe and loving environment in which we could learn
- [devoted] especially to little girls
- took art classes…learned how to tend a garden…perfected our tennis
- Paula represents a sweet time in our lives
- she is admired and respected by people worldwide
Never could one expect to see such a loving, beatifying, recognition of the warm humanity of an Afghan victim, let alone Abdul Salam. The images are of white, middle class people, enjoying comfort and leisure, their safety, education, and basic goodness. All of these images are relational, and to understand the other text, or subtext of this piece, one has to see what their opposites would be, since that describes the side of “hate” (first word in the title of the piece) and the “evil side” — a more skillful colonial writer would have implied it, not stated it. She lifts the “veil” — the word and its Islamophobic meanings are not accidentally chosen. Her focus is “the little girls” — except she was “interviewing” a man when she was set ablaze. As I argued before, these are moments that afford us additional insight into what it means to be “selectively outraged, half humane, and All American.”
Loyd the person becomes Loyd the persona who then becomes a mere icon that is used to whitewash a brutal imperial mission. The actual person is left far behind and she becomes an ideological construct in the service of war. I personally know nothing at all about Loyd the person, nor does that matter.
The issues I raise go beyond Loyd the person, and to how “humanity” is selectively appropriated and monopolized by other Americans, as if it were uniquely theirs, and appropriate Loyd as a symbolic vehicle. The reality of their own brutality is conveniently pushed out of sight. Indeed there are countless Afghan “Paula Loyds” about whom we never hear, will never know, nor mourn. In fact, when they are killed by American forces, the rush is not to mourn them, to reflect on their personal qualities, but to debate either the logistics of targeting, or in some extreme cases, to blame the victims for their own deaths.
Dismissing the generation of extreme circumstances of struggle and deprivation, such writers from our colonial comfort zones reel when faced by those who emerge as the mirror image their state helped to create: the extremists. Their mistake lies in abstracting and extracting the extremist as an aberration, insane, an animal, a brute, and as is convenient now, a man. They preserve their vision from turning to their own many acts of extremism against Afghans…the bridges they preemptively torched that then created employment opportunities for the imperial bridge builders, sweetly setting up beachheads inside the minds of villagers. And all of the claims of inherent American goodness comes from a society with a history of lynchings, of forced marchings of natives, of slavery, of detention camps, of daily police brutality, and of its own steady interpersonal and institutional violence against women and the poor. The hypocrisy is inexcusable, but what is a real challenge is understanding how easily some find refuge in such unmolested states of absolute self-affirmation at the expense of the others they dehumanize and then demonize. Is it taught in school? In the church? In the home? Likely it is taught in all of these arenas, and no wonder then that in some places anthropology courses stand as a severe challenge to these received “truths” of imperial America. At its best, anthropology poses as a Trojan horse of the anti-empire.
We need to turn our attention to the question of foreign noncombatants and counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, and whether or not we include Loyd as a noncombatant is irrelevant. Whats interests me here is the use of non-military and even NGO personnel as part of imperial attempts to occupy and reengineer a nation to move along several courses. The influx of self-appointed saviours in Afghanistan, turning their backs on poverty and homelessness in their own countries (that is, until those begin to look more like security issues that raise the hackles of fear), proposing to win Afghan hearts and minds (only incidentally for the good of empire?), pacifying the restless, stabilizing a situation unsettled to make room for greater incursion, all of these would be obvious to anyone on the receiving end of an invasion.
The videos below, of a conference in which Paula Loyd was a speaker, certainly made it clear that there is a “link” between “development assistance” and “military operations” in what the conference strangely calls “post-conflict areas” (the terminology itself carefully chosen to advance linguistic pacification and to civilize violence). Security and development, civil-military relationships, scholarship and policy: all of these are coupled, rendering any retroactive attempt to distill the Loyds from this context and relocate them to the side of civilian peacefulness impossible. It is not the Taliban who invented the realities that the American state enacted, but they certainly have some understanding of precisely that which Lee Hamilton below refers to: the blurring of the line between the civilian and the military in U.S. domination., and they attack that blur. Loyd, at best, stood in that zone of blur, and any attempt to translate her as somehow remote from occupation does two things: it misunderstands, but it also confesses to the fact that there is something troubling about her work with the military, an incongruous moment of denial in an otherwise jingoistic stream of self-assurance.
The first video features parts of Lee Hamilton’s introduction, and the second video is a new video of Loyd that I have edited, forced to abridge it to fit within YouTube’s 10 minute window.
Lee Hamilton on Civilian-Military Cooperation in Conflict Zones
Paula Loyd, 2006, Civil-Military Affairs Officer, U.N. Mission to Afghanistan