This post refers to three recent articles in the mainstream “news” media:
- Constable, Pamela. (2009). A terrain’s tragic shift: Researcher’s death intensifies scrutiny of U.S. cultural program in Afghanistan. Washington Post, February 18.
- Alpert, Bruce. (2009). Family of Afghan victim seeks to help her avenger. The Times-Picayune, February 14.
- Stockman, Farah. (2009). Anthropologist’s war death reverberates. Boston Globe, February 12.
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“Loyd, 36, a blond woman with a strong resemblance to the actress Daryl Hannah” — today’s Washington Post article by Pamela Constable will not be the last place where will we see a has-been compared to a dead person. It turns out that the article in the print edition appeared in the Post’s Style section. That is fortuitous, as this article appears to be part of a growing series of marketing events designed to attract a prospective Hollywood producer to turn Loyd-the-tragedy into Loyd-the-movie. The Post sculpts Loyd into the right shape as the leading character, the heroine: “her cheerleader looks, winning personality and pedigreed education.” They forgot one word: saint.
“Wow Now that I think about it, to me, Paula was almost a modern day Joan of Arc” says one comment on one of my YouTube videos of Paula Loyd. The author is clearly ahead of the pack. “She was a missionary,” one person commented on the Post’s article. But why not Florence Nightingale, or even, dare I say, a certain well known immaculate virgin mother?
Americans send women into war, and expect everything to be comfortable for them. There should be no opposition. They should not have to die (unlike the men who die every day, and about whom rarely does anything more than a back page obituary appear in a newspaper). In fact, as one astute student noted and told me this evening, on the Human Terrain System’s page dedicated to Michael Bhatia, another of the dead HTS researchers, the names of the soldiers who died with him are not even mentioned.
If a woman like Loyd does get killed, well then, it’s all too much for some Americans in the front pew: it’s an inferior Afghan culture that is responsible; it’s a deranged madman that is responsible; it’s a gender issue; it’s just so wrong and inhumane…it’s everything except the fact that the U.S. is seeking to dominate and rewire Afghanistan, practicing counterinsurgency and social reengineering that goes far beyond any retaliation against a foe that never even attacked the U.S. Some people, perhaps the same crowd that buys up all the books on angels on sale in supermarkets, and various other flag wavers and automatic saluters, would never dare admit that the U.S. presence is an imperialist occupation. No! Of course not. The U.S. only does good in the world. It is as innocent as Loyd. Things only happen to the U.S. which, like a reluctant elephant, is forced to “defend” itself as brutally as possible. And when an American dies, we know the old formula that comes into play in the mass mediated, mass consuming American psyche: American + Dead = Hero.
Loyd, the Post informs us, apparently adapting words from her mother, “had a lifelong desire to help those in troubled foreign lands.” The troubled are never at home, not even in Texas. If Loyd was so anxious to leave home to assist in “troubled foreign lands,” the view from her bedroom window must have been pretty sweet.
One has to go far away from the U.S. to find social strife, poverty, anything that would trouble the heart of the young, pedigreed blonde cheerleader. More than this, in the continued nationalistic perversion of meanings and the misplacement of sentiments, Loyd according to one of her mourners, “died doing the work of bringing peace to a people she loved and respected.” So something between a girl scout, a nurse, and a Peace Corps volunteer. Perhaps it is time that all “missionaries” do a long hard rethink about charity and understand that neglecting the needs of Americans at home is part of what leads to American misdeeds abroad and what cultivates a society that is willing to support, at its own peril, the country’s abuses of its own and others. Hopefully the tide will turn and one day the real heroes will be those who keep their sticky beaks out of other countries’ affairs.
But wait, there’s more to the Paula Loyd infomercial. Loyd also rescued dogs, and sent them all the way back to the U.S. As you all remember, Al Qaeda loves to gas the little blonde puppies (according to one of the least memorable video fabrications aired by CNN and others).
Unfortunately for Loyd, some ungrateful Afghans were never properly taught good graces, and failed to thank her properly as “the insurgents’ anti-government, anti-foreign message began to resonate with some Afghans.” Their message began to resonate…because before Afghanistan was famous as a country that licked the boots of foreign invaders? Apparently, since it is only “Taliban propaganda that portrays Western soldiers as occupiers.” This is not surprising American propaganda in itself, given events of the past several weeks: dozens of massive demonstrations of solidarity with Gaza occurred worldwide and were promptly and repeatedly referred to in U.S. headlines as demonstrations by “Muslims” and “Arabs.” Normal, right thinking, Christian, white people would never question.
They, the bad people, should also never “use” the death of Paula Loyd…that would be like shoplifting: only those who owned and used her in life should get to use her in death. In the meantime what is overlooked by the double-chinned front pew, is that we rat people are actually using the fact of thousands of dead innocent Afghans as a reminder of how little use Loyd is to any of this discussion. The partial humanity displayed by her patriotic Christian weepers is being used by us rats to remind everyone about those who are being treated as background, the necessarily dead, those whose deaths should go without saying because, as Bourdieu would put it, they came without saying. I don’t “use” Loyd otherwise, because I fundamentally do not care about Loyd as such. I merely hold up a mirror.
That is why I found the many comments on today’s Washington Post piece to be such a refreshing change from the usual Pavlovian nationalism and WASP moralism. In the court of public opinion, the fairy tale images are rejected by many, the occupation Kool-Aid is being sent back to its purveyors, the Human Terrain System is getting clubbed, and the occupation of Afghanistan is getting shoes thrown at its many faces. In that spirit, I reproduce elements of some of those comments below.
However, before proceeding, one thing must be noted. This is as much a Canadian war as an American one. Do Canadians differ markedly? Do we see the same level of hype? Yes and no. In Canada, each dead soldier, mostly males, are named and their faces appear in the print and television media. Some snippet of their biographies are also presented. They are not rendered invisible, to make way for a cosmetically-reconstructed angel figure. They all get a place in the news. And that is also tragic — before they put on a uniform, before they died, they were nameless and faceless, they were not worth mentioning, they were without value, they were worthless like the rest of us in the eyes of our imperial state.
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(1) This is America! EVERYTHING is entertainment. And no, this is not a death. This is the birth of another opportunity to blow smoke, to readjust mirrors and strike poses – tragic, triumphant or truculent. Keep in mind that Ms Loyd made her choices and is now very far away from all suffering, both hers and ours. She has no interest in what we are saying or doing. We are the ones who are making the decisions to dance her memory to whatever tune we happen to be playing. It IS ALL entertainment for the “troop” back home who didn’t enlist but have to be kept on board and cheering. The piper serenades for blood money and our new, rock star leader must ensure that the band plays on.
(2) No matter how wp tries to white wash it she was a part of the occupying army….the same army that has killed hundreds of thousands of innocent afghanis. She was in fact part of a gang of heavily armed criminal illegal aliens who entered Afghanistan without any legal rights.
(3) The obvious aside, she was a casualty of war – nothing more and nothing less. The facts that she was female, came from a privileged background, had missionary zeal and “cheerleader looks,” should have NO part in the equation or discussion. If men AND women are allowed to serve the American military, then men AND women should expect to meet whatever fate awaits them while on duty, whether on local troubled soil or in “foreign troubled lands”. Let us not try to paint war with pretty pastel shades and let us not try to fast-track this one individual into the realm of the martyrs. To do so would be to send the message to Joe Six-Pack and Sally Schmo that the loss of their son, who, by the way, thanks for asking, had his intestines torn out by a roadside bomb and continued to hold them in his hands as he died, was somehow not as tragic or newsworthy as the loss of this individual. If you people are working out the terms for a movie or book deal, get on with it and dispense with the marketing hype. Some illusionist must have decided that what America needs most of all right now is to be presented with another patriotism drenched, flag-draped, tearjerker to justify why in the face of its unprecedented economic and societal tailspin, this, our own troubled land, needs to continue hemorrhaging money and the blood of its citizens and others down the sewer. Ms Loyd got what she should have been prepared for when she signed up. Weapons do not respect “Peace and goodwill towards men” and by its very nature, neither does war. The military is NOT responsible for her fate and NEITHER are her immediate superiors. As individuals, we have to live with the consequences of our decisions and actions. There is no draft and I have NO praise for persons, dead or alive, who have aligned themselves with spurious, if not obviously criminal military projects in other nations’ territories.
(4) Since she had a translator I take it she didn’t speak the local language—but she probably thought she “knew” the local area….Americans, the crazy people who think everyone is just like them.
(5) I cannot believe that she did not know the local languages: that’s part of knowing the culture.
(6) I am surprised that (1) she had not learned the local languages and (2) that he had not trained herself in unarmed combat. “Hope for the best, prepare for the worst,” must be the motto of anyone working in these backward areas.
(7) She had good intentions but was naive and insensitive, and she paid with her life. A young blonde woman parading around in a power suit (military uniform) surrounded by armed guards sends the message to the locals that “I am what your future looks like,” which is an antagonistic message. It’s almost as if striding around Afghani rural markets in military uniform was a lark to her–a serious misreading of the local culture she was purportedly “researching,” with tragic consequences. That comibined with the foolish sentimental dog rescuing gives me the impression she was out of her depth.
(8) What a pathetic act: To worry about 4 dogs while other human beings are dying.
(9) Well, I read up a little on this “Human Terrain System.” It appears to be based on the conceit that, if we just do a little research into the local culture, we can manipulate the buffoons to do our bidding. It retains the “white man’s burden” mindset, and denies any dignity or respect to the local community leaders. The one US military theorist who best understands how to achieve success in Iraq – me – has already explained that the authentic indigenous local leaders of small, discrete communities are the only ones who can fix Iraq. Is anyone listening?
(10) Take heed all you self righteous westerners as you venture into the belly of the beast. GO NATIVE! You’ll probably live longer.
(11) Its called “self righteous” arrogance. And it got her killed.
(12) If the Army is going to undertake a program like this, how wise is it to use blond women who go about with their head uncovered? If we’re going to attempt to reach out to a conservative Islamic culture, we need to realize that it’s a slap in the face to them to send Western-style women. We might as well invite them to dinner and serve only pork.
(13) Westerners anywhere in the Middle East, are there at their own risk. They get no sympathy from me, when killed for whatever reason.
(14) It’s obvious that the unwinnable war in Afghanistan is where the US will face its Waterloo. So many wasted lives, so much wasted money–
(15) No matter how much we tell ourselves that the rest of the world wants to be like us, wants to live like us, admires us for our open society and is jealous of us, it still isn’t true. I happen to believe in opening up more opportunities for women, but – and I’ve never even been to Afghanistan – I understand that the locals have a different idea about how to protect their culture and their families. If the folks who designed that program, and the folks who hired her and sent her out into the Taliban-controlled rural Pashto areas didn’t know what they were doing, then they appear to have contributed to negligent homicide. If they did know what they were doing, and knew what they were sending her into, and sent her anyway, then they may have culpability for something more. Of course she was an extraordinary woman. Her drive and sacrifice were admirable. But she took reckless chances, if this story is accurate. The real shame is that she may not have even known how reckless she was being.
(16) the pomposity and presumptuousness of some Think-tank reject purporting to be able to map the human terrain in that country – by sending in an uncovered, un-chaperoned, unsubmissive (unIslamic) woman – it boggles the mind (of the sentient.) “blundering around in our diving boots and stomping on eggshells” seems a pretty apt description. Until we start to show a little respect for the authentic indigenous leaders of local communities, and for their culture and values, we are going to keep scratching our heads, asking “why don’t they like us ? We’re doing this for their benefit, after all.”
(17) Having been in Afghanistan many times all I can say is that Ms. Lloyd was 100% naif. She also is not the only one making such mistakes and living in a dream world. Too many young Americans, be it thrue their own embassy in Kabul or UN or non-profit organizations still believe that this is the Peace Corps: the rich, western, goodie-goodie person telling the locals in some godforsaken place how to improve life. This has to change. The locals, especially in places like Afghanistan, have been there for thousands of years. Leave them alone. Don’t tell them how to live life.