These Fine, Young, Humanitarian…Zombies

Yes, indeed, as predicted a movie is now out featuring the dead “cultural warrior,” the scholar in military uniform, the applied social scientist deep in the trenches of Afghanistan. He may be dead, but he’s back, and he’s coming right at you, over and over again in…

click for full size version

click for full size version

No, that is not the movie (which does not mean that you should not prepare for a zombie attack anyway). The actual movie, called “Cultural Warriors,” is a documentary film by the Global Media Project and Udris Productions that,

began as a road trip into the heart of the U.S. war machine; it ended up a long journey into the remarkable life and tragic death of Michael Bhatia ’99, a collaborator on the film and the first casualty of the U.S. Army’s controversial Human Terrain Teams.

James Der Derian, a professor at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies, led the making of the film, which so far has been screened in advance only at Brown University.

As I mentioned in a previous post, social scientists who died while employed by the Army’s Human Terrain System are doing double duty: in death, they continue to serve. While some of us have been told that “dead men tell no tales,” it turns out that is not entirely true — they might tell tales, but sometimes we cannot hear them over the din of various propagandists: a compliant and patriotic war media that trawls for any ready-made hero to praise (as we know, any American who is killed overseas is a hero); the Human Terrain System’s own public relations; the selective humanity and pious nationalism of mil bloggers; and, various other agents who seek to exploit the death of a wayward academic who did not know better than to get himself stuck in the affairs of another nation, while serving one of the parties to the conflict.

If it seems that I am laughing at the whole thing, it is because I am, but I have to credit Robert Willey’s hilariously retro-style of propaganda “reporting” in his story about Michael Bhatia in the Boston Magazine. It is such a gushing piece of macho tale-telling that there were times I feared that I would be splashed with Bhatia’s own sperm.  Filled with such high-speed action and adventure, the only words missing from the piece are “Kablammo!” and “Splat!” Afghanistan, complex as it is said to be in the piece, is a just a bit player in the story, virtually a theatrical extra, summed up in a few lines: “Afghanistan was its own crazy rodeo;” whose people, “were wired into tribal dynamics so complex they could make the average grunt’s head spin;” and “where poverty was the national currency and gunfire thumped like a heartbeat.” Gosh but that’s exciting! Let’s all go!

It also turns out that like Montgomery McFate, David Kilcullen, and a host of other academic counterinsurgents who embedded themselves in America’s imperial wars, Michael Bhatia was a fan of T.E. Lawrence, with a framed quotation suggestive of good old-fashioned derring-do (it should be daring-do): “All men dream, but not equally. The dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible.” (His favourite bar, we are told, was appropriately called the “Wild Colonial.”) And what a glorious hero Bhatia is, thanks to Willey’s writing — “dead men tell no lies,” when they have publicists like this. Bhatia, transformed into a world famous scholar by Willey, understood Afghans so very perfectly that he could practically meld minds with them: “Bhatia knew the country so intimately that it often seemed as though he and the Afghans were communicating on their own supple frequency.” (A “supple” frequency — Willey is a serial metaphor abuser.) Bhatia knew “the country” so well, that he surely must have envisioned that country would kill him, desiring his expulsion.

Not being welcome is seemingly never factored into the calculations performed by these genius scholars. Not being wanted? Irrelevant. We have a right to be there, no matter what. Not only do we have a right to be there, and work in a war zone, we should not have to die either.

Even more astonishing is the question presented at the very end: would Michael Bhatia’s mother hate Afghanistan for what happened to her son? It’s amazing. She answers: “Of course not, how could I?” Indeed, why should she hate the victim?

It’s not the only time we have seen eulogies mangled into elegies. Whether in the case of articles by Adam Geller in the Associated Press, or in the other tales told about the other HTS fatalities, Nicole Suveges and Paula Loyd, various glowing portrayals have been painted by elements of the mass media, keen to romanticize imperialism, anxious for a rerun of triumphalist American self-images. Here even death can become victory. At the very worst, the Human Terrain System is merely “controversial,” removed beyond criticism — controversial only, rather than scandalous, immoral, cynical, and criminal.

The biggest lie that is told about these “cultural warriors” is that their work was “humanitarian” in nature, a lie posted repeatedly on this blog by various commentators over the past few months. Anyone not pointing a gun in someone’s face and threatening to blow off a head, is a humanitarian. It has become a default position. Unlike humanitarians of the past, when humanitarian meant something, who earned that label by distributing food to refugees, tending to the wounded, by helping the victim for no personal gain and without trying to advance “the national interest,” now the victimizer seeks to imperialize that category and appropriate it. They are “humanitarians” but they don’t serve humanity — they claim to want to “save lives,” but it turns out only some lives, some of the time. There is no moral agonizing about either the selectivity or the “scholarship” (as they call it) put in the service of military occupation of another country. Their morality is removed to a place beyond reach and beyond question, which is what makes it hegemonic morality. For all their acclaimed academic prowess, all they have really learned is that power pays well. They serve the interests of power, engage in the social engineering of other nations so that they can learn to submit to American power, until a final lesson erupts from the road underneath their Humvee, arriving far too late for them to learn its value.

Afghanistan is “so complex,” and yet the insurgents, it seems, are so easily understood: a gaggle of wife beaters and decapitators, too stupid to know that they are defying NATO, now the world’s defender of women’s rights (and part time marriage police). These fine young humanitarians who just loved Afghanistan, its culture, and its people. Afghanistan, however, did not love them back.

11 thoughts on “These Fine, Young, Humanitarian…Zombies

  1. Frenchguy

    Indeed, it leaves one wondering in what extent the whole HTS mess has not been designed precisely for that : producing dead “social scientists” that can be used as propaganda tools. Moreover, using those zombies as war propaganda items can lead to more support for war, hence more death. Really nasty trick.
    I am no specialist of zombies, but isn’t a zombie, brought back from the dead, under the control of one or several living humans, and without will of its own ? In that sense I find your analysis particularly enlightening.
    But I don’t know what particular kind of counter-sorcery can be the most efficient. Or maybe describing the logic behind it is the best thing to do.

    1. Maximilian Forte

      Yes, in fact real life zombies have existed, they have been interviewed and photographed, they do not eat brains, nor are they dead. Their death is simulated — still a horrific experience — but the death is really a social death. They have committed some serious crime against the community, and for that they are punished with brutal ostracism. They work as slaves for the bokor, even worse because it is like being sent back to a life under the worst kind of colonial oppression.

      I am of course mixing things deliberately with my posts, borrowing a lot from Hollywood, and a little from Haitian ethnology. A real zombie can die like any other person. The Hollywood zombie is much harder to kill!

      So, that is the anthropological lesson for today:

      * Hollywood zombie — hard to kill, because he/she is physically dead already
      * Haitian zombie — don’t kill any, they are suffering enough already.

  2. George Andrew Romero

    This might explain why Human Terrain Teams all have Wade Davis on all their reading lists.

    From what I read in those other posts last week, I’m more worried about Obama’s Mama coming back as a zombie with undetermined allegiances. I saw coming attractions for that movie, but I couldn’t tell if she’s going to come back and go after her son for using anthropologists in his HTS army, or if she’s going to draw on her years of development anthropology in Indonesia and join HTS in attacking the people of Afghanistan and Iraq.

    Who is the HTS bokor?

    1. Maximilian Forte

      I love the comments’ spirit of good humour. By the way, that’s interesting if it’s true that Wade Davis is on their reading lists, bad news for him because I am not sure he wants his reputation tied up with theirs, but good news that they made a sensible choice since of all the criticisms launched against Davis I don’t think that criticisms on empirical grounds are prominent among them, and his research on zombies was really path breaking.

      Who is the HTS bokor? I would say it is Obama himself.

      1. Maximilian Forte

        Hey Jules this is a strange array of videos, I think you are trying some experimental mix of messages and symbols here. By the way, about Fine Young Cannibals…this is a good for us to age ourselves. If I mention Sting in class, in connection with his public activism in support of the Kayapo Indians of Brazil back in the 1980s, a lot of students in my classes either do not know his name, or have never seen him and thus cannot recognize him in a documentary. Fine Young Cannibals…wow, almost too exotic of a reference for many.

        So are we saying then that HTS is like a wolf pack? That HTS members are “fine young cannibals”? I don’t know, this is getting stranger by the moment.

      2. Jules

        Hang on to your hat Max… because it’s going to get even weirder. I’m putting a bunch of information together and will get back to you on it. I appreciate your indulgence… and good to have you back!

        Perhaps your students can better relate to these…

        And because I just can’t help myself…


        Oh by the way… there’s an antidote for EVERYTHING!

    1. Maximilian Forte

      Thank you very much for that. They are popping up everywhere now. Who knew you could get so much mileage from three people, it’s amazing. At the very least their families should be getting paid extra for their children’s after-death promotional tours.

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