Is it a surprise any more, that Paula Loyd should be resurrected for one more promotional tour for the U.S. Army’s Human Terrain System? I am referring here specifically to the piece by Amy Yee, in the June 2009 issue of The Progressive, conveniently titled “A Friend Falls in Afghanistan” (thanks to a commentator on the previous related post for the notice). It is important to analyze these articles, especially now that we are seeing the propaganda go through some fine tuning, little adjustments made here and there, but with the same slices against critics of the Human Terrain System, and ultimately against Afghanistan. What also remains is the intent to make the story of Paula Loyd’s death into what is ostensibly, but deceptively, simply a story about a great person — except that no article, Yee’s included, has ever restricted itself to that basic and simple narrative. I do not doubt for a moment that to her friends she was an excellent person, nor do I think that she or anyone else “deserves” to die, and certainly not to die such a death. The death was to be expected, and the only good news is that overall only a tiny minority of all HTS employees have met with death. The bad news is that, in death, points are being scored for a military program in their name, obviously without the consent of the dead who are turned into gruesome political sock puppets. Contrasted with Montgomery McFate, the “senior social scientist” of the HTS, Paula Loyd would make for a perfect poster girl, and HTS knows that. No one can speak ill of Loyd, because she was wonderful, and she is dead, so critics lose both ways.
Let us look first at what is different about Yee’s attempt. First, the article is published in The Progressive, the first indication that this will not be a jingoistic sales pitch from a right wing perspective that unquestioningly justifies outright, unbridled war against all who would stand in the way of American domination. (Montgomery McFate herself, on her “I Luv a Man in Uniform” blog, wrote: “I’m a Democrat for fuck’s sake!” — so we know this angle already.) It manifests more adaptive tactics, because Obama, the new war president and imperialist-in-chief, has fashioned a liberal narrative to justify the same ends: American dominance (a phrase that he himself uses).
That a liberal narrative is used as a promotional lubricant, suited to the realignments that have occurred in Washington, is also evidenced within the piece itself. Paula Loyd, working for a counterinsurgency program and accompanying a military patrol, wearing a U.S. military uniform that identified her as the right kind of target for insurgents, is instead cast as a civilian and humanitarian. We are told — and this is not a new trick — that she was “unarmed” and then reminded that she was a “woman”. The two are meant to go together so as to suck on the trope of helpless innocence and thus amplify the brutality of her attacker, if not his bestiality: who would kill an unarmed woman? The Taliban would — chalk up another point for American propaganda against the monster insurgents. Yes, she was unarmed — and in the company of an armed military patrol, under the ineffective protection of an additional mercenary, Don Ayala. She was as unarmed as a crime boss in the company of armed body guards can be said to be unarmed. At the very least, she was as unarmed as those that U.S. and NATO forces bomb to bits without blinking and who are promptly declared to have been “human shields”.
The critical paragraph is this one, in my view, for tactfully advancing Obama’s call for a “civilian surge” in Afghanistan, retroactively applying it to Loyd, and for using a liberal narrative to justify imperialism:
“She thought it was our responsibility to rebuild that country,” Isabella [Yee’s and Loyd’s mutual friend] replied. “She hoped her new role as a social scientist would reduce casualties”.
To rebuild the country — to rebuild suggests that the aim is to restore the country to what it was. To what it was…when? To what it was under the Soviet occupation? To what it was under the Taliban? Of course not, neither applies. To “rebuild” is meant to be understood as to build anew — to build a new country. In this case, the words put in Loyd’s mouth could have been scripted by none other than the crusader for counterinsurgency himself, Lt. Col. John Nagl: the aim of U.S. military operations should be “not just to dominate land operations, but to change entire societies” (see Andrew Bacevich, “The Petraeus Doctrine,” The Atlantic, October 2008 — I thank Greg Feldman for underscoring the significance of this point and for highlighting how liberal discourse is used to justify HTS and counterinsurgency, so that all liberal critiques of such programs are immediately destined to founder.)
“Our responsibility”. Why is it up to an American to assume responsibility for someone else’s country? Would Americans tolerate hearing the citizens of a foreign power speak in the same way about the U.S., and would they call it anything other than imperial arrogance that provides shade for a grab for power? From where does this “responsibility” derive its sense of entitlement? Did Afghans forfeit the right to chart their own course?
“Her new role as a social scientist would reduce casualties”. Given the fact that she became one herself, and that yet another Afghan become one in revenge, is more than just ironic. It points to the fundamentally untenable position being advanced by such statements — the fact is that the program she served supports a mission of violence on many different levels, administered by the most lethal institution on earth, the Pentagon. Casualties in Afghanistan have dramatically risen, and that is since HTS was deployed there. Not only that, the number of innocent civilians killed by the U.S. and NATO forces now exceeds the number of those killed by the Taliban. In fact the number of civilians killed by the US/NATO has risen by 600% compared to this time last year, and that is the low estimate; the other estimate is that the number has risen by over 1000%. The numbers of civilians killed by the Taliban have dropped significantly, down by 30% compared to this time last year (source) — apparently the Taliban have a much better program for reducing casualties. So the “hope” may be that HTS will reduce casualties (yet, it is a land-based system, whereas the U.S. Air Force is the one that continues to drop gigantic bombs on villages), but the facts tell another story.
One certain way to reduce casualties is for high-minded scholars who want to see action, to take action as anti-war activists and call for the withdrawal of U.S. and other NATO forces. That will lead to zero deaths for those forces, and zero deaths that those forces might have otherwise caused in Afghanistan. This solution, however, is constantly removed from consideration, because the supporters of HTS, and their media sycophants, ultimately do want war, and HTS employees go to serve in war with the ultimate aim of defeating “the adversary” and seeing their nation’s policies triumph. Getting killed while doing that kind of work is merely par for the course.
Paula Loyd, Yee writes, was seeking to, “understand a dangerous, complex situation on the ground so that lives could be saved”. Perfect liberal interventionist discourse, and as Greg Feldman argued, a clever appropriation of the sales pitch usually made in Anthropology 101 classes: gaining a cross-cultural understanding will lead the world toward peace. What it tells us is that, not just that the narrative is sentimental tripe, but that we have to confront and tackle liberal discourse and our standard anthropological tools of naive self-promotion.
The second thing that is different about this article is that it offers a slight tip in the hat of the direction of re-humanizing Loyd’s attacker, Abdul Salam, acknowledging that the story told thus far has been unabashedly one-sided, a selective display of warm humane feelings for one party only, while demonizing and dehumanizing the other. Yee writes:
Why not write about Abdul Salam? Well, I did not know Salam, but I think if I did—if I really knew him—I would write about him and his tragedy, too. Somehow we need to understand how a person’s heart could turn so dark that he would believe setting an unarmed woman on fire would be a salve to his pain and anger.
Well done. Except for one thing that is forgotten as usual — there are two murderers in a story reduced to this small stage, the other of course being Don Ayala, a mercenary who committed a war crime. After all, it is thanks to his actions that Yee can never know Salam. Did Ayala’s heart turn any less dark that he would believe that blowing out the brains of an unarmed and subdued detainee would be a salve to his pain and anger? We do not know what Yee would say, because by that point in her article she has conveniently excluded Ayala from her little play. That silence speaks for her now.
What the article by Yee does no differently than any of the others we have seen, and is its ultimate goal, is to assimilate all that is good, wholesome, and holy about Paula Loyd to HTS. This is not an article about a friend, by a friend. This is an article about how a friend was employed, produced by a friend with an agenda. If the only point of the article was, as Yee dishonestly claims, to “respect” Loyd, then she could have restricted herself to merely commenting on her wonderful personal attributes. But no. Instead, as yet another act of zombification, what Yee does is to build a pyramid of charming and cheerful facts about Loyd, and tops it all off with her work for HTS. Her work with refugees is thus placed as a lead up to her employment with HTS. Loyd’s last act is used to redefine her whole life. Loyd was, “caring, concerned, intelligent, rational, humane, and impassioned,” and having joined HTS, these qualities transfer to it: HTS is where the caring, concerned, intelligent, rationale, humane, impassioned, go to work. Yee says she could have instead chosen the “sedate” route and entered a PhD program, but she was “unconventional” — like Indiana Jones is unconventional, and we all just love Indy, right? Besides, Loyd also made “honey walnut cream cheese,” so for crying out loud how could critics mutter anything “not nice” after they got a mouthful of that? Can we not imagine ourselves “eating waffles” with “Paula” in Boston, along with the other good white people of super privileged backgrounds? The army, well…the army simply offered Loyd “adventures and challenges” — not the army that the rest of the world knows to be a genocidal killing machine that is directly responsible for the murder of millions of innocent civilians since its inception. [And if you doubt that, read some history: tally the killing of civilians by the U.S. military in the Philippines, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and the numerous U.S. invasions in Latin America and the Caribbean. Or, you can take the easy route, and pretend such things never happened, and continue to rewrite world history in a way that makes the U.S. always appear angelic.]
Amy Yee succeedes in getting some extra frequent flyer miles for her zombie. Where she fails utterly is to take us to a new destination. You are right, Amy Yee, you are definitely not “glorifying” Paula Loyd. As for the corpse that is HTS, it does not matter how much deodorant you spray on it, it still stinks.