The Diary of Ted the Tongue: Pinecone Anthropologist


Image by isafmedia via Flickr

In an earlier article, “More European Press Coverage of the Human Terrain System,” I referred to an article in Germany’s GEO Magazine which carried an extensive article about anthropology and the Human Terrain System, on 05 May 2010, the whole of which can be viewed and downloaded from here, titled “Ein Ethnologe im Krieg.” Online you can also see GEO’s “Odyssee in Afghanistan” (Odyssey in Afghanistan“), mostly part of an electronic diary by war photographer Marco di Lauro and his exchanges with Ted Callahan, the anthropologist enlisted in the Pentagon’s counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan.

Now, thanks to the generous work volunteered by a German friend of ZA in Twitter, ZA can offer the following English translation–all minus one page which was originally scanned in a manner that rendered the text entirely illegible (apologies for that, but we do not possess the original).

What becomes apparent from the translation is that this is a unique article–it consists of the diary entries of Ted Callahan, from a log he kept for GEO magazine (with all of the intended candor one has when writing a diary for the public). In some instances, notably under the heading of pages 2 and 3 below, the article is written in another voice, apparently that of the reporter who presents the piece. We must wonder about the special arrangement that produced this piece, given that HTS employees cannot be interviewed without army clearance. On the other hand I must admit: this is probably the most interesting piece on HTS that I have read from the mainstream print media.

“In my imagination I transform more and more into a kind of Lawrence of Arabia…”

A few disparate comments for now about the contents of the article. It contains a number of strange factual errors, notably about Michael Bhatia. It also contains a series of very interesting reflections and perhaps unintended confessions, or statements made without those massaging the message understanding how they could be read for contrary purposes. Callahan balances his writing  between occasional bravado when speaking down to anthropologists who are against the war, with frequent (in)direct confirmation of their criticisms. He appears indifferent to being criticized by unnamed anthropologists for being a “mercenary,” saying that if they had been to Afghanistan, they would understand the need to do things his way. Surely that misses the whole point of the criticisms: one does not go, and is not obligated to go, into any situation that will lead a social scientist into unethical conduct. But then Callahan comes up with what he thinks is a valid argument: this isn’t real ethnography, so ethical standards do not apply. He’s wrong, but his remarks are also useful.

Do the locals see Callahan as a member of a category apart from the military? Interestingly, Callahan is not just mistaken for a U.S. soldier, but for a member of the Special Forces. Moreover, the very soldiers assigned to protect him think he is with Special Forces or the CIA. He seems to take pride in becoming a virtual GI, and seems to have spent some time trying to become more like the soldiers who themselves seem ambivalent about his presence, even his safety. Thus we learn more about the minimal protection of HTS personnel during an attack, with little guidance about what to do.

Life on a forward operating base–not as rough as some might imagine–is briefly described by Callahan as one that is relatively privileged, with all sorts of opportunities to gain weight on a host of imported goodies, as one is catered to by a population of local servants. (No one, for all of their counterinsurgent “savvy,” seems to have invented the idea of eating local, as a way of building relationships through food, generating income for local producers and keeping a tab on the state of local agriculture…or even being aware of the devastating famines that have swept parts of Afghanistan during the course of the occupation, barely reported in Western media.)

Callahan’s comments about his colleagues are also rather enlightening: all female, one who wears an alluring top (probably part of the Patriotic Tits Against Fundamentalism brigade, the militarily correct bastardization of feminism). The other is unflatteringly portrayed as a complete dunce (not to say bimbo) who got the job because she is from “the third world,” and spends the day surfing the Web.

What he also describes–even though Robert Young Pelton was howled at by HTS supporters for describing much the same–is rapid, hasty, drive-by ethnography: of 69 hours spent outside of the base, four produce any kind of useful information, and one cannot expect more frequent patrols, no matter the proximity (100 meters) of the nearby village. He will not get to see a place more than once. Half of the population is closed off to his research: local women.

“In the future, wars could be good times for ethnographers.”

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Dear reader,
Sociology defines culture shock as the sudden feeling of anxiety and displacement, when meeting with a foreign culture.

The US anthropologist Kalervo Oberg dissected the experience and processing of a culture-shock in the 1950s into four phases. First, the bright curiosity of the unknown, second the crisis-like feeling of not knowing your way around, third the slowly growing insight and fourth the adjustment. Overcoming cultural shocks one can understand this as the foremost task of journalists vicariously experienced by readers. There are topics, in phase one for which the emphasis cannot be demanded from the best reporters though. Who would for example go euphorically to Afghanistan? And it cannot be an obligation for journalists to reach step four. But possibly move quickly from phase two to three, from the lack of understanding to gaining perspective. Sort of like the people in Papua New Guinea who carry their mummified relatives around on chairs. Ted Callahan went as an ethnographer to Afghanistan on the side and request of the US army to find out the HTS, the human area there. Background: a Military doctrine which also aims to conquer hearts and minds apart from the use of weapons arsenals. Prerequisite: the appreciation of a strange culture. Therefore, the avoidance of cultural shocks. This was Callahan’s order. Establish peace through conversations. You don’t only see a Kunduz-crazy mission? In any case this looked fundamentally significant to us, in light of what German Soldiers also do or not do in Afghanistan. So we asked Callahan to keep a diary for Geo. It turned out to be a document of ambivalence, more informative in the detail as the communiques out of the Ministry of Defense. Callahan, a U.S. citizen, knew the Afghans already from a winter research stay in the high-lying valleys of the Pamir, and spent time in the Caucasus, in Nepal, and China. He was astonished not just by foreign places, but also by his own people. He wrote about the troops in an e-mail to us: “Most of them are very isolated from the population and think like in a vacuum, or in an echo chamber.”

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An ethnographer at war

The soldiers call him “Ted the tongue”: Because he always only asks questions and talks. His insights about of the Afghan culture should help the international protection forces to understand friends as well as enemies better. His colleagues at the university labeled Ted Callahan the mercenary. However, he thinks they have no idea…

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An ambush

Septembers, 2009, Harawara, a village in the east of Afghanistan: “What may I buy for you?”, asks the second lieutenant of the Afghan National Army with a generosity which I love very much in this country.

We run down a bumpy way, which leads to a creek shore. The village store, a hovel with walls made of loam, is there. I want to answer, but dust splashes up in front of me like raindrops falling to the ground. A hissing sound, the rattling of a gun, many guns.

My body reacts in a movement which seems to be withdrawn from my will. I jump over a rubble heap, crawl further on knees and elbows. In front of me a retaining wall – safety. I hide behind her. A few minutes ago I sat with about two dozen US soldiers and afghan police in front of an old mosque and talked with village elders. The men excuse themselves after an hour. It is Ramadan, they hadn’t eaten or drunk anything since sunrise and wanted to lie down. I should have noticed, how quick they disappeared.

And now this surreal transformation of the village to a battlefield. I feel like a figure in a computer game. Bullets pelting the ground everywhere, above floats a roaring helicopter. A soldier runs over and shouts to me against the noise: Everything Ok? Two hours later in our camp: nobody is injured, but the excitement of the attack seems to have spread. The soldiers assemble. This is every day life in this war: Young men, early 20’s, moved with good intentions, barely escaped death, have to discuss their next actions.

Text for Picture on page 6:
Soldiers secure the villages if Callahan wants to go there and talk with the residents about their circumstances. If he spends to much time on kindnesses, the Soldiers get restless. Even an ethnographer doesn’t find find out where the soldiers are hated, so fast either. A sudden attack will be what makes them notice it.

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That is how the HTS was established in 2006. It was controversial from the beginning, so much that the researchers risked not getting a job at a university later on. The initiator of the program gave me this warning, when I called her and expressed interest in the program. The advocates of the HTS cling to a statement of a commander before the US congress: Only with help from the scientists did he find out that not the village elders, but instead the Mullahs are in power. Through allying with them he was able to reduce fighting by 60%. An assertion hard to prove, but a testament to the nobility of HTS. Nevertheless most scientists think it’s objectionable to go to war. The American Anthropological Association condemned the program: Can people get killed with the knowledge provided by social scientists? Does a respectable science risk degenerating into espionage? Who determines that the Afghans speak freely to the scientists and are not forced? Can one conquer hostile people? Even I asked myself the same questions. I consider this war to be justified and my earlier field research of 18 months taught me that the majority Afghans feels the same. They abhor the Taliban and ask themselves why the protection troops do not succeed in defeating the 35,000 rebels and provide progress. Perhaps I can be the voice of the Afghans vis-à-vis the military. Eight years after beginning of this war I wanted to promote this country.

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It annoyed me that the critics of “mercenary ethnography” took cover in principled arguments. I wanted to form my own opinion about the HTS. I have to admit, I also wanted to experience
firsthand one of the major events of this century. When I climbed out of the cargo space of an airplane, full of ammunition, onto the crushed rock track of the military base, Salerno, I was unsuspecting of the dangers that were ahead of me; I had no idea how I would investigate the lives of the Afghans in the middle of this war.

My transformation

Forward Operating Base Salerno, nicknamed ‘rocket city,’ lies close to the city of Khost and is one of the ugliest places which I have ever seen. Rows of containers, concrete walls and tent halls, enclosed in what must be thousands kilometers of barbed wire. I carry my baggage into my new home: 10 square meters in a finished house, walls made out out of hard fiber disks, then I run to the Ethnology office in order to say hello the colleagues. They are females. One wears tight jeans and a provocative top: That is Amy. In one and a half years she has absorbed an encyclopedic knowledge about this area which comes flowing out of her mouth. You have to understand that there are many tribal conflicts over here, she says. Then there’s Patti, she doesn’t know anything. A U.S. immigrant from Thailand, in her mid forties, her English is clouded hopelessly by her Asian Accent. She studied business economics and stated, as far as I understand her, that her origin from a third world country qualifies her to work in Afghanistan. Besides, Patti looks like a Hazara, many Afghans despise this ethnic minority. To go with Patti to a village is dangerous. Since this helpless woman sits in the office and surfs the internet, she can cause no harm. Obviously the army does not always hire the most qualified people for the HTS. I also believe that ethnographers should do research alone and not in a team.

I’m in the heartland of the war, home of the Pashtun. This group lives along the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Pashtun think that the border is meaningless; their thinking is based on striving for independence. They say that the revolution against the communists started here in the province of Khost; Osama maintained his camps here, the first U.S. soldier died here. The leaders of the Taliban are mostly Pashtun. They have withdrawn into the lawless areas of Pakistan and send their followers over the most dangerous border of the world to attack the international protection troops in Afghanistan. The area in which I will live is a gigantic transit region for fighters of the holy war. The Afghans name it “Yagistan” – “Country of the Unruly”. In FOB Salerno one does not notice that aside from the occasional rocket attack. Here are fitness studios, fast food restaurants, massage parlours. Every meal we have comes with ten choices: four sorts ice cream, three sorts of pie: cherry, apple, pecan. Everything is flown in, nothing’s recycled. We use 30,000 plastic bottles of water daily. Once per week, there is lobster, shrimp, crab. An army of Indians, Nepalese, Kyrgyzstan nationals and Afghans look after our comfort.

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We drive ‘outside the wire’ as the soldiers that go on patrol like to say. ‘Outside the wire’ – that term does not even let you imagine the shock that hits you once you leave the main gate. A seemingly archaic world, populated by men with turbans, women in burkas, and donkey carts. On my 5th day I saw the other side for the first time. Nothing special, just a meeting with the village elders nearby. I put on my body armor, roughly about 40 KG of weight. I’ve decided to be armed and receive a 9-millimeter pistol, later a M4 assault rifle will follow. Many civilian ethnographers get excited about the fact that their colleagues carry weapons. It violates the code of conduct of research, not to pressure people into talking. These scientists have never been in Afghanistan. The last thing that frightens a Pashtun is a gun. He thinks that everybody not carrying a gun is strange. In the village we drink tea and converse friendly. One of the hosts points at me and asks: “Special Courses?” I answer: “Yes, one can say that!” He shakes his head and asks again: “Special Courses?” It goes back and forth until he corrects himself and asks: “Special Forces?” Then I understand, I’m not wearing a name tag and I do have a long beard, the man thinks that I belong to the US Special Forces. I accept that as ethnographic routine: My transformation into a soldier is complete. A GI comes along, points at me laughing: “No special forces! Hippie, Tree hugger!” The Afghan looks perplexed and leaves.

My first mission

It’s common knowledge that Michael Howard (commanding officer) knows everything about guerrilla warfare. When I introduce myself, I meet a thin, red-haired giant, with the aura of a racing dog with long limbs which are constantly moving. Howard is offhand, but conveys the feeling that he thinks that the HTS is a good thing. He wants to know what is going on with the Kuchi. These nomads live at the borders to Pakistan in remote villages. The Army does not have a grip on the area; unknown persons had kidnapped three of the nomads, possibly raped them then stabbed to death. Has this escalation anything to do with the Taliban? Is it an everyday sort of crime or is it due to other conflicts? It should take 40 minutes to drive to the Kuchi. We leave with four armored cars; trucks or humvees are not safe enough because of landmines. One of my predecessors (Michael Bhatia, professor at Oxford University) died in 2008 on the streets of Khost in a Humvee. He was the third scientist of the HTS that got killed over here. So we use the armored cars. The arms race with the bomb builders continues; they already have extremely powerful projectiles.

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All of a sudden I don’t hear a thing. My electronic ear protector is silent. The sergeant across from me moves his lips: “Bomb!” We’re still driving so it can’t be that bad. Looking out of the window I see the other armored car covered with smoke. We stop, someone opens the door and tells the sergeant to position himself for battle. I asked what my translator and I should be doing. “Do what you want!” So we jump outside and do not know what to do. The soldiers have gone to cover at the street embankment, waiting for an attack. The patrol leader advises us to look for cover. Waiting, nothing is happening. One of the soldiers shows us what the bomb did to his sleeping bag that was hanging outside the vehicle. The axis of the vehicle is broken so we receive orders to gather all of our belongings, then we take off, it’s dark and we camp on a pasture, determine who’s on guard and go to sleep. Next morning I wake up to a familiar Afghanistan, a country I long for if I’m not there. A nomadic group crosses our camp and disappears in a Kuchi village. Nothing embodies the magic of central Asia like loaded camels which walk about a wild desert, and the stabbing sun. My romantic whims fade when we leave. Amy, myself, our translator and 10 Infantrymen in riot gear, protected by two machine guns and a grenade launcher.

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When we walk into the bleak village which consists of a gas station and half a dozen shops, I feel ridiculous. The soldiers deploy and assume position. Amy immediately astonishes a Kuchi man with questions about conflicts in the area. He does not know what to say. Rex and I approach a group of men, I put my right hand on my heart, say “hello” in Pashto and ask for a conversation. Soon we’ll sit together and have tea. Ethnography is a chaotic discipline, more art than science. It’s important to ask the right questions at the right time. The problem is that the Army expects concrete investigative leads, without me knowing what I’m looking for. So I take the approach of asking questions about tribal structures, livestock, trade and property. Perhaps a picture with useful aspect for the army might arise. Rex explains to the Kuchi men that we’re there to help and to get a better understanding of their lives. They nod their heads in a friendly manner. I start with friendly chit-chat, the soldier that’s assigned to protect me interrupts and requests that I get to the point. So, the murdered girls? The men claim no knowledge about that. The Taliban? They never saw any. I don’t get any further with that, so I asked about their daily lives, about trade and camels. They warm up and talk. As soon as they notice that I understand, they’ll lift their hands and say: “Azeemat!”, Well done! The soldier looks bugged, carefully I try to redirect the conversation to my original questions. I learn that the Kuchis move from pasture to pasture with their cattle. But after years of drought and some complicated tribal conflicts they have now settled down. Since then they have had problems. A man reaches for the soil, letting sand trickle through his fingers. “This soil is not good. Wheat does not grow here and if the rain comes it turns into mud,” he complains. “But the government has given the land to us. We live here now and other tribes claim we stole their land. They prevent us from driving to Khost, attack and kill us. The government does nothing!” More nodding in agreement. Nobody has anything else to say. The message is clear, “if you don’t help us, we take side with the Taliban.” The logic of the rebellion is of compelling clarity: No ideology plays a role, no religion. Only the conflict around resources and the desire for safety and progress. In my thoughts I agree with these men. Besides, Kuchi probably were the ones that planted the roadside bomb for our convoy by order of the Taliban. My protecting soldier wants to go home when an order reaches us: the Artillery would like to test grenades; the target is near our night’s lodging, the soldiers should guard the area. I would like to get back to Kuchi to get to know more, however, the rules are that several soldiers are needed for patrol. And to run the 100 meters to the village is considered a “patrol.” So I sit in an armored car and wait. It took three days until we returned to our home base. The result: 69 hours on our way, an eight-hour interview with the Kuchi, and of that maybe  four hours of useful information about the reasons for the outbreak of violence in the area. This first mission taught me the most important military rule: time is not at one’s disposal. With such restrictions I will hardly succeed in diving into foreign way of life. Patient research is regarded as the greatest ethnographic virtue–it doesn’t play a role in HTS.

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Rarely will I have one to two hours, to jump out of the armored car (protected by soldiers), to find conversation partners, to construct the rudiments of a  good relationship, to ask a few questions. Once I notice that more than likely I will not visit a place more than once, I get disappointed. I also realize that I will never see a woman here. The tribal code of the Pashtun requires that a man must protect the honour of his wife and hide her from strangers.

The critics of this program assume that real ethnography is practiced here. Therefore, we should hold to all standards of the field. In truth our work is more like journalism in a hurry. No ethnographer spends months in the same Pashtun village and gains the confidence of the residents, so nobody is being betrayed. On the other hand, the southeast of Afghanistan has been lying in the dark for our ethnographers for a long time. During the revolt against the Soviet Union only few researchers could explore the way of life over here. So things remained the same in the civil war, under Taliban dominion with the entry of the defense force. Even though our military is waging war and wants to gain confidence of the people at the same time, long-term studies are taboo.

The Afghanistan conflict

How it began

After the departure of the Soviets in 1989, Afghanistan slides into civil war. The Taliban gain victory and proclaim theocracy. After 9/11 Americans and Brits expel the Taliban regime which granted refuge to Osama bin Laden. The ISAF is stationed there. The aim: reconstruction of the civilian society.

What goes wrong?

Taliban and Al Qaeda grow stronger again–they make their way to Pakistan and attack the ISAF soldiers from there. Even though, the west builds schools, hospitals and streets, a lot of the government money seeps into the government machine. The Taliban who finance their war by opium trade, force the tribal chiefs into alliances and control long a wide area of Afghanistan at present

And now?

This much is clear: In the spring of 2010 the international community is looking primarily for a perspective to keep conflicts in check and bring about the withdrawal of their own troops. In 2015 the Afghans should manage their country themselves: with this aim the politicians justify the drive for power, which should lead to a turning point, with more troops and better training of the Afghan policemen and soldiers, and funds increased for civilian construction.

Who will win?

Hard to say. In this guerrilla war it isn’t clear what ‘victory’ means. Fact: if the foreign troops departed now, Afghanistan would sink into chaos. Because of this, most experts agree that the new approach of counterinsurgency makes sense. The tactic to strengthen the tribal leaders, to offer an exit perspective to supporters of the Taliban, to negotiate even with their leaders, could perhaps stifle the rebellion. The price for that will be high: In 2009 alone 520 foreign soldiers and 2,412 civilians died. The aim to transform this government into a western democracy is not mentioned anymore.

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Refugees from the battle zone wait for the distribution of aid supplies. Shortly after this picture was taken they survived a mortar attack of the Taliban. The impact, only 400 meters far away.

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An unforgettable success

It’s after midnight when Rex (my translator) and I jump out of the Black Hawk. From above a second helicopter is securing our departure, while a machine-gunner heaves our baggage to the ground. “Have fun!” The Black Hawks disappear. We hurry to the battle outpost of the Americans: a hut surrounded by sand embankments and four watch towers. It’s not advisable to approach the native country of the Zadran-tribe during the day. The power of the government doesn’t reach to up to this area, the state structure is nonexistent. For most GI’s Zadran is synonymous with Taliban, because the biggest Pashtun tribe of the southeast has produced some of the most violent rebels. Amongst them, Jalaluddin Haqqani, leader of the Haqqani network and a pioneer of suicide-attacks in Afghanistan. Commander Howard requests that we find indications as to how the Zadran could be dissuade from supporting terrorism. In the morning I climb a watchtower with my coffee in hand and talk with the young guard. A truck loaded with wood drives down the road. They’re driving by frequently the guard tells me. Why, where to? Nobody knows, but everybody knows that it means something. So detective-work begins: with a simple observation. I decide to ask the Zadran about the wood. Next time we have tea with the tribal leader I point to a forest and ask why its untouched. Those are Jalghoza (Pine). If you cut trees there you will be punished. We have men guarding the forest right now. I never was interested in pine, but find out that the Zadran collect pine cones. Women mash up the cones with stones to get the nuts. They are dried, brought to Khost and sold as a delicacy in the whole country. My search is difficult and lasts weeks. In this time I undertake many trips to a dozen different villages of the Zadran.

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In the end the fact remains: different than previously thought, only a third of the nutrition of the Zadran comes from agriculture since they live too far away, in the mountains. The pine cones and the felling of trees make up 70% of their income. The rapid growth of the population threatens to destroy their livelihood. The danger: every impoverished Zadran can become a supporter of the insurgents, but one can’t assume that the groups moving through the mountains day and night in September are Taliban. On account of my findings the pilots are ordered to be careful with attacks during the harvest. I explain to the special unit how they can recognize the cone collectors: they smell of pine and donkeys. I am possessed by my subject. I develop afforestation plans, draw transportation routes, write business plans: a kilo of pine kernels is sold for five dollars in Afghanistan, in the USA for forty five. Why not offer the products in New York specialty shops? This would be a sensible measure in the fight against terrorism. To investigate the world of the Zadran comes close to my dreams of an ideal HTS. I drive to remote places and do work which hopefully saves human lives. In my imagination I transform more and more into a kind of Lawrence of Arabia, and I take more risks. I venture out on trips along the ‘rat line’: Taliban supply routes. I venture out on the streets without protection by the GI’s, a stupidity which violates all rules. We have flown to a heavily accessible and dangerous Zadran District and set up our camp in the office of the District Governor. The soldiers provide safety over here; I accompany them because I would like to continue my pine research. Our provisions are used up five days after our arrival. “We ate them,” claim the Afghan soldiers and police in our team. Impossible. They must have sold the food. Because our request for air evacuation is rejected, I offer to go buy a few chickens. I leave with a translator and three policemen. The first store across from our camp is closed, the next one too. We drive a few kilometers and are out of range for our radios. The villagers in the third store look surprised and hostile. They advise us to drive somewhere else, where there are chickens in abundance. It’s like a smell. At this moment I think I sense an ambush. Pictures of people whose faces are scratched away are hanging in the store. The Taliban have been here? I hastily buy some vegetables and think about what to substitute for the chicken. I ask for a goat. The answer: “We go get one that takes about 30 min. Please wait here…” We rather drive back to camp. I order my companions to assume fighting position. I act in a way I imagine a soldier would act. I don’t feel afraid, rather I’m elated to be alive. Perception is increased: I think I never did hear so well or had such clear vision. It’s rather tense and time seems to stand still, finally a pick-up with a goat on board approaches. When I pinch the goat to check her condition, the seller screams: “Be careful! We’ve hidden a bomb in her body.” In Afghanistan one can expect danger in everyday business. That makes me nervous, sometimes hysterical. Shortly after that I talk with the villagers, accompanied by Afghan policemen, to whom I promised some mineral water afterwards. We ask: “Why do you let the Taliban travel through your land?” An old man with a long black beard answers: “You requested that we surrender our weapons and that we did. How should we defend ourselves against the Taliban now, with sticks?” I write everything down. A second man, with the aura of a thinker says: “In your country notepads like yours must fill whole houses. In the past eight years every American that visited us, logged everything we said. But never did anyone return to help us.”

Soldiers and the new war

The longer I stay here, the more I ask myself what good am I doing. Certainly I achieved some successes, perhaps made life for the Zadran easier. But will the situation improve notably, will they be saved from mistaken attacks by the army? Did the soldiers understand how meaningful the development of a pine economy would be? I do not know and I’m going to leave soon. My writings may disappear forever in archives. Do I succeed in leaving some traces in the thinking and action of some of the GI’s?

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A U.S. army helicopter flies soldiers to the province where they will protect polling places for the parliamentary election. After the landing Callahan and the soldiers guard the ballots, until they are securely transported further.

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They call me “Ted the Tongue,” the guy that always wants to talk. It’s agonizing for these young men to protect me. They have to sit in the hot sun for hours, while I question bearded old men. At times the questions are monotonous to me as well. On the other hand I can’t force the GI’s to listen. They perform a dangerous job and receive thankless orders on a daily basis. The last thing they want, is a guest who gives advice. Unfortunately soldiers of the lower ranks are harder to convince of the idea, to go to war and conquers the hearts of the population. In this case counterinsurgency is reduced to accompanying me while I talk with old men. A duty, which they carry out like an air raid, it’s frustrating for them as they do not see any results in the end. I’m dealing with men, who’s training consists of killing the enemy. Nobody taught them how to build up trust with strangers. In practice, the HTS did not reach the combat troops as yet. Tell this to the men: “We’re going to occupy this village!”- and they’re not going to hesitate to risk their lives for a piece of bleak land. My standard message is: “So, you’ve been six times in this village, everything remained the same. You know nothing about the inhabitants. Go with me on patrol and we can learn a few things that might be useful later on.” Seldom do I encounter enthusiasm. So-and-so died serving his nation while collecting empirical data for a socio-cultural profile of the “human terrain”: which GI wishes for such an epitaph? Here everybody doesn’t seem to understand how much effort is necessary to attain knowledge about the Afghans. We sit in the planning center, surrounded by laptop computers and surveillance monitors on which the harsh countryside of Afghanistan flickers, and clean our guns. A redundant evening ritual. Today we’ve been to a bazaar. The people there refused to answer any questions. Somebody whispered. “Caution! the Taliban are near by and they’re watching you.” The soldiers tensed up and the Afghans grew nervous and the soldiers did get more fearful. I suggested that we leave. A soldier asked: “And? Found something out today?” I answered in the negative. “You see, talk about communication is crap. We should do it like the Russians did back then.” To provoke me, he added: “We have to throw those motherfuckers from the roofs.” “Don’t know if that will help,” I replied, “I’ve not seen a house over here, higher than two floors.” There are moments, when I’m satisfied knowing that the GIs believe that I’m an ethnographer. Too often they believe that I’m from the Special Forces or CIA and just made up a cover story. They can’t imagine that this stranger is a researcher, who’s there to help them. In that they resemble the Afghans. On another day a platoon leader asks me to escort him. He wants to announce a “pro-GIRoA-message”: praise the government of the Afghan republic. In the village, after drinking his tea hastily he gets up and recites from a cheat sheet.: “GIRoA means progress, the coalition troops do help the population. GIRoA means progress. GIRoA means progress!” The old folks have heard it all before.

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They dictate their list of demands for new road to the troop commander. A ritual like cleaning guns. Nonetheless, even in a setting like this an ethnographer can do well, I’m convinced of that. To connect the world of the Afghan rural population with the one of the occupation forces, beyond unimportant phrases and good intentions, has to be the most important component in a new draft of warfare. What I’ve learned from the Pashtun isn’t enough for a dissertation. But neither the soldiers nor those secret service agents which want to track down merely Taliban would ever have come this far. I cannot shake off the ambivalence. In a restricted sense I’m only a researcher in a combat zone. I gave up my independence, my findings have to pass the Army’s ‘so-what-test’, or to put it differently, they have to be useful. But I don’t feel like a spy. So, I live interstitially and hope that my successors will achieve more. In the U.S. there are private companies that hire former soldiers as armed ethnographers. I think it’s only a matter of time before the first researchers start to work in those companies. In the future, wars could be good times for ethnographers.

The Farewell

In the command center of the FOB Salerno the chairs and tables are arranged in a horseshoe shape, Colonel Howard and I are in the middle. I’ve just received an award for civilian services which doesn’t go to my head because my incompetent colleague Patti also got one. I have to give a farewell speech in front of the collected brigade staff. Mixed feelings race inside me. I feel relieved that I can go back home healthy, but also sad because of the farewell. I feel bad to have to leave the soldiers behind. I feel embarrassed because I have to speak to fighters now who end every meeting with the battle cry: “Sparta lives!” Meanwhile, I understand the Army well and start my speech with the same aphorism, which is ascribed to Napoleon: “War and prostitution often have in common the fact that often the amateur is better than the professional.” As the laughter fades away, I say that I have come here to study the life of the Afghans. My life has depended on the Army, as she has given me food, safety and accommodation. The only thing I could give back was information. That’s my capital, nothing else. No, I’ve not been elated about what the soldiers did with the information. But they are here voluntarily and are risking their lives. That’s why I’m telling them that they taught me more than I could: Things like guts and courage and how to perform a job with a minimal amount of staginess. Ethnographers learn a lot and teach less, that’s how it goes.

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3 thoughts on “The Diary of Ted the Tongue: Pinecone Anthropologist

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  3. Jérémy

    Looks like Callahan really is the only one to believe he is an “ethnographer” and not a spy. Looks like he is open to learning “courage and guts” from the “soldiers of the lower ranks”, but not much else. These soldiers have a point, and I guess they have very good reasons to think that this guy is not what he thinks he is. Callahan clearly doesn’t want to hear them on this. Exactly as he clearly doesn’t want to learn from what he calls “soldiers of the lower ranks” that the whole “winning hearts and minds” thing is a huge piece of bullshit.

    Callahan, the problem is NOT that people don’t “understand how much effort is necessary to attain knowledge about the Afghans”.
    Maybe you should stop thinking of “soldiers of lower ranks” as people with only “gut and courage” but with “unfortunate” problems of misunderstanding.
    Maybe you should stop thinking of yourself as “the brain” and of them as “the muscles”. Maybe you should realize that it’s not that they don’t “understand”, but rather that they just don’t buy the bullshit , while you appear to have swallowed it big time.

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