A Massacre for a Moral Martyr: ‘Person’ versus ‘Population’ in Humanitarianized Afghanistan


Massacred by “Good Intentions”?

On April 7, 2013, the BBC reported this awful story, one of a long string of such NATO airstrikes on areas with civilian populations in Afghanistan:

“Eleven children have been killed in a Nato air strike in eastern Afghanistan, officials and witnesses say. At least one woman was reportedly killed and a further six are believed to have been injured in the incident in Shigal district, Kunar province.”

What came immediately after that passage is what I also found to be very striking:

“Nato confirmed that ‘fire support’ was used in Shigal after a US civilian adviser died in a militant attack, but said it had no reports of deaths.”

If that unnamed U.S. “civilian adviser” had already been killed, as the BBC suggests, then it follows that this massacre of children and women was little more than a merciless revenge attack. Either way, the precise operational reasons do not matter, except that the death of this U.S. “civilian adviser” is directly tied to the killing of this mass of innocent victims.

“Villagers and officials told the BBC that the casualties were inside their homes when they died. Photographs apparently sent from the scene to international news agencies appeared to show the bodies of several dead young children, surrounded by Afghan villagers.”

Another Martyr Story: How to Depoliticize and Decontextualize a War, Such that War is Rendered Invisible and thus Unquestionable

Meanwhile, news within the same 24 hour period finally put a name to that “U.S. civilian adviser,” even as the names of the Afghan women and children killed remained nameless. She was Anne Smedinghoff. To its credit perhaps (without knowing its editorial decisions), Canada’s leading rightwing newspaper, the National Post, ran a story about Smedinghoff that was directly juxtaposed with the story of NATO’s murder of a dozen women and children. That news was squeezed into a tight column nonetheless, not given the same space as this one on Smedinghoff. Aside from that, within the AP story itself, we are treated to the usual sappy sentimentalism that marks American media propaganda’s usual celebration of its humanitarian heroes killed in places where they do not belong, killed as they worked to directly support their country’s military and political occupation of another nation. Let’s look at the language used by the AP, which is deliberate, selective, and therefore indicative of how a narrative is constructed to mystify reality and misdirect readers.

“Anne Smedinghoff had a quiet ambition…volunteering for missions in perilous locations worldwide.” [adventure, individual achievement]

“It was a great adventure for her … She loved it,” her father, Tom Smedinghoff, told The Associated Press. [adventure]

Her father said family members would tease her about signing up for a less dangerous location, maybe London or Paris. “She said, ‘What would I do in London or Paris? It would be so boring,’” her father recalled. In her free time, she would travel as much as possible, her father said. [Again: adventure]

“the 25-year-old suburban Chicago woman” [suburban, hence not one of those “inner city black people,” but someone from a “good neighbourhood”] — “Anne Smedinghoff grew up in River Forest, Ill. – an upscale suburb about 10 miles west of Chicago” [as already alluded to, “upscale”]

“the daughter of an attorney[came from a wealthy, white family, i.e., a “good family”]

“She attended the highly selective Fenwick High School, followed by Johns Hopkins University, where she majored in international studies and became a key organizer of the university’s annual Foreign Affairs Symposium in 2008. The event draws high-profile speakers from around the world.” [again, upper crust, “well educated” and possibly “well connected”]

“her family took solace in the fact that she died doing something she loved” [but no reaction from the family on all the Afghans murdered in an airstrike the same day, because of what she was doing]

a positive, hard-working and dependable young woman” [it’s not enough to say positive and hard-working, we must be reminded: she was a young woman, with all the cues of youth and femininity that have been taught to American consumers by commercial marketing that targets this demographic; also note, she is given personal qualities, whereas the Afghan victims are a mere number]

“Her first assignment for the foreign service was in Caracas, Venezuela, and she volunteered for the Afghanistan assignment after that.” [in other words, a career imperialist, eager to go wherever her state is seeking to destabilize or occupy another nation-state]

Secretary of State John Kerry said Sunday at a news conference in Turkey that Smedinghoff was “vivacious, smart” and “capable.” [Kerry, needless to say, had nothing in the way of recognition of the personal qualities of the victims of NATO’s airstike the same day]

He also described Smedinghoff as “a selfless, idealistic woman who woke up yesterday morning and set out to bring textbooks to school children, to bring them knowledge.” [a wonderful humanitarian]

“Friends remembered her Sunday for her charity work too.” [charity, giving, selfless, altruism…and serving an imperial state as a belligerent, uninvited by locals, effectively as a militant on one side of a conflict]

Smedinghoff participated in a 2009 cross-country bike ride for The 4K for Cancer – part of the Ulman Cancer Fund for Young Adults – according to the group. [charity, volunteerism, caring]

In summary then: we have a named person, presented with a photograph, where she is staring at us and reminding us of her presence as a person. And what kind of persona is presented? One that is a caring, charitable, idealistic, humanitarian. Moreover, she was an adventurer who went out on missions. She died doing what she loved, and so that doing therefore becomes beautified and is raised above criticism. She was also a well off, privileged offspring of the American professional bourgeoisie, valued as a “better class” than those below it in the social pyramid. She cared for Afghan children, even as we, apparently, do not.

And what is missing? Just a war. More than just a war: imperialism. Thus we have a fully decontextualized and depoliticized portrayal, that seeks little more than to numb readers into mournful appreciation, and obedience.

The Person versus the Population

Located within the volume edited by Didier Fassin and Mariella Pandolfi, Contemporary States of Emergency: The Politics of Military and Humanitarian Interventions (New York: Zone Books, 2010), is an interesting chapter by Craig Calhoun that contextualizes and explains one of the key dynamics framing standard Western media representations such as those above. In “The Idea of Emergency: Humanitarian Action and Global (Dis)Order” (pps. 29-58), Craig Calhoun places Foucault’s and James Scott’s work on “population thinking”–of thinking of persons as managerial problems and statistical categories–within the context of colonialism, foreign intervention, and professionalization (and this applies to anthropology as well):

“Colonial rule helped to occasion the growth of managerial professions such as public health, as well as the development of public statistics and disciplines such as anthropology. Colonial governments were also pioneers of disaster response, even while they helped to create the disasters. Disasters in the colonial era were not only nightmares for the local populations, they were managerial problems for colonial states….Humanitarian action was generally contained within the relations of single metropole to its colonial possessions….It was also productive of the kind of ‘population thinking‘ invoked by Foucault in his accounts of state formation more generally. One result was that colonial powers were typically much more systematic in collecting statistics and monitoring the effectiveness of their work than later humanitarian actors. This reflected the dominance of practical administration, rather than moral expression of their work. But modern humanitarians, too, are increasingly called on to adopt a managerial orientation.” (pp. 40-41, my emphases)

In their “Introduction: Military and Humanitarian Government in the Age of Intervention” (pps. 9-25), Fassin and Pandolfi carefully explain their conclusion, “that the politics of military intervention are now played out in the name of humanitarian morality” (p. 12). Emotion, moral obligation, compassion, charity, are all prominent and acute in establishing the need for intervention and in justifying it. However, this never means that all killing is abjured, and that “collateral damage” is not consciously factored into military calculations, as these (p. 20) and other authors in the same volume argue (a review of chapters in this volume will follow at a later date). The work of this humanitarianization of war results in the,

“naturalization–or depoliticization–of war. Indeed, the humanitarianization of intervention implies the neutralization of conflict situations. Now it is as if the only issue were aid to victims, as if the local context presented no historical peculiarities, as if military operations did not originate in the defense of the interests of the states conducting them….Humanitarian intervention is still a law of the strongest–this is what makes it possible…” (p. 13, my emphases)

The (Ir)relevance of “Good Intentions”

One may meet young and enthusiastic students, eager to quickly leap over any old cultural relativist qualms that older generations of anthropologists carefully nurtured, and thus rush to denounce this or that practice in another society as inhumane, barbaric, wrong, etc. However, one cannot end the story there. The fact is that the emotional and empathetic surge is a critical foundation for humanitarianizing a relationship, and intentions–regardless of what our young and righteous student may think–always come with practical implications once a decision is made to act on those intentions. Put into practice, intentions become implicated with all sorts of institutional agendas, quests for funding, campaigns for visibility, and even military doctrines and geopolitical strategizing. This is necessarily so, because that young student comes without her own army, without the ability to unilaterally promulgate new laws, and usually without any financial or institutional support of her own. So now she must depend on the authorities–to do the right thing by her. Good intentions may be relevant as a starting point, and end up being irrelevant to the processes that come with practical action.

Jean Bricmont put this another way, in his usual memorable terms:

The fundamental ambiguity of the anti-anti-war left lies in the question as to who are the “we” who are supposed to intervene and protect. One might ask the Western left, social movements or human rights organizations the same question Stalin addressed to the Vatican, “How many divisions do you have?” As a matter of fact, all the conflicts in which “we” are supposed to intervene are armed conflicts. Intervening means intervening militarily and for that, one needs the appropriate military means. It is perfectly obvious that the Western left does not possess those means. It could call on European armies to intervene, instead of the United States, but they have never done so without massive support from the United States. So in reality the actual message of the anti-anti-war left is: “Please, oh Americans, make war not love!” Better still, inasmuch as since their debacle in Afghanistan and in Iraq, the Americans are leery of sending in ground troops, the message amounts to nothing other than asking the U.S. Air Force to go bomb countries where human rights violations are reported to be taking place.

On the other hand, I have little inclination to take a person’s “good intentions” at face value, especially when the person in question is a complete stranger. I am therefore arguing that good intentions are not the appropriate starting point of analysis after all, but rather it is the incredible confidence some individuals have in thinking that they have fundamentally and absolutely understood a different way of living and thinking, and that differences in beliefs and practices can be diminished or erased simply by proclaiming the “universals” that always come from one dominant geoculture. Moreover, note the frequent tendency to specify and thus isolate a particular practice–“genital mutilation,” for example–as if you can pluck this from a broader social, political and economic context. This is a recipe for ignorance and pretension, not empathy, and less so solidarity.

Having imagined themselves as above cultural difference, and qualified to pass judgment, the logical next step for such humanitarians is to begin to forcibly insert themselves into other people’s stories, writing themselves in and writing out the peoples whose history the humanitarians will now author. Is this what we teach in anthropology, or ought to be teaching? I certainly hope not.


After comments on this article had closed, Jamil Hanifi asked that his comment be posted, which I am doing here:

Thank you Max for penetrating the “sappy sentimentalisms” that sidetrack the savageries of the American killing machine in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Reciprocating the killing of one American adventurer with the killing of dozens of innocent Afghan children and women mirrors the vulgar and bloody asymmetry between preindustrial Afghanistan and freaked out sadistic industrial America in its aimless pursuit of an imaginary “war on terror”. In systematically peeling through the eulogy of this pathetic delusional scout of American empire you have effectively exposed the masochistic narcissism of the American killing machine and its subordinate media and dark-minded popular culture. 

We can now see the true social odors of the “upscale” white suburban comfort zone that produced Anne Smedinghoff, a typical volunteer adventurer page-girl working on the second floor of the US State Department serving and servicing the most barbaric killing apparatus in the history of humankind. Anne drowned in her own blood in remote Wardak province where she was attempting to impose American made textbooks on the children of Afghanistan. Virtually all textbooks used in the schools of Afghanistan are produced by the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska-Omaha—a major think tank (disguised as an academic program) for the American imperial presence in Afghanistan. (I have a acquired a collection of these textbooks for comparison with textbooks used during my student days in Kabul). The increasing rage and insanity of the American warfare state is inviting tens of thousands of young Americans to carve up career tracks for themselves in this expanding killing enterprise. Not only are large numbers of individuals like Anne Smedinghoff drawn to work for the American military programs, thousands of US high school dropout are “serving their country” in Afghanistan. And not surprisingly, large numbers of American soldiers in Afghanistan are convicted criminals serving their jail sentences in the killing fields of Nangarhar and Wardak provinces. We do not know whether Anne Smedinghoff had a criminal background. However, I do know what she was doing in Wardak province was aiding and abetting a barbaric military machine guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

7 thoughts on “A Massacre for a Moral Martyr: ‘Person’ versus ‘Population’ in Humanitarianized Afghanistan

  1. Erich Kuerschner

    “In summary then: we have a named person, presented with a photograph, where she is staring at us and reminding us of her presence as a person. … And what is missing?

    Just a war. More than just a war: imperialism.”

    **And** the pictures and life story of the eleven children and one women murdered as revenge, to make someone (anyone?) pay for opposing that imperialism.

    “If I were president, I could stop terrorist attacks against the United States in a few days. Permanently. I would first apologize – very publicly and sincerely – to all the widows and orphans, the impoverished and the tortured, and the many millions of other victims of American imperialism. Then I would announce to every corner of the world that America’s global military interventions have come to an end.” — William Blum



  2. Sarah Irving

    Many thanks for this. I think it’s an important critique of the kind of deeply questionable ‘heroics’ that a) help to support and sanitise imperialist projects like the war in Afghanistan, and b) endanger the lives of workers who might actually be doing something genuinely useful there but get identified as also being associated with occupying militaries. To add to the questioning of the motives of people like this young woman – and I’m not saying this is her, but that having worked in some conflict regions I’ve come across plenty – there is also the culturally imperialistic phenomenon of the adrenaline junkie Westerner who zings around whatever the current ‘edgy’ region is – Nicaragua, El Salvador, Chiapas, Palestine, Afghanistan etc etc etc. Some maybe do perform useful work; a lot don’t, but turn up for a couple of weeks or months, get some good stories to tell back home, and then move on to the next ‘big thing’. Sophia Stamatopolou-Robbins of Columbia Uni has done some useful work on the idea of ‘prosthetic engagement’ by international activists in Palestine.

    1. Maximilian Forte

      Thanks very much Sarah, I will look up the reference. (Incidentally, apologies on behalf of WordPress for seeing your comment placed directly in spam, without any apparent reason.)

  3. John Allison

    We see the nice young humanitarian woman. We see the USNATO soldiers that were involved and the weapons that they used on these two villages..
    What do those terrorists look like?
    What do they want to tell us?
    How could we possibly understand? Not only their language, but the world it talks about. That world that we have almost destroyed. The culture area that extended from the Panshir Valley of the Western Hindo Kush through Chitral and Kashmir, all along the south flanks of the Hindu Kush up to the juncture with the Himalaya. Several related, unwritten languages with formal oratory and common dialects; spectuacular hanging wood houses, good wines and cheeses; sausages, wild partridges, wild pistachio harvests; figs, mullberries, walnuts, conical burden baskets with head-straps just like in indigenous California. The first metal stove nto the Titin Valley was carried in by Walid Alef Din in 1969; I and my wife were his guests on that trip, along with Mohammad Alam Nuristani, who was turtured and killed by his countrymen because he has cooperated with the CIA Operative who was my incountry host, long there in preparation of this event and this war.
    God save us!
    Momma said, and says: “The Lord helps those that help themselves!”
    I’d post some photos of these terrorists if I knew how to work this trap door.

  4. David Marchesi

    A comparison with the mainstream reaction to Rachel Corrie’s murder could be revealing, and not beyond the ordinary person. Chomsky is surely right in thinking that the man in the street, like your MMA champion, can make clear decisions on what is right and what is wrong – “we all know that killing people is wrong” he said in an RT interview.Americans can’t ALL be the hate-filled, contemptuous robotic killers who, sadly, infest the military. It is high time the US public woke up to the immense damage its rulers ( notably the Pentagon and CIA) are doing to what little remains of respect for the US. As well, of course, to the endless murders of such as oppose the US’s ambitions or simply get in the way…

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