Militarization: It’s All the Same, Everywhere. Or Is It?

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By what logic, if any, does Zero Anthropology function?

If in light of the controversy that erupted with the publication of Sophia Tesfamariam’s outline and condemnation of western anthropologists working to support regime change in her native Eritrea, Zero Anthropology for its part fails to criticize the Eritrean government for its alleged militarization, then what good are we? (Well, for one, we are good for a distraction: turn the denunciations around against us, the messenger of a messenger, and thus avoid any discomfort occasioned by Tesfamariam’s allegations.)

Let’s say either Michael Brown or Travyon Martin had a gun. Let’s say they used their guns in self-defense once they were shot at, and in so doing stayed alive. Some might condemn us for not denouncing Brown and Martin for defending themselves with a gun, especially if we still persisted in our critique of the militarization of the police. We would say we are glad that Brown and Martin are still alive, and yes, the police are too powerful and trigger-happy.

By the same token, if you are in the USA or Canada, but the militarization that you find particularly offensive is not that of the USA, Canada and NATO, it is instead that of, say, tiny little Eritrea all the way across in Africa, then what is your logic?

At the very least then we have two sides that each apply different standards in their selectivity. Are they both right? Are they both wrong? Is only one right, and if so, which one? Let’s continue by untangling the logics that, I think, are deliberately confounded and confused in order to create room for distraction and misdirection.

The Law of Sameness

Is all power the same everywhere? If so then it deserves equal criticism everywhere. Speaking truth to power is not just speaking truth to power in Eritrea. Likewise, speaking truth to power is not just speaking truth to power in a NATO member state. If all power is the same everywhere, then this is a statement of your logic on the subject of militarization:

Militarization is militarization is militarization.

Thus neither different contexts, nor different causes, nor different consequences matter, because it is all the same militarization. If one is critical of militarization here, then one must criticize militarization there. If you believe in the law of sameness, then both sides of the dispute above are wrong, because each party (ZA on the one hand, Bozzini on the other) is being one-sided in their focus.

The Law of Same Difference

However, it seems that some new law has snuck in through the margins, not just in the dispute above, but more importantly in Washington, Ottawa, and Brussels. This is the law of “same difference”: everything should be the same, and could be the same, but we need to adjust or standards to deal with various “evil” entities that grow out there, like “cancer”.

In such a universe, special laws operate:

All objects in the universe have the exact same mass–
except some, the Black objects, have greater gravity.

Some might call that racism. Others might call it a special ability to avoid the obvious around you, to be mystified, and thus exoticizing your concerns. If your concerns, as an anthropologist who supports regime change, are misplaced and your objections misguided is one thing. The fact remains the one standing accused of unwanted foreign intervention is you, not Zero Anthropology, and not any of the vilified anti-imperialists who–to their everlasting discredit, never started costly and interminable wars of conquest and occupation. So not all things are equal after all, now are they.

The Law of Difference

There is another root of the dispute, and it has to do with an unvariegated, emergent anthropology of militarism that does not distinguish among subjects. The problem is that we never said we agreed with such an approach. Instead, if one read Anthropology against Empire: Demilitarizing the Discipline in North America, one would discover something different. While appreciating the call for an anthropology of militarism, I added something else: that the proper focus should first be on imperialism, the context and cause of most of the rampant militarization we see in the world today. Otherwise, militarization looks like something that “just happens,” as if it spontaneously generated everywhere. In that chapter I also argued:

The point of this is that we should not be satisfied that we have a robust corpus of work on colonialism in anthropology, not even contemporary imperialism. I believe that studies of militarism make most sense in the context in which the most acute militarism actually occurs: in aggressive imperial centres, and to a lesser extent in some parts of the periphery that seek to actively resist and defend themselves against imperial aggression.

It is not shocking to us that some would prefer a defenseless Eritrea, or that some would condemn conscription in Eritrea, and not condemn it in their native Switzerland or Italy. It is not shocking because there is a tradition that objects to the militarization of the weak and the militarization of the anti-imperialist. It is still disappointing, however, to see that some anthropologists think speaking to truth to power means exercising their white authority to pick at post-colonial bones in small states of the periphery.

But one thing we don’t do is this: we don’t pretend that there are not vast inequalities in power in the global system, and these inequalities in power are reflected in the extreme inequalities of military spending and military power, which are dominated by the west far above and beyond all others on the planet. We also do not pretend that military power is used by everyone in the same way everywhere. There is NATO, but there is no non-western mirror of NATO.

If there is to be an anthropology of militarism, it needs to be mindful of these differences. And in speaking truth to power, we need to be mindful of the fact that power is not the same everywhere, as if all share and wield it equally and identically. Clearly, they do not.

12 thoughts on “Militarization: It’s All the Same, Everywhere. Or Is It?

  1. Reblogged this on The Real Rahel and commented:
    BOOM!!! “It is not shocking to us that some would prefer a defenseless Eritrea, or that some would condemn conscription in Eritrea, and not condemn it in their native Switzerland or Italy. It is not shocking because there is a tradition that objects to the militarization of the weak and the militarization of the anti-imperialist. It is still disappointing, however, to see that some anthropologists think speaking to truth to power means exercising their white authority to pick at post-colonial bones in small states of the periphery.”

  2. Claiming a controversy erupting (of all, in academic circles) as a result of a blog publication by Sophia Tesfamariam simply gives legitimacy to work that does not deserve a serious consideration.

    Sophia believes that those that disagree and oppose the government of her second citizenship are a collection of “pedophiles” and “rapists”, this by itself should indicate to anyone that Sophia’s blog publications are not worthy of an academic discussion (let alone a controversy).

    If there is any controversy (which there isn’t) it is not in the interpretation of facts but in the facts themselves. Sophia’s side of the “controversy” only accepts government version of events, hence they deny all atrocities done by their government including that Eritrean conscription is indefinite (life time) and without pay (did you just compare that to Sweden).

    Unless one is willing to entertain the idea that all non-Eritrean government sources are lies and part of a grand conspiracy, and the only source to be trusted is that of the government, Sophia’s arguments are nonsense.

  3. You have an “interesting” idea about what constitutes and what merits “academic discussion”. Sophia Tesfamariam is a member of the public and is a prominent political representative for her country–yes, an Eritrean who defends the Eritrean government. Any anthropologist who restricts discussion to fellow academics alone, and does not bother consulting people like Tesfamariam and the many others like her who are speaking up, is no anthropologist and therefore there would be no basis for an academic discussion. You seem to instead dedicate yourself to criticizing the critic in a tu quoque and ad hominem set of responses, that rather expose your own weaknesses. As for non-Eritrean sources, having had the experiece of interacting with David Bozzini, I would recommend the strongest of caution, especially when concerning a state that is highlighted by the greatest military power on earth as an adversary. There is otherwise nothing at all in your comment that sways me; my only impression is that Tesfamariam makes you growl. So what?

  4. “(did you just compare that to Sweden [Switzerland])”

    If you had read and understood this article, or even just the basic thrust of ZA, then surely you would not be asking such a question.

    On a related issue: I find it curious that the Eritrean “regime” has distributed arms to the masses…something one normally would be ill-advised to do if you distrusted your people’s sentiments. So no, no comparison with either Sweden or Switzerland.

  5. The so-called ‘law of same difference’ strikes me, at first glance, as not dissimilar to the rhetorical strategies used by supporters of the state of Israel to fend off its critics… The ‘poor little Eritrea’ trope is also rather patronizing….

  6. It would have been patronizing, had I actually used it. The article doesn’t say that anywhere. Instead, there is a reference to scale and distance, written free of the usual academic jargon. Why focus on the far away, and the much smaller phenomenon? That’s all.

  7. The following comment comes from ZA co-writer, Jamil Hanifi, who unfortunately is currently unable to log in:

    “The predicament of militarization varies according to the historical, political and ideological location of the militarized and the degree, scale, and quality of the tools and agencies for militarization. A cogent understanding of militarization and the militarized and their relationship to each other requires knowledge about the imperial cosmologies of the militarizer(s). For example, in a comparative framework, a systematic engagement of the militarization of the state of Afghanistan by the USSR, the militarization of Iraq, Eritrea and the terrorist “freedom fighters” of Afghanistan by the United States, and the differential militarization of the Middle East by Euro-America expose numerous sets of causes and consequences. (I am thinking of Bakhtin’s heteroglossia). On some levels of comparison these bundles of causes and consequences and the ideologies and material elements that bridge them produce melodies of consensus; on others, bursts of verbal fist fights. If I correctly understand the anthropologist Maximillian Forte, he is essentially trying to mitigate the prospects of a pillow fight between Sophia Tefsamariam and detractors of the governments of Eritrea and the United States.”

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