Thomas Barnett, the military, and anthropology

Mark Dawson posted the video of Thomas Barnett’s talk to on Febrary 2 in the expectation that you might be pissed off, or you might be impressed. I appreciated seeing it. I was mostly impressed, and not too pissed off even though I disagree with a number of Barnet’s basic assumptions about how the world and the military work. Anyway, Barnett seems like an articulate guy, and I recommend you have a look.

In the video, Barnett recommends separating the US military’s war making capabilities, from its nation building activities which he calls “sys admin.” One of the more memorable points he makes is with regard to the invasion phase of a military operation where he recommends using single pumped up nineteen year olds, and the post-invasion phase where he recommends careful and thoughtful 40 year olds with families. This makes sense to me.

Barnett’s reasoning is fine on this point, except that one thing is missing from the whole presentation. That something is anthropology, or more generally social science. Although Barnett is implicitly hinting at anthropology when he discusses the role that the military should play in post-conflict situations plays, he never utters the word. The result is that he concludes that having older, more careful, and more culturally sensitive military is important to post-war reconstruction in places like Iraq. He concludes that the current military bureaucracies, the IMF, and unnamed NGOs be adapted to this.

But why not go the next step, and conclude that reconstruction is better undertaken by old anthropologists rather than old military guys retrained to do anthropology? Military training and culture is focused on logistics, security, intelligence, engineering, and weaponry. This is in turn focused by a strict command system which requires approval from remote headquarters before decisions to engage an enemy are made. Such an institution may be a great way to make war as Barnett points out. But the military would seem a poor place to develop people ready to engage local communities in post-war reconstruction, which implies a range of interests that are distinctively non-military. After all, it is such a command structure that created the catastrophe of Abu Ghraib.

Some of the things that applied anthropologists do better than military include things like project management in the context of cross-cultural relations, identification of “corruption,” understanding the strengths and weaknesses of strong clan systems, development of language skills, etc. These are of course all skills and awarenesses unlikely to emerge out of a centralized military hierarchy. (Or, for that matter the highly centralized State Department hierarchy). Some other things unlikely to emerge out of the military culture are the capacity to eat strange things with a smile, be extremely patient in difficult cultural circumstances, and make decisions without reference to a remote and inaccessible headquarters. Indeed, it sounds like applied anthropology to me.

This of course begs a question in the case of the current American wars in Iraq which is that given that military logic got us involved in the first place, can anthropological knowledge repair the system? I think that it is too late for anthropology (or any other social science) to “save” Iraq for the Americans now. As Barnett points out too much military logic has dominated American policy toward Iraq during the last five years with the result that repair is unlikely. Instead the United States will ultimately deal with the refugee flight, and other catastrophic consequences of withdrawal from Iraq as the occupation force is worn down. Again, I would propose that these will be circumstances best dealt with by old anthropologists, and some of the NGOs that Barnett at least tangentially mentions.

Perhaps in this context the most important productive message that anthropology can deliver is that the military as it is designed now is a poor institution for nation building. The trick though is to provide an alternative institutions for nation-building and refugee relief, which few institutions besides the military does systematically. Anthropology can contribute to the hopefully coordinated search for such alternatives.

As Mark Dawson pointed out in earlier posts on, keeping the anthropological toys in the ivory tower meant only that nineteen year olds in Iraq get to figure out for themselves that giving out soccer balls with the Saudi flag on it is a bad idea. Or, as Barnett pointed out, the nineteen year-olds themselves figured out that reflective Ray-ban sunglasses are a bad idea. In short, military people will “do” anthropology whether they have formal training or not. Again, I disagree with Barnett that simply moving around the administrative boxes in the Pentagon is the answer. Bureaucracies are needed to deal with post-conflict situations in places like Darfur, Iraq, and future catastrophes. The question is who will design them?

Popular and Traditional Culture

Living in another country means that you are always drawing comparisons with your own culture.  Sometimes it seems like globalization runs rampant.  Commonalities are seen all around you, in our case between our home in California, and our temporary home in southern Germany.  An example is my daughter’s analysis of the television show “Deutschland Sucht den Superstar” (DSDS), which in English is “Germany searches for a Superstar.”

“Just like ‘American Idol,’” Kirsten said.  “Only the Simon Cowell figure is ruder, if that’s possible.”  Indeed, the two shows even have the same blue oval logo.  All this brings a groan, about the coarseness of globalized world culture.  Did I come all the way to Germany just to realize that they have American Idol too? (Keep in mind too that American Idol is a rip-off of another bad British program).

But then we end up going to the “Fasching Celebrations” which are two or three weeks of rituals, celebrations, parades (and drinking) designed to drive away the spirits of winter.  Every town in southern Germany seems to have clubs of witches and fools who ride around in costume on the trains in elaborate costumes in with their masks under their arms.  Large parades are organized.  The masked witches and fools free the kids from school on “Dirty Thursday,” and iun our town, arrest the town magistrate and put him on trial.  Our town magistrate, a man from northern Germany, was accused of being too skinny to be a burgermeister, and sentenced to eat platefuls of Swabian food from southern Germany.

Kids practiced cracking their whips all across town for all three weeks, and a particularly loud brass band wakes us up one morning at 4:45 a.m. with their parade through our otherwise quiet neighborhood.  It all culminated on a Sunday evening two weeks ago in a beer hall made of wood and grass and capped with the effigy of a witch.  After the beer was drunk, the beer hall hall was torched at the end of the two to three week long ritual as youth cracked their whips, in one last determined attempt to drive away the spirits of the winter.

Fasching ended two weeks ago, and I am happy to report that the winter, at least for the time being, seems to have lightened.  The days are both getting longer, and warmer.  The kids are back in school, and we no longer hear the cracking of whips.  I do not know if our burgermeister has gained weight yet or not.  Unfortunately, there is not yet another German superstar–that will have to wait for another next post.  Kirsten though tells me that the winners of DSDS have yet to become as big as Kelly Clarkson!

In Memory of a Friend

Today I attended a memorial mass celebrating the life of a friend and colleague, Dr. John Alfred Pierre Dennis, Jr., who died on February 9, 2008 (b. 10/21/48). Dr. D, as he was known to students, was one of those people whose spirit literally seemed to linger in the room after he left – making it a better place than it had been before he entered. There are other articles where you can read about the tragic circumstances of his death (he was murdered in his home by a former mentee), or the triumphs of his professional life (for example, he was one of a relatively small number of African-Americans with a PhD in history from Stanford University), but I wanted to take a moment to share a few personal remembrances.

Although I had known John enough to say hello for several years, which with him meant a hug and a kiss on the cheek every time I saw him, we had our first personal and bonding conversations in the spring of 2006 when we both attended a retreat for faculty on the Russian River in Northern California. We discovered we shared in common a passion for teaching, an affection for European history, and interestingly, taught the only two courses on death at Saint Mary’s College. John taught his as a January Term cross-curricular offering with historical, cross-cultural, philosophical, and spiritual dimensions and called it, “Death and Dying.” Mine was a semester-long course called “The Anthropology of Death,” and was crafted along the lines of many such anthro courses at many institutions – a review of the history of funerary and ritual theories, a little endocannibalism, a little mortuary archaeology, and all of the famous case studies you can probably think of off the tops of your little ethnographic heads.

Believe it or not, a scholarly interest in death is the kind of thing that academics can bond over, and we talked about our efforts to convince students (and sometimes colleagues) that the study of death, far from macabre, was a great way to study life. We agreed that to understand a culture’s response to death was to gain insight into what it valued most about life. I thought of that today as I sat, literally in the last little folding chair in the far, far, back corner of the packed to bursting chapel and listened to ways that Dr. D’s death prompted the College community to celebrate and remember his life. They mentioned his love of music, dance, and the arts; his sense of teaching as a calling from God; his eccentric (yet classy, in my opinion) taste in clothing colors; and above all, his ability to inspire others. John had spent many of his years at Saint Mary’s teaching students in the High Potential Program, which identifies, admits, and then works tirelessly to support students, from disadvantaged and under-prepared backgrounds at the College. One of the speakers at the service described John as the person who stood in the space between the students and their dreams, helping them identify those aspirations, believe in them, and achieve them.

One of the last extensive conversations John and I ever had was after I gave a talk in the Academic Integrity Seminar he was teaching (students attending are those who have been found guilty of a violation of the academic honor code). He came up to me afterwards and clasped my hands and said, “Cindy, you are a wonder.” That’s exactly what he said. Somehow John could say things like that and you would feel the sincerity of his praise penetrating down to your bones and inspiring you. I’m sure I beamed, and in that moment it hardly mattered that at the end of a long day I was certain I was anything but… I can only imagine how that ability to so quickly and easily make meaningful connections benefited his students.

So, Dr. John Dennis, I offer you this blog entry, as my own way of commemorating and honoring what was important to me about your life and death. It scares me that you were killed by one of the people that you tried to help. It pleases me to say you were my friend. It inspires me to continue the work you felt was so important in teaching, mentoring, and promoting appreciation for cultural diversity. It deeply and profoundly saddens me that we will not dance together at next year’s Christmas Party, but in my mind’s eye, you will always be rocking out to “I Will Survive” as we did in December of 2007. With love, Cindy.

The Importance of Mentors

As somebody who is going through same major transitions in life, I’ve been thinking about how important mentors are in one’s life. I would bet there are very few people in this world who truly believe that they got where they are in life completely alone. As in my case, there are many different people throughout our lives who could be considered “mentors” because they’ve taken some of their valuable time and donated it to someone else’s well-being.

Luckily, I’ve had many different people mentor me in a variety of environments and who continue to do so. I am sure that I would not be the same person without their guidance and I am always appreciative to those who reach out. I find that each one of these mentors bring valuable life experiences and resources with them, which, even by simply hearing their personal stories or experiences, help me to keep my mind open and see past potential road blocks. It helps to know, when things get difficult, that there are others who have made it through similar situations successfully and who have proven that the bar can and should be continuously raised. Mentors are not meant to make things easy or hand you an answer, but they can give you that extra little push, boost of confidence, or valuable resource that can make a difference.

Although mentor-mentee relationships are often informal, with the mentor taking their own initiative to help their student in a time of need or uncertainty, an organized program such as the Entrepreneur Mentorship program at California State University, Fresno can also provide an incomparable opportunity to learn from others. As a participant of this program, I have had the opportunity to contact, interview, and learn from a wide variety of the Central Valley’s most successful entrepreneurs and innovative thinkers. Each week one of these people offer their time to speak to our class about their successes, failures, and life stories. Through their stories, leadership recommendations, words of advice and encouragement, the students have collectively expressed, and I do concur, that a certain confidence is gained. The different lifestyles and level of success of these mentors seemed so foreign to most, if not all, the students in the beginning of the school year. As we edge closer to the end of the year and the class was asked to reflect on our experiences, it was unanimously agreed that it seemed as if the mentors’ willingness to share their stories and to allow us to see that they are human (through their experiences) and therefore not so different after all, has helped us along in our on-going transitions from students to teachers, dreamers to doers, consumers to creators, and from followers to leaders.

Whether formally organized in an on-going academic program, a work relationship, student-teacher relationship, or other, the positive influence that a mentor can have can not be overstated. I thank all of the mentors in my life, your time and effort is noticed and appreciated.

On The Road Again

Marks CarHello from a random TA truckstop along I-10 in Arizona.  I spent 10 years of my life criss-crossing the country as a performer and I have to say I have a major soft spot for a good truck stop.  I have eaten in them, showered there, caught up on the news, and spent many, many nights sleeping in my car at them.  TA, 76, Pilot, Flying J, these will be familiar names to any of the over the roaders.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I left Jump Associates for a new adventurre.  Right now the current adventure is just driving my humble little Solstice across the country.  Thats not a major adventure really.  You pretty much take I-10 until you fall of the other side of Florida.  In the mean time I am taking random geotagged photos of my trip you can you keep track.  If you want to play “Where’s Mark?” just go to my Flickr map, or just look for the Mark’s Map link in the upper right corner.

And people say that stalking me is hard…

Confusing Things

So it’s midterm time, and also time for me to do my self-check (stolen from my colleague and best pal, Cindy herself):  have the students write down the most interesting, most confusing, and most important things they have learned so far in the class.

Thus far, we’ve been reading Margaret Mead’s Growing Up in New Guinea.  So a  lot of the confusion involved cross-cousins, tabu, and the intricacies of so-called primitive life in 1920s New Guinea.  But at least two of the students were confused about just why anthropologists do what they do:  “Why did Mead go there at all?  Why did she have to go so far?  Couldn’t she learn that at home?  Why do anthropologists do anthropology, anyway?”

It’s a fair question, and I’ll try to address it in bits and pieces in classes to come–they are reading my research next, and I hope I make it clear why I do anthropology.  And perhaps we’ve addressed it some in this blog already, but I thought I’d throw it out generally.

Why anthropology?

Letter of Recommendation, Academic Influence Peddling, and Related Pet Peeves

Letter of recommendation writing season has come and passed. I probably did 10 or 15 letters for a variety of academic jobs, graduate school applications, and served as a reference on a couple more job applications. I do not mind writing the letters, because I know that my students need to get past this hurdle. I also always try to do well by them, although without fabricating things. But there are things that bug me about this whole process, such as the forms that ask us to make untenable numerical estimates of a students abilities (i.e. top 1%, 2%, 5% etc.), and some of the posturing that inflates the importance of the letters. But using letters as a form of influence peddling is perhaps my biggest peeve.

When used properly, I think letters are a good way for search and admissions committee to check for three semi-important things. First the letters are good for checking if the shyer people “bragged enough” about themselves in their application letter. Second, they are good for evaluating whether the applicant will be a good colleague. When I read such letters, I like to read that the applicant has been involved in outside activities. Finally I use letters to check that the applicant is not a whiner, and willingly does reasonable things that are not in their job description. Note though that these three semi-important things are not nearly as important as the c.v. listing accomplishments, or the cover letter explaining the applicants goals.

There are a couple of things people write that do not make the letter any better, at least in my mind. One is the letter from the big shot who claims that this particular student will make a major theoretical a breakthrough on the basis of their Honors Thesis/master’s thesis/dissertation. Ok, big shots are asked to write lots of letters, and this is an easy and unverifiable throw away assertion. Fact of the matter though is that big breakthroughs very very rarely result from dissertations, and I have yet to meet anyone other than maybe a palm reader who can make such accurate predictions.

Another mild fraud of letter writers are assertions that a student has been the best two or three in the last twenty years (or whatever). These are ultimately empty comments which tell me nothing about the student how the applicant will be to work with, or whether they will whine or not. All it really tells me is that the recommender has never listened in on lectures about statistical reliability and validity. But this minor fraud is only mildly annoying.

A next step up in annoyance level are the little boxes on the applications for graduate school which ask us to place our students in some percentile (top 2%, top 10%, top 50%, etc.). The bubbles presumably were put on the form designed administrators who not only did not pay attention in research methods, but probably slept through the lectures on validity. Nor, I suspect, were the people who designed the bubbles ever teachers. For what it is worth, my best students are always the ones I have right now. Indeed, if I did not believe this unreplicable tautology, I would get out of teaching. Part of being a good teacher is belief in the capabilities of the students you have now, not only those from a glorious past. (Imagine how depressing it would be to face a classroom of people who could never be as good as those five years ago–ugh). Nevertheless, I continue to fill in the bubbles—it doesn’t seem worth the trouble to resist this national practice.

But what I find most annoying about the letter writing business has nothing to do with bureaucratic chores. Rather it is the underhanded “influence peddling” that some faculty badger students with. Typically, such faculty claim to be owed favors by someone at another institution. Because of this influence, the student is told that the recommender can make (or break) a grad school application with a letter, email, or especially a phone call. They often point out that the world of a particular discipline is small—which is only partly true, and that their personal reputation is riding on the letter, which is unlikely. Such an assumption assumes that if/when you get the job or assignment, and later screw up, you have he power to personally embarrass them.

But this assumes that committee members are sufficiently impressed with a letter to actually remember the letter writer’s name with that of a successful applicant two or three years´later. Sorry, I can’t do that, nor if I could, would I hold my mistake in making a admission or hire against that of a letter writer. None of us, including letter writers, have perfect foresight, and we have only the ability to indicate whether someone was in the past a good colleague, and pleasant to work with. Indeed, in a typical job search I read something like 200 or so letters of recommendation.

As for the students and applicants on the opaque side of this whole process, they continue to have my sympathy. Applying for a job or graduate school is always a humbling. Letters of recommendation are important parts of it, but they are still no substitute for the work and accomplishments on your c.v. and letter of application.

Thomas Barnett: The Pentagon’s new map for war and peace

Every year in Monterey, CA there is a famous conference called TED. Think of it as the Burning Man of the Digerati and Intelligencia crowd. Invitation-only and a few thousand bucks to attend. The speakers are often very high profile, or obscure and thought provoking. Thomas Barnett has been a Pentagon adviser on how the military and how its used must change for many years. In this talk on the need to two kinds of military force, you can get a glimmer of where cultural expertise can be applied in an ethical and transparent manner: The abstract of his presentation from the TED website sums it up well:

“In this bracingly honest and funny talk, international security strategist Thomas P.M. Barnett outlines a post-Cold War solution for the foundering US military: Break it in two. He suggests the military re-form into two groups: a Leviathan force, a small group of young and fierce soldiers capable of swift and immediate victories; and an internationally supported network of System Administrators, an older, wiser, more diverse organization that actually has the diplomacy and power it takes to build and maintain peace.”

Parts will piss you off, some you may be OK with, but it should be interesting discussion fodder. It runs about 23 to 25 minutes.