Nicole Suveges, a funny, kind person, has died on an HTS mission in Iraq

The HTS program lost its 2nd Social Scientist this week, Nicole Suveges. She was funny and kind and one of the first people I met in the program. 11 other people, military and civilian were also killed in the explosion. The official announcement from the HTS is below (original link:

It is with great sadness that we inform you of the tragic death of Nicole Suveges, our social scientist team member assigned to the Iraq Human Terrain Team (HTT) IZ3, in support of 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division based at FOB Prosperity, Baghdad, Iraq.

Nicole was killed on June 24, 2008 when a bomb exploded at the District Council building in southern Sadr City where she was attending a meeting of the District Advisory Council, which was scheduled to elect a new chairman.

Eleven other people, including two soldiers and a member of the State Department Embedded Provincial Reconstruction Team (E-PRT), were killed in the attack. Nicole died instantaneously in the explosion. Another HTS member was injured but is currently in stable condition.

This attack was apparently carried out by a “special group,” believed to be Shia militia members acting in contravention of a cease-fire order issued by Muqtada al-Sadr. US forces captured a suspect as he fled the scene, who subsequently tested positive for explosive residue.

The reduction of violence in Sadr City in recent months has allowed the US military to improve delivery of essential services to the population and to facilitate effective municipal administration. The HTT and the E-PRT were attending this Sadr City District Advisory Council meeting to mediate disputes within the Sadr City leadership, and facilitate the development of a more representative local government. This activity was part of an ongoing HTT effort to facilitate collective reconciliation among Iraqi civil society groups.

Nicole had almost completed a PhD in political science at Johns Hopkins University. Her dissertation was titled “Markets & Mullahs: Global Networks, Transnational Ideas and the Deep Play of Political Culture.” Formerly, she served in Sarajevo as an Army Reservist in support of SFOR/NATO. For the past two years, Nicole had worked in Iraq, initially as a project lead for polling and later as a subject matter expert for Multinational Corps Iraq (MNCI).

Thanks to Nicole’s professional competence and wonderful work ethic, Human Terrain Team IZ3 was quickly and enthusiastically embraced by their Brigade Combat Team. IZ3 is the primary cell responsible for political, cultural, and tribal engagements for the Brigade Commander, and Nicole was instrumental to the preparation, development and analysis of these engagements. Thanks to her, the Brigade became an exemplar for political and tribal dialogue, which is the key to both a stable and functioning government for Baghdad and ultimately for all of Iraq.

Nicole enthusiastically embraced the challenges posed by working in a war zone, believing that social scientists could make the greatest contribution at the tactical level. She wrote, “HTS is the first effort to make social scientists and other HTT personnel available at the brigade – read local – level. This is where the war in Iraq is being fought, and it is about time that they are afforded the same capabilities that their higher echelons have. The burden that HTS has taken upon itself is to provide trained and knowledgeable personnel who can provide ‘outside of the box’ thinking, function as a team, and be a true asset to the brigades to which HTTs are assigned.”

We will remember Nicole for her intelligence, personal courage, warm personality, and tremendous dedication to her work. In the last email we received from her, she wrote: “I love this job!” Our thoughts are with her family, friends, and teammates at this time. She will be greatly missed.

Steve Fondacaro
Program Manager

Montgomery McFate
Senior Social Science Advisor

Human Terrain System

CNN also has more details about Nicole and her graduate work.

US Embassy in Germany Protects Americans from Soccer Fans Armed with Bratwurst

Tonight is the semi-final Euro-cup match between Germany and Turkey. People here in Germany really like soccer, and do things like watch it on outside screenings.  But the US Embassy is on its toes! Americans in Germany are warned that such sporting events can result in boisterous behavior, and even a fight now and then.  At a minimum, the US Embassy tells us, such events can result in bad things like traffic jams!

The German news service Deutsche Welle goes further and lists some of the dangers that careless American might encounter: “Many of the viewers at the so-called fan miles, it turns out, are hopped up on a liquid intoxicant known as ‘beer.’ This substance has been known to lead to outbreaks of mirth, loss of equilibrium and unintended and later regretted coupling among users. In addition, soccer fiends have been reported to consume things called ‘bratwurst,’ which, depending on quality, can emit streams of hot fluid, known in street lingo as ‘grease,’ when improperly chomped upon.”

I hope that this means the State Department is getting ready for those other big dangerous event, like the Olympics, and even the Super Bowl in January. Such vigilance is important for American foreign policy which requires our allies to know how serious we are about security!  If we are serious about foreign soccer games, I am sure that the next time the United States warns the world that other countries are creating weapons of mass destruction,  America’s views are sure to be taken much more seriously!

High Schools and Declensionist Narratives

Years ago at a conference, I heard a paper about “declensionist narratives. “  Declensionist narratives are the stories we tell each other about how/why today is an even bigger mess than the past.  Since most people prefer complaining to praising, such narratives are quite common.  They include your uncle who talks about how kids were more obedient in the old days, newspaper reporters who claim that a new type of “super-predator” has emerged in the ghetto, and teachers who claim that today’s student are more defiant or stupid than those during the good ol’days.  Dodgers fans who claim that the team was never better than when it was in Brooklyn, and advocates of “The Greatest Generation” are also telling declensionist narratives about why things are worse today than in the past. Such narratives common with people who deal with society’s social problems, such as police officers, teachers, social workers, etc.  A good example of such declensionist narrative was written by a college instructor, “Professor X” is in the June 2008 Atlantic Monthly, called “In the Basement of the Ivory Tower.”  Professor X complains that too many of the students in his community college English classes should not be there because they do not have basic writing skills.  To a certain extent, such narratives are important because they focus attention on real problems–which is better than ignoring things.  But such declensionist narratives can also lead us into a destructive swamp of cynicism.

The other problem with decenionist narratives is that in the long-run, few things have actually gotten worse, despite the complaining.  Life expectancy is up, illness is way down, average house sizes are up, diet has gotten so good that we worry about obesity and not starvation, and we travel more than ever.  The population is far more literate than it was decades ago, etc., etc., etc.  In the case of community colleges writing classes, part of the problem is that larger proportions of the population are attending them, and addressing the writing problems that Professor X describes.  This did not happen only sixty years ago when community colleges barely existed.

One of my personal favorite declensionist narratives is to complain about high schools.  My kids’ school in particular frustrates me. I often find it to be a bureaucratic nightmare always asking me to sign another waiver form for “liability reasons”, but unable to challenge my children intellectually.  I think that their p.e. classes are really stupid, as were mine decades ago.  My kids slept too much in school which always instead seems more focused on trivial matters like who is going with whom, sports, dances and those liability forms.  A favorite part of my declensionist narrative is about a ninth grade “computer” class where my daughter was given lessons in “keyboarding skills” she first developed in kindergarten. Not surprisingly, the kids instead played computer games, snuck into chatrooms, and wasted time on My Space. The only kid who ever did something original invented a computer game in which you could shoot a photo of his friend’s head while it bounced around the computer screen.  The kid was suspended for inciting violence, or some such thing  (I would have given him an award for breaking the tedium).  This was a crime, but the fact that my ninth grade daughter took a nap every morning in English (and still got an A) was somehow ok.

This happened in a school where test scores are substantially lower than schools with similar socio-demographics, the number AP classes declined last year, and in place of an emphasis on academics, there is that focus on dances, sports, and sexual abstinence lectures.  PE classes are as silly and lacking in content as they have always been—the only difference is that unlike in my day, they are now co-ed.

The implication is that, things were somehow better when I went high school back in the early 1970s, or at my dad’s school in the late 1940s.  But this is actually where my declensionist narrative starts to fall apart, because no matter how much I complain about my kids’ school today, J. F. Kennedy High School in Sacramento actually offered much less in the 1970s.  Indeed, my daughter may have slept through ninth grade English in 2006, but at least when I bothered to go, I slept through most of my high school career.
Academically, things at Kennedy were pretty weak.  I was regarded as ambitious because I took two years of college prep English, and three of math.  Typing, filmmaking, jewelry making, driver’s ed/health, print shop, p.e. were among the other classes rounding out my schedule.  And I still routinely left class at about noon.  Leaving school was fortunate, because I needed to avoid the bathrooms (as the teachers did), which were full of smoke and really mean guys who carried butterfly knives.  Suspendable offenses tended to involve real violence (not computer games), and I remember the riot police on campus during junior high school when there were fears of race riots.  As for my dad’s school in the 1940s…he told me tales of switchblades carried by the boys, and razor blades hidden in girls’ hair-dos.  In his day, he too was in the math fast track, which meant that he took geometry, a class that children routinely today often take in ninth grade.

Now, I write this not because I do not think that today’s high schools need reform.  They always do, and school teachers and administrators always need the challenges of students, parents, and a citizenry to be better.  My daughter may have slept in ninth grade, but I am grateful that her tenth grade teacher was a bit grouchy with her, and woke her up and still gave her her a B.  We also need to appreciate the achievements of the past, but, the more I watch the criticism of the schools, the more I become aware that reform efforts are trapped in an often cynical declensionist narrative that leaves little room for hope.  One of my favorite blogs on the web is “Bridging Differences” organized by two historians of school reform, Deborah Meier and Diane Ravitch.  Better than most, they know that reform efforts have been with us for the last 100 years.  But, even with two such knowledgeable people, sometimes the dialog slips into a nostalgia for when children were obedient, standards rigorous, and teachers appreciated.  The problem of course is what is forgotten: a minority of children even graduated from high school until after 1940, racial segregation was legal in the 1960s, and society is now rising to the challenge of educating immigrant children, rather than pushing them into factory work at 14.

Freshman Drinking and Coming of Age Rituals

Every society has coming of age rituals, and institutions where they occur.  Each society nees to figure out how to transfer rights and responsibilities from anxious adults, to their children. This requires adults to surrender some of their authority, and youth to take up some responsibility. This is often a process fraught with dangers, and every society handles it differently. The view from here in Germany is that the United States seems to focus disproportionately on the use of alcohol by youth. The American drinking age is typically 21, which is higher than other countries. And more so than elsewhere, alcohol (mis)use in the United States by youth is criminalized. In contrast, the drinking age here in Germany is 16, and that is seemingly rarely enforced. I have never heard of my German students being arrested for possession of alcohol, even though they do occasionally get drunk. In the United States my students are bombarded with zero tolerance threats beginning with they are about 12, and “minor in possession (MIP) tickets” shortly thereafter.

Chico State provides a good example of how anxiety about alcohol and coming of age is acted out in the United States. I teach at Chico State, which has been wrestling with its “party school” image for as long as I can remember. Accordingly, alcohol is banned on campus, and suffice it to say that the administration hates the image, the first year students seem inevitably to embrace it, and older and wiser alumni are never quite sure what to think. What this means is that every Fall, the administration huffs and puffs about the dangers of drinking, and posts photos of students who have died in previous years as a result of alcohol abuses of various kinds. The police issue fistful of tickets for “Minors in Possession” (MIP), and a few are inevitably arrested in the context of alcohol induced fights, sexual assaults, fraternity hazings, and so forth. A few are also hurt, often badly, in the context of drinking and driving.

As for the new students they compare statistics from dorm floors about who has the most MIPs, and swap stories of stomach pumping drama, and how to game the mandatory alcohol abuse classes they are sentenced to attend. The good news in all this is that by the time that I get students they are usually juniors or seniors, and have passed beyond this stage of social development, by “learning” to drink with some level of responsibility.

Anthropologists describe such shenanigans as a coming of age rituals. Meaning they are the sort of thing which while not necessarily desirable, nevertheless happen as authority transfers across generations. The danger, drama, and confrontation between students and administration are part of such rituals and perhaps necessary in the larger context of things. Most youth pass through them without anything more than a couple of bad hangovers, which years later as alumni and parents they typically remember with some bemusement. Except of course when there own children are involved, and they in turn will huff and puff just as aggressively as the administration at Chico State does today.

Germany has its coming of age rituals, too, but excessive drinking is not one typically associated with first year college students., The drinking age here is 16 for beer, and 18 for the hard stuff. Also, the first year German college student tends to be older than their American counterpart. German students do not graduate from the equivalent of high school until they are about 19, after which males are required to do a year of military or civil service. This pushes the age of first year students at the university up to 19 or 20, years beyond when they are first able to drink legally. One result—serious students not focused on sneaking their first drink. Indeed, beer and wine are even common at official student events.

So the anthropologists ask where is the coming of age ritual for alcohol abuse? After all the Germans do not drink less than Americans, at least in the big picture. The answer is that the abusive drinking associated with first year college students is found in the secondary schools of Germany—meaning it is associated with youth who are about 16. Before American parents cry about the lost innocence of youth, it is perhaps worthwhile to reflect on other elements of the German coming of age drinking culture. For what it is worth, there is some advantage to this, since such youth are still typically living at home whre they sleep it off under the disgruntled eye of a parent, and more importantly perhaps, none of the can drive—the minimum age for a driver’s license is 18. In other words, most first time drivers are already experienced drinkers.