I have been in Iraq as an anthropologist with a Human Terrain Team for a bit over two months now. The best description is that it’s like, well everything in life. I get excited about the work, I get discouraged. I feel like I am doing things that can have long term value and I wonder what the hell I’m doing in this screwed up place. I have learned that the backs of my ears may never be clean again, the ex-pat life agrees with me, I miss beer and sushi, and now I know what it feels like to take pictures of young men that die two days later.
Depending on the day you ask me, I will say that the problems with the entire HTS program are so insurmountable it should be started over from scratch, and on others, I see progress. We focus on being as much help as we can to our brigade in their efforts to help improve living and security conditions for local people as best we can. We often feel like we do this in spite of our bosses back in the states. How many times have we all said that our lives would be better if “the man” would just get out of the way and let us work? (I wonder how far up the food chain this feeling goes? Do Vice-Presidents feel like that about Presidents?) I go from wanting to quit to wanting to stay here for at least a year because there always seem to be another interesting project we can do.
In others words, it’s a job just like jobs everywhere.
The reality is that we do operate with almost 100% independence from the mothership back in Ft. Leavenworth. We want to focus on the work here, they want us to focus on the work here and that seems to suit everyone. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of problems in the program, including hiring practices, but I simply don’t think a blog is the appropriate place to air them. I mean really, would you blog about every bit of dirty laundry in your academic department or office? It’s frankly a disservice to everyone.
And no, I am not feeling any more charitable towards the vocal minority in anthropology or the co-called “Network of Concerned Anthropologists” (for my money, I am not sure who they are showing concern towards, god knows it’s not the people of Iraq, I don’t even think it’s for anthropology). Spend a few months over here and get some real data people, but alas getting actual data might not support your preconceived notions. There really needs to be a new category for your kind of anthropologist. I mean, “Social” may well still apply, but heavens knows using the title “Scientist” is a privilege you have long since lost.
What’s it like. The Army has been helpful, hospitable, arranged about any kind of fieldwork we wish to do. It should be no surprise that they were polite and helpful, but deeply skeptical over any really value we might add other that eating the food in the Dining Facility (DFAC). But now we have gotten a seat at the table so to speak, people request our assistance on various topics and generally we are little happy worker bees.
Looking at the AAA controversy after two months actually in the field makes some of the issues laughable. This idea that Human Terrain Teams are involved in gathering intelligence for example (we’ll, ignore for the moment the error of jargon people make, you don’t “gather” intelligence). I have seen this written about as if there are people in trench coats and dark glasses hovering by the HTT door just dying for a chance to peek at our work! Lord what a load of nonsense. I don’t know how many times this can be said, no… we don’t, ever. They don’t even want us too. Why, because it’s not our jobs, and they have professionals for that. It really is that simple, sorry to burst your conspiracy bubbles. We look at people in transition from jobs in one sector to another, how effective governance is in areas, issues of economy. The meetings I sit in are about building schools, putting in water purification facilities, trying to help local governments get more support for their communities from the Iraq national government, understanding complex issues related to agriculture and the economy. Hate to break it to you, but any anthropologist involved with development work would be pretty at home here.
I think what has stuck me the most since I have been here are the relationships that the military have built with their Iraqi counterparts helping them creating their own local governmental structures. Most of these young women and men have been trained to lead tanks and infantry companies. They showed up in Iraq and someone told them to establish security in an area and help the local population create an effective structure for representation to the provincial and national level. I have done part of my fieldwork in these meetings all over our area of the country. It’s amazing and impressive. They have made it happen with no training little support. Its fragile, rough, does not work always the way it should, but it’s indeed on the way. These military people figured out how to make it happen simply because they had no other choice but to try. They have all told me they wish anthropologists and governmental experts had been there to help them 12 months ago. Sorry, I have to say, that’s apparently not an ethical activity according to the Anthropology Association.
I’ll admit, I don’t hide my contempt for the stance of the AAA when I talk to people over here because its so poorly informed. I see a lot of people doing a lot of things to make the world better here. They are trying, failing a lot, succeeding sometimes and often doing it on native wit and common sense. Why? Because unlike many anthropologists, they chose to try, instead of complaining about the sorry state of the world. Fortunately there ARE anthropologists that do chose to try in whatever country they are in or whatever cause they support. I don’t think it’s ever occurred to the AAA or NCA that those people that chose to try are rarely going to be sway by me or them. They long ago found the value of action.
Look, the debate about the legitimacy of invading another country ends when the first bomb gets dropped. At that moment it becomes a historical discussion to be wrangled over by others. There is no “way back” machine, and we have to deal with the world as it is today. I am of the opinion that we broke it in a lot of ways, and I see no moral high ground in turning our backs on the country after we have done that.