Throwing stones

by Carl Dyke

I admire and enjoy the work Max Forte is doing at OPEN ANTHROPOLOGY. His post on shooting kids is typically interesting and provocative. It’s working from this video shot from the cab of a U.S. military vehicle in Iraq, in which a soldier narrates his thoughts about a series of Iraqi children throwing rocks at him and eventually breaking his windshield. Those thoughts are, as Max notes, not pretty (strong language alert):

Like a good anthropologist and especially as the engaged anti-colonialist, anti-imperialist kind, Max’s empathy tends to slosh toward the locals. He’s aware of the soldiers as humans, but because they’re in big trucks, have guns, and are members of an occupying force of dubious legitimacy, their troubles are their own and easily solved by getting the flork out of Iraq. He wonders why we should ‘support the troops’ in doing this bad thing that they’re doing. Stop doing it, The End.

I want to fiddle with Max’s take on the video and the situation (comments on the thread itself have also been excellent, go see), but only in a more general context of agreeing with his principles and project. What I say here is meant to balance the analysis from a different perspective, which I believe is what a good anthropological community ought to do. It could be that a more balanced analysis blunts the thrust of Max’s politics, and here we may find our disagreement. I’m not much persuaded by righteous critiques of righteousness, which is why I wrote the post before this one. To me Iraq is a vivid but otherwise ordinary case of a lot of people acting in moral good faith according to different understandings of what the content of morality is, and a lot of other people acting out their habitus, and the rest kind of improvising. Taking a stand here makes sense for many reasons, but for me to join in with all that would just add clutter.

To start by clearing a little clutter, ‘supporting the troops’ and ‘supporting the mission’ are two different things. Max is able to collapse those together because he assigns full, intentional responsibility to the troops for being there as agents of the mission. I’m actually sympathetic to this kind of strong moral ascription as a regulative ideal, but it is an ascription of an ideal. As such, it’s not very anthropological. Max is appropriately not much interested in the anthropology of the troops, but I am. I teach in Fayetteville and work with these soldiers from Fort Bragg all the time. They matter to me. They’re smart and dumb, moral and expedient, reflective and unreflective, likable and repellent in just the same proportion as most folks. They’re in the army for a range of reasons, not mutually exclusive, including passionate love of their country, a sense of duty and honor, group solidarity, class struggle, anxiety about their masculinity, social betterment, economic expedience, a poor sense of options, and occasionally sadism.

The narrative offered by the soldier on the video is chilling at face value. As far as we know from what he says, the only reason he’s not shooting a bunch of Iraqi kids or giving the wheel a little jog and running them over is that his sergeant told him not to. Who knows what he’d do if he thought he could get away with it, and so on. If we take what he says at face value, this guy is a dangerous sociopath with a barely restrained god complex. Just like the United States?

I know very few people who are so reflective and controlled or unreflective and simple that I can (or in kindness should) take what they say at face value. I watched the vid with my wife Rachel, who isn’t a big fan of militarism but used to be married to a soldier at Bragg and hung out with those guys a lot. We both had the same reaction, which was “poor guy.” That soldier is no psycho. Crude and a knucklehead, yes; not defendable. But he’s scared, tired, frustrated and hurt. Maybe feels like he’s there trying to do a good thing and being dragged down. He’s probably not fully invested in the ideology of liberation from tyranny; few soldiers I know are. But he’s familiar with the chaos of collapsed order and he does know he’s in a no-win situation. He’s blowing off some serious steam here, and probably pumping himself and his buddy with the camera up. But he’d no sooner shoot those kids than he’d shoot his sergeant, who he also no doubt cusses out behind his back on choice occasions. He’s disciplined with a pretty good discipline in comparison to, say, a warrior in Chinggis Khan’s Mongol hordes or a thug in Nasty Somoza’s Nicaraguan National Guard, either of whom would have had a much less restrained idea of how to apply superior power.

And the thing is, the kids know it. They don’t even bother ducking or running away once they’ve hucked their rocks. We may well admire their initiative and pluck in resisting the occupiers (I’d want something a little more structured and thoughtful if they were my kids), and they are certainly earning themselves some bragging rights (the guy who broke the windshield is a folk hero for the next little while), but they’re basically punks getting away with symbolic acts of defiance to authority. Good for them, but not what I’d call Resistance with a capital R. Their impunity is evident in their relaxed posture, their mocking tone, and the fact that this particular corner is known by both ‘sides’ as the one where you come to stone the Americans. I can see where that would be fun and affirming, under the circumstances, a thrill of transgression for sure and a ready tie-in to a typically othering notion of group solidarity. Of course, they are also in a larger sense in a no-win situation, which brings us back to Max’s point — yikes. U.S., just get out.

Whether or not that happens any time soon, I think it’s worth going back and cleaning up that standard left-wing critique of the hypocrisy of U.S. democracy for supporting rather than toppling nasty dictators. Saddam was one of those, and according to the Cold War rhetoric of critical opposition to cynical U.S. imperialism the neo-cons actually did the right thing, for once, by taking him out. We could have gotten at the oil and kept Iran in check much easier by making up with Saddam over Kuwait and letting him get on with exterminating the Kurds. Despite all the war’s stupidity and barbarism, and the very real danger of a plunge into civil war and anarchy, Iraq is much closer to popular self-determination now than it was under the Sunni Ba’athists. So it turns out we on the left do not actually want a muscularly unhypocritical U.S. democracy. We should get much clearer on what we do want, and thanks to Max for working toward that.

16 Responses to “Throwing stones”

  1. Excellent post. I want to place a link to it in the comments on my post, especially as I am too exhausted to do a proper summary.

  2. Thanks, Max! Link away, and sleep well.

  3. Great post!
    I appreciate the thoughtful analysis of the video and discussion of the diverse motivations of those who join the military.
    The soldier’s remarks were repugnant, but useful in illustrating the repressed anger and frustration felt by many servicemen and women. In any event, I am glad the video found its way onto the Internet.
    In the Muslim world there is a tradition of symbolically stoning the Devil during Hajj, perhaps the Iraqi youth are finding new uses for religious rituals of resistance when they symbolically stone the U.S. troops… or they are just a bunch of punks throwing rocks.

  4. Thanks very much, Johnathan. You made some great points over at Max’s place too, and it was neat to see you guys reach common ground.

    I wondered about the symbolic resonance of the stoning. I’m glad you can confirm that, and your point about finding new uses rings plausible to me (bricolage, bricolage, dontcha just love it). The kids may or may not be systematically enacting a ritual of resistance (or solidarity, or coming of age). It could also be the case that their cultural vocabulary gives them stoning as a default and legitimate means of expression of the punk agenda. (Not to mention that stones are handy and cheap, as I know from my own youth.) I suspect that as usual, more than a few things are going on at once?


  5. Carl, you are trying to reach a middle ground and that is great, except middle grounds are not, contrary to the dominant ideology, where all things good and true are to be found. Middle grounds can also be where confusion is found, and I think I see some of that in your final paragraph. You have implicitly accepted that the war was about taking out Saddam Hussein — I am not sure this is a good example of being “reasonable and smart.” If the intention was to remove Saddam Hussein, there are many different ways that could have been done, we don’t need to revisit debates that have raged for many years now. What they ended up doing, shock and awe style, was to take out a nation. Sorry, but I cannot remain unmoved in the face of that, and most human beings I know, or who have made themselves heard around the world, share that lack of cold dispassion. Those who remain placid are no less political, as much as they may try to hide their politics behind various veneers. The question that rarely gets asked in the middle ground is why only one head of state should be removed — why not take out all others with equal impunity? That takes us to discussions of inequality, power, and imperialism — I am not afraid of those discussions, and I am not afraid to abandon the middle ground either. Having said that, I can’t deny that liked many of the points you raised in your post. They try to re-humanize individuals who have been dehumanized by the culture and the institutions they inhabit. They are not totally powerless and hapless either, and of course they share some responsibility for their actions.

  6. Again, thank you Max. I appreciate this careful reading and critique. Just a couple of points:

    You’re a good man, doing a good thing. I believe I’m also a good man, doing a different good thing. Your passionate advocacy is admirable to me, and I support it. That’s not what I’m about. I recognize and take responsibility that my balanced rationalism has costs, that it is a ‘luxury’ largely paid for by others as the result of an unequal and exploitative distribution of resources. This seems to me to create an obligation to do right by the opportunity that’s been afforded me. Seeing the same obligation, you’ve interpreted it as a duty to act politically. To me, the duty is to reliably observe and analyze, and thus to be a resource for the kind of comprehensive humane synthesis we all hope can come of our imperfect relations with each other.

    I take my cues on this from a couple of sources. First, Weber’s famous essays on science and politics as vocations, in which he points out that the ethics of truth require deliberation, while the ethics of action require a willingness to risk and be wrong. Weber didn’t exclude a single person doing both, but he did exclude that you could do both at the same time. I have my politics, and in my ways I act on them. But this blog project is a ‘sciency’ one for me in that the goal is ‘enlightenment’, clarity, balance, not activism.

    Second, my original research field encompasses the intellectual history of Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, especially marxism. As a result, I am deeply familiar with the kind of argument that makes everything boil down to moral politics, and I’m uncomfortably familiar with the consequences of that at the time. World wars, holocausts, purges and mass famines, millions upon millions of deaths and untold misery, are linked to extremism in the history of the 20th century. The word for a politics that seeks to be about everything is ‘totalitarianism’. Everyone involved thought their cause was good and that no means was too extreme to achieve it; they thought that all things good and true were over where they were. Can’t stress that enough. And they were horribly, horribly WRONG. I’m leery. A second thought, then a third, might not be a bad thing.

    You make a good point about the practice of the middle ground. Questions have to be asked evenly, answers distributed fairly. So we should indeed ask how else Saddam might have been removed, and whether Bush the Younger should also have been. I don’t think those questions have gone unasked, and they don’t have to be asked anew every single time the topic comes up. For example it’s important and may not need a lot of repeating that the U.S. political system has checks, balances, and removal procedures internally available (flawed but functional), while Ba’ath Iraq did not; this is what makes all U.S. citizens credibly responsible for the actions of our government (and not ‘innocent’ when we are killed in terror attacks). In any event, that was not my point. My point was that the U.S. is often criticized for using its unequal imperial power for selfish and hypocritical ends, rather than to do good. Well, things are done by those with the power to do them. So the question is, how should the U.S. be using its power instead? Many possible answers, of course, but in the context of leftist Cold War rhetoric at least one answer was, “take out dictators rather than supporting them.” And we have, and it turns out that’s not what was wanted. So we should start to be clear about what we would like the U.S. to do with all this powerful ability to accomplish things it currently enjoys, and should be responsible with. Giving up that power is not a credible expectation, and failing to use it is also criticized, as the examples of Rwanda and Sudan show.

    I would never argue that the war is happening for any one reason, or that all the reasons are in the ‘moral’ basket. What I did suggest is that the usual conspiracy theories about oil and regional hegemony are simplistic and pragmatically wrong, although that does not exclude them as effective factors in fallible human decisionmaking. Also observably among the various reasons we went into Iraq was neo-con fundamentalism, that is, a downright religious belief in the virtues of libertarian democracy supported by market capitalism — which is what they call ‘freedom’, and they really mean it. As an anthropologist you must know how dangerous it is to ignore people when they tell you how the world makes sense to them. The neo-cons have been telling us for a long time, and I’ve tried to listen. That does not mean I agree, any more than I agree with neo-traditionalist gendering practices in Pashtunistan, Arabia, and Kansas. I’m not the guy who’s going to go try to ‘fix’ them, however, except by patiently excavating the sources and consequences of those ways of making sense — again, as a reliable resource.

    I don’t know if these responses will be satisfactory, but I appreciate the prodding to clarify my position and hope you’ll keep it up!

  7. Note: another thread of this discussion, focused on politics, rhetoric and the ethics of engagement, is at In Harmonium. Be sure to also look at the prior post on “untangling ethics,” and of course the ongoing discussion at Open Anthropology (links above).

  8. Thanks for your patience and your graciousness Carl. I posted a reply of sorts on In Harmonium. I will try to look out for any further replies, but I must say that WordPress does not make it easy to keep track of discussions.

  9. Don’t start me talking
    I could talk all night
    ?My mind goes sleepwalking
    While I’m putting the world to right
    Called careers information
    Have you got yourself an occupation?
    But there’s no danger
    It’s a professional career
    Though it could be arranged
    With just a word in Mr. Churchill’s ear

    I’m glad you, Carl, were able to strike empathy on both sides; that is, you avoid complete martyrdom of the “little boys” – something pretty easy to do nowadays. It doesn’t take much to point to pop culture, where they’ve assumed (or consumed) the same one directional, self-defeating rhetoric of “this sucks”….yeah, but now what? Ostensibly, this type of insularity has trickled all the way down to popular music, which started with the somnambulant, but often sympathetic American Idiot (Green Day) to the recent, nausea-inducing “No Handlebars” (Flobots). Oh, well.

    Anyway, great points (despite the fact that I think it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to suggest that they probably would shoot the kids if they could).

  10. Funny Joel, that’s the lp I just threw on the turntable to test-drive my new vinyl-ripping kludge.

    Only takes one itchy trigger – you’re dead right. The followup video from Max with the young guys getting kicked around says something about how boundaries get set and transgressed. The game of chicken is of course cooperative; the problem is that if neither side is chicken there’s eventually a big crash.

    ‘Yeah, but now what’ is the question that gets things moving. Sometimes even in a better direction. Any further thoughts about that? As a historian, I’m an absolute amateur when it comes to things that haven’t happened yet.

  11. Carl, that was an excellent response and you know, Max is right – it’s very hard to have a discussion on WordPress . I haven’t posted any follow ups because, quite frankly, I’ve been swamped with work. Hopefully next week I’ll get a couple of free hours to pull out some more strands.

    Just a thought that has been circling in my mind: I think you are right about how difficult it is to keep politics and advocacy out of science discussions. I know that one of the bedrocks of my own philosophical stance is individual responsibility for actions, and that certainly shows through in my writing. I have a deep and abiding distrust of collectivism in any and all forms – the Tyranny of the Majority as it were. At the same time, I am fully aware of the absolute necessity, in social terms, for at least some form of “trust” in the motives of the internal other to act in my best interest (I’m a touch more Durkheiman than you I expect). To me, this implies that there is an equal, and balanced, duty for each “right” we have, although I believe that what we owe that duty to must be decided by each individual and, if that goes against the social norms, so be it.

  12. I’m intrigued by your perceptions about WordPress. I’m pretty new to the blog thing, so I’m not sure what you mean. When I want to have a discussion I go where it is, see what’s being said, and join in. This works for me on all the blogs I go to. A teaching moment – what am I missing? Perhaps it’s a way I’ve configured (or failed to configure) the blog that I could fix?

    I’m with you on collectivism, while individual responsibility is both something I hold dear and something I ‘know better than’. Individuals don’t just pop up out of nowhere, and they don’t decide all by themselves what counts as responsibility. Citing Durkheim you know this too, of course; he’s the great theorist of the social construction of morality; although that aspect of his thinking is more foregrounded in Elementary Forms than Division of Labor so sometimes he is indeed mistaken for a methodological individualist. Anyway, I agree completely about trust and it’s also important to think about the ways that our social embeddedness is not just constraining but enabling.

    Your point about the balancing of duties and rights is delightful and very well taken. I’m not sure what it would mean for individuals to decide that entirely by themselves, however, against social norms, and remain responsible. Responsible to what? Where do morals come from? Isn’t a completely individual morality something like a definition of insanity? “We are all conformists to some conformity or another,” as Gramsci said. The genius of Division of Labor is to show how at our most individual we are our most social. Of course there is no ‘society in general’, but rather all the particular social networks in which we are situated and interactant.

  13. (Marc addresses these and other issues about the ways people formulate thought and negotiate truth in an exceptional new post at In Harmonium.)

  14. Hi Carl,

    On having conversations, I must admit that I am more at ease either in a face to face setting or using some form of bulletin bard software. I find that programs such as WordPress are great for bloging, but not so good for a conversation per se. Of course, I’m biased – I’ve been using BBS software for 20+ years, so it’s a very familiar form .

    Thanks for your comment on the post . I’m taking a bit of a break from the topic to catch up on other work.


  15. Oh yeah Marc, agreed! Face to face is much better. But then I wouldn’t be able to talk with my new Canadian and Australian friends nearly as often, so I’ll accept the mediations of BBS and ‘net. Plus I agree with Owen that being able to pick a time to answer, and think it through, has its advantages. For those of us inclined to shoot from the hip, any delaying factor can be a blessing.

    I like the way bulletin boards pull people in around a topic and keep threads neat and tidy, but I also like the more freeform and open style of the blog.


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