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.