A Thread from Savage Minds

by johnmccreery

This thread began with a post related to the ending of the Human Terrain System (HTS) program, which many anthropologists saw as a violation of anthropological ethnics. The following is only a branch of a larger discussion.

Thoughts, anyone?


One plausible example of an anthropologist who seems to do what HTS was intended to do pretty well is someone I have mentioned before, David Kilcullen, the author of Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerilla, which I consider personally one of the most important books that I have read in recent years. The problem is that Kilcullen is a rare bird indeed, an anthropologist with a Ph.D. from, I recall [I could be mistaken], Australian National University, who is also a professional soldier. He is thus equipped to relate anthropological insight to military operations in a way that few, if any, other anthropologists are. The story he relates at the start of the book is a good example.

He is with a convoy returning from a ceremony to celebrate the opening of a regional slaughterhouse and meat-packing plant at the head of a valley in Afghanistan. The convoy comes under attack, a firefight ensues, but the attackers are quickly beaten off with little actual harm done on either side. There are those who instantly wonder what was going on. Have the Taliban returned to an area from which they were supposed to be driven away? Kilcullen suggests a plausible alternative scenario. The valley at the head of which the new facility was located is, like many parts of Afghanistan, controlled by multiple small warlords. The attack on the convoy was a way of expressing displeasure by the warlord who controlled the part of the valley where the attack took place at not having been consulted about where the new slaughterhouse would be located — in another warlord’s territory. Failure to avenge this insult would have seriously undermined his own authority. Kilcullen is careful to note that this alternative scenario is only hypothetical; but it is one that takes into account local political arrangements of which his on-the-scene colleagues were unaware.


Kilcullin is a military strategist, one of the architects of the surge in Iraq. He’s a poster-boy along with Andrew Exum, “Abu Muqawama”, for the new model of competent [sic] imperial management. Their interest is projecting American power. So if you’re interested in asking why we’re in Iraq, or asking why the US vetoed the return of the popular former king of Afghanistan Zahir Shah, in 2002, supporting Karzai and ceding power to various warlords, these are questions neither Kilcullin nor Exum are interested in answering.


Let us suppose for the sake of argument that Seth’s characterization of David Kilcullen [not Kilcullin] and Andrew Exum [of whom I have never heard] is valid. Does this mean that there is nothing to be learned from them? Suppose, for example, that we are interested in how propaganda works, a topic with clear relevance to anthropological studies of myth, ritual and social movements. We may abhor the politics of Joseph Goebbels and Frank Luntz, but they are masters of their dark arts and should be on every reading list. In Kilcullen’s case, I know of no other anthropologist who has pointed out the importance of coastal cities of which large parts are ungovernable for lack of infrastructure overwhelmed by mass population growth, key nodes in international networks of finance and trade, and increasingly threatened by flooding due to global warming—and are thus attractive targets as well as fertile ground for terrorist organizations. And his Malinowskian moment, noticing his colleagues from Papua New Guinea with whom he is on maneuvers employing the fish traps that become his model for organizations ranging from criminal gangs to nation states is both lucid and brilliant. In all these cases the bait is the promise of security — for a price, submission and payment of protection money, a.k.a. taxes — and armed violence provides the barbs that prevent the fish from escaping the trap. Oh, yes, these are, indeed, ugly instrumental factors in how the world is organized. It would be so much nicer to focus instead on cultural logics and poetics, become a Daoist hermit or Candide cultivating his garden. But while these are nice hobbies — I enjoy them immensely myself — it hardly seems fair to complain if taxpayers or other patrons refuse to foot the bill.


I often disagree with Seth, but I do like his being here. His rants often contain pointers to authors I have never heard of. Andrew Exum is a case in point. A Google search brought me to his book This Man’s Army: A Soldier’s Story from the Front Lines of the War on Terrorism. I spent much of last night reading it, being constantly reminded of how ending the draft (something I was once very much in favor of) has alienated those of us who have chosen civilian and especially academic career tracks from those who volunteer to serve in the military. Thus, we find it easy to stereotype them as anonymous automatons without conscience or moral sensibility, destructive robots lacking in what we see as humanity. I find this deeply ironical, given the effort and often self-righteous rhetoric we devote to denouncing discrimination based on race, gender, culture or religion. This is doubly ironical since the anthropological canon contains numerous examples, from Africa, North America, the Middle East and elsewhere of peoples proud of warrior traditions. We are, for example, eager to proclaim the League of the Iroquois as a model for the U.S. Constitution, while avoiding mention of the torture of captives and stoic bravery in the face of torture that were integral parts of the same culture. We are familiar with the controversy surrounding the labeling of the Yanomami as “The Fierce People,” seeing this label as an insult, despite the wealth of evidence, both ethnographic and historical, that human beings commonly enjoy violent conflict. And, yes, we do, too — albeit vicariously in games or fiction or contact sports played by other people. If our job is to render people uncomfortable with cultural stereotypes, perhaps we should start with our own. This Man’s Army is an excellent place to begin.


8 Comments to “A Thread from Savage Minds”

  1. I agree with you. I’ll go a step further for the sake of argument and say that folks who can’t maintain a certain curiosity and tolerance of ambiguity about other people, no matter how strange or awful or depraved their conduct and apparent motives, are ill-suited to the vocation of anthropology and prone to malpractice.

    The comeback I’ve most often seen is that after awhile, the effort of maintaining an open mind toward actively destructive and recalcitrant opponents is not just wasted, but degrading to more productive efforts. To which I say, so be it. That’s maybe not everyone’s job, but it’s ours, and it’s one reason I don’t find the mixture of activism and scholarship works out very well in less than the most skillful hands. I also see a correlation between academic activism and the low public credibility of scholarship. And when the best activists can do is dismiss their opponents as cartoon villains, I really can’t see how I’m supposed to give credit to anything they think they know.

    Btw, some nasty formatting came over somehow with the material from Savage Minds and bollixed DV. I copied the post out into a word processor and removed all the junk, so it should work right now. Something to keep an eye out for going forward – use the edit post function.

  2. Carl, formatting issues noted. I wonder if you and your students might be particularly interested This Man’s Army. For me it was close to the bone in several ways. Like Andrew Exum I grew up in the South, in a conservative, church-going family. I, too, was given a .22 rifle as a rite of passage. But, brains aside, Exum was exactly the kind of man that this fat, astigmatic, non-athletic kid rebelled against becoming: a jock, an outdoorsman, someone who enjoyed a physical brawl, a man’s man in the, to borrow Jim Webb’s title, “Born to Fight” Scots-Irish tradition that was my father’s side of the family. Exum joined the Army and went off to war. I, along with Bill Clinton, Dick Cheney and numerous others escaped Vietnam through student deferments. I remain to this day ambivalent about that. I opposed that war and would again but still can’t escape feeling like a privileged coward. I wonder if there are those among your students who would share similar feelings about more recent wars — or is all this just too, too yesterday?

  3. Not too yesterday at all, not at all. I get loads of students from Fort Bragg and they’ve taught me so much, including around the issues you bring up here. There are also all kinds of interesting splits around enlisted / officer / rising / aspirational / male / female / regional / native / immigrant and so on. How do you even get to all that if they’ re all just a bunch of imperial stormtroopers?

    I’m now reminded of a very old post and discussion that you may find interesting: https://deadvoles.wordpress.com/2008/07/13/throwing-stones/

  4. Carl, could you say a bit more about those splits you mention? This is, at least to me, a fascinating topic and one to which I can contribute, albeit in a tangential manner. My daughter and her husband are, you may recall, both Annapolis graduates, one Navy, one Marine, one a former helicopter pilot, the other a former fighter jock, now in the reserves and “a chauffeur for people with stars on their soldiers.”

  5. Yes. I do cover some of that in the older post linked above, which I would just import here except that would lose the interesting discussion. So if you’ll take a look at that, I’ll get my thought together for a more direct reply.

  6. Seth, I’d be interested in hearing you expand upon those thoughts. Are you saying that Kilcullen and others like him are not worth studying at all? I’m no expert on Kilcullen, but I did frequently encounter his work while researching COIN literature for my master’s thesis a while back. I haven’t read Exum, but I’ll add that to the list.

  7. John, if you were king for a day, would you bring back the draft in some form, or abolish it forever? In today’s DoD, we’re told (correctly, I believe) that the volunteer military is one of our greatest assets, primarily because we have a ridiculously well educated, professional, autonomous NCO corps. With that said, there is a growing split between civilians and military members that manifests itself in many ways, perhaps most notably via culture, psychology, and politics. Recent studies have suggested that this split is multigenerational, since kids of military members are more likely than other Americans to join the military themselves. So my current thought is that maybe we would be better off as a nation with some sort of mandatory state or Federal service. The uniformed military could be just one option, along with the Park Service, FEMA, etc. Thoughts?

  8. Tyler, Seth is not, as far as I know, active on Dead Voles. To pose that question to him, you need to go to Savage Minds. As for me, yes, I now think that a couple of years of compulsory national service after high school would be a good thing. It could be the military or something like the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps. The key features would be that people from all sorts of backgrounds would be thrown together and required to do physically as well as mentally challenging stuff together. In Army rank terms draftees would never be promoted beyond corporal. Volunteers, including those who decided to re-up after the initial obligation ended would be strictly screened to preserve the integrity of that ridiculously well educated, professional, autnomous NCO corps you mention. It would be a privilege to serve in that or any higher-ranked capacity. My hypothesis is that ending the draft has be deleterious to the body politic in two important ways. The first is elected officials who have never had to deal with anyone other than people like themselves and have no personal experience with the physical, logistical, and moral challenges of working with people from different backgrounds. The second is the transformation of the professional armed forces into a caste isolated from the civilian population, a caste steeped in a warrior ethos that meets threats with overwhelming force, from which unfortunately the majority of civilian police are now recruited, with the results that include the arbitrary killing of non-white people that is so much in the news today.

    I say “hypothesis” deliberately. What I offer here are thoughts gleaned from a variety of sources. I am only tangentially familiar with the military. Student deferments kept me out of Vietnam, but my daughter and son-in-law are both Annapolis graduates, a former Navy helicopter pilot and a Marin Corps jet jock respectively. I am wary of generalizing from a tiny sample of two people who have had an elite experience to public policy writ large. So, please take what I say above with plenty of salt. Would love to learn more from you.

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