Sunday, January 4, 2009

Gaza: A Frightening Anthropological Analogy

We all know the drubbing that British Social Anthropology took for writing the tribal story of Africa whilst the British Empire hacked its way through the continent. This American anthropologist doesn't plan on following in their footsteps.

Sunday mornings is my time for catching up on the world's events. I have been watching the live blog of the Israeli attack on Gaza at The Guardian (would Max Gluckman approve?). They have been updating regularly as events unfold. I have given up on the American coverage having watched the American morning T.V. news shows. I was appalled at the coverage. I think the high point was when Wolf Blitzer spent most of his time trying to pin Queen Noor into some sort of statement denouncing Muslim extremists as she was lamenting the humanitarian crises in Gaza. Hey, Wolf, there are children dying. Anyway, When there is coverage--and there is precious little of that--it is completely lacking in any objectivity or any actual discussion of the full totality of the situation. I heard next to no discussion of the Israel blockade of Gaza since their nominal pull-out some 3 years ago (and preceding the election of Hamas.) One of the leading watchdogs of the press by the press, Editor and Publisher, gives a good summary of the pro-Israel American press coverage.

How could an 18 year old student get an objective understanding of the problem based on this coverage? Is presenting a discussion of these issues not, exactly, what we should be doing as Anthropologists? And yet, our blogs rarely cover these issues--the notable exception being Open Anthropology, wait he is a Canadian. You know, as a discipline, we have no functioning voice in the American dialogue.

Fortunately, there is a wonderful piece, Orwell, blinding tribalism, selective Terrorism, and Israel/Gaza, by Glenn Greenwald at Salon, giving all of us who struggle with undergraduate teaching the Teachable Moments in the unfolding disaster. Sample this argument:

If you see Palestinians as something less than civilized human
beings: as "barbarians" -- just as if you see Americans as
infidels warring with God or Jews as sub-human rats -- then it naturally follows
that civilian deaths are irrelevant, perhaps even something to cheer.

And he continues his argument:
Why should a superior, civilized, peaceful society allow the welfare of
violent, hateful barbarians to interfere with its objectives? How can the
deaths or suffering of thousands of barbarians ever be weighed against the death
of even a single civilized person?
So many of these conflicts -- one might
say almost all of them -- end up shaped by the same virtually universal
deficiency: excessive tribalistic identification (i.e.: the
group with which I was trained to identify is right and good and just and my
group's enemy is bad and wrong and violent), which causes people to view the
world only from the perspective of their side, to believe that X is good when
they do it and evil when it's done to them. X can be torture, or the
killing of civilians in order to "send a message" (i.e., Terrorism), or
invading and occupying other people's land, or using massive lethal force
against defenseless populations, or seeing one's own side as composed of real
humans and the other side as sub-human, evil barbarians.

He ends his piece with the language of our discipline and a conclusion we can all agree with:

It's much easier to undervalue the suffering imposed on The Other when you don't have to see it.

Its an interesting thought, isn't it? The idea that we may never solve the violence unleashed in this world without the ability to see the full humanity of all the world's people. Wonder where that idea came from? Perhaps, Mr. Greenwald took an anthropology class. I hope. I just wish an anthropologist had written it. Perhaps, they are all too busy working at "anthropologizing" the U.S. military.


larry c wilson said...

How does seeing others as human beings make me any less likely to kill them?

Pamthropologist said...

Cut it out, you're scaring the children, House.

Maximilian C. Forte said...

Pam, my assumptions were correct about the reason behind my apparent link spamming of your blog, I am glad to see it has stopped.

I was writing to say:

"Paging Dr. Pam, your presence is desired on twitter."

Anyway, think about it. Thanks for your kind comment in the post by the way.

Maximilian C. Forte said...

Oh no, I was wrong! The link spamming has not stopped! I don't know what to do, I'll have to write to wordpress about this.

Pamthropologist said...

Max, just letting out my frustration with both my country and my discipline. Don't worry about the trackbacks. I could care less--seems like a no harm, no foul situation to me. I am sure it will clear up, eventually, when the Wordpress and Blogger people figure it out.

anderson said...

I'm jumping into this a bit late, but I simply had to respond to Larry Wilson's comment, which opens an intriguing topic.

How does seeing others as human beings make me any less likely to kill them?

Actually, Larry, it is well known that seeing enemies as humans absolutely reduces a person's ability to kill them. General Marshall's study of soldiers in war discovered that most soldiers, consciously or unconsciously, refused to shoot at enemy forces:

Marshall was a U.S. Army historian in the Pacific theater during World War II and later became the official U.S. historian of the European theater of operations. He had a team of historians working for him, and they based their findings on individual and mass interviews with thousands of soldiers in more than 400 infantry companies immediately after they had been in close combat with German or Japanese troops. The results were consistently the same: Only 15 to 20 percent of the American riflemen in combat during World War II would fire at the enemy. Those who would not fire did not run or hide—in many cases they were willing to risk greater danger to rescue comrades, get ammunition, or run messages. They simply would not fire their weapons at the enemy, even when faced with repeated waves of banzai charges.

In a decades long effort to overcome this reluctance, the US military embarked on a training program -- beginning with the Korean War -- to train US soldiers to see the enemy as inhuman by instilling in them a visceral hatred of The Other. By the time of Vietnam,

New psyops techniques were developed to create "enemy contempt," something that had never been done in previous generations of war. This has led to the high rates of post traumatic stress now seen in modern soldiers as a result of the internal conflict created by natural aversion to killing and the now highly increased levels of participation in the act. The more effective and efficient the training, the greater the rate of aggravated PTSD.

Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, West Point psychology professor, Professor of Military Science, has studied how this "training" is likely the cause of increased rates of PTSD (see his book, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society).

Since World War II, a new era has quietly dawned in modern warfare: an era of psychological warfare, conducted not upon the enemy, but upon one’s own troops. The triad of methods used to enable men to overcome their innate resistance to killing includes desensitization, classical and operant conditioning, and denial defense mechanisms.

Authors such as Gwynne Dyer and Richard Holmes have traced the development of boot-camp glorification of killing. They’ve found it was almost unheard of in World War I, rare in World War II, increasingly present in Korea, and thoroughly institutionalized in Vietnam. “The language used in [marine training camp] Parris Island to describe the joys of killing people,” writes Dyer, helps “desensitize [marines] to the suffering of an ‘enemy,’ and at the same time they are being indoctrinated in the most explicit fashion (as previous generations were not) with the notion that their purpose is not just to be brave or to fight well; it is to kill people.”

The ability to increase the firing rate, though, comes with a hidden cost. Severe psychological trauma becomes a distinct possibility when military training overrides safeguards against killing: In a war when 95 percent of soldiers fired their weapons at the enemy, it should come as no surprise that between 18 and 54 percent of the 2.8 million military personnel who served in Vietnam suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder—far higher than in previous wars.

larry c wilson said...

It would then appear that the training is inadequate and, perhaps from the viewpoint of the Veteran's Administration, couter-productive.

Successful conditioning would eliminate PTSD in soldiers. Another example of the failures of psychology.

anderson said...


You seem to be missing the point.

"Conditioning" human beings to kill more effectively through techniques of demonization is the problem. As humans, we appear unable to suppress the recognition of killing of other humans for long and suffer long term psychological distress as a result of military "hate camp" training.

This is not a "failure" of psychology but a failure of the human psyche to subjugate guilt. Unless, of course, you think psychology ought to be able to turn all soldiers into unrepentant sociopaths who have no conscience about their actions. The point of the study and what was found is that human being appear to have a deep, innate aversion to killing other human beings. Training them to overcome that aversion via demonization of the enemy merely postpones inevitable psychic trauma and manifests itself of increasing rates of PTSD.

If you think this is a "failure" of psychology, I expect the Marines would like to talk to you, and soon!

Pamthropologist said...

Just to jump in, I think the Milgrim experiment needs to be brought into this discussion.

I think Larry's argument is that by your own admission "demonizing the other" as a military tactic doesn't work. If it did there would be no PTSD. I think the demonization is a justification laid on top of behavior. It is the dialogue about the act but not the motivation for the act, if you will.

In the case of the military, the motivation is usually provided by the lessons learned from the Milgram experiment. Most people (at least, Americans) will follow orders, particularly, those issued by authorities in uniform. As you say, the training techniques of the military are aimed at conditioning to obey.

The military drills into its soldiers a sort of blind allegiance to authority. It is only after the act is finished and the consequences of the order are "realized" that PTSD emerges.

Fun discussion--in a sick kind of way.

Pamthropologist said...

Really embarrassing to mispell on your own blog....Milgram.