Monday, October 29, 2007

The Real Culture Warriors: Anthropologists on the Front Lines

With superior military technology and a belief in democracy, the US armed forces and the White House jumped head first into two Muslim nations. What they found was a complex network of tribal alliances, bitter rivalries and foreign customs that confounded all military personnel from the highest ranking officers to the infantryman patrolling in the street. Where firepower has failed, cultural anthropologists may succeed. The Army recently developed a program in which anthropologists use their cultural knowledge to help foster peaceful interactions between soldiers and local populations. Dubbed the Human Terrain System (HTS), the program name sounds like a totalitarian nightmare but in reality may be an effective alternative to ending the violence. A team of five anthropologists called a Human Terrain Team (HTT) provides commanders “support in the form of ethnographic and social research, cultural information research, and social data analysis that can be employed as part of the military decision making process,” according to an article in the US Army Professional Writing Collection. The article looks at the value of anthropological research from a purely strategic standpoint but it does draw the conclusion that military superiority cannot produce victory in an occupation-type situation like Iraq. Insurgencies most often sprout from the ideologies of the society being occupied, and who better to handle to understand this concept than those studying culture: one of the most abstract and difficult concepts to grasp. (Indiana the famed archeologist is back, above left)

Many anthropologists responded by denouncing the use of cultural scientists by the military. Roberto J. Gonzalez and other academics are concerned the “war on terror threatens to militarize anthropology. For Gonzalez it is an ethical issue. He feels that information passed from the researcher to the military could result in the deaths of the very people they are studying. Gonzalez believes the practice of using anthropologists for the military will hurt the discipline in the long run. “When they participate in secret military operations that taint the reputation of all anthropologists, they are engaging in scorched earth fieldwork, for they make it impossible for future researchers to establish the trust necessary for establishing rapport with research participants,” Gonzalez wrote in an article for Counterpunch. He also charged the CIA of misusing anthropological research for counterinsurgency and propaganda campaigns.

The American Anthropological Association(AAA) organized a commission two years ago investigating the ethics of cultural research for national security. There is also an organization called the Network of Concerned Anthropologists that opposes using cultural research to aid the US in combat. They believe covert ethnographies that violate the trust of the studied population also compromises the ethical standards of the discipline. Their criticism is understandable. The relationship between anthropologists and governments has been controversial. Anthropologists were gain insights into colonial subjects. According to the AAA statement on race, “early in the 19th century the growing fields of science began to reflect the public consciousness about human differences.” The idea of race born from science helped legitimize the strategy for dividing, ranking, and controlling indigenous people. (example of an Iraqi geneology above right, geneologies are a focus of study for many anthropologist)
However anthropologists who oppose using cultural field work in Iraq and Afghanistan appear to be doing so more on political beliefs than on professional ethics. The AAA called for an end to the Iraq war last year. Also the Network of Concerned Anthropologist say it would support the military in humanitarian operations but not combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan because they fear human subjects would be harmed. But the need for more cultural understanding between the Middle East and the commanders and politicians could not be more pertinent. The endless violence that fuels the insurgency stems from the ideologies cherished by indigenous cultures, a culture most soldiers and civilian workers are clueless about. Just as people speaking two languages cannot communicate, opposite cultures with no understanding of each other cannot negotiate. Anthropologist Montgomery McFate said in the San Franciso Chronicle “the military is so willing to listen now ... and for anthropologists to sit back in their ivory tower and spit at these people that are asking for their help -- I think there's something unethical about that," she said. "If you're not in the room with them, you won't influence their decisions." (left, Marcus Griffin an anthropologist researching in Iraq)

A colonel with the 82nd Airborne already credits anthropologists with allowing the unit to decrease 60 percent of its combat operations. In one instance an anthropologist observed a high number of widows in one Afghan village. Because of her cultural knowledge she knew the widows’ sons would be pressured to provide for the family; with no jobs available the boys would likely have to join the Taliban. The US military promptly developed a job-training program to discourage recruitment. This type of cultural knowledge can save more lives among local populations and troops than any political statement by the AAA. Anthropologists are in a unique position to build a bridge between the US military and insurgents. The US military is slowly learning (with the help of anthropologists) that respect and dignity can yield powerful results. Cultural researchers should jump at the opportunity to finally have the influence to fix policies they have disagreed with.

Monday, October 22, 2007

The Perfect Pair?: Using Military Contractors For Humanitarian Missions

Private military contractors (PMC’s) have become an integral part of the Iraqi war effort. Contractors have also been blamed for impeding the war effort; military firm Blackwater USA has been involved in several shooting incidents that resulted in the Iraqi government calling for their removal, and Army general are even callingA the presence of private security firms counterproductive. According to Peter Singer of the Brookings Institution contractors are hated in Iraq and represent a negative factor to the US presence and the overall mission. “The US government needs to go back to the drawing board and re-evaluate its use of private military contractors,” said Singer who has studied the private military industry for over a decade. Compounding the industry’s negative image is the fact that the business of war has never been so profitable; current estimates are that the private security industry reaps about $100 billion a year. (peace activist, right)

On the flip side are peace activists and human rights groups that have worked tirelessly to inform the world about the genocide occurring in troubled areas like Darfur. But full knowledge of Darfur’s dark secrets has done very little to spur the global community into action. Some international observers feel that only a well-armed peacekeeping force can effectively end the violence. But so far the US and NATO have chosen not to become militarily involved. Since the world’s nations have failed to stop the bloodshed in Darfur as well as past conflicts in countries like Rwanda and Somalia, could the answer to the peacekeepers’ prayers be in a grizzled, gun-for-hire mercenary? (private contractor, left)

Sending troops is not only an expensive venture, it can also be politically damaging to nations deploying armed forces. When soldiers are killed during a mission, the peacekeeping force is often withdrawn before any meaningful negotiations can take place. In the case of Rwanda, most of the 2,500 member force withdrew after ten Belgian soldiers were killed. The genocide continued unabated and the body count mounted to an estimated 800,000. Similarly in Somalia, the Clinton administration decided to withdraw American troops soon after eighteen soldiers were killed in Mogadishu. Private contractors on the other hand have no political ties to a particular nation and would likely not draw public backlash if violence ensued during the course of the peacekeeping mission. Deborah Avant, director of the Institute for Global and International Studies at George Washington University, wrote that ““”it is politically less costly to field private security contractors. Private contractors are seen to be working for profit, of their own choice, and sending them abroad is not held to the same standard than sending national troops, working for their country.” PMC’s can also deploy more quickly than the US military because political bureaucracy does not tie them down. This means a heavily armed force can rapidly stop violence when it flairs up and stay as long as need be, or as long as they are paid. (private contractor in helicopter in Iraq, below left)

Blackwater USA even proposed sending a small rapid-response force to places like the Sudan. Chris Taylor, the firm’s vice president, was quoted in the “Boston Globe” as saying “When traditional peacekeepers can’t provide an adequate response because of their home country obligations, there’s an alternative that should be openly and frankly discussed.” The idea was rejected by UN undersecretary general Kofi Annan. But sooner or later the humanitarian community must realize that relying on military support from more powerful nations has failed to stop some of worst violence in modern times. Using PMC’s to help solve humanitarian crises is of course not a magic or even glamorous solution. As security firms in Iraq have shown, there is serious accountability and legal issues that need to be addressed (see my previous post). Contractors need to follow clearly established rules of engagement and be punished when they are negligently broken. Also, while the contractors’ main goal is profit, the overall mission should be peace. For this reason the international community and the UN should be in charge of the peacekeeping mission, ensuring the PMC’s are doing their part to save lives and minimize violence, not spread it. Private contractors should not be used offensively but deployed solely for security in order to minimize bloodshed and give negotiators time to establish a lasting peaceful solution.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Private Soldiers, Public Concern: Accountability of Privat Military Companies in Iraq

On Christmas Eve 2006 a drunk Blackwater USA employee shot and killed the bodyguard of the Iraqi vice president in Baghdad’s Green Zone. The private military company fired Andrew Moonen for “violating alcohol and firearm policy,” according to Blackwater CEO Erik Prince. Moonen was able to leave the country and shortly after was hired by another US defense contractor, Combat Support Associates, to work in Kuwait. The State Department and Blackwater kept the incident quiet and off Moonen’s record, said a spokesman for Combat Support Associates. If he were a uniformed soldier in the US military Moonen would likely be standing trial, but since he was a privately contracted security guard Moonen has yet to be indicted. (above,Blackwater bodyguard protecting Paul Bremer)

Private military contractors make up a large portion of the Iraqi war effort. An article by Renai Merie for The Washington Post states there are 100,000 government contractors in Iraq, about 10 times the number of contractors deployed in the 1991 war. The amount of contractors almost equals the number of US troops in Iraq, about 140,000. However unlike the US troops, private contractors operate under their own regulations. According to a 2005 Government Accountability Office report, the lack of coordination between contractors and the military results in accidental shootings. Private defense firms also lack the same standards placed on US soldiers. William L. Nash, a retired Army general and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations told the Washington Post, “If you’re trying to win hearts and minds and the contractor is driving 90 miles per hour through the streets and running over kids, that’s not helping the image of the American army. The Iraqis aren’t going to distinguish between a contractor and a soldier.” (Blackwater CEO , Erik Prince at right)

Also, if an armed guard in Iraq is not subject to the same rules as everybody else who establishes the limits on what they can do? Contractors work in relative obscurity, under the jurisdiction of the company rather than the US military or State Department. With no oversight there is less pressure to exercise discipline on the trigger finger which results in more incidents and deeper mistrust of the US occupation. Collateral damage is a horrible yet unavoidable reality in any war, but soldiers accountable under the law know they face consequences if they fire at people indiscriminately.

Contractors have been operating in Iraq since the war began in 2003, and only now is the Pentagon and the State Department looking into how to police defense contractors, according to a Reuter’s article. The investigations began after a shooting incident involving Blackwater USA claimed the lives of 11 Iraqi civilians in September. Iraqi investigators say the number is higher, 17 people killed and 27 wounded. The New York Times reported that investigators could not find evidence that Blackwater guards were provoked while escorting a convoy. Spokesman for the prime minister, Ali al-Dabbagh, called the shooting a “deliberate crime.” Some Iraqi politicians even want Blackwater banned from the country because of past incidents. But the company has long-term plans to stay, according to an American official. This almost sends a worse message to the Iraqis than the shooting incident. Americans are communicating that they are above the law; a counter productive signal to send in a country where the law is desperately trying to be established. By ignoring the government’s concerns for safety, the US is fueling suspicions that Americans do not have the Iraqis best interest in mind. (above, Blackwater guards in helicopter above Baghdad)

Rep. David Price, D-North Carolina, got the ball rolling on fixing the private sector problem by sponsoring a bill that places military contractors overseas under US jurisdiction. The bill was approved by the House. Another representative, Jan Schakowsky D-Illinois, told CNN “Is it US policy that contractors can get away with murder? In the short-term, we need to bring private military contractors under the rule of law. In the end, military functions belong to the military.”
Private military firms are not going away any time soon, especially as the war continues and US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan are stretched thinner. But outsourcing combat duties should not be an excuse to circumvent the law.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Terror Vision: Is the news a medium for terrorist propaganda?

Osama bin Laden fired off warnings and threats in a new video tape released a few days before 9/11; the first time the al-Quaeda leader has appeared in public for more than a year. Much of the media hype that followed the release focused on bin Laden’s newly dyed beard and how much younger it made him look. But a much larger debate surrounds the release of al-Qaeda videos.

Since September 11, 2001the media have aired terrorist videos (example of video on right). But should networks give terrorists access to massive audiences, especially since it plays right into the terrorist strategy of using violence to gain media access.

Taking most of the heat for broadcasting terrorist messages is the Middle Eastern news network al-Jazeera. If a video by an Islamic fundamentalist is aired, chances are al-Jazeera had the video first before passing it on to the other world news organizations. Dorrance Smith of the Wall Street Journal said there is a strong relationship between terrorists and the al-Jazeera.

The Bush administration has accused the channel for being inaccurate and having a biased, anti-US slant. Another reason for the US government’s stance against Al-Jazeera is the fact the network has the ears of millions in the Arab world who are already critical of US policy in the Middle East.
Al-Jazeera defended the practice of broa
dcasting bin Laden videos by saying that any news network would jump at the chance to air the tapes. A spokesman for the Middle Eastern network correctly states that “We don’t believe anyone can argue about the newsworthiness of Osama bin Laden’s latest recording.”

American media networks on the other hand viewed airing bin Laden videos as unpatriotic. Shortly after the September 11 attacks ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox and NBC announced they would not air live broadcasts from bin Laden. Instead the networks aired edited messages from the video.
But giving the al-Qaeda leader any air time proved controversial. The White H
ouse warned the networks not to air messages from bin Laden’s videos because “At best, Osama bin Lden’s messages are propaganda calling on people to kill Americans, at worst he could be issuing orders to his followers to initiate such attacks,” according to Ari Fleischer, the former White House spokesman.
The Whit
e House and other media critics accuse the networks of being a tool for the terrorists to spread jihadist ideologies.(Zarqawi's al-Qaeda recruitment photo left) Gaining publicity is central to the terrorist strategy. A movement cannot gain momentum if no one hears about it, and an enemy cannot be defeated if it does not feel afraid. By broadcasting radical messages the speaker can threaten millions of people. Giving terrorists air time is an incentive for them to commit more acts of violence because they know people will pay attention. According to critics, the media is being used for propaganda.

However all politicians, businesses, movie stars or anyone with any kind of personal interest use the media every day to get a message out to the public. As news critic Howard Kurtz points out, reporting what people say is part of any news organization’s job.

“When CNN and other cable networks provide live coverage of President Bush’s speeches, Ari Fleischers’ briefings, and Donald Rumsfeld’s news conferences, they are obviously given them a forum to get out the American message,” Kurtz said. “I’m not saying that terrorists deserve or should have an equal platform, but if the networks stopped airing the propaganda from all sides, there wouldn’t be very much left on the air.” (Photo of Bush news conference right)

Terrorist activity is important, and people like Osamba bin Laden are influential in shaping the Middle East. As the spokesman for al-Jazeera stated earlier, there is no arguing the newsworthiness of bin Laden. There is also no arguing the President's Middle East policy and his speeches on that policy. Therefore the "propagandist messages" should still be broadcasted because they are essential to understanding the issues.

But broadcasting just a message alone is not news. When t
he president calls someone “evil” or announces a decision to go to war, journalist should be asking why instead of just taking the message at face value.

Many in the media viewed any sort of objectivity in the wake of 9/11 as unpatriotic. A good example is Judith Miller and her reporting on weapons of mass destruction. She was criticized for reporting only what the administration told her about the weapons in Iraq despite contradictory intelligence.
Everyone using the media will give a slanted story; the duty of the media is to expose the holes in the story.

An article by Jane Kirtley in the American Journalism Review commented on the media’s reaction to Bush’s request not to air bin Laden videos.
“So the networks have made the “patriotic” decision. As a statement from Fox News Channel put it, they won’t allow themselves to be used as tools of propaganda for those ‘who want to destroy American and endanger the lives of its citizens.’ They will use their journalistic judgment to d
ecide what they will air. Let’s hope they will apply that judgment just as rigorously to the material they receive from US government sources.” (US Marine recruitment picture left)

The bottom line: any message meant to sway public opinion must be reported objectively and held up to scrutiny if it is to be considered news, otherwise it’s just propaganda.

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