Saturday, November 26, 2011

More Harm than Good--Perils of Teaching about Anthropology and War to those Who've Been There

Easily, the majority of my students have had very provincial experiences by the time I encounter them. Despite living an easy hour drive from New York City, a good percentage of them have never made it there (and you know what you can do if you make it there). Far from having international experience, for many, their young lives have taken place entirely in the county, much less the country, of their birth. For them, that means that an intro to cultural anthropology class exposes them to very new peoples and ideas.

Increasingly, however, another population of students is filling my classes; a group that has traveled much more extensively and that has had repeated and sometimes very intense interactions with folks from very different cultural backgrounds. I’m not sure what the student profile looks like at four-year schools, but at my two-year one, students who are returning veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are becoming a small, but important segment of the student population (A piece last year from the Chronicle indicates that community colleges and for-profit schools are the most popular choices for recent veterans).


From my experience, veterans are better than average students. They’ve had life experience beyond a senior year in high school and are actively pursuing their education for some specific career purpose. They usually also add interesting comments and perspectives into class discussion. For instance, in my archaeology classes, I’ve had one student who witnessed the looting of the Baghdad museum at the fall of that city. Another student was stationed for a few months at the ancient site of Babylon and took several guided tours from Iraqi archaeologists excited to get access to the site again.


#TeachingFail, or How to Alienate a Student Veteran from Anthropology

In some cases, though, veterans can pose challenges to a well meaning anthropology teacher. I’ll recount one experience that demonstrates how tricky it can be to talk about anthropology with someone who has a very real personal history in the contexts that a teacher is trying to talk about in a disinterested and analytical way. A couple of years back, I was teaching an online section of cultural anthropology. In one segment of the course, we were discussing anthropological fieldwork and ethical considerations. As the controversy surrounding the use of anthropologists in the military through the Human Terrain System (HTS) was relatively current at the time, I used it as a case study. This particular course included a veteran of the Afghanistan war who was an exemplary student, consistently turning in thoughtful and insightful essays.

Initially, I began the discussion by simply mentioning HTS as an applied use of anthropological method and theory. At that point, the student veteran, Brad (pseudonym), became even more engaged and thought such a program was a fantastic use of anthropology. In a discussion board, he related an experience he had working with local communities in Afghanistan--trying to win hearts and minds--and how it ended badly with unexpected and unintended consequences. He passionately argued that the application of anthropological expertise to that situation would have improved its outcome tremendously. While deployed, he had been assigned to talk with local tribal elders in a Pashtun area that had recently been a hotspot of Taliban activity. He admitted knowing very little about the political, cultural, or economic context of the village before entering; he envisioned a homogeneous tribe/village/culture. He was simply to try and build a sense of trust and friendship between the US military and the village. During an early meeting, one of the elders asked if it would be possible for a well to be built in the village. At the time, Brad saw no problem with this and that it would be a win-win. His military unit had access to the means to build such a well and its completion would only serve to build goodwill with that village. Wells were built.

A couple of weeks later, Brad returned to see how things were going. He quickly realized things weren’t going as smoothly as he’d hoped. Social conflict within the village was on the rise. Unknown to Brad and his team, a well was placed on a particular lineage’s land. This automatically augmented the lineage elder’s power base as he was charging others in the village for access. The preexisting politico-economic balance had been rapidly upset. Brad later learned that some of this conflict boiled over into actual violence between various lineage groups in the village. So, in the end, the attempt to win over local groups to the US side resulted in deteriorating conditions, more conducive for Taliban recruitment efforts.

In online discussions, Brad argued HTS (which he first learned of in my class) was an important addition to US military projects that would lead to diminished loss of life, both US and local populations. He wished he had been paired with an anthropologist grounded in local issues when he was faced with the situation described above--he believed it would have had much more positive results--potentially saving lives of both local Afghans and US soldiers.

From the perspective of teaching, Brad’s experiences were invaluable. He added a wonderful depth and flavor to what could have been a drier, strictly analytical exercise. I sent him a private email expressing my appreciation for his contributions to the class and that I would like to set up a time to chat face to face.

At this point in the discussions, I wanted to bring in the controversy within anthropology and specifically the American Anthropological Association’s (AAA) investigation into the ethics of HTS. Even though I definitely share many of the AAA’s concerns with HTS, I didn’t want my own position to be an obvious part of the discussion. I explicitly claimed the role of devil’s advocate and thought I contextualized the discussion in an academically, not personally, adversarial way to present the concerns voiced by the AAA. I hoped this would lead to a rich and thought provoking discussion. Brad didn’t seem to agree. After my devil’s advocate posts, he quickly and obviously “tuned out” of the class. A student that had previously been active and engaged now did the bare minimum to pass the class. And, he never responded for my request for a face to face meeting.


Lessons Learned?
So, what happened? I know I’m going to over-generalize based on this one experience, but it’s an episode that continues to gnaw at me after two years. Turning off a good student leaves a lingering hangover that’s hard to get rid of. In this case, I don’t think Brad’s disconnect had anything to do with any political views on the worth of fighting the two wars, but more about his sense of obligation to his fellow soldiers and to the significance of his personal experience. My sense is that my introduction of the complexities and nuance of the AAA’s position alienated a student that had intense loyalties and social connections to the military based on the extreme experiences of war. It’s not that I don’t think that such topics should be covered, I just think this particular student didn’t yet have a full sense of the discipline, its colonial history and more recent attempts at instituting full equality between researcher and subject populations. I also think that a teacher teaching about war, but has never been to war, has difficulties establishing credibility with a student who’s been there (some insecurity on the part of the teacher is also at play here). Military service is one of the few remaining intense and collective rites of passage left in contemporary culture and clearly creates a strong sense of social solidarity among veterans. I worry that I--and anthropology--came off as a elitist, academic exercise that cared little for the lives of Brad and other American soldiers. Before Brad got a more well-rounded feel of the discipline, I pushed him away. This type of animosity seems on clear display on a recent comment to a post about the anthropology of war by Patrick Clarkin.

Since that class, I’ve been hesitant to talk about HTS and the AAA’s response in class. I still address the importance of anthropological ethics, but am afraid of alienating another student. This may be a cowardly reaction, but I worry about doing more harm than good with such students. I think that intro anthropology classes can perform an important social good by introducing students to ideas of human commonality through human diversity. In that, I agree that sometimes a teacher must be provocative to elicit a thoughtful reaction. However, in this case, I fear I was provocative to the point of alienation. Once that occurs, the social good that I hope to be a part of doesn’t happen for that student. Maybe an intro class isn’t the place to get into the important issues surrounding the HTS controversy.

I haven’t run across any other descriptions of teaching anthropology to veterans, particularly in light of HTS. If any reader of this post has similar experiences, I’d be grateful for comments to follow this discussion further.

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