Cutting through the bullshit.

Friday 26 December 2008

'Lethal effects targeting'

A couple of weeks ago, Louis Proyect posted a press release from Wikileaks which in turn linked to the just released US Human terrain team handbook, along with David Price’s Counterpunch article and an editorial in Nature.

It is doubtless pure coincidence that for our bosses, we humans are no more than ‘human resources’ to exploit, and for the forces of repression, we are ‘human terrain’, to stomp all over. Anyway, Human terrain teams, apparently the brainchild, so to speak, of one Montgomery McFate, are groups of embedded social scientists tasked with conducting anthropological research on occupied populations and feeding military commanders with relevant predigested ‘expert human terrain & social science advice based on a constantly updated, user-friendly ethnographic and socio-cultural database of the area of operations’, which they will of course never allow to influence their ‘Lethal Effects Targeting’.

Describing the Nature editorial as ‘fierce’, quoting its subtitle, ‘the US military's human-terrain programme needs to be brought to a swift close’, Price writes, ‘This position is all the more devastating when contrasted with an editorial supporting the principles of Human Terrain and other forms of military-funded anthropological work published by Nature just five months ago.’

In reality, Nature’s editors have not retreated from their basic position. In July, they entertained hopes that Human terrain systems, ‘…have potential to be a win–win for all concerned — including, most especially, the people of Iraq, Afghanistan and regions of future conflict’. It reads as if they regard Iraq, Afghanistan, and other regions of conflict as mired in some sort of unavoidable natural calamity and US soldiers are just there to help them through it. If the soldiers sit on the ground and drink tea out of a glass, then that is a win for the occupied, even if those same culturally sensitive soldiers bash down your door at 3:00 in the morning and clobber your mother senseless with a rifle butt.

Nature, you will recall, is the estimable scholarly journal that published the groundbreaking research by epidemiologists associated with Johns Hopkins University showing the real costs of the US occupation of Iraq in 2004 and 2006. Yet in their July editorial, they write, as if adducing evidence, ‘According to Gates, one commander in Afghanistan says that using an HTS team has cut the number of armed attacks he has had to make by 60%’. Clearly, they don’t subject their own editorial comment to the same rigorous scrutiny as they do contributed articles.

This month, they have concluded that the scheme ‘…is failing on every level’.

In theory, it is a good idea. The Human Terrain System aims to embed anthropologists and other social scientists in military units in Iraq and Afghanistan to help improve understanding of local cultures and thus relieve tensions between civilians and soldiers…In practice, however, it has been a disaster. Questions have been raised about how well the programme vets its employees. Some scientists who have joined the system have complained about inadequate training. And qualified researchers have been dismissed for seemingly trivial reasons, even though much more questionable people seem to breeze onto the payroll.

…The immediate problems with the Human Terrain System can be traced to BAE Systems, the military contractor based in Rockville, Maryland, that screens potential employees, then trains those it hires. It has failed in every one of those functions, and army management has failed in its oversight of BAE.

So for them, it’s just a matter of human resources management issues, and professionalism, of course. After all, if human terrain research is carried out unprofessionally, it can hardly be expected to ‘relieve tensions between civilians and soldiers’. Realistically, though, considering that ‘the American Anthropological Association (AAA) has formally condemned it, saying that participants would find it difficult or impossible to follow the association's ethical guidelines in a combat zone…’, the program could only ever have hoped to atttract renegade anthropologists who reject their colleagues’ ethical principles. Furthermore, I think it is inevitable that the military itself would want to have a say, if not an outright veto, in the vetting process. They would want to feel that they can rely on Human terrain teams not to betray military movements, not to run to the media every time they observe perpetration of an atrocity, and so forth. Hardly propitious conditions to recruit the most competent anthropologists.

In July, Nature hoped the Human terrain project would address ‘the hard lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan — where troops with insufficient understanding of the cultural or political landscape have too often exacerbated the insurgency they were trying to control’, suggesting that troops with sufficient understanding of the cultural or political landscape would not exacerbate the insurgency. It’s as if they hadn’t considered the possibility that the occupation doesn’t exist to control the insurgency, that in fact the insurgency is a direct response to the occupation. What exacerbates the insurgency is not the occupying forces’ level of understanding, it’s that there are occupying forces.

In case there was any lingering doubt,

Nature is not opposed in principle to academics working with the military; we have said before that social science can and should inform military policy. We continue to believe that the insights of science have much to offer strategies in a war zone — not least through training combat troops to understand the local cultures within which they operate.

The only problem is that, ‘…as currently constituted, the Human Terrain System is not the way to do this. Unless the programme can be reborn in a format less plagued by deadly mistakes, it needs to be closed down’.

While I agree with Price that Nature’s call is welcome, they have not enunciated a principled objection on scientific, political, legal or moral grounds. Far from it. Their problem, it seems, is with BAE Systems.

Less still have they opposed the occupation of Afghanistan itself, which they apparently regard as just some phenomenon that NATO forces are dealing with as best they can.

To deal with it better, in October, Philip Dorling reported in the Canberra Times that the Australian Army has put out a request for tender ‘for a commercial supplier to deliver intensive training in the language for three years, beginning next January, with the likelihood of a two-year extension’.

Soldiers with no previous Pashto language training will undertake an anticipated 42-week course to successfully perform as ''military linguists using the ... language in a wide range of social situations, and specialised military subjects''

As the article’s headline cannily predicts, ‘Afghan language training hints at long haul’. As if to confirm this, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced on his return from a brief junket to Afghanistan and the UAE last week, ‘I've always said we're in Afghanistan for the long haul, for a long time. We've got to be serious. It's tough, protracted work. We're of a mind to see it through in partnership with our friends and allies.’

Dorling further reported that ‘Defence sources said Pashto was in demand for Afghanistan operations, but the language had little wider application’. Dorling may not be aware that an estimated 27 million Pashto speakers – more than twice as many as live in Afghanistan – inhabit the area east of the Durand Line that has been on the receiving end of US President-Elect Barack Obama’s most aggressive sabre rattling. But ‘Defence sources’ almost certainly are.

Thursday 25 December 2008


It's true. I’ve been slack. I blame it on the capitalist system. If I didn’t have to squander so much of my waking life to ‘earning a living’, I’d have more time to think and write. When I last posted, I was thinking about a piece on racism, but eventually realised I needed to do a whole lot more reading and thinking before I’d have anything to say that I hadn’t already said. Maybe that’s what discouraged me. But more likely it’s just sloth.

Anyway, the spirit of xmas present has got the better of me. Like every year, I’m totally inundated with xmas hype, not just in the media and the shops. After all, as the fundamental underlying principle of xmas is an orgy of consumerism, you can hardly expect to escape it. But it still never fails to gives me the shits when it intrudes into my workplace, with all the xmas parties and xmas decorations and xmas decoration competitions... It would be an exaggeration to say I wish I was back in Pakistan, where xmas is nearly invisible, but that is one of the country’s many charms.

In deference to the festive season, Rasmussen reports on their 16 December poll, ‘…61% of adults nationwide say life in the United States would be better if more Americans lived as Christians…Just 13% disagree and say life would be worse’. Rasmussen acknowledge that ‘Living as a Christian can mean different things to different people’, but decline to tease out what those differences might be apart from a link to another recent poll that does nothing to clarify the issue. They are similarly silent on what respondents might think they meant by ‘life in the United States would be better’.

Presumably, few respondents would have had turn the other cheek pacifism in mind, as suggested by the discrepancy between responses from ‘political conservatives’ and ‘liberals’.

There is a strong ideological divide on this question. By an 80% to seven percent (7%) margin, political conservatives say life would be better if more lived as Christians. Among liberals, just 38% say life would be better with more Christian living…

On this occasion, Rasmussen uncharacteristically do not provide the questionnaire, crosstabulations (except to ‘Premium Members’), or even a fuller report. But I surmise that the classification of political ideologies comprises just ‘conservative’, ‘moderate’, and ‘liberal’, thereby exhausting the spectrum of bourgeois political opinion, and that respondents are classified strictly on the basis of self identification. I am deeply skeptical of self perception as a measure of political orientation. A point that Chomsky frequently makes, and Jon Stewart reiterates, is that many Americans who identify as conservative, actually support policies like free choice, universal health care…widely regarded as liberal. So I’m not convinced that any correlation was with actual political orientation, as distinct from self perception. As I understand the terms as used in the US, the range of political orientations from ‘liberal’ to ‘conservative’ is very narrow. Certainly I couldn’t place myself anywhere along that continuum. That said, I suspect that many of those identifying as conservative are not pacifists.

Another troubling finding is that, ‘Only 15% of those who rarely or never attend church say those who believe in Jesus as the Son of God are stupid’. The population in question probably comprises the 17% who ‘attend occasionally’, the 7% who ‘profess a religious belief other than Christianity’ and the 25% who ‘rarely or never attend church’. I gather those who profess no religious belief are among those who ‘rarely or never attend church’.

Maybe the other 85% were trying to be polite. Or maybe they were feeling insecure about their own weird beliefs. According to a Harris poll conducted in mid November,

80% of adult Americans believe in God…Large majorities of the public believe in miracles (75%), heaven (73%), angels (71%), that Jesus is God or the Son of God (71%), the resurrection of Jesus (70%), the survival of the soul after death (68%), hell (62%), the Virgin birth (Jesus born of Mary (61%) and the devil (59%).

In response to the question , ‘To what extent do you believe that the following represents the word of God?’, 37% said that all of the Old Testament is the word of god, while only 14% thought that the Torah deserved that status. As Harris astutely observe,

Interestingly, only 26% of all adults believe that [all or most of] the Torah is the word of God, even though it is the same as the first five books of the Old Testament. Presumably many people do not know this.

Not only don’t they know it, they clearly have not absorbed the maxim not to judge a book by its cover. Harris also reports that

Slightly more people – but both are minorities – believe in Darwin’s theory of evolution (47%) than in creationism (40%).

It’s kind of interesting that Harris reckon ‘Darwin’s theory of evolution’ is something you can ‘believe in’ in the same way as you might believe in virgin birth, and that 47% of their respondents bought into that fiction. If it’s any consolation, only 40% admitted to believing in creationism.

One hesitates to speculate how many believe in Santa Claus.

And now, for your holiday delectation, Miles Davis [hat tip to Roland Rance for the audio link] and Bob Dorough’s 1962 classic, ‘Blue xmas (To whom it may concern)’. I was surprised and delighted to learn, by the way, that Dorough, who celebrated his 85th birthday on 12 December, is still around, still touring, and still recording.

Merry Christmas

I hope you have a white one, but for me it's blue

Blue Christmas, that's the way you see it when you're feeling blue

Blue Xmas, when you're blue at Christmastime

you see right through,

All the waste, all the sham, all the haste

and plain old bad taste

Sidewalk Santy Clauses are much, much, much too thin

They're wearing fancy rented costumes, false beards and big fat phony grins

And nearly everybody's standing round holding out their empty hand or tin cup

Gimme gimme gimme gimme, gimme gimme gimme

Fill my stocking up

All the way up

It's a time when the greedy give a dime to the needy

Blue Christmas, all the paper, tinsel and the fal-de-ral

Blue Xmas, people trading gifts that matter not at all

What I call


Bitter gall.......Fal-de-ral

Lots of hungry, homeless children in your own backyards

While you're very, very busy addressing

Twenty zillion Christmas cards

Now, Yuletide is the season to receive and oh, to give and ahh, to share

But all you December do-gooders rush around and rant and rave and loudly blare

Merry Christmas

I hope yours is a bright one, but for me it bleeds