Iraq at a Distance: What Anthropologists Can Teach Us About the War (The Ethnography of Political Violence)

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9780812221831: Iraq at a Distance: What Anthropologists Can Teach Us About the War (The Ethnography of Political Violence)

The Iraq War has cost innumerable lives, caused vast material destruction, and inflicted suffering on millions of people. Iraq at a Distance: What Anthropology Can Teach Us About the War focuses on the plight of the Iraqi people, caught since 2003 in the carnage between U.S. and British troops on one side and, on the other, Iraqi insurgents, militias, and foreign al Qaeda operatives.

The volume is a bold attempt by six distinguished anthropologists to study a war zone too dangerous for fieldwork. They break new ground by using their ethnographic imagination as a research tool to analyze the Iraq War through insightful comparisons with previous and current armed conflicts in Cambodia, Israel, Palestine, Northern Ireland, Afghanistan, and Argentina. This innovative approach extends the book's relevance beyond a critical understanding of the devastating war in Iraq. More and more parts of the world of long-standing ethnographic interest are becoming off-limits to researchers because of the war on terror. This book serves as a model for the study of other inaccessible regions, and it shows that the impossibility of conducting ethnographic fieldwork does not condemn anthropologists to silence.

Essays analyze the good-versus-evil framework of the war on terror, the deterioration of women's rights in Iraq under fundamentalist coercion, the ethnic-religious partitioning of Baghdad through the building of security walls, the excessive use of force against Iraqi civilians by U.S. counterinsurgency units, and the loss of popular support for U.S. and British forces in Iraq and Afghanistan after the brutal regimes of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein had been toppled.

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About the Author:

Antonius C. G. M. Robben is Professor of Anthropology at Utrecht University. His books include Political Violence and Trauma in Argentina, also available from the University of Pennsylvania Press, as well as the edited volumes Fieldwork Under Fire: Contemporary Studies of Violence and Survival (with Carolyn Nordstrom) and Cultures Under Siege: Collective Violence and Trauma (with Marcelo Suarez-Orozco).

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Preface

This volume is not a typical anthropology book about Iraq. The essays have been written in the midst of the Iraq War and lack, therefore, the hindsight that often benefits scholarly analyses. Moreover, the contributing authors did not conduct the long-term fieldwork that customarily underlies anthropological studies. The physical danger to foreign civilians in Iraq has been so great that even experienced war correspondents have for years been able to leave Baghdad's Green Zone only on day trips surrounded by private security contractors or embedded in military units. This book shows, however, that the impossibility of conducting ethnographic fieldwork in war zones such as Iraq does not preempt anthropological interpretation.

This book arose from three pressing concerns in mid-2005: a moral outrage against the Iraq War, the absence of an anthropological voice in professional and public debates, and the similarities with previous armed conflicts worldwide (Robben 2005). The anger and dismay over the steeply rising number of dead as the Iraq War dragged on, the urbicide of Fallujah, the displacement of millions of citizens, the gruesome beheading of kidnap victims, the lethal roadside bombs, the mistreatment of Iraqi civilians—with the humiliation of inmates at Abu Ghraib prison as the first public jolt that there was something profoundly wrong with the war—and the terrible waste of resources in the mismanaged reconstruction of Iraq's infrastructure have been felt by many people, not just anthropologists. Numerous anthropologists voiced their opinions at home, among friends and colleagues, and maybe in the classroom, but few brought their anthropological knowledge to bear on the issues discussed in the public domain. Some anthropologists with expertise in the Middle East wrote op-eds about the ethnocentrism of foreign troops fighting in Iraq and pointed out the blindness of our political leaders to Iraq's turbulent political history and ethnic-religious complexities, but these were lone voices among the political scientists, military historians, foreign affairs specialists, and opinion makers that dominated the media. The absence of an anthropological perspective was all the more surprising because anthropologists have since the 1980s been studying armed conflicts that have many similarities with the Iraq War.

These concerns resulted in the formation of the Iraq Research Project in early 2006, in which a group of anthropologists, seasoned in the ethnographic study of violence, suffering, and armed conflict, were invited to write about the Iraq War. Since then, the American Anthropological Association has examined the involvement of anthropologists in the U.S. military and has been reviewing its code of ethics (AAA Commission 2007). Furthermore, many anthropologists have pledged themselves to the opposition against research and service for the military initiated in 2007 by the Network of Concerned Anthropologists (Members 2007). Anthropological research about the Iraq War has concentrated mainly on the study of U.S. veterans and especially on the ethically questionable employment of anthropologists by the military. This book focuses on the plight of the Iraqi people in this devastating war, waged under the banner of freedom and democracy, through comparisons between Iraq and past and present armed conflicts in Cambodia, Israel, Palestine, Northern Ireland, Afghanistan, and Argentina. The introductory chapter conceptualizes the methodological approach to the study of inaccessible war zones and discusses the importance of comparative anthropology in interpreting the fragmentary, conflicting, and partisan information emerging from those fronts. The five ethnographic chapters analyze, respectively, the Manichaean discourse of the war on terror, the deterioration of women's rights in Iraq, the ethnic-religious partitioning of Baghdad, the loss of popular support for the U.S. and Coalition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the counterinsurgency warfare in Iraq. The volume closes with an epilogue that discusses the anthropological findings from a historical perspective.

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