The Value of Stability Operations

One component of my primary long-term scholarly project is to examine the ways in which the work of writing carries economic value. As I’ve noted previously, in Empire, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri define “immaterial labor” as “labor that produces an immaterial good, such as a service, a cultural product, knowledge, or communication” (290). For Hardt and Negri, there are three varieties of immaterial labor: first, “an industrial production that has been informationalized,” second, “analytical and symbolic tasks,” and third, the emotional work involved in “the production and manipulation of affect” (293). I think that’s a fairly useful definition and taxonomization, and it helps that it goes further than Reich’s use of the problematically limiting term “symbolic-analytic work” in the allowance it provides for “the production and manipulation of affect,” a form of work that rhetoricians are not unacquainted with. Here, immaterial labor is opposed to material labor — the production of consumable things — in a way that recalls the reductive oversimplification Richard Lanham draws between an economics of “fluff” (managing information) and an economics of “stuff” (manufacturing objects). I believe the immaterial labor students perform in the composition classroom certainly qualifies as economically valuable scholarly work, and I believe the same holds true for literacy education in general.

Which is what makes it interesting to me when Lieutenant General William B. Caldwell IV, Commander of the Nato Training Mission — Afghanistan (NTM-A) (the unit under which I’m working during my deployment here), writes that literacy “is a matter of life and death in Afghanistan,” and that it additionally serves as “the essential enabler that addresses not only life and death issues, but the cornerstone elements of professionalism: the ability to enforce accountability, the opportunity to attend professional military and law enforcement education, particularly specialized skills taught in technical schools and continued education, and the knowledge to combat corruption.” To the best of my knowledge, most analyses of military economics have been focused on the market-oriented positive and negative externalities of military spending itself, and not on considering aspects of military actions as being inherently economic on their own. What happens, though, if we think about literacy education as immaterial labor in relation to LTG Caldwell’s note that in September 2010, “the NATO training mission ha[d] about 27,000 recruits from the Afghan army and police in mandatory literacy programs at any given time,” and that “[t]hat number [would] grow to 50,000 by [that] December and to about 100,000 by June of [2011]”? Can we consider stability operations in general to be a form of immaterial labor, and if so, what do we consider to be the product — the economic output — of stability operations?

Maybe it’s a silly question: it depends on how far in the future one looks for the positive economic effects of having a stable government, one might well reply. (Although it does certainly call attention to the fact that government itself is partly an economic effect and not just an inhibitor, regulator, or controller, as much of popular neoclassical economic discourse would have us believe; but also not just an effect — the so-called mere superstructure — that vulgar Marxist orthodoxy would posit.) That reply, however, should call our attention to the problems with looking far beyond economic activities for their hypothetical economic effects, as we too often do with higher education, considering it only in terms of its long-term economic outcomes. Economic activity does not exist as economic activity solely because it has an outcome that can at some future point be exchanged on the market for cash value — in other words, because it can be commodified into a product. Understandings of economic value must be in terms of labor value as well as in terms of commodity value.

From There to Here

I’m on a military base in Kabul, Afghanistan, mostly set up in the small (9 feet wide by 23 feet long) barracks room where I’ll live until June. It took some doing getting here. I left our home in Highland Falls, New York, early in the morning on 8 January 2011, and showed up at the CONUS Replacement Center at Fort Benning, Georgia later that day. I’ll be necessarily vague on some of the details that took me from there to here, but after a number of days I traveled from Fort Benning and spent some hours in the air before setting down in Europe to refuel, and then a few more hours to an airbase in the Middle East that serves as sort of a gateway to various destinations in that part of the world, broadly considered. That was where I last posted from; that dusty place with the enormous wide-open sky, assembled semi-permanently in the desert out of concrete pads and hundreds of tents and various tan-colored trailers and shipping containers and generators and half-shells and diesel-powered floodlights and highway barriers, populated by transient soldiers and civilians and contractors and maintained mostly by people from other poorer parts of the world. Lots of waiting and checking monitors and standing in lines.

I expected to be there longer than I was, but there was a flight unexpectedly added, a military plane, and we sat facing center on either side of the cargo bay, hoping that the chains that held down the large armored vehicles between us would hold tightly enough on takeoff and landing. From there, another few hours in the air to land in the cold dark early hours of the morning at another airbase, one far less well-equipped to deal with travelers in significant number than the previous installation, where no one seemed to know anything about the various forms of transportation that might be able to take us from there to here. The flights were full, with nothing projected for days, and with the weight we were carrying, rotary-wing wasn’t an option, and so it took a number of phone calls and emails — a remarkably difficult proposition, with inoperative cell phones and mostly unavailable internet — to get us linked up with an officer who was eventually able to find a place for us in an overland armored convoy. (Part of the solution came from me calling home on the free phones at the USO coffee shop and asking the Orientalist to send an email from Highland Falls describing my situation to a member of the unit waiting for us in Kabul.) For that leg of the trip, I got up first at 4 o’clock in the morning to see if I could get on one flight, but couldn’t, and then there were two more toward mid-day, and then finally the surprise flight was announced mid-afternoon, which meant by the time that I found out I was getting on the convoy, I’d had about four hours of sleep and been awake for thirty hours.

The convoy was the first event that opened my eyes to what I’ve signed up for, at least in terms of the day-to-day exigencies of life for Americans in Afghanistan.

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Days Between Stations

I won’t miss Fort Benning. The soldiers of Alpha Company, CONUS Replacement Center made the best of a challenging job, and in doing so were professional and extraordinarily helpful. The civilians and contractors working the various clearance points were sometimes less so, interested more in what they were having for lunch than in rendering assistance; clerks rather than professionals whose definition of service was limited to getting your name off their lists.

CRC interior

My initial impulse would have been to characterize the accomodations at the CRC as spartan.

CRC exterior

That would have been inadequate, and that impulse reminds me how much I’ve forgotten of my time in the Army.

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Toward Afghanistan, Part 2

In a bit of curious synchronicity, I picked up a copy of Greg Mortenson’s Stones into Schools from the free book table. I’ll fit it into the bag somehow. In my last post, I started to talk about how the topic of religion seems curiously diminished in many of the conversations going on today about the interrelated challenges of corruption, violence, education, custom, and gender relations in Afghanistan. Mortenson’s project plays direcly into those conversations, given that his organization’s mission is “[t]o promote and support community-based education, especially for girls, in remote regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan.” One view that seems to predominate in Western conversations about Afghanistan is that education can serve as at least part of a solution to the persistent problems of misogyny, violence, and corruption, but I haven’t registered many westerners as talking about how Afghanistan’s religious culture might contribute toward that solution, as well: in fact, I more frequently hear Islam rhetorically positioned as a significant component of those problems rather than as an inextricable part of Afghan culture that those who would seek to help Afghanistan move towards some form of self-sustaining democratic modernity might embrace.

Nicholas Kristof’s argument strikes me as usefully representative here:

The conventional wisdom is that education and development are impossible in insecure parts of Afghanistan that the Taliban control. That view is wrong.

An organization set up by Mr. Mortenson and a number of others are showing that it is quite possible to run schools in Taliban-controlled areas. I visited some of Mr. Mortenson’s schools, literacy centers and vocational training centers, and they survive the Taliban not because of military protection (which they eschew) but because local people feel “ownership” rather than “occupation.”

“Aid can be done anywhere, including where Taliban are,” Mr. Mortenson said. “But it’s imperative the elders are consulted, and that the development staff is all local, with no foreigners.”

I haven’t read Mortenson’s book yet, but the stricture against foreigners is both expected — most development literature points toward the need for self-determination, and that’s the end the Army is working toward in Afghanistan, as well — and interesting, because of the problem of what constitutes development, and where it comes from.

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Toward Afghanistan, Part 1

In September 2010, the New York Times illustrated an article about the complex interrelationships among corruption, education, custom, and gender in Afghanistan with a bruising anecdote:

Hundreds of children would gather on the iconic Nader Khan Hill in the capital, Kabul, on a gorgeous Friday in September and fly kites emblazoned with slogans lauding the rule of law and equality for women. The kites, along with copies of the Afghan Constitution and justice-themed comic books, would be gifts of the United States, part of a $35 million effort “to promote the use of Afghanistan’s formal justice system.”

Afghan policemen hijacked the event, stealing dozens of kites for themselves and beating children with sticks when they crowded too close to the kite distribution tent.

Most bore messages about the importance of gender equality, but there was hardly a girl with a kite, although plenty of girls were around. One DPK staff member pushed through the crowd to give 10-year-old Shaqila Nabi a kite; her sister Farzana, 8, had wanted one, too, but a policeman had just swung at her with a stick and she had darted out of harm’s way, and out of sight.

Shaqila raced back to her father, Gul Nabi, a horse wrangler peddling rides. He promptly took the kite and gave it to a boy.

“He is my son and he should get the kite,” he said.

It’s intended to come across as painful, I’m sure, and that’s why the author led with it: the anecdote is full of abject rhetorical appeals to pathos carefully chosen to communicate the challenges the author sees as facing Afghanistan. Still, those appeals to pathos don’t make the article’s representations any less true, and as I’ve processed through the various stations of this CONUS Replacement Center in preparation to go over there, they’ve been on my mind.

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Good Things

Today seems like a good day to again acknowledge that I feel tension about the institution for which I worked as a soldier, from 1992 to 1996, and again work for as a professor, since 2006. When I was a soldier, the Army was the best group of people I’d ever worked with, and after a couple years — first as Corporal Edwards, and then as Sergeant Edwards — the job was the first time I’d ever been genuinely good at something that challenged me. It was also the first time I felt I was doing something important; something bigger than me. I feel the same way now: after graduate study and a few years as a professor, I’m again feeling like I’m getting good at what I do, and again welcoming the feeling that I’m doing something important, serving something bigger than me.

I know the Army does good things sometimes. (Sometimes it doesn’t. We know that. It’s important to acknowledge.) I know it’s full of people who are enormously committed to doing good things, and to doing things that they believe are good. Like the American culture from which it draws its soldiers, it has its share of stupid and vicious people as well — Steven Green, Lynndie England, William Calley, the helicopter pilot identified as Crazy Horse 18 of the 227th Aviation Regiment — but they are the exception to the rule constituted by men and women I served with in the 24th Infantry and the men and women I work with now; people who are good-hearted, caring, massively and intimidatingly competent, and committed to an ideal of voluntary service that many folks can’t imagine.

But I’ve been strongly opposed to the second war in Iraq since its inception, and agree with the argument that basing a decision to go to war in which humans will die upon pretenses that one knows are false can only be characterized as evil. The fact that over 100,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed in that war is an after-the-fact measure of the magnitude of the effects of that evil. Some American soldiers, like Steven Green, Lynndie England, and Crazy Horse 18, bear willing and active complicity in that evil. Worse to me, it seems, is the way that such evil contaminates even those who try to do the right thing: those who serve well in Iraq, who do good deeds, build schools, protect innocents, and even those at home who allowed or promoted the election of a President who made that decision to go to war on premises he knew were false — we’re all brushed by that evil.

I try to do the right thing. I talk to my students about what might and might not constitute the right thing to do when they become officers. The Orientalist gives up lunch hours each month to facilitate discussions among those officers-to-be about ethics in the military. And as wrong as I feel Iraq was (and as strongly as I support those over there trying to put together the pieces so we don’t leave the place even worse than when we went in), I want to believe that we’re doing the right thing in Afghanistan. I’ve just finished Amin Saikal’s Modern Afghanistan, and have begun Neil Moran’s Kipling and Afghanistan and Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea, with Sarah Chayes’s The Punishment of Virtue and Margaret Mills’s Rhetoric and Politics in Afghan Traditional Storytelling on deck. The Taliban’s corrupt medieval thuggery and support of al Qaeda’s vicious tactics, its brutal and hideous misogyny, and its opposition to education, enlightenment, and fundamental human rights seem to me to entirely merit (and, in fact, morally require) the presence of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). Afghanistan is a place where 14% of the population is literate, and where soldiers — and civilians — have begun to do good things.

That’s a project to which I hope to contribute. Next year, I deploy to Afghanistan for six months, to help with language and literacy education. I’ll be in tension about it then, perhaps much as I am now. But I’m hopeful.

I think we can do good things.

As with all material on this blog, the opinions in this post are my own, and do not represent those of any institution with which I am associated.

The Clear Use of Sources

I’m looking at a quotation that I don’t know what to do with: it’s confusing me. I ask you, reader, to help explain it to me; to help me figure out how the author is using a particular source. Here’s the quotation, in context, from pages iii-iv of the Preface by Marshall Sahlins to The Counter-Counterinsurgency Manual:

As deconstructed in the Counter-Counterinsurgency Manual, the applied anthropology of the US Military may be described something as follows: a planetary strategy of research and destroy, involving the deployment of armed and largely culturally-illiterate American forces from among the thousand or so garrisons now distributed on foreign soil, sometimes complemented by second rate mercenary academics, all charged with an investigation of the cultures of the local peoples sufficient to determine if and how they can be subjugated or, failing that, taken out.

Here is anthropology as a weapon in dubious battles, as the critics rightly claim. For as it is put by a certain Lt. Colonel cited in the counterinsurgency manual:

“There will be no peace… The de facto role of the US armed forces will be to keep the world safe for our economy and open to our cultural assault. To these ends, we will do a fair amount of killing. We are building an information-based military to do that killing.”

But then, whose side are you on, Petraeus? Although the counterinsurgency manual pretends to be based on up-to-date social science, it lacks the critical reflexivity of the latter, since what it dare not address is the Americans’ own presence as an invading and occupying power.

My question is about that “There will be no peace” quotation that goes up to “killing”: how is Sahlins using it? What’s the purpose? There seem to me to be several problems with the quotation. First, the “certain Lt. Colonel” is never cited in the counterinsurgency manual: the quotation comes from a xenophobic 1997 editorial piece by the then-Major Ralph Peters, published quite clearly not as scholarship but as opinion, and in its content clearly superannuated by the work that went into the counterinsurgency field manual. If we are to believe that authors work with a sincere commitment to the words they write, that work strikes me as creditable, and should in no way be related to the execrative fustian offered by Peters ten years earlier.

So: the material leading up to the quotation says some nasty things about the military and about the authors of the field manual, and about the intentions of its authors in using anthropological scholarship. The material following the quotation directly addresses General David Petraeus, who directed the authorship and publication of the Field Manual that Sahlins critiques.

Why, then, does Sahlins use a quotation (itself not cited at all in the Counter-Counterinsurgency Manual: I found the Peters source via Google) from an author he doesn’t name? Is this guilt by association? Is there an implied equivalency between the opinions of the author of an editorial piece and military doctrine? If so, how is the quotation supposed to relate to General Petraeus? Should we understand from the way the quotation is positioned that General Petraeus is to be held to account for the opinions of the now-retired Peters? In sum: what are we to understand as the intended relation of the Peters quotation to FM 3-24?