Saturday, July 27, 2013

Introduction: Ideas that send people around the world

I used to work in this little restaurant in Oceanside, California.  I worked there for about 8 years, including those strange, terrible years right after 9/11.  If you haven't heard of Oceanside, California, it happens to be located right next to one of the biggest military bases in the United States: Camp Pendleton.  So we had our fair share of soldiers--men and women--who came into our place.  They were all so young.  That's what I remember thinking.  Especially considering where they were going and what they were doing.

We had a pretty unique mix of people coming into that restaurant.  The place had a bit of grit, and the customers ranged from hippies to surfers to former meth addicts all the way to the soldiers.  A lively mix, yes.  Most of the folks who came in there had liberal/left politics going on, which made things interesting considering the fact that Oceanside is a big military town.  I remember one 4th of July there was this huge military parade passing by right out in front and one of the employees was blaring "Fortunate Son" by Creedence Clearwater Revival on the restaurant sound system.  It was a place of contrasts.

The place definitely wasn't a bastion of support for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  It was basically the exact opposite.  So I always found it intriguing that folks from the military came in.  They weren't coming to our place in droves by any means, but we had more than a few who came in pretty regularly.  I always wondered what they thought about the reasons behind the war--or even what they thought about all the anti-war folks.  I remember a few of these young people very clearly.  Sharp, short memories.

I remember talking to this young married couple when they both had just gotten back from serving in Iraq.  Both of them kept telling me how much they hated it over there, how it was a shithole, hell.  They told me it was all sand and heat.  They kept telling me over and over how terrible it was and that they never wanted to go back.  I had a hard time imagining these two--they couldn't have been much older than 21--all the way over in Iraq taking part in all of that.  They just wanted to get home.

Another young guy came in all the time before he was deployed.  He was blond, and tall, and so incredibly polite every time he came in.  He'd often try to bus his own tables and help us out when we were busy.  Then he was deployed, and I didn't see him for a couple years.  Then one day he came back in.  I started an afternoon shift and I saw him sitting at one of the tables near the register.  I watched him for a second.  I was glad to see he was ok.  When I talked to him he was as polite and soft spoken as ever.  I was standing alongside the table and he just looked at me and said he was so incredibly glad to be home.  He didn't have to say it; you could see it on his face and in his demeanor.  He looked relieved and content, but he also looked like there was a lot more to tell than the sort of surface conversations you have in momentary restaurant conversations.  I didn't ask.  I just put in his order and let him be.  At the end of his meal he said he was being deployed again and he would be heading out soon.  That was the last time I saw him.  I have always wondered what happened and where he is now.

There was another guy.  He was one of the most physically-fit people I have ever known.  The guy looked like a personal trainer or something.  I think he was a Navy Seal.  I can't remember--but it was either that or Special Forces.  He was also gung ho and loud--but in a very happy, gregarious sort of way.  When he came in with his friends you knew he was there.  Before he was deployed he came in for dinner with some of his buddies, who were also heading out.  They drank, ate, had a good time.  I never knew what to say.  I mean, it all seemed like it was inevitable.  They were being shipped to this place, for all of these reasons, and that was that.  By processes, machinations, forces.  So it seemed.  None of them ever talked directly to me about going to Iraq.  Not the details--they would just mention where they were going and leave it at that.  To me it all seemed senseless.  I think the boss took care of their dinner that night.  Nobody seemed to know what to do or what to say.  And then they left. But a year or so later this guy came back and he was different.  He was a little harder, but still nice.  His hair was longer and he seemed a little less connected or attached to the military.  He was less clean cut, less formal, less...something.  He looked like he'd been through a lot.  But I never really asked him about any of it.  I usually just tried to leave people in peace.  If that was possible.


Parade, Oceanside, CA, circa 2003.  Photo by RA.
All of that sending young people around the world to engage in war and violence stemmed from what took place on that crisp morning on September 11, 2001.  That was the spark that really sent the USA over the line and led to two wars that lasted for years and years.  It was depressing to see--how people reacted.  I remember that morning.  I was living with some roommates in Northern San Diego County.  One of my roommates woke me up.  He was in his room yelling "WAR!!" at the top of his lungs.  The guy wasn't pro-war...I think he was screaming about the insanity of it all.  He'd heard the news on the radio and that was his way of sharing the madness with the rest of the household.  I remember the chaos of those first few hours when news networks were reporting that we were under attack and everyone was wondering what it all meant.  Were we at war--or what?

It didn't take long for people to start sliding off the edge.  Losing their grip.  Within days there were reports of attacks against anyone who looked even remotely like they had anything to do with the Middle East.  American flags suddenly appeared everywhere--they were even being distributed by local newspapers in all the latest editions.  People I knew well talked about turning the Middle East into a "glass parking lot."  That's a quote.  AM radio stations ramped up the rhetoric.  I was 26 years old, and to me it looked like my country had gone completely insane.  With fear, mostly.  And this fear translated to hatred, violence, racism, you name it.  The next thing I knew we were dropping bombs on Afghanistan, and then invading Iraq.  None of the justifications made any sense.

Ground Zero, NY, 2004.  Photo by RA.
What was most striking was how a massive region full of people became stigmatized, essentialized as the epitome of evil.  I can't count the number of times I got into arguments with people, basically trying to argue that you can't judge millions and millions of people based upon the actions of 19 young men.  These conversations rarely went anywhere.  The ideas were set in place.  And it was those ideas--based in a particular knowledge of the world--that drove the whole machine.  The machine that sent billions of dollars of weapons across the world...and legions of young people with them.  War--the all-encompassing social, material, and physical violence of it--is a lot more than just guns and weapons and tanks.  It starts with ideas--about people.  Others.  The ideas people have about others are the basis for rationalizations, justifications, politics.  For war, and violence.

Anti-war protest, Santa Cruz, CA, 2005.  Photo by RA.
There are a few key life experiences that led me to anthropology, and 9/11 was definitely one of them.  I went back to school in 2002, in part motivated to find some answers to what was then a very vague sort of "what the hell happened" question that I had about everything that was going on.  It was a good path, I think.  Anthropology definitely provided a lot of insight into the racism, prejudice, and ethnocentrism that was running rampant back in those years.  That's a start.  It's something, right?

But then, look at where we are today.  Syria.  Libya.  And on and on.  Insight matters.  Perspective matters.  But we also clearly need something more.  And I think anthropology can be a crucial part of that something that we need to break the cycles of violence that plagued the entire 20th century, and which are certainly bleeding their way well into the 21st.  Perhaps a renewed anthropology could help transform the reasons why so many young people are sent around the world, year after year, decade after decade.  Maybe someday all those young people will be traveling for entirely different reasons.  Maybe.


This issue is about anthropology and war in a broad sense.  Perspectives about war, relationships between anthropology and war, personal memories, and more.  We have contributions from Spencer Gavin Smith, John McCreery, Emily Sogn, John Lunsford, David Price, and Steven Tran-Creque.  Thanks everyone for taking part in this project.  As always, feel free to post comments, responses, complaints, thoughts.  Whatever.  Or links.  Something.  Pass this around.  Let us know what you think.

Until next time.



John McCreery said...

Beautiful, absolutely beautiful.

Gabriela Tafolla said...

Thank you for sharing your personal memories and your connection with anthropology. Students of anthropology, such as myself, learn so much from these personal accounts.

DrickSFC said...

Intense information from inside. Observation... what it takes for an anthropologist. Thanks for sharing so sincerely.

Unknown said...

Thank you for capturing why anthropology matters and why those of us in this field need to do better to spread that message. You're doing so here, of course.

I was teaching at Santa Clara University during the 9/11 attacks. One of our students, Deora Bodley, was on one of the downed planes. I just wanted to mention her name here. To remember. And to let her know we will never forget.

Unknown said...

Hopefully with more understanding of the experiences had by those who have been in the centre of war, we can work towards avoiding future conflict. Their experiences are a valuable resource.