The Ethnographic Case

Reflections on the tensions between the general and the particular

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“He didn’t blow us up”—routine violence and non-event as case

This case is a story that a soldier told me. I call her Kelly, and she said it was “the craziest story I was gonna get” from her. So for her it was an extreme, a worst case, but also a kind of telos of conditions she lived with and feelings she felt every day in occupied Iraq. It was a case of something not happening. As is fitting for those tensions of normalcy and emergency and rule and suspension that characterize state violence, it was both exceptional and part of a pattern: the pattern of soldiers’ embodied terror and vulnerability (even as they surely inspired terror in vulnerable others) and the pattern of the mechanisms that shaped their thought and action. It was a case of something that might have happened to Kelly but didn’t, that she might have done but didn’t do, and of things that were treated as if they were real even when they turned out not to be. It was a case of a potentiality or hypothetical attaining a curious afterlife of actuality.

Kelly was a junior enlisted engineer in her early twenties who spent a tour in far western Iraq building bridges to replace ones that had been destroyed by the US counterinsurgency campaign. Kelly was in her unit’s headquarters section and so spent a lot of time convoying around with the company commander, making thrice-weekly visits to the bridge construction site. She was the driver for their high-riding utility truck, called an LMTV, in the middle of a small convoy of similar vehicles and Humvees. Her NCO sat beside her in the passenger seat and a gunner stood behind them manning a mounted .50 caliber machine gun. The .50 cal (or M2 Heavy Machine Gun), along with its smaller cousin the M249 Light Machine Gun, is a ubiquitous tool in contemporary US wars. Large and heavy enough that it must be mounted on a vehicle or tripod, it can nevertheless be operated by a single individual, firing rounds the approximate size of an adult’s thumb either singly or in a continuous stream, and quite efficiently tearing apart metal, wood, concrete, and flesh.[1]

The main threats confronting Kelly and her unit were roadside bombs and what in Army argot are called VBIEDs, for “vehicle-borne IED,” pronounced “vee-bed”—car bombs delivered into the middle of convoys or checkpoints. Everyone was afraid of these bombs. People Kelly knew in other units had been hurt and killed by them. Once a Humvee right in front of her in a convoy was hit, another time a trailing vehicle. A Marine tank that left the FOB (forward operating base) right before her convoy got blown in half. “In my eyes, in everybody’s eyes, we got lucky a lot” when it came to bombs, she said. “Somebody was totally looking out for us.” These cases didn’t belong to Kelly, but she was still being shaped by them. Indeed, they brought into existence her own parallel set of cases: “getting lucky a lot” in the face of the risk and vulnerability that were affirmed by these other incidents.

One day, on a run to inspect the bridge, their convoy of trucks and Humvees rolled past a long line of oncoming civilian vehicles that pulled over and stopped at their approach. Except one car continued right on toward the lead Humvee in the convoy; from her elevated vantage, Kelly watched anxiously as it came on and listened over the radio as the soldiers in the lead Humvee found their .50 cal jammed as they prepared to fire on the car. The car pulled over at the last instant and let the Humvee pass. But then it continued to advance directly toward Kelly’s oncoming truck. She was terrified; one of the Marines stationed with her unit had been killed in a VBIED attack that occurred in exactly this way. The middle of the convoy, where she was, is a better target, and also a more probable location for a command vehicle. “I about shit myself,” she said. “I was praying, ‘Dear Lord, forgive me for my sins!’” Suddenly the death that had been stalking friends and fellow troops seemed to be staring her right in the face. “It was the perfect scenario of everything that was going wrong with the other convoys, and it was scary as shit.” Kelly yelled to her gunner to shoot, but for reasons she didn’t know or explain to me, he didn’t shoot. The car came closer, and kept coming, and then drove on past without incident. The command group completed their inspection and their trip back to the FOB. But when she got there, Kelly said, she and a friend who had been riding in another vehicle went to her room and prayed together, “cause it was that traumatic.” They felt like they had narrowly escaped dying. The violence that they had seen claim other soldiers—people who they resembled in all the ways that mattered in this scene—was all of a sudden that much nearer, even though it remained unrealized. “It’s not your friends anymore, it’s starting to hit you.” Virtual or not, false alarm or not, she felt touched by the threat.

So she now had her own case, scary as shit, but I wondered what it meant. I asked Kelly how she felt about the fact that the driver had not actually been a bomber. She explained that the escalation of force protocols she had been trained in defined the driver’s behavior as threatening. “If somebody came at you, if they even get in the vicinity of your convoy, you blow them up. Cause it’s considered a threat. Cause they know the rules, they know they’re supposed to pull over. And that was scary because there was clearly people pulled over”—other civilians—“knowing that that was what they were supposed to do.” The driver “knew what he was doing was wrong.” And Kelly, it seemed, knew that she had to fear him as a result.

She allowed that the driver may just have been impatient, as she said she probably would be herself if convoys of armed foreigners were constantly jamming up traffic as they pushed their way through her hometown, or that he may have been in the grips of some emergency, as she had seen earlier in her deployment when a family with a sick child were shot by soldiers as they rushed through a checkpoint on their way to a hospital. The specifics of the driver’s case were unknown to her but they were not impossible to imagine. If her gunner had listened to her, “this dude would’ve been dead.”

The story tacked between two poles: the intensity of this “traumatic” brush with death and a vague sense of reflection and relief that the gunner hadn’t fired. “The fact that he didn’t blow us up was just astonishing to me, because in our minds, it was like, that was what was gonna happen.” The “we” of this shared mind remains unclear in her telling, since her NCO and gunner didn’t appear to share her assessment of the situation, even if some of the soldiers in the lead vehicle, the one with the jammed .50 cal, did share it. But the fact remained that for Kelly, the threat was not just potential, but actual, an ontological reality that extended to her fellow soldiers, endangered along with her even if, in her telling, many of them did not share her perception of the situation. “His actions were threatening,” she asserted of the driver, and she wondered, despite her knowledge to the contrary, “Why didn’t he blow?” “I would’ve felt terrible,” she said at one point right before the subject changed and our conversation moved on, and at another, “I almost feel bad,” her language curiously contingent. “I had the intention of killing him and it wasn’t a threat. It’s weird. I’m sure it happens a lot”—this disastrous bad luck paralleling, but somehow not equal to, how she and her soldiers “got lucky a lot.” “That’s probably the best story you’re gonna get out of me!” she said. And then she laughed.

The thing that made this story eventful for Kelly was not the narrowly averted killing of an innocent civilian, described in vague and contingent almosts and would haves, but the sense, articulated far more concretely, of narrowly avoided death: his actions were threatening, she said, she did pray in the terror of the moment and afterward, and she believed she was almost killed. Despite the sympathy with which she was able to regard the driver’s perspective—in his situation, she said, “I’d be like ‘fuck that!’”—and the divergent perceptions of her fellow soldiers—some contravening her call to shoot and others sharing her sense of narrowly-avoided death—her telling of the story remains framed by the fact that she was following the well-established escalation-of-force rules while the driver “knew what he was doing was wrong.”

In this story, as in many others I heard from soldiers, the proverbial “fog of war” is something both less and more than the morass of potential moral and existential hazards depicted in popular representations. The battlefield is frequently a chaotic and ambiguous environment, but one in which discipline, training, mission objectives, and rules of engagement provide both a technical, procedural rubric, and a sort of embodied, affective pedagogy that makes otherwise benign behavior and objects into deeply felt mortal threats.[2] Such knowledge and action are technical, automatic, systematized, and distributed—an effect of the way that, as Michel Callon and John Law put it, “the knowing individual” disappears into the capacities and obligations of the network.[3] This particular network happens to have the necropolitical mission of identifying killable, “rule-breaking” bodies and deputizing killer actors. At the same time, individual knowledge and capacity to act do not emerge seamlessly and uniformly from that network; they are irregular, perspectival and vexingly partial ways of knowing and doing. Kelly’s training told her that the driver was a threat, just as it told the crew and gunner in the Humvee in front of her, who tried and failed to fire on the car before she even started yelling to her gunner. The decision whether to fire wasn’t hers alone. It only arose because of the accident of the jammed weapon in the lead vehicle, without which the Iraqi driver would likely have been killed before he got anywhere near Kelly’s truck, and then it fizzled with the intercession and inaction of Kelly’s gunner and NCO. Such circumstances demand careful consideration of what it means to make a decision in the first place: who the deciding agent is, how an action takes shape, and how an aftermath is sorted out. What Kelly describes is less an instance of morally anguished trade-off or a brush with transgression than it is a moment of powerful but strangely non-eventful certainty in the face of seemingly glaring contradiction.

I want to conclude by suggesting a couple of ways to think this case anthropologically. The first is via its exemplarity, not just as a piece of data but as part of a project of understanding human experiences of routinized violence. Do we imagine Kelly’s case to be a distortion, attenuation or exception to this human experience? Or can we take it as an expression of that humanity, however discomfiting that might be? What does it mean to take Kelly’s terror seriously while taking equally seriously the Iraqi driver’s terror as he made his way through overlapping fields of high-caliber fire? And might a careful understanding of the former help trouble the notion that the latter is simply an inevitable side effect of well-intentioned liberal war-making? This seriousness of consideration does not have to be a matter of somehow letting Kelly off the hook—as if most of us are not in one way or another hung on that same hook—or of confining our analysis to the narrow moral economy of this particular scene of sovereign violence. It can instead be cause for interrogation of a far more unquestioned mode of liberal subjectivity that is both given responsibility for acts of violence and cast as the thing being defended by such acts. In the name of defending a highly unimaginative vision of freedom, this subjectivity stubbornly and violently privileges autonomous action and individual responsibility. So another way that this is a case: it is a case of precluded possibilities for sensing and responding to the agency of others, for recognizing that doing and knowing are always ours and not-ours, and for unsettling just what defines the “us” to which these things belong.

 

Ken MacLeish is Assistant Professor of Medicine, Health, and Society and Anthropology at Vanderbilt. He studies how war, broadly considered, takes shape in the everyday lives of people whose job it is to produce it—U.S. military servicemembers and their families and communities. His book, Making War: Everyday Life at Ft. Hood, examines the everyday lives of the soldiers, families, and communities who personally bear the burden of America’s most recent wars.

 

[1] There is a widespread but apocryphal claim that it is illegal under the Geneva Conventions to use .50 caliber rounds against human targets, but no such prohibition exists. It is common, however, for unit-level rules of engagement to limit the use of the M2 and other large-caliber weapons to non-human targets, though in urban combat that involves shooting at buildings or vehicles, such distinctions may in practice be meaningless.

[2] cf. Kenneth MacLeish, “Armor and Anesthesia: Exposure, Feeling, and the Soldier’s Body,” Medical Anthropology Quarterly 26, no. 1 (2012): 49–68.

[3] Michel Callon and John Law, “After the Individual in Society: Lessons on Collectivity from Science, Technology and Society,” The Canadian Journal of Sociology / Cahiers Canadiens de Sociologie 22, no. 2 (April 1, 1997): 165–82.


3 Responses to “He didn’t blow us up”—routine violence and non-event as case

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