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What’s Going On: A Humanist’s War

2009 November 25

Is counterinsurgency a humanist’s war? A few weeks ago, I was watching Obama’s War, Frontline’s most recent documentary on the American war effort in Afghanistan; one of the program’s most salient points was one that most interested observers are probably already well aware of, which is that the war in Afghanistan is not a conventional war with conventional strategies. And by conventional war, I mean a war where you enter with a lot of troops, take out key enemy positions, and then declare victory. Instead, the war effort is rooted in a counterinsurgency strategy in which victory is determined by the extent to which Americans can corral native support for the established government. So, how is the counterinsurgency effort going? Well, a lot of Frontline’s footage showed soldiers shooting at empty fields. Instead of being a straight get-the-bad-guy-in-your-scope-operation, a lot of the key work takes place during moments of relative calm as soldiers hold informal sit-downs with villagers in strategic areas. And herein lies another point made by the documentary: in wars of counterinsurgency, there are a lot of counter-intuitive realities. For example, more force does not necessarily translate into better results. If anything, more force makes natives apprehensive and provides insurgents with political ammunition to garner more support. Furthermore, very often the appropriate response to an attack is no response at all because when American soldiers strike back they often strike back with excessive force, which once again, as a symbolic act, has the potential to play into the hands of insurgents. While watching Obama’s War, I couldn’t help but see counterinsurgency, with respect to conventional warfare, as more of a humanist’s war in that, with counterinsurgency, soldiers are tasked with employing a campaign of goodwill in which they garner support among natives through reciprocal communication, temperance, and cultural understanding. An instrumental figure in this humanist’s counterinsurgency war is the military interpreter who is tasked with bridging the communication divide between American soldiers and Afghan natives. Very often, Obama’s War implied that the effectiveness of interpreters is the limiting factor to America’s counterinsurgency effort.

What is it like to be a military interpreter? I wondered. Well, I did a quick Google search and came across the book, The U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, and came across a section on interpreters that illuminated for me what it must be like for these individuals. For example, interpreters are expected “not to interject their personality, ideas, or questions” and always “[mirror] the speaker’s tone and personality.” And American military operatives are instructed to “position [the] interpreter by their side (or a step back). This keeps the subject or target audience from shifting their attention or fixating on the interpreter rather than on the leader.” Of course, this is all reasonable and for the sake of effectiveness, but at the same time, it seems lamentable that a figure with field experience among natives and among American troops would assume such a secondary position. Which brings up questions about why native interpreters choose to work with Americans in the first place. I suspect economics are involved, but perhaps there’s more. Undoubtedly, most interpreters must, at some point, deal with questions of loyalty, identity, and legitimacy. While the The U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual instructs American military personnel to take care of their interpreters, there’s also a warning to be cautious around interpreters, in case their loyalties lie elsewhere. Moreover, in terms of identity, interpreters are tasked with an interesting set of objectives, in that they are expected to understand the nuances of not one, but two languages, and be cognizant of culturally specific mannerisms. And this is all in addition to being able to adopt many of the qualities and characteristics of the speakers they are interpreting. With these kinds of responsibilities, interpreters operate in a provocative nexus point between native Afghans and American forces.

From a literary perspective, the theme of interpretation is a familiar one in the Asian American literary canon. Probably the most recognizable is Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies, which explores, through a series of short stories, the pains of assimilation that come along with being a Bengali American. Then, there’s Chang-Rae Lee’s novel Native Speaker, which explores questions of identity and loyalty through a story about an industrial spy. In both works there’s an underlying sense of otherness and an overriding preoccupation with dual identity. And like the Afghan military interpreters, characters in these works often operate in nexus points that require them to adopt the qualities and characteristics of two abutting cultures.

Tying this back to counterinsurgency and the war in Afghanistan, I feel the figure of the military interpreter is a worthwhile entry point to comprehending a counterinsurgency war’s ramifications on culture and identity because the interpreter’s identity touches on questions of legitimacy, exploitation, loyalty, and cultural dissonance—questions that very often are at the heart of “ethnic literature.” So, what’s the point of this observation? Well, even without considering the echoes of Vietnam in America’s counterinsurgency war in Afghanistan, I think the Afghan war compels anyone interested in diaspora literature to consider the patterns of American warfare in the twentieth century with respect to cultural invidiousness and its impact on identity, and how these patterns inform diaspora literature’s preoccupations. Because the humanist bent of counterinsurgency in this present war, I believe, has the potential to confer upon us deeper understanding of the implications of modern warfare. And furthermore, I believe the diaspora experience has the potential to inform our understanding of why counterinsurgency rarely ever works, and why it may not work in Afghanistan. Perhaps, in the end, the failure of counterinsurgency lies in the inherent paradox of a humanist’s war.

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