By John Cotter
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (CP) - Canadian soldiers on patrol who have been studied by anthropologist Anne Irwin have jokingly described her work as watching "grunts in the mist."
The tiny, grey-haired University of Calgary professor has spent years in dangerous places with front line troops less than half her age to observe how they construct their identities as warriors.
Now Irwin's research has taken her to Taliban country with the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry where she is watching how soldiers bolster their identities by sharing their battlefield experiences through storytelling with their peers.
"What counts in this context right now is whether you've been under fire and how often you've been outside the wire," said Irwin, 51, who wears the same combat uniform and body armour as the troops when she's in the field.
"These are tough, hard guys who people think of as being very one-dimensional. I guess what really strikes me is how much they really care for each other. How they can just pick themselves up and keep going."
When they are out in the field and return from a patrol, the exhausted soldiers relax together in small, tightly-knit groups - Irwin calls them "nesting circles" - and recount the events of the day or the mission.
Each soldier contributes a story, an anecdote or even a joke, adding stock and spice into what becomes a collective stew of experiences, she said. They also playfully insult each other.
The storytelling not only helps forge the individual identity of each soldier, it builds interpersonal relationships that can have a bearing on how well the unit performs on the battlefield.
"Joking is a big part of it, and teasing," she said. "It is not abuse. If you have been teased harshly it lets you know that you are part of the group."
Being a military Margaret Mead is pretty hot and dangerous work for a middle-aged academic. The bleak terrain of Afghanistan is a long way from Irwin's home in Sooke on cool, lush, Vancouver Island.
While Irwin is a marathon runner, she says enduring 55 Celsius temperatures while dealing with menopausal flashes has been quite a challenge. And there been more serious dangers.
Only a few weeks ago the platoon she was with became embroiled in a firefight with Taliban in which two Canadian soldiers were wounded.
Afterwards the stories didn't flow immediately. It took about 24 hours because everyone was exhausted and in shock, she said.
Then slowly the troops opened up to each other. They recounted watching a medic run forward straight into the line of fire to supervise first aid on their fallen comrades. They spoke about a sergeant who stood up under fire on the ramp of a LAV 3 to get a stretcher.
The soldiers also remembered how they all jumped back into the fight after recovering the two casualties until the battle was won.
"That was even tougher because by then they were exhausted," she said. "That just took character and discipline."
Irwin isn't exactly sure why soldiers, whom she has described as being part of a "hypermasculine culture that values stoicism and physical toughness," let their guard down in front of her.
Part of it could be the 16 years she spent in the Canadian Forces reserve.
Perhaps it's her academic credentials. Irwin's doctoral thesis at the University of Manchester was entitled: The social organization of soldiering: a Canadian infantry company in the field.
Maybe it's her friendly eyes and easy smile that show she really cares about them.
Recently the troops paid Irwin the ultimate compliment. They asked her to contribute to their storytelling sessions in the field.
"It's the most moving thing I've ever experienced. A real strong sense of inclusion," she said.
"It is very, very powerful. It gives me an insight into how it must be for the soldiers to be swept up into this family."
The original article
The article doesn't mention methodology, but I would really like to know how this isn't embedded anthropology. And the anthropologist's relationship to the military (is she seconded to the unit? treated as a civilian contractor? etc).
UPDATE: I've just discovered that antropologi.info, one of the anthroblogs I read, discusses the same article. We're even mentioned in the post. Also, links to the paper are provided.
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