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Anthropologist studies Cdn soldiers in the field 
6th-Jul-2006 04:56 pm

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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6th-Jul-2006 04:09 pm (UTC)
The timing of this is interesting, given I'm (supposed to be) writing two papers on constructing identity, but to answer your question, it sure seems like embedded anthropology to me - she's right there in the thick of things, and from the sounds of it, has been for some time. That's how they're able to accept her over say, someone who's just come into it from 'outside'. She's earned her stripes, as it were.

It would be interesting to know how she became involved in this; whether she's acting as a military observer or as you said, a civvie contractor (on behalf of a university or something?).

6th-Jul-2006 04:30 pm (UTC)
she is watching how soldiers bolster their identities by sharing their battlefield experiences through storytelling with their peers

This may sound like a reach, but I swear it's relevant (well, I think so): recently I saw Beowulf & Grendel, the adaptation of the Anglo-Saxon poem that was filmed in Iceland. (Good movie btw.)

One interesting element often repeated throughout the film is that when Beowulf and his Geats are sitting around, drinking, rowing their boat, or basically doing anything other than fighting, one of them would start to declaim their most recent adventure in epic terms (I'm pretty sure the monologues were bits of the original poem, translated into modern English). Sometimes they would sort of round-robin it, with different people taking up the tale in turn.

I thought it was a neat idea and found it oddly authentic. Guess there've been war stories as long as there've been warriors...
6th-Jul-2006 05:34 pm (UTC)
It will be interesting to see what academic publications come out of this; would be well worth reading.
7th-Jul-2006 12:28 pm (UTC)
My point is that embedded anthropology would imply certain ethical and methodological problems in ethnography. These aren't just a bunch of guys being studied, they're a bunch of guys committing violent acts for highly-contested political goals. For example, embedded journalism contains an implicit rejection of journalistic "objectivity" and a tacit support for the political objectives of the military. Could the same be said of embedded anthropology? If so, does that mean that the anthropologist could be considered a legitimate target for enemy combatants, in the same way that certain "civilian contractors" are, like the mercenaries lynched by an angry mob in Fallujah?

Also, does the ethnographer's duty to her informants include killing on their behalf? It's conceivable that the anthropologist in the article could be put in a position where she might have to fire upon and possibly kill enemy combatants (i.e., other people) to save her own life or those of her informants. In that situation, she would of course have become a combatant herself and would therefore be open to legitimate retaliation. But what about the generally-held position in anthropology that the discipline should never again be used in the service of violence, as it was during colonial times and during previous wars such as WWII and the Vietnam War?

And how would the anthropologist avoid socialization into military ideology? Military units are specifically designed to engender fraternal feeling among members. This helps the soldiers to conduct their violence with relatively clear consciences. Instead of fighting for abstract ideals and political goals, the soldiers fight for their fellow soldiers. Wouldn't you kill to save your brother's life, after all? But shouldn't an anthropologist avoid such problematic entanglement, the kind facilitated by such things as fireside tales?

Certainly food for thought.
7th-Jul-2006 02:15 pm (UTC)
Of course, that brings up another point. In a world where journalists and spies are considered one and the same (thanks to even the military's intel coming in directly from CNN in some cases), and with anthropology's shadowy history of being used as cover for spying, how are anthropologists regarded in situations like these in general?

One would like to see it the same as with doctors or religious clergy, present but neutrally detached, but that's obviously not how others might see it. In her case, for those who consider the Canadian troops she is traveling with to be enemies, would she be considered one also?
8th-Jul-2006 12:52 am (UTC)
this is really interesting, seeing as i just fell in love and became an integral part of this "crew." The "captain" whom i love, though he never wanted to be captain, used to a a medic in the gulf war and many things they talk about are characteristic of the crew's set up. Though we're outside any kind of war, there are similarities that he's stuck with, and almost sadden me to know that he has to retain that kind of guard, when we live in such a soft, beautiful place. I guess some things, habits, methodologies never change though.

very intersting, and very timely. thank you.
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