Research to Reduce Bloodshed

Research to Reduce Bloodshed By Marcus B. Griffin

http://chronicle.com Section : The Chronicle Review Volume 54, Issue 14, Page B10

From the issue dated November 30, 2007

I step carefully along the broken sidewalk, struggling to keep pace with the soldiers around me. The streets of the neighborhood of Old Baghdad are completely dark and largely deserted. We are on our way to visit with an influential local sheik. At last, we come upon a large house surrounded by razor wire and concrete rubble. We are silently escorted in by an elderly man with a flashlight. The sheik is waiting for us. We are here to learn about his tribe’s history and how he operates as a community leader.

When I arrived in Baghdad in August, I became the first Human Terrain System anthropologist to serve in Iraq. HTS is an innovative new program that embeds social scientists with combat brigades in Afghanistan and Iraq, where they serve as cultural advisers. I work closely with my brigade’s staff officers to coordinate research efforts that give soldiers an awareness of what is happening around them. The responsibilities that go with that are significant ; with every mortar round that explodes nearby, I am reminded that lives, not grades or publication records, are at stake.

My team deals with a variety of projects. Using semi-structured interviews of Iraqi contractors and local governmental officials, we identify key figures in northwest Baghdad who can help rebuild essential services like electricity, trash removal, and the provision of clean water. We also conduct research into how poverty and bonds of social obligation interact in Iraqi society. That information may help staff officers in my brigade, as well as other commanders, to better understand why certain people are willing to assist insurgent forces. Reducing aid and comfort to those intent on destabilizing Iraq will decrease violence and limit the number of civilian casualties (and loss of life generally). Reducing bloodshed is a primary motive for my participation in HTS.

HTS also acts as a cultural broker to reduce miscommunication and help Iraqis and Americans work more effectively as partners. Most of our data is collected from interviews and oral-history narratives. I do not speak Arabic, so I am forced to rely on interpreters. But I try to build rapport by demonstrating to my Iraqi interlocutors that I am sincerely trying to learn how to read and write Arabic. Many of the local Iraqis have taken an amused interest in helping teach me and my colleagues. While at first they were understandably fearful that we were in the business of gathering intelligence (in the sinister sense), we have been able to establish, over time and with great effort, a friendly, trusting relationship with the locals. We ask questions about Iraqi culture and what life is like in the neighborhoods. While that is intelligence of a sort, it is not the kind that gets people hurt.

Rapport and informed consent go hand in hand in our research. We explain what we are trying to learn and ask for permission to record the conversation, either electronically or in a notebook. We do not use a written consent form because interviewees are uncomfortable signing their name to any document, for fear that it may be used against them someday. My workaround is to provide them an opportunity to disengage from the interview. At the conclusion, I am careful to ask the people I’m interviewing again if they are comfortable with my having a record of what they have said, and I offer to delete the recording or tear out the relevant pages of my notebook and hand them over to be destroyed. No one as yet has ever requested those actions.

Whether you think the United States should have entered Iraq by force (which I don’t) and toppled Saddam Hussein, the inescapable fact is that we are here. Now academics have a choice : We can apply our specialized skills in the field to ameliorate the horrors of war, stem the loss of both American and Iraqi lives, and improve living conditions for Iraqis, or we can complain from the comfort and safety of the faculty lounge.

Marcus B. Griffin is an assistant professor of anthropology and sociology at Christopher Newport University. He is serving with the Second Brigade of the First Infantry Division in Baghdad.

Posté le 27 novembre 2007 par Annie Benveniste

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