Anna Brooks, marker, 9” x 12”

Blurred Boundaries: Soldiers/Terrorists, War/Peace

By Barbara Engleheart

ANTH 370: The Anthropology of Violence

“Every society seemed to exhibit both peaceful and violent behaviour, however various the interpretations placed upon them. ‘We are all capable of violence’ is one of those truisms that seems to be, in fact, true, at least as far as societies as wholes are concerned” (Mahmood, 1996: 15 f.).

This is an essay composed for my upper-level seminar on The Anthropology of Violence. In it, Barbara Engelhart uses an interview with an American soldier as prompt for further reflection on how we define a soldier (versus a terrorist) and furthermore how we think more broadly about war and peace.

-Cynthia Mahmood

In modern societies, violence is typically categorized into justified violence, or violence necessary for “the greater good,” versus violence as evil, criminal and unjustified. There are two constructs for which this differentiation has been naturalized so strongly that we usually would not even consider drawing parallels between them: soldiers and terrorists.

One of my best friends from high school is now a soldier in the Israeli army, and having known her for many years, I recognize that her decision to enter the military service does not make her a criminal, let alone a terrorist; however, upon closer examination, it becomes increasingly clear that the line of legitimization of violence, i.e. the line between soldiers and criminals, becomes blurry when considering periods of war. Especially when reading the book Buried Secrets by Victoria Sanford (2005), which addresses the genocide in Guatemala, the complexity and fluidity of concepts like “guerrilla fighters,” “civilian,” and “soldier” become obvious. When taking away the socially constructed connotations of these terms, a need for distinguishing critera arises. Questions such as “what makes the general public believe that some forms of violence are more justified than others?”, “which characteristics are drawn upon to differentiate soldiers from criminals?”, and, in consequence, “how are the concepts of “heroism” and “terrorism” constructed?” inevitably arise.

To illustrate the ambiguity inherent in the role of soldiers, I want to start with the analysis of an interview with a U.S. veteran who served in the Afghanistan war. He talks to a reporter of The Daily about a military deployment in 2008 in Marjah, an agricultural town located in southern Afghanistan, in which he led a group of eight soldiers into a mission against Taliban fighters in the region. He says:

A lot of the villagers we talked to, the locals we talked to, were pro-Taliban, had enjoyed the Taliban’s governance and how fast they solve some of their problems. And there was this creeping realization that maybe this isn’t gonna work. Whatever ‘this’ is. It was maybe a little off…”. When the reporter asks “And off what?”, he hesitantly answers “I don’t think they wanted us there. (The Daily, 2019)

The purpose of this paragraph is by no means to question the problematic nature of Taliban violence; however, it demonstrates quite well the colonizing effect of “peace missions” that do not regard the context of the local culture. In the case of Afghanistan, the attempt to establish a strong centralized government, thereby striving towards more equality in society and in this way adapting it to Western standards, did not sufficiently take into account pre-existing political structures and the fact that power in this country was traditionally dispersed rather than centralized. While military officers on site early on expressed doubts about the mission and the soldiers recognized the skepticism of the population in Marjah in the face of their presence, the U.S. government decided on the continuation of the war at all costs. The soldier explains: “truth was rarely welcome, bad news was often stifled, every data point was altered to depict the best picture possible. Surveys, for example, were totally unreliable but reinforced that everything we were doing was right and we became a self-licking ice-cream cone” (The Daily, 2019). Considering this remark, it becomes questionable whether the inhabitants of the town, which was affected by U.S. military missions that often involved civilian casualties, saw the soldiers as saviors. Rather, from the point of view of locals, the U.S. military might have reminded them more of terrorist acts. The second question this quote raises is how it can happen and be accepted that people far removed from the actual violence are given the power to make decisions on courses of action, while the opinions of local people remain disregarded. While agents on site expressed their doubts and were likely aware of the problematic nature of the mission, superiors required its continuation. This problem goes hand in hand with the fact that even though soldiers are commonly perceived to have more power than ordinary citizens, they are actually subjected to the volition of higher officers, who, in turn, are commanded by governments. Looking at it this way, it seems that these soldiers’ freedom of action might be even more limited by governments than that of civilians. Further on in the interview, the reporter asks: “I’m curious what you are feeling when you start reading these documents inside this secret history of the war in Afghanistan in which commanding officers in many cases, I have to imagine your superiors, are candidly expressing their own doubts and misgivings about the mission that you and your colleagues were on” (The Daily, 2019). After a brief pause for thought, the veteran answers:

Yeah, it’s tough. I mean all these years later you kind of have these two directions where you either say it was all worth it: That we were fighting for something that was important and worth my friends’—our friends’—lives. Or you start peeling it apart and looking at everything. In some attempts, you figure out why we did what we did.

And then something like this comes out. These documents that kind of just stare at you. The people that you kind of trusted. That said `Hey this battle will go down in history. This is the turning point in the war.’ You know, as an 18-year-old, as a 19-year-old, you wanna believe that. That’s … you think what you’re doing is some net-positive. You think the bombs that you drop, the people that you kill … that they should have died. But, you know… here we are, it’s 2019, we’re negotiating, the U.S. is negotiating with the Taliban. Who is to say that Marjah had to happen at all? (The Daily, 2019)

This quote illustrates the arbitrariness with which people in the case of Marjah were killed by soldiers without a clearly-defined purpose, thereby again making a clear distinction between soldier and criminal from the perspective of locals questionable. From the outside, not least due to simplified or distorted representations of war missions by the media, one might get the impression of purposeful, thoroughly thought-through operations in which every soldier knows about the frame conditions that they will find themselves in. Actual accounts of war experiences, however, often revolve around confusion, “snapshots of memories,” and insecurity about the next steps (The Daily, 2019). One question I can’t answer for myself is how anyone can bear the irresponsible decision of keeping the truth from soldiers in order to influence their decisions. The soldier’s account of the situation gives the impression that the reality of war was actively concealed from him and his companions, while the myth of the need to establish a more just society with a central government was utilized to justify the military campaign.

In this sense, the mythology of heroism was spread to motivate young men to take up the counterintuitive task of risking life and causing death. The American soldier at Marjah explicitly mentions two incentives that were given to him by superiors: that of being part of a historically significant event and of the “turning point in war,” both of which seem to be closely connected to wanting to be remembered and honored by future generations as a hero in the creation of a “more just world.” Ironically, while this narrative about U.S. soldiers might be shared with the general public at home, other militant groups with exactly the same incentive—sacrificing their own life for a more just world for oppressed communities—are categorized as terrorist organizations by the U.S. This irony could define the Taliban, the U.S. enemy in Afghanistan (which is celebrated by a wide swath of Afghan society), or the militant Sikhs of India studied by Cynthia Mahmood. This situation is also well-depicted by Tim O’Brien in The Things They Carried (1990) in the Vietnam era, in which he evokes a warscape in which no heroes exist; all is blood, filth, and guilt, and justified and unjustified violence can no longer be differentiated.

Anna Brooks, marker, 9” x 12”

Anna Brooks, marker, 9” x 12”

Certain parallels with the described experiences of the U.S. soldier can be found in Dr. Cynthia Mahmood’s account of the militant Sikhs who have been trying to establish their own state in which they are no longer suppressed by the Indian government (Mahmood, 1996). Young Sikhs feel the weight of all history on their shoulders when they venture into battle; they are seen as “terrorists” by Indian authorities but as heroic revolutionaries by their own communities. “One man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist” only begins to scratch the surface, writes Mahmood. What we have here are two universes of discourse that slip past each other during any attempts at “peace talks,” traditionally described.

Once the originating narrative of heroism begins to fray, we run into trouble. The American soldier at Marjah becomes disillusioned when he finds out that critical information has been kept from him. The militant Sikh drops his strict moral standard when he comes to learn that other fighters, some prominent, have tortured, kidnapped, and performed other atrocities in the name of victory. As Mahmood describes, the perception of the battles or specific military missions as being of “extraordinary quality” may lead to the assumption that “ordinary morality does not apply” (Mahmood, 1996: 205). When the “quotidian moral hesitation” is replaced by what resembles all kinds of sacrifices “for the greater good,” the scale for acceptable behavior might be altered significantly. The likelihood for soldiers to commit atrocities in the absence of quotidian morality is, as has been witnessed in various instances (e.g. My Lai in Vietnam, the Dachau massacre, the Rape of Nanking, the Guatemalan genocide, etc.) increases. While this is an example of a shift in perception in which soldiers become criminals, Mahmood (1996) demonstrates the opposite transition—terrorists shifting towards a self-perception as soldiers: “Where breaking the laws of a (perceived) unlawful power is seen as a revolutionary act, criminality itself becomes militancy. The boundary between crime and political action blurs, because every flaunting of the law is experienced as an assertion of sovereignty” (Mahmood, 1996: 204). Here again, the trope of heroism in the fight against an “unlawful power,” e.g. a government, replaces the image of a criminal or terrorist. This reasoning also offers an explanation of a shift in the moral standards of militants: “. . . this conscious refusal to play the game of the oppressor, the decision to start a new game of one’s own, with one’s own rules and not India’s, is what is responsible for the failure of militant Sikhs to condemn rather obvious atrocities committed by other militants” (Mahmood, 1996: 205). Again, the consideration of the “broader picture,” of “the greater good,” and the perception of war missions as “epoch-making” seems to reduce the inhibition level to exercise violence, while at the same time enhancing the tolerance for violence.

Coming back to the fluidity of concepts such as soldier, civilian, terrorist, and hero, I want to bring in another example of collective violence in which these categories became, at times, indistinct: the genocide in Guatemala. The accounts of witnesses of this outburst of violence in the book Buried Secrets (Sanford, 2005) demonstrate how slippery the relationships between victim and perpetrator, peacekeeper and murderer, civilian and soldier, civilian and guerrilla can become in times of war. Is this the “fog” we so often hear of? Even the author/anthropologist has to continually think about and negotiate her role.

One especially striking example that illustrates the transition of just one person between most of these roles is the Mam-Mayan survivor Mateo. Sanford writes about him:

By the time he reached fourteen years of age, he had survived a massacre, buried his father in the mountains, joined the guerrilla and fought with them in the mountains for one year, and spent two years in a refugee camp in Mexico. Just before his fifteenth birthday, within one month of his return to Guatemala, he was forcibly recruited into the Guatemalan army where he was a soldier following the orders from superiors for more than one year. (Sanford, 2005: 202)

Even this brief passage undermines the troubling justification proposed by the Guatemalan army that the killing of a specific social group, in this case of communists, proceeded purposefully and is thus justified. As Mateo’s testimony shows, his role in the genocide had shifted from civilian to guerrilla to refugee to soldier before his 17th birthday. Even though this might be an extreme example, it still shows that the differentiation between justified and unjustified violence, and thus the army’s “assertions of the military’s ‘right’ to kill communists” (202), becomes nonsensical.
The conclusion that can be drawn from these examples is that the assertion of violence, even if depicted as justified or necessary by a state, has to be evaluated critically. In the case of Guatemala’s society, in particular, the Mayan part of the population suffered greatly not only at the hands of guerrilla fighters, but also, or even particularly, from state terrorism. Rather than protecting the non-violent parts of society, the Guatemalan state (backed by the United States) largely contributed to the genocide. Furthermore, it has been shown that government officials ordering (killing) missions are usually far removed from the place of execution of these missions and consequently run the risk of lacking realistic assessment of the situation on the ground—a scenario that occurred in the case of the Marjah mission in Afghanistan as well.

In line with these considerations, Mahmood voices another crucial insight about the problematic effect of framing groups of society as terrorists. She writes: “Hysterical calls to condemn terrorism from a distance, to find better ways of technologically defeating terrorists as we find ourselves less and less capable of politically defeating them, are of a piece with the failure of imagination that considers freedom fighters as nothing more than serial murderers” (Mahmood, 1996: 22). It becomes clear that a blind condemnation of terrorism cannot be the solution to the Sikh problem in India. Rather, the historical context of and the treatment of Sikhs in previous decades needs to be taken into consideration. One aspect of re-establishing peace then seems to be to understand acts of violence in all their complexity. Labeling and categorizing certain people under the umbrella term “terrorists,” on the other hand, causes problems on all sides: people on the outside are more likely to experience irrational fear of the unknown, unpredictable, evil terrorist that makes any constructive approach to talking about this violence difficult. Militants—in this case, individuals from the Sikh community—are more likely to feel treated even more unjustly and misunderstood, which will certainly not reduce their motivation to fight. One interviewee of the militant Sikh community even went as far as to say that the ascription of the status of a criminal is psychologically more painful than the physical pain of torture: “What hurts is being treated like a criminal, not the roller on one’s legs” (Mahmood, 1996: 210). As this man’s pain suggests, categorizing the socially marginalized and excluded as criminals is unlikely to create conditions in which dialogue can lead us from war to peace.

In this context, Mahmood’s conclusion that “[the] simplistic trope of the Sikh-as-terrorist has done enough damage both to India itself and to the academic study of India; it’s time that it be replaced by a ‘thicker’ conception” is one guideline for the perception of collective violence that might allow for a more efficient and more productive approach to the restoration of peace (Mahmood, 1996: 275). “Conflict transformation” is perhaps the better term here, as we know that conflicts are rarely “resolved” but may indeed be “transformed” to a more positive and coexistent state (Lederach 2005).

This is where the anthropological study of war and peace enters state and military discourse. Anthropologists like Mahmood, Sanford, and Lederach enter warzones without preconceptions and get to know combatants face-to-face. These anthropologists recognize the similarities among young boys who fight in all kinds of conflicts, although their home communities rarely want to accept these commonalities. In Violence in War and Peace (2004), Nancy Scheper-Hughes and Philippe Bourgois use a collection of anthropological work to explore the fact that violence itself occurs in both wartime and peacetime, as societies define them. The title intrigues, and is part of the blurriness that we now recognize inheres in human violence. How do we get from a state of more to a state of less violence?

Furthermore, when considering my epigraph above, it seems that neither war nor peace should be understood as an extraordinary state. Violence of various levels and qualities seems to be a part of human life that does not disappear. Neither prayer nor celebration provides the magic required to turn one into the other. If anything, anthropologists who study violence know that it is quotidian, courageous, and face-to-face effort that can move us slowly further away from bullets and toward conversation. Constant scrutiny of seemingly justified violence, awareness of ongoing power struggles, compromise and cooperation, and reflection and evaluation, as well as a balanced inclusion of the voices of all parties involved might be some of the tools that contribute to sustaining peace (Jordan, 2015: 587). Conflict is an enduring part of human nature, but it can be transformed toward positive and purposeful change (Lederach 2005).

A final aspect I consider fundamental for all of the aspects of peacekeeping mentioned above is memory. As time passes, some of the atrocities humans have committed will be forgotten. From generation to generation, histories of violence will recede from consciousness. At first we might think, “Oh, but what is wrong with that? Isn’t it good that people forget about violent, uncomfortable past events in order to forgive? Will the memory of horror not just be a burden to future and present generations?” As a student in an Austrian middle school learning about the Holocaust, I remember asking myself, “Why tell us about these atrocities in that much detail? Should we now feel bad because our ancestors might have participated in these crimes against humanity? Can’t we just let it go?” These national memories of violence were always connected to a certain consternation, a guilty conscience or embarrassment for the actions of the predominantly German-speaking population that was involved in the genocide. Even now, when traveling to other countries and hearing people address the topic of the Nazi regime, I always feel a certain kind of guilt, a certain accusation, and sometimes I even feel that people want me to take some kind of responsibility or at least to acknowledge the fates of people affected, due to the fact that I am from Austria. This is to say that yes, in some ways I think memory might have negative effects and is undeniably contented to negative feelings. Then, however, I ask myself: what is the alternative?

If we forget the horror that came along with violence, what motivation do we have to prevent it from happening again? What can ensure “Never Again”? Even though the notion of humans as inherently aggressive and inherently programmed to be violent is too simplistic an explanation for the rise of violent conflicts (Nordstrom, 1998), I can think of too many other motives, mostly resulting from ideological differences that lead to collective violence. As instances of genocide have shown, these motives are far from basic animalistic instincts such as survival or competition. On the contrary, sometimes they even seem “noble” when considered in isolation from their effects: creating a “better” society is one motive brought up frequently in this context. Zygmunt Bauman (2000) has even compared the motivations of genocidaires like the Nazis to those of gardeners, who believe that in pruning weeds they are creating a beautiful flower garden. From this perspective, it becomes clear that the collective memory of outbursts of violence that kill millions plays a crucial part in the prevention of their repetition.

From the American soldier at Marjah, who may wonder now whether he is a hero or a criminal, to the militant Sikh who bravely stands up to an oppressive Indian government but is jailed as a terrorist, human beings are complex, and society’s evaluation of them even more complex. The anthropologist chooses understanding first. That alone is a full-time, lifelong task.

Works Cited

Bauman, Z. (2000). Modernity And The Holocaust. Ithaca, Ny: Cornell Univ. Press.

The Daily. (2019). [Podcast]. Retrieved 30 November 2019, From

Jordan, K. (2015). War Propaganda, War Crimes, And Post-Conflict Justice In Serbia: An Ethnographic Account, The International Journal Of Human Rights, 19:5, 572-591, Doi: 10.1080/13642987.2014.992882

Lederach, John Paul. (2005). The Moral Imagination; The Art And Soul Of Building Peace. Oxford University.

Mahmood, C. K. (1996). Fighting For Faith And Nation: Dialogues With Sikh Militants. Philadelphia, Pa.: University Of Pennsylvania Press.

Nordstrom, C. (1998). Deadly Myths Of Aggression, Aggressive Behavior, 24, 147 – 159. Notre Dame, Indiana.

O’brien, T. (1990). The Things They Carried: A Work Of Fiction. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Sanford, V. (2005). Buried Secrets: Human Rights And Truth In Guatemala. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Scheper-Hughes, N., & Bourgois, P. (2004), Eds. Violence In War And Peace. Malden, Ma: Blackwell Pub.