Oral Presentation Session
Reviewed by: Association for Political and Legal Anthropology
Primary Theme: Violence
Secondary Theme: The Political
The central focus of the anthropology and ethnography of war is the effect on local populations and communities of living, frequently for extended periods of time, under conditions of political violence. This emphasis is appropriate and laudable given that one of the most significant changes in modern warfare has been the shift to higher proportions of civilian casualties which climbed from 5% at beginning of the 20th century, to 15% in World War 1, to 65% by the end of World War 2, to more than 90% in the wars since the 1990s, and these people have largely remained ‘forgotten’ or neglected victims. In recent years, there has been a shift in anthropological research on armed conflict away from victims towards perpetrators of violence, but in the year marking the 50th anniversary of the My Lai Massacre during the war in Vietnam, and at a time when the number of civilian casualties in zones of war and conflict have skyrocketed – from Iraq and Afghanistan to Yemen, Syria and beyond – it is timely that anthropologists should come ‘full circle’ back to focus again on civilians and victims who represent the dominant human experience of war. Rather than striving to avoid civilian suffering and casualties, new weapons and patterns of armed conflict appear to emphasize victimizing civilians. Deliberate attacks against civilians are increasingly turning children into primary targets of war, sexual abuse is appearing more often as a systematic policy of war deployed to terrorize civilian communities, and the number of refugees from armed conflicts is growing at an alarming rate, increasing from 2.4 million in 1974 to 27.4 million today, with another 30 million displaced within their own country. Modern warfare now includes both set piece battles between military forces, often fought in urban settings with large civilian populations still in place, and long grinding ‘low-intensity’ conflicts and insurgencies mostly occurring in rural areas between military and paramilitary forces with large civilian populations caught in the middle. Today, wars are fought at close-range from apartment windows, streets of cities, and lanes of suburbs and villages, but with increasing reliance on weapons deployed from a distance where distinctions between combatant and non-combatant quickly melt away and become disregarded as an ‘operational’ military concern. The papers in this panel present ethnographic perspectives on civilians in zones of armed conflict, the culture of war with regard to civilian suffering, direct and indirect casualties, worthy and unworthy victims, ‘collateral damage,’ indifference and cruelty, and will explore theoretical, methodological, and ethical issues in the contemporary anthropology of war.