Anthropological Notes on Occupation

There are two political itches that most of us feel compelled to scratch from time to time. These are the desires to make political predictions and to compare present political developments with the past. While predictions and comparisons are both irresistible, they are oft doomed to failure. They are irresistible because the past does offer an important guide-if only prologue-to the present; but doomed because we cannot foresee what unknown events may hijack present trajectories towards unseen ends.

Innumerable scholars from Marx onward have examined recurrent historical formations giving rise to similar social relations and struggles-while detractors find in these same historical details idiosyncratic events which they claim disprove the existence of recurrent patterns. There are no short-cuts out of such fundamental disagreements about the nature of the world (other than berating the political baggage of such detractors). But those who insist we see the world anew with each political development undermine fundamental critiques of power; and strands of postmodernist theory have strengthened the posturing of salon-bound critiques reflecting on minutia at the expense of confronting recurrent forms of oppression. The trick is to ground one’s comparisons on the transcendent deep structures of economic relations while not being distracted by the surface form of particular cultural and historical developments. But such divinations are anything but straightforward, and these comparative maneuvers always risk the compression of potentially significant features. To get a taste of this just read the pundits’ predictions about the future of the Iraqi occupation now that Saddam Hussein has been found: those who misread the importance of this single man risk ignoring the larger infrastructural context of these events.

The current occupation of Iraq leads many critics to evoke comparisons with other military occupations-these comparisons typically run the range of the occupations of the Nazis, Soviets, Israelis, Cardassians and so forth. While none of these comparisons are perfect fits, they can add an anthropological angle of abstraction that help us view the present dangers through a distant lens that can help us understand the nature of occupation.

A few weeks ago the FBI mailed me a supplemental installment to the over 500 pages of FBI, CIA, DoD and Energy Department documents I have already had declassified under FOIA on American anthropologist Earle Reynolds. This small packet included a transcript of a curious lecture given by Reynolds in Okinawa in 1963. In reading Reynolds’ critique of the Okinawan occupation it is difficult to not think of the current occupation of Iraq.

Reynolds was a physical anthropologist who moved to Hiroshima in 1951 to work as a biostatistician for the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission’s Pediatrics Department studying survivors of Hiroshima’s A-Bomb attack. His work documented the devastation brought to survivors and their offspring-detailing physiological horrors that most of us would rather never confront. This was heavy work, and the tragedy he studied and documented on a daily basis deeply impacted Reynolds and his politics.

The FOIA documents previously released establish how Reynolds came to see his work as contributing to a bureaucracy that calculated future nuclear wars could be fought and won with acceptable levels of death and disfigurement. He resigned his position on the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission in 1956, and over the decades that followed Reynolds used his 50-foot ketch, The Phoenix of Hiroshima, to sail into the Bikini Atoll test area, to ferry medical supplies to North Vietnam, to attempt illegal entry into China and various other international protests for peace and anti-nuclear issues.

In the winter of 1963 Reynolds came to Okinawa to re-new his tourist visa-there are suggestions that his renewal occurred in Okinawa to avoid the scrutiny he would have received in Tokyo because of his increased activism. The Okinawa Council for the Prohibition of Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs sponsored a lecture by Reynolds entitled: “Various Problems with Democracy On Okinawa.” An Army Intelligence agent recorded this lecture and later produced a transcription for inclusion in Reynolds’ FBI surveillance file.

Reynolds began with a discussion of the 1954 incident in which the Japanese fishing boat, the Lucky Dragon was blasted with radiation during a US nuclear weapons test of a 17 megaton bomb at the Bikini Atoll. The incident caused radiation sickness and death among the crew, and raised Japanese awareness that American military forces were indifferent to the health impacts of their irradiation of people and fishing grounds. The Lucky Dragon incident brought a widespread outcry from the Japanese public and inspired Takeo Murata and Ishiro Honda to create the campy Japanese golem of American radioactive repression: Godzilla. Reynolds’ discussion of the Lucky Dragon seems designed to spark emotional reactions in his audience, much as a discussion of the impact of depleted uranium on childhood leukemia rates would in contemporary al Basrah. Reynolds reminded his audience that America never apologized to Japan for the Lucky Dragon incident and then launched into a critique of nuclear tests.

Reynolds remarked on the nature of Okinawa’s state of un-freedom. He described what he had seen of the American occupation of Okinawa, with barbed-wire enclosures, American seizure of land and the establishment of enclosed occupation compounds. Reynolds’ remarked that:

“I cannot think of one word to describe the present status of the Okinawans. They are not Japanese; they are not Americans; they are not even prisoners of war, since even prisoners of war have certain rights. I have heard the term slave applied to Okinawans. I know that Okinawans are not slaves, but even slaves may hold important offices and may be rich. It sounds strange to say so, but in the terminology of anthropology, slave is the closest word to describe the present status of Okinawans. I do not believe that Okinawans live in a democracy. I do not know what Okinawa is, but I do know that Okinawa is not a democracy and a military government at the same time.

Okinawa is a military-occupied country, and there is no democracy in a military-occupied country. Americans are here to protect America. When it comes to government, governments are very selfish and do not concern themselves with the welfare of other governments and peoples.

When Americans leave Okinawa, what will become of this country? This question troubles me. If there is a war, there will be no problems, since there will be no Okinawa and no people. There will be no Okinawa and no people on Okinawa because Okinawa is a military base.

The American and Okinawan cultures are very different, and the Okinawans culture has some good points. The American culture has some good things to offer the world,, and one of these is basic American democracy, which is a very good thing.

American culture has a good beginning and foundation; however,, the American are now going in the wrong direction. Americans are generous when they can afford to be generous. Americans talk often about courage, but they are really very afraid. It is the nature of Americans to kill other people in defense of their own security”

Reynolds closed with remarks on the strength and importance of Ryukyus culture-stressing the importance of indigenous culture in the face of hegemonic occupation.

It is hard to read Reynolds discussion of Okinawa’s occupation without overlaying “Iraq” where he describes Okinawa. Such retro-glosses create their own illusions and misdirections, but even with such obvious limits: there are glimmers of a parallel universe of power relations.

It would be neat and tidy if the parallels between Okinawa and Iraq were precise and endless, but they aren’t. Differences in natural resources, demographics, history and culture are marked and significant; but there is a transcendent continuity birthed by the culture of occupation that emerges from the material forces of occupation.

Iraq is not Okinawa. Iraq is not Palestine, Vietnam, the Matrix, or 1939 Poland: but America is occupying Iraq in violation of international law and with a callousness that draws any number of justified comparisons. Okinawa never had the petrol-resources of Iraq, but the value of Iraq as the site for a series of permanent U.S. military bases is comparable to that Okinawa. We now know the answer to Reynolds’ questions and predictions of what would become of Okinawa once the American occupation ended-though the 1972 administrative return of Okinawa to Japan did not significantly reduced America’s military presence. Given America’s aspiration for a permanent military base in the Middle East (as well as increasing pressure from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the Emirates to remove American military forces from their countries) we can expect the establishment of an Okinawa-like military base of operations in Iraq. While we don’t know what we will find in Iraq a dozen years from now we know what we won’t find if America stays the course: we won’t find an Iraq that has become “an example to all the Middle East of a vital and peaceful self-governing nation” as promised by President Bush on the eve of the American invasion of Iraq.

Reynolds’ Okinawan observations on the incompatibility of occupation and democracy have relevance for Iraq and other occupations. The American occupiers have resisted allowing democratic reforms in Iraq. As our tax dollars are misspent securing oil reserves and surrounding villages in barbed-wire, the White House and State Department are echoing that old line from the neo-colonial chorus of the White Man’s Burden that “they are not ready for democracy.” The lack of critical examination of the antebellum logic of this assertion is remarkable and testifies to the hegemonic power of the clone army of Thomas Friedmans occupying the editorial pages of America’s daily newspapers. This stance betrays an un-American understanding of our Declaration of Independence’s radical insistence that the rights of democracy are unalienable rights shared by an equal humanity, not rights of privilege to those of some imagined more-evolved “civilization.” This racist justification is fobbed-off on us largely because the Shiite majority would be difficult to manipulate and could forge alliances with the Iran we have so quickly alienated during the Bush years, and because Iraqi democracy would undermine the Halliburtonization of Iraq’s natural resources.

There are some contemporary anthropologists studying military occupations. While some of this work follows Israeli anthropologist Jeff Halper’s heroic example of confronting and resisting occupations, most of these anthropologists are facilitating occupation rather than challenging it-though those anthropologists who work with occupiers most frequently rationalize their actions as being to reduce dangers for those occupied. Some anthropologists instruct the military and the State Department about culturally sensitive means of occupation. To some this is an open sore on the body anthropology-betraying a fundamental abandonment of ethical commitments to serve populations anthropologists study-while others see this as a way of serving these populations by diminishing the dangers for those occupied by educating the occupiers about the culture they are occupying. This latter position recalls anthropologist Walter Goldschmidt’s remark concerning anthropologists working in the WRA detention camps for Japanese-Americans during World War Two, that “this was a case of rape, but the anthropologists who went into the War Relocation Authority felt that they could serve to ameliorate this situation even if they could not stop it.” But rape is still rape, and at some point the act of comforting victims while rape continues transforms amelioration into abetment.

But such collaborations with military occupiers are themselves manifestations of recurrent patterns in anthropology. After all, some elements of the American occupation of Japan and the Okinawa Reynolds found in 1963 were facilitated (admittedly, in ways often exaggerated) by Ruth Benedict and other anthropologists working for George Taylor at the Office of War Information at the war’s end.

DAVID PRICE is Associate Professor of Anthropology at St. Martin’s College. His book Threatening Anthropology: McCarthyism and the FBI Surveillance of Activist Anthropologists will be published this March by Duke University Press. He can be reached at:



David Price is professor of anthropology at Saint Martin’s University. His latest book is The American Surveillance State: How the U.S. Spies on Dissent, published this month by Pluto Press.