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Occupation, Honor and Political Violence

I have always felt at ease with researching all aspects of the Iraq war and its human cost, both on the Iraqi ad the coalition divide. I was even judgmental of some American colleagues who failed to critically assess the reasons for the formation of the Iraqi insurgency. After spending a lot of time talking to Iraqis and living among them, it was a no brainer for me that a perceived sense of collective humiliation could account for both individual and collective actions against an occupier. Countless people that I interviewed, from a suicide bomber on a waiting list to a former al-Qaeda official, made a direct link between how they had perceived their honor to be soiled and the need for it to be repaired through an act of violence against the symbolic vehicle of this humiliation, that is to say, anyone part of the occupying coalition or perceived to be its ally.

Honor in Iraq is a central feature of identity, both individual and collective. It mitigates relationships at every level of daily life and within all spheres of the Iraqi social fabric, from the assistance to be given to the needy to the need to maintain a woman’s purity intact. Honor generates virtues that filter into values formation, attitudes and actions, and is closely associated spirituality, in the same way that the tradition of chivalry was thought to hold social fabric in pre-modern state Europe. In Iraq, age-old traditions linked to honor co-exist hand in hand with a modernist system of law and order, yet the former always supersedes the latter on the occasions where they may clash, that is to say, in the event of a perceived humiliation.

Shame lies on the other side of the Iraqi honor system. Avishai Margalit would call Iraq a shame society, meaning that any public expression of shame needs to be repaired for one’s honor/identity to be regained. A failure to do so may bring shame onto a family and clan for generations. Social death in Iraq is worse than physically dying. Thus, when a negotiation for the reparation of damages incurred to one’s honor does not take place, this creates a tit-for-tat escalation of violence. I saw this with my own eyes in Fallujah in the spring of 2003, when one’s death and perceived humiliation under US fire would generate an inevitable retaliation from that person’s family, leading up to the partial destruction of the city in the spring of 2004. This was also sadly illustrated when the first beheading video came out in the Spring of 2004, in which US citizen Nicolas Berg, right before being slaughtered like a sheep, mentions the Abu Ghraib picture scandal as the prime reason for his imminent death. Yet at the time, not much of a public dialogue in the US focused on the link between a perceived collective humiliation and the rise of political violence, through acts of terror, etc. Much emphasis was placed on the brutality of the act itself, and not its symbolic nature or its cultural bearing.

The formation of the Human Terrain System, in Afghanistan, was established to address some of these cultural issues, which were crucially overlooked in Iraq. Through this initiative, academics were deployed to mitigate relations between American occupiers and Afghans, since the many peoples of Afghanistan also live according to a similar honor system. While I thought that human lives might be saved through this on an ad hoc basis, I was also critical of the blatant military use of academic knowledge to validate an occupation. Was past research on honor and humiliation only to be used as a best practices guide to occupation?

All this scholarly, “rational”, work did not prepare me to appreciate how difficult it would be to use the same research with my own military in Afghanistan. As a former French military cadet, past colleagues registered me on several Facebook groups that were established to support our classmates deployed in Afghanistan. I virtually witnessed the daily anguish of their loved ones, their struggling to cope with a growing string of bad news, their incomprehension as to why they were bring targeted by Afghans. Each time there was a killing, I found it difficult not to speak out on the relationship between occupation, humiliation, and political violence, not to tell them that there was a reason for what was happening to them and their loved ones, that Afghans were not just freedom haters, savages, and violent ungrateful people. Yet I was afraid to cross my colleagues, to harm our long-enduring friendships, and also to embarrass my sister who is in the military. Who was I to just “philosophize” when our colleagues felt that they were fulfilling their mission? Each time there was a death, I commiserated with my group, offered my support, felt our grief.

I cannot do this any longer. Last week, an Afghan soldier opened fire against his French colleagues during a sport session, killing four of them and wounding many. The French ministry of Defense claims that these soldiers were part of an Operational Mentoring Liaison Team (OMLT), helping to strengthen the Afghan military. This message was echoed throughout the French media. On the man who murdered the French soldiers, French Minister of Defense Gerard Longuet claims that he was in fact a Taliban who had infiltrated the Afghan army. Some reports go as far as to insinuate that this was not a soldier but simply a “man wearing an Afghan army uniform.” These assertions are respectively misleading and outright false. The French presence in Afghanistan is not only associated with training the Afghan military. It includes logistics, ground presence and special operations hand in hand with other coalition members. This means hostile operations where a population caught in the crossfire between Taliban insurgents and coalition soldiers can easily perceive foreigners as malevolent “occupiers.” As for the killer, he was not a Taliban: he was an Afghan soldier.  When he was interrogated about his act and motivations, his claims to have acted in reaction to the video of US marines urinating on dead Afghans, which was released a few days before.

War and occupation are never harmless benevolent endeavors. They create enemies, they call for retaliations, they kill more than they can ever nurture. No human terrain system can ever innocently exist amidst violent counter-insurgency measures. What the urinating video shows is that is it the occupation system itself that creates those images, that entitles a few strong men to desecrate the bodies of their fallen enemies. Why is it so difficult to fathom that violence cannot bring democracy, peace, and co-existence? Why is the French media not questioning the motivations that led a soldier to open fire against his colleagues. This soldier was as real as the few “bad apples” who took the fall for the Abu Ghraib abuse. He was not a mad “Taliban”, but an individual who sought to regain his tarnished collective honor, to repair the irreparable.

I placed a newspaper article on the motivations and identity of this Afghan soldier, on the Facebook group that I share with my former military colleagues. More than one week since, I have not been dignified with any reply, no acknowledgement, not a sign of life. The French call their army “la grande muette”, the “great mute”… At least my similar reasoning in relation to the Iraq war, back in the days when insurgents were still called “terrorists” in the US media, elicited strong responses across the Atlantic: a debate among others that paved the way for a change in popular perceptions of Iraqi insurgents. We say in conflict resolution that any communication, positive or negative, is better than what we call autistic hostility, when parties to a conflict do not even acknowledge each other’s presence. In the US I was vilified, I received death threats, and I even won an invitation on the infamous O’Reilly Factor. In France, my questions elicited nothing. My reasoning is invisible.

To my colleagues and family, I would like to say that unless we question and understand the motivations that led an Afghan soldier to open fire against his colleagues, we will continue to receive our loved ones in sealed caskets. France’s presence in Afghanistan is not worth the deaths that it incurs, the shattered lives and broken families. France has no mission in Afghanistan. Afghans have been living under foreign occupation for more than thirty years. Throughout this time, its honor system has not changed, and will not any time soon. “Democracy”, reforms, “good governance”, all through coercive occupation, the arm of liberal peace, will never erase the preponderance that honor, both collective and individual, holds in Afghanistan, as in any other shame society. To support our colleagues is not to shed crocodile tears every time one of them dies. To support our troops means to put pressure on our president so that they return home alive from a mission that a majority of Afghans do not support. President Sarkozy will do anything to get re-elected, and maybe this include listening to a strong, critical, and empowered public opinion. I now stand to be “banned” from my Facebook group.

Victoria Fontan teaches at the University for Peace in Costa Rica.

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