This is a story about counterinsurgency as well as community organizing. It is a story about getting to know people as an occupying force, and getting to know people as neighbors. It is a story, ultimately, about the military entering the terrain of that thing called culture. This story has fascinating, hardworking protagonists such as General David Petraeus, socially engaged artists like Suzanne Lacy, and anthropologists-turned-military-consultants like Montgomery “Mitzy” McFate. It is laden with historical examples from Baghdad to Oakland to El Salvador. This story compares writers such as David Galula, a French officer who fought in the Algerian War, to the left-wing community activist Saul Alinsky. For all that, it is also a story that doesn’t pretend there is any causal connection between the world of the military and the world of nonviolent community organizing. General Petraeus did not read anything by Suzanne Lacy, and it seems unlikely that Lacy has ever read the Counterinsurgency Field Manual that Petraeus coauthored in 2006.
Comparing the military and the arts certainly fails in terms of scale. In the United States, the former has a nationally funded budget of $683 billion, while the latter has a nationally funded budget of $706 million. (This figure represents the entirety of all arts funding in the US. One can easily imagine that the funding for community-based art practices falls far short of this.) The former kills and at times tortures people, while the latter at worst co-opts injustices for aesthetic or careerist gain. The former follows a vast hierarchical chain of command, whereas the latter privileges the autonomous individual. So why compare counterinsurgency to community-based art and activism? Because in both cases, those who get involved do so for the same reason: getting to know people is a critical path towards changing the landscape of life, and thus, power.
My emphasis here is on the military—an admittedly odd focus, given my involvement in the arts. And to make the agenda quite transparent: my goal is to demonstrate that cultural production is hardly the sole territory of the arts (or of community organizing for that matter). It goes without saying that the military is an umbrella for a vast infrastructure. This infrastructure has many departments equipped with many acronyms. They have innumerable RAND-funded policy briefs on every subject under the moon. They are also the cause behind gripping real-world events that appear in newspapers worldwide and shake up the lives of millions of people. The US military is seductive and repulsive in its grandiose violence. But it is also a fruitful place to examine developing techniques for the manipulation of culture. Considering the sheer scale of the US military—with its colossal budget—it’s not a bad place to look for new ideas and new methodologies concerning tactics for “getting to know people.” Thus, the cultural turn in the US military is where this story begins.
In the fall of 2005, the Iraq War was a political and military quagmire. It had been two years since then-president George Bush stepped onto the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier with a fluttering “Mission Accomplished” banner waving behind him. Since then, the war had reached proportions that reminded too many Americans of the ignominious conflict in Vietnam. The Iraq War had been a sham from the beginning, but the thinking at the State Department was that a quick victory would heal all wounds. Donald Rumsfeld, Ambassador L. Paul Bremer, and General Tommy Franks went in with their strategy of “shock and awe,” unleashing a barrage of cruise missiles that caused heavy casualties. Overwhelming force was the modus operandi, but after two years, no one could exactly say who the enemy was or how to stop them. The military needed a new plan.
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