Anthropology & the Art of War

When the elephants fight, it’s the grass that suffers.” 

Last week, the American Anthropological Association held its annual meeting, this year in the beautiful city of Montreal (for a couple of summaries of the conference, see here and here). Rahul Oka, from the University of Notre Dame, asked if I would like to be one of two discussants for his session (co-chaired with Nerina Weiss) “Traces of Violence and Legacies of Conflict,” and I agreed. The session was full of very erudite presenters who spoke on a range of topics related to the anthropology of conflict and violence.

But in preparation for the session, I have to admit to some trepidation because nearly all of the presenters were  ethnographers or archaeologists. And as a biological anthropologist, I felt out of my element.  The presentations were also quite diverse in geography, time period, theoretical perspective, and outcome variable, ranging from structural violence and undocumented border crossings from Mexico into the United States, to skeletal trauma in Neolithic Europe, to Kurdish survivors of torture. I found it hard to discuss the various papers with much sophistication and detail while also finding commonalities among them (and all in fifteen minutes, no less). I tried, but finally concluded that it probably wasn’t going to happen. Therefore, I decided to do a rather broad analysis of the papers, which I read ahead of time. But there was always the risk of zooming out too far, thereby making any analysis overly simplistic and virtually meaningless.

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