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  1. Costs of War: Doing the Numbers
  2. Who will read the baby boomers?
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Costs of War: Doing the Numbers

If you Google “$3.7 Trillion” and “war” today, you’ll find a torrent of news coverage about the newly released Costs of War report authored by the Eisenhower Study Group based out of Brown’s Watson Institute for International Studies.

I was part of the interdisciplinary group, co-directed by Catherine Lutz, that co-authored the report which aims to comprehensively explore the vast scope and scale of the impacts, the many kinds of costs, of the U.S. military response to 9/11. So, not surprisingly, the mood strikes me to tell you something about it.

There were more than 20 of us who contributed to the project, and anthropologists were well represented alongside historians, journalists, political scientists, economists, and others.

One of the great strengths of the report and it’s interdisciplinary approach is that it brings together numbers (like international civilian casualty rates) and issues (like impacts of deployment on the children of U.S. service members) that are often disarticulated or overlooked all together.

Now, for better or worse, numbers make good headlines, and this report is chock full of them. We noted that:

The wars have created more than 7.8 million refugees in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan; U.S. veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are 75% more likely to die in car crashes than their civilian counterparts; Military responses to terrorism have been successful in only 7%of the 268 examples since the late 20th Century; An M-1 Abrams tank gets about half a mile per gallon of gas; In the U.S., the proportion of hate crimes against Muslims has risen 500%since 2000, even though overall hate crime rates have gone down; And, as everyone from The Washington Post to The Toronto Sun noted, the report estimates an (incomplete) price tag of between $3.2 and $4 Trillion.

These numbers are compelling. And, true to the axiom “if it’s integerial, it leads,” (that’s how it goes, right?) numbers make good copy.

But as an anthropologist with a healthy disciplinary skepticism of faith in statistics and all their quantitative kin, and one who worked with injured soldiers and their families and wants people to know about their struggles, I was torn between the power of contagious numbers, and their simplifying and sometimes anesthetizing effects.

Thinking that some of you folks might be too, I thought I would share a few other findings of the report; findings that speak to the power of absent numbers:

The $4 Trillion number leaves much uncounted. For example, it doesn’t count ‘solatia’ payments that the U.S. makes to the families of some Afghan and Iraqi civilians killed or the cost of Predator and Reaper drones (we do know, however, that Predators cost $4.5 million each, and that more than one third of them have crashed).

Project Co-director Neta Crawford’s contribution on casualties begins with a poignant description of the historical, logistical, and political reasons that a death, especially, but not only, that of a civilian can be made uncountable.

Political scientist Alison Howell and I note the way that sensational statistics, like divorce rates, can mask the strains on military families, the very things for which they’re supposed to stand as proxy.

Matthew Evangelista’s contribution offers some important historical lessons using unexpected numbers often disappeared from amnesiac comparative histories of terrorism including those related to organizations active in the 1970s like Germany’s Red Army Faction, Italy’s Brigate Rosse, and Quebec’s Front de Liberation du Québec.

So, though Reuters has made $3.7 Trillion the headline of the Costs of War report, it seemed you might be interested in other ways the rest of us are doing the numbers.


Who will read the baby boomers?

There is going to be a lot less anthropologists in the future. This is partly a statement about the precarious state of our economy, but really it’s mostly a statement about how ridiculously well-funded — I mean, world-historically well-funded — the academy was between 1945 and 1977. The result was a huge amount of baby boomer anthropologists who produced a huge amount of baby boomer anthropology. My question is: who is going to read it all?

If you are an anthropologist of the Pacific you can find the senior Micronesianists, say, and they can give you the oral history of their discipline, including its origins literally from nothing to the present day. They know which anthologies and articles were ground-breaking, and which edited volumes were central to the academic networks that produced them. In the coming decades, though — and I don’t want to sound too grim here — the group of scholars to whom this oral history was transmitted is not going to be a couple dozen people, its going to be a couple of people.

Even as the oral learning is attenuated, we will still have the publications: the glorious, thick, un-DRM’d publications. Publications that do not wink out of existence if you don’t pay your monthly rental free to Ingenta, publications that don’t have special software designed to keep you from copying passages into your notebook. But in an era of scholarly decline, will there be enough personnel necessary for these works to be read in any serious way? As archival and unpublished work comes online, the amount is going increase exponentially. We will have a feast of digitized fieldnotes, diaries, and dissertations, and no one (or at least not enough) people to read them.

The situation is aggravated by anthropology’s penchant for particularism. We have fine regional syntheses (in PNG, for instance, edited volumes like Papuan Borderlands and Children of Afek) but most of our synthetic and generalizing papers derive from what Sahlins called “uncontrolled comparison”: reading tons until it comes together in your head, and then writing it up. This is a time-honored tradition, but requires large amounts of exactly what we lack: scholarly work cycles. Without any sort of rigorous metanalysis — or even standards for structuring our articles, wading through the literature is a rewarding but laborious project which is not fit for our upcoming shortage of labor.

Despite the interest in tagging, crowd-sourced vocabularies, decentralization, and so forth, if I were a funding agency these days I would begin developing programs that promoted scholarly synthesis using new technology but with very old-fashioned goals: to start synthesizing, cataloging, and summarizing the work that has been done in the past half century. In a world of increasingly restricted budgets, where we have less and less scholars with more and more to read, it represents an important, achievable, and timely goal for anthropologists working today.


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