The experience of organizing and chairing a panel for the American Anthropological Association meetings this year (Denver 2015) made me realize that all of the mediocre experiences I have had on “residual” panels, where I submitted a paper to the AAA and they lumped me either with a partial panel, or with others doing supposedly related work, were the result of this less than cohesive process.
The year before last, at the 2013 Chicago meetings, I gave a paper on Pakistan and the uses of conspiracy theory performance in the construction of political identities. The other papers on the panel had nothing to do with Pakistan, conspiracy theory, or viable political identities. Nor did they have much of anything in common with each other.
Afterwards I was complaining to John Borneman (Princeton), my one-time dissertation advisor, and said something along the lines of, “If you want to be on a panel that works, you have to organize it yourself.”
“Even then,” he replied.
But I had planted a seed in my own mind. Last year I stayed away, while that seed incubated, but this year I decided to put out a call of the Society for the Anthropology of North America (SANA, @AnthroNAD) listserve. After consulting with my research collaborator/co-author Angie Reed Garner (https://twitter.com/angiereedgarner), I posted the following abstract and asked if anyone might be interested:
Title: VETERANS FOR/VETERANS AGAINST: ACTIVISM IN THE AFTERMATH OF MILITARY SERVICE
Panel Abstract. In nominally democratic societies, military members in service have typically been discouraged, often forbidden, from direct participation in the political public sphere. Meanwhile prior military service has often been a litmus test for certain high public offices, a competitive testament to patriotism and an ethos of self-sacrifice that simultaneously reinforces qualifications of race and gender. Activist veterans, already impacted by veteran stereotypes such as maladies obscure to the civilian world and the miasmic stigma of violence, have been—depending upon the Zeitgeist—also disparaged as warmongers, shirkers and traitors. When self-representing as veterans, to the extent that they organize and advocate as veterans, they risk censure for breaking the presumptive and proscribed silences of war and misusing the moral authority they may be granted in matters of character, military and foreign policy.
This panel examines the myriad ways in which veterans, men and women, have drawn on their experiences in military service, on their veteran status and/or on a shared identity and community as a prompt or a prop to activism. Drawing on recent work on the anthropology of embodiment, of the senses, of sovereignty, the nation, the state, sacrifice and militarization the papers included here explore and attempt to explain the challenges and rewards of veteran activism. This panel will explore actual and imagined divisions between veteran and non-veteran sensibilities, and the fragile—and contested—moral authority of veteran activists when speaking about war making, about a particular war, within the peace movement, and for veteran rights. How do veterans respond to the activism of other veterans? What are the claims and counter-claims—the rhetorical languages—of veteran activism across the political spectrum? We examine the motivation, subject positions, and concrete cases of veteran activism in the context of contemporary demographics, civilian-military relations and the long years of war since 9/11.
The response, contrary to my expectations, were overwhelming. In the course of only a few days I had over a dozen inquiries, most of them serious—as well as one piece of hate mail, which told me I was probably on the right track—leaving me with the difficult task of trying to curate a panel.
Eventually the panel I submitted was reviewed and approved by SANA and we received a coveted Friday afternoon slot on the schedule. The panel itself is and its participants are described here :
Well attended, with a group of closely interwoven papers that touched on closely related themes derived from widespread ethnographic experience, the panel was well received.
Even while my project is about disrupting what I call the presumptive moral authority of veteran experience–what fellow panelists variously refer to as “hero narratives” (Christopher Webb) and the “veteran mystique” (Jose Vasquez)—I couldn’t help but be proud that out of a panel of six, we had four veterans.
As my colleague Andrew Bickford (George Mason University) commented to me, “That was amazing, to see a panel made up mostly of veterans. When I first started coming to the AAAs you were the only other veteran I knew.”
(Aside: As I write this at the Denver International Airport, they just started boarding and the very first announcement for boarding was “We would like to welcome about any active duty uniformed service members.”)
In the call for proposals I also posted a draft of my own abstract (available with all of the others on Facebook page, linked above). When the expressions of interest started to roll in I tried to figure out a way to make the selection process as transparent as possible—something that has not always been the case with calls I have replied to. No doubt not everyone was pleased, but I listed the list of preferences as follows:
1. Veteran activists
2. Veterans doing work with veteran politics
4. Others ethnographically engaged with veterans
5. Anyone else
Between selecting and submitting the papers and acceptance by the AAA, I made a decision not to try to be in touch with the other presenters, to encourage them and challenge myself, to reach out to scholars interested in related topics and invite them to attend, and to promote the panel on social media.
This process of continued engagement made the process far more meaningful for me. It became clear to me, fairly quickly—though I still need to convince a publisher—that the panel papers formed the spine of an edited volume.
Meanwhile I was plunged into my own research over the summer (http://www.slgardiner.com/xenophilia/veteran-resistance-project/), doing work in Louisville, Seattle, Portland and San Diego (at the Veterans For Peace annual convention)—making for a short break. In August it was back into the busy life of a department chair back in Abu Dhabi, scavenging time to write up initial findings.
What would I do differently? I find the traditional discussant structure often less than illuminating, but would like to experiment with discussion formats. Continue the networking—it would of course be nice if none of the veteran/military interest panels were scheduled simultaneously, but given the complexities of AAA scheduling, that’s probably impossible.
I will consider organizing something for the SANA conference—it’s a difficult time for me, and might fall during the official “no fly” time ordained by my university this year. Also, something for next year. In the meantime I’ll work on putting together a formal book proposal for an edited volume.
Suggestions, comments and expressions of interest more than welcome.