Interview: Nomi Stone
Nomi Stone is a published poet and doctoral candidate in cultural anthropology at Columbia University. In 2011, she received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to aid research on ‘Human Technologies in the Iraq War’. Recently, we spoke to Stone to learn more about her fieldwork in the US-built “Middle Eastern” mock villages used for combat training, and the complex lives of the people used to anthropologically construct “the adversary” in the 21st-century American warscape.
Let’s begin with a brief summary of your WGF-supported project.
As an entry point, I offer a scene from the field: a young American Major asks “Ahmed” to remove his shirt and applies a mock wound to the Iraqi role-player’s back and ribs. The insects simmer around the pots of fake blood, and a wasp nearly nicks Ahmed’s new welt. “Rowena”, a local woman who is assisting with the make-up, belly-laughs: “The bees like blood. Beaucoup blood, baby!” In forests, fields, and deserts across America, in what has been called a “hidden archipelago of mini-cities” American soldiers arrive to train their bodies and imaginations for war, before deployment. To habituate the American soldier, Middle Eastern role-players, many of them recent refugees from Iraq and Afghanistan, are salaried for their labors and repetitively act-out the contingencies of war. To this end, role-players embody a spectrum of cultural roles and modes: the Mayor; the Villager; the Interpreter; the Local Proxy Soldier; the Mourning Mother. They are called upon to simulate bargaining, fighting, and even dying, like the adversary.
In a new contribution to contemporary scholarship on war, my project explores the ethical, epistemological, and affective ramifications of collaboration and mediation in theaters of the 2003 Iraq War. I focus on individuals I call “human technologies”: local wartime proxies, mediators, host nation interlocutors, translators, and pre-deployment role-players employed by the US military as embodied repositories of Middle East knowledge. Drawing on 26 months of fieldwork, my cross-regional, multi-site research spans the extended Iraq warscape, from mock Middle Eastern villages above described; to the Iraqi refugee neighborhoods of Amman, Jordan; and crisscrossing through elite political and military institutions of Washington DC and its satellites. Focusing in particular on the 2003 Iraq War context, I examine the US military employment of human techne, like Ahmed, within a 21st century posthuman technoscape, and the ramifications of the outsourcing of particular labors to these wartime intermediaries.
Like in the case with my previous research, I am writing a collection of poetry in tandem with pursuing ethnography. As I write my dissertation, I am writing poems on the lifeworlds of the Middle Eastern role-players who inhabit the simulacra. From the outset, I have invoked the anthropologist self and the poet self in tandem to read these haunted spaces. I draw upon the lens of the anthropologist to think about, for example, how “authenticity” is referenced by the military through the construction of the sets. Which gestures – a prayer rug; Arabic graffiti; the call to prayer; and in some simulations, even odors designed to mimic mass graves – generate a sensory apparatus for both the training soldiers and the Middle Eastern role-players inside? Meanwhile, it is my poet-side who inflects these spaces with the affect, emotion, and sensation that a cursory observer perhaps would not glean. In this recent interview, I further discuss the crucial link for me between ethnography and poetry. Also, there are several poems at the end of the interview from my new manuscript on the simulations.
What first got you interested in this research question?
In my prior research, about the Jewish community in Djerba Tunisia — launched on a Fulbright and pursued during my time as a Masters student at Oxford — I had focused on questions of home, dislocation, and belonging. That community claims to have arrived in North Africa bearing a single stone from the destroyed Babylonian Temple in 586 B.C.; however, despite their long presence in the region, they often described themselves as strangers in Tunisia. I sought to understand this intimate estrangement through their lamentation rituals, myths, and stories, and the ways in which they located and unlocated themselves in Djerba after the creation of Israel as a political and territorial entity in 1948.
This fascination with the question of home, longing, and affiliation and the lived paradoxes therein also drive my present research. I did some preliminary research in 2009-2010, researching the location of diasporic Iraqis who had worked with the US military in Iraq as interpreters, contractors, and cultural advisors. Their evolving relationships to home and belonging were deeply fraught and their wartime affiliations often precluded returning to Iraq. Although these local wartime intermediaries had worked for the American military for a range of ethical, political/national, and economic reasons, as Iraqi support for the occupation waned, they were accused from all sides. That is: although they were employed by the American Department of Defense as exemplars of their culture and country, they were actually ejected to the peripheries as traitors by their own countrymen and as potential spies by US soldiers. In my current project, Iraqi role-players who are former Iraq War interpreters continuously inhabit the simulacra of war, theatricalizing an Iraq to which many of them cannot return for the foreseeable future.
Broadly speaking, and from an anthropological perspective, how would you categorize how American thinking about war has changed over the past half-century?
In his memoir, Antoine Saint-Exupéry conjures the optical field of the World War Two pilot: “All I can see on the vertical is curios from another age, beneath clear, untrembling glass. I lean over crystal frames in a museum; I tower above a great sparkling pane, the great pane of my cockpit.” Do this disembodiment and estrangement the pilot describes gesture at the coming wars of the next century? Paul Virilio proposes that the “history of battle is primarily the history of radically changing fields of perception.” He traces the progressive conjoining of the weapon and the eye through the co-development of war and cinema technologies, from the watchtower and remote-balloon to the camera-equipped reconnaissance aircraft, culminating in the contemporary Predator Drone remote aerial vehicle; that is, as the battlefield is enlarged, the body of the soldier becomes more prosthetic and the eye more mediated. This historical trajectory, he argues, alters experiences of image, object, time, space, body, narrative, and accident. Yet, meanwhile: amidst an American military fantasy of omniscient surveillance, the field of view is continuously distorted, full of gaps and erasures and ghosts. It is these gaps in seeing and knowledge which prompt the US military to hire locals in wartime—the human techne who are the focus of my project.
As a whole, I think that American thinking about war is often inflected by an imagined embodied experience of the US soldier, and how that experience has perhaps changed over the past half century 1) via new military technologies and 2) via the wartime demands of post Cold War “irregular” and non-state adversaries. But this conversation continuously disappears the bodies of others and the violence upon them, a space where anthropology and literature might intervene. For me, the corrective in broader American discourse comes in moments like this, Teju Cole’s seven twitter stories, about drones:
1. Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself. Pity. A signature strike leveled the florist’s.
2. Call me Ishmael. I was a young man of military age. I was immolated at my wedding. My parents are inconsolable.
3. Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather. A bomb whistled in. Blood on the walls. Fire from heaven.
4. I am an invisible man. My name is unknown. My loves are a mystery. But an unmanned aerial vehicle from a secret location has come for me.
5. Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was killed by a Predator drone.
6. Okonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond. His torso was found, not his head.
7. Mother died today. The program saves American lives.
And where does that leave us? In an essay on shock and the industrial revolution, Walter Benjamin writes: “Nothing remained unchanged but the clouds. And beneath those clouds, in a field of force of destructive torrents and explosions, was the tiny, fragile human body.” In my own work on 21st century war, my greatest hope is to comprehend not only military and political structures, technologies, and discourses, but namely their effects: that is, the tremors of those bodies suspended in that field.
What are “frontier figures”?
In her book Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation, Mary-Louise Pratt describes how certain figures —“the seafarer, the conqueror, the captive, the diplomat”—are constituted within the space of empire. I am interested here especially in the interstitial figures involved in knowledge production and took up Pratt’s category to include a range of intermediary wartime figures who I consider to be human techne, from proxy soldiers to host nation interlocutors to role-players in pre-deployment simulations. Amidst US military technophilic logics of omniscient surveillance that I referenced above, human techne emerge as corporatized local bodies hired to fight, see, act, embody, and know for US soldiers. Meanwhile, in some circumstances, wartime accountability and precarity are also outsourced to these individuals.
How are these war simulations designed, and what sorts of adjustments are made to them as more information becomes available? How are the mock villages designed?
The first time I walked into a mock village, I nearly stopped breathing. Hollywood artifice pulsed with an uncanny core of the real. I was put up in a mock Baghdadi hotel, its check-in area decorated with platters of fake kabobs. Outside, a mock Babylonian statue towered over a fake traffic circle. A mock mosque contained only bullet shells within as a clue for the training soldiers. Mock blood and threads of mock organs from a shoot-out spumed over the set. And in the fake market, Iraqis wearing lazer-tag like belts to register their notional deaths, role-played war every day.
The villages themselves as well as the simulations are designed through variable processes, according to the base, the allocated budget, and particular training exercise.
In some cases, villages-in-a-box are used: these assemblages contain everything from fake fruit to intricate wound kits. Large combat training centers (CTCs), which typically stage training rotations for the conventional forces 10 times a year, have larger budgets and streamlined training environments. In contrast, I spent most of my time observing smaller exercises within slightly more improvisational settings. One contractor who worked on building the sets for the role-plays brought me back into the prop warehouse. While I waded through “bloodied” knives and Middle Eastern cloth, he described his company’s philosophy: “You do the best you can to make it look the part. But the inside, what the role-players are trying to replicate (language, culture, norms), that’s the most important.” Yet according to some contractors, this insideness did not always happen organically; indeed, role-players who had “assimilated too much” were coaxed back: asked to behave as exemplars of what was imagined as an authentic, originary culture and to prune themselves of excesses.
The simulations themselves are modified continuously. Typically, the writing of the scripts is contracted out to companies. Most of those contractors are former soldiers with recent deployment experience. Typically, contractors work closely with military leadership to insert what are seen as relevant lessons into the simulations. And in many of the smaller scale exercises, the military leadership write their own simulations.
This is what it feels like: it is midnight in a mock village, and blanks pepper the sides of the little houses in the small blue glow of the woods. The role-players wait for the soldiers to approach. In the interludes between scenarios, they eat dolmas in the dark, those hollowed onions and eggplants stuffed with lime-infused minced lamb and rice. The soldiers, always on a mission, move in a rhythm. That rhythm accelerates when the scriptwriters turn up the heat. They turn up the heat when they want to teach the soldiers a lesson. At midnight, the military leadership and contractors together enter the Conex they are using as an office, and decide how the next 12 hours should unfold. Perhaps, for example, earlier in the day, the training soldiers momentarily left their weapons unguarded while visiting a village Shaykh and an insurgent stole them. The scriptwriters will turn up the heat, summoning a sound and light show: IEDs until dawn.
You make a distinction between Iraqis who work for the United States in Iraq and those on American soil. How has this distinction been useful to you?
This distinction has been useful insofar as Iraqis who worked for the US military in Iraq endured more immediate precarity: accused of being informants and spies, they were often pursued by militias. Those who work for the US military in the United States in mock Middle Eastern villages are now physically secure. On the path to acquiring American citizenship, one could also wager that they are more existentially secure, as they will soon be American, working for the Americans. Yet, meanwhile, as they enact war, loyalty, betrayal in mock Middle Eastern villages for training US soldiers, role-players continuously embody and rebuke forms of nation and affiliation in daily theaters. Relationships to belonging and estrangement are always reconfiguring. Meanwhile, as the research evolved, it became clear that there was a circuit of Iraqis who previously worked for the US in Iraq and now do so in the United States; it is this particular population that has become the focus of my project.
What’s next for this project? How could you see it expanding?
There are so many potential vectors for this project. I plan to continue work on diasporic Iraqi communities with ongoing connections to these simulations, pursuing a range of conceptual avenues. For example, I’m interested in their evolving relationships to Iraq and America; to their expressions of gallows humor in relation to both simulated lamentation and actual loss; and to the ways diasporic Iraqis relate to and narrate the “jinn,” those Qu’ranic beings made of fire. In Iraqi lore, Saddam Hussein consolidated his power through sorcery and the mobilization of the jinn, and these demon-ghosts have begun to manifest in my current project and must be further pursued. In a separate evolution of the project, I would be interested in more thoroughly tracing a political-economy around the simulations, delving into how locals who have long informally role-played for the military interact with Middle Eastern role-players. Additionally, I hope to pursue further offshoot projects about the work of the senses within the simulated spaces—and how the sentient experiences of the American soldier and the Middle East role-player may interface.
 Graham, Stephen. “War and the City,” New Left Review 44, March-April 2007, http://newleftreview.org/II/44/stephen-graham-war-and-the-city.
 Antoine Saint –Exupéry in Virilio, Paul. War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception, p. 92.
 Virilio, p. 10.
 Cole, Teju. The New Inquiry, http://thenewinquiry.com/blogs/dtake/seven-short-stories-about-drones/
 Benjamin, Walter. “The Storyteller,” in Illuminations. New York: Schocken, 1969, p. 84.
 Pratt, Mary-Louise. Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation. New York: Routledge, 1992, p. 26.