Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Ethnograpy Comes to Iraq

When I was first learning the what and how of workplace ethnography, I was taught that it is frequently best to begin an interview by asking the subject to describe a typical work day. This sort of "typical day" documentation has sometimes made a successful migration from the ethnographic document to television entertainment. Both Homicide and The Corner were based on extended ethnographic studies that involved considerable "typical day" material. Homicide had a major impact on how law enforcement stories are told on television; and while, for all its quality and intensity, The Corner never attracted many admirers, without its approach to getting under the skin of the drug world, we probably would not have had The Wire, which, as I recently observed, has now attracted international attention.

I feel it is important to recognize the value of ethnography at a time when decisions are being made by members of both the Executive and Legislative branches that appear to be entirely oblivious to such "typical day" documentation. After all, so-called "fact-finding" visits are not about "finding facts;" they are about media opportunities. Besides, one does not have to go to Iraq to learn about a "typical day." There is a wealth of data out there in the blogosphere (or at least there was before those in authority realized what sort of material was getting out to the public).

Last night my wife and I discovered that some of this "typical day" material was turned into a Canadian-made film, American Soldiers: Dateline Iraq. The worst thing I can say about this film is that I was never aware of it being distributed in the movie houses, so the only way to see it is through cable. It is far from the best film I have ever seen. As far as technique is concerned, it does not come close to either Homicide or The Corner. Nevertheless, it does focus on a single day. Since that day was at a time when insurgent attacks were frequent and effective, one could question how "typical" the day was; but there is no doubt that it was representative of one of the hardest times that our troops had in Iraq.

I suppose this is an example of a film that really has "something to say," even if it does not always say it that well (doing my best to avoid any variation on "articulate"). I certainly had something to say to an IMDB reader:

Not the worst movie I have ever seen , writing needed work, acting overdone , but the message was clear and this message should be heard. I work in this industry and I am also he mother of a marine combat veteran. And If the American public would shake off the ambivalence that they drug them selves with they would understand what it is that we are sacrificing for Political and Economic gain for the few and privileged . And they themselves would be up in arms to stop this and maybe really focus on the problem of terrorism. We must know our enemy and understand them in order to destroy them. We should be holding Afghanistan and keeping the Taliban and the Al Queda at bay. Not creating another hold out for them by destabilizing another Arab country.

This should be reason enough to call a two-hour "time out" in the Senate, during which all the members should be required to sit silently and watch this film. After that they might realize how petty it is to do such things as vote on whether or not to debate a nonbinding measure expressing disagreement with White House policy on the war in Iraq! (Note that this has nothing to do with voting on the measure. The current Republican strategy is to prevent any discussion of the measure, which would involve making statements that would then appear in the Congressional Record.) The American people voted for a change; but I do not think that change they demanded entails an ignorance-is-bliss strategy!

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