A conversation with Catherine Lutz about The Costs of War

The Costs of War is a report written by several professors and policy experts from around the country and centered at Brown University’s Watson Institute. One of the authors and co-director is Catherine Lutz, cultural anthropologist and chair of the department of anthropology.

If you take a look at the report, you might wonder: what does a cultural anthropologist have to contribute to this report? It’s mainly about numbers. For example, see Table 1, The Wars’ Dead, Estimates by Category of Person. And Table 5, The Budget and Other Economic Costs of War. But read carefully and you will find the anthropological touch… attention to the “people” affected by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, in every section but especially in the section about what is missing in the analysis: the next steps.

I have no doubt that, were a cultural anthropologist not a part of the team, the report would have been far less sensitive to social issues. The editor of this blog was fortunate to have a brief telephone conversation with Catherine Lutz on September 10, 2011.

Barbara: What were your main contributions, as a cultural anthropologist, to the Costs of War Report?

Catherine: I don’t feel that my role was especially that of an anthropologist. I was simply acting as a scholar, producing knowledge and trying to keep the level of the investigation’s rigor high. As an anthropologist, though, I could focus on the need for “ground truth,” something that far exceeds the policy rhetoric that usually disappears most of the people involved in these issues.

Catherine Lutz

At the Watson Institute, we began the project and created a report and a website so that people can get comprehensive information about the wars, for citizens and also for journalists so they can get source their stories more accurately and get beyond official narratives. We suffer from a lack of scholars in the war zone, first hand ethnographic material. One reason, unfortunately, is that many Iraqi scholars have been killed over the last 8 years. There is not enough on-the-ground data about what has happened to people in these war zones. We had to depend on secondary data, existing reports such as federal budget data about what the U.S. was spending on the wars, the Pentagon budget, the State Dept budget, information from veterans organizations about disability claims, and UN data on refugee populations.

Barbara: Are you going to continue this line of research?

Catherine: Yes, absolutely, we want it to continue to be an up to date source of information for journalists, policymakers, and activists. It would also be ideal if information like this — and improving on this information — could become the basis for a national commission on how these wars (Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan), happened, how they have been waged, and what their human costs have been. Minimally, there at least need to be Congressional hearings, as there eventually were around the Vietnam War. Some serious journalism has also begun.

Barbara: As a cultural anthropologist, how did you learn how to get your head into things like Pentagon budgets?

Catherine: The economists on our team did that remarkable work, and I learned from them how to understand it and summarize it for the press.

Barbara: What advice can you offer to students who might want to follow in your footsteps and become involved in the anthropology of the military/peace/war?

Catherine: I would just say don’t worry about whether they are doing anthropology, but instead just focus on creating knowledge that can be used to make the public conversation about issues of security and war more productive, and to prevent the long past and future nightmare of these wars from being disappeared from view.

Note: an article in a special section of the New York Times, on 9/11/11 on the costs of the ongoing wars cites Brown University’s Costs of War project as one of its sources.

3 thoughts on “A conversation with Catherine Lutz about The Costs of War

  1. Pingback: anthropologyworks » Anthro in the news 9/12/11

  2. Michael Jacobsen

    Dear Professor Lutz,
    PLEASE read and respond.
    I wish to assist to developing your “COSTS OF WAR” web-site into an actual traveling exhibition that can be presented around the nation. Such a traveling exhibition could greatly increase exposure to local communities and allow for a multitude of community-based activities. Your work is stellar and needs a much broader exposure! Thank you so much for being involved in its inception. My name is Michael Jacobsen. I am a 65 year old Vietnam Era Veteran. I have 15 years experience as a curator and exhibition designer of historical and artistic exhibits. Among others exhibits, I was the artistic designer of “A Different War: Vietnam In Art” curated by Lucy R. Lippard which traveled nationally. Among other exhibits, I was the curator of “Votes for Women: The Seventy Year Struggle For The Women’s Right To Vote”. I am currently a retired mental health therapist. I understand the didactic power of getting multi-media exhibits before communities and the excitement such exhibits can generate. “The Costs of War” could include: photos, videos, visual artistic and musical expressions, artifacts, statistics/data, witness reports, interactive elements and didactic materials at a variety of intellectual levels. I also understand the need for curatorial professionalism and your need for editorial control as a cultural anthropologist. I would love to speak with you about such a possibility of traveling “The Costs of War”. The expenses in developing such an exhibit could be covered through rental fees as the exhibit travels nationally (possibly on the university circuit due its potential controversial character).


  3. Carlo Salilican

    Professor Lutz,

    Cost of wars are always hot topics nowadays specially with the way our economy is right now. Many Americans are against it because of how many people died and how much money we have spent but what people dont realize is how this will affect lives of millions of people in the future. People have been suffering in these countries for decades or even centuries and eventhough many can argue the impact of the war, I can say with my own experience while I was deployed in Iraq in 2005, that many Iraqis were happy that we were there and wanted us to stay because for the first time in their lives, they had freedom to study, worship, had clean water and hospitals to treat them. All we see is the bad stuff happening in the news magnifying the explosions, deaths, and other things happening out there.


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