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Title:An ethnography of 'courage' among U.S. Marines
Author(s):Tortorello, Frank J.
Director of Research:Farnell, Brenda
Doctoral Committee Chair(s):Farnell, Brenda
Doctoral Committee Member(s):Moodie, Ellen; Lugo, Alejandro; Varela, Charles
Department / Program:Anthropology
Degree Granting Institution:University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Subject(s):U.S. Marines
combat training
anthropology of warfare
anthropology of violence
anthropology of the military
United States Military
dynamic embodiment
biology and culture
realism and idealism
Deoxyribonucleic Acid (DNA)
interpretation of human social action
Abstract:This is a theoretical and ethnographic study of conceptions of “courage” among combat infantry, specifically U.S. Marines. U.S. infantry combat soldiers conceive of the cultural value courage in its many manifestations and formulations. I maintain that courage manifests itself in both vocal signs, as directly or indirectly referenced spoken discourses, and in action signs, as a way of moving in a semantically-laden enactment space. In its many formulations within Western thought, courage has been understood primarily as the product of psychobiological or instinctive forces. In contrast, I shall argue it is best understood as an expressed cultural and personal value. The study aims to contribute new knowledge to an American subculture almost entirely neglected by anthropologists: modern American combat infantry. A unique focus of this project is to argue for a conception of courage as a moved value performed by dynamically embodied persons rather than a reified entity. For example, while many Americans can readily appreciate that Japanese Geisha move in very distinctive ways, and acknowledge that those ways of moving are cultural, that is, value-driven, the distinctive movements of American infantry soldiers, both in terms of their cultural origins and as expressions of cultural values, are masked by the wide and deeply-held American value of utility and its long historical deployment in warfare. In other words such movements are viewed as merely practical in function and efficient in their execution, without links to moral, ethical, gendered, racial, or other cultural values. This invisibility coupled with a Western academic preference for explanatory resources that reify and render mysterious the source of personal action, makes courage as a moved value almost inconceivable. To see courage according to this new formulation requires special theoretical resources, most notably an agent-centered theory of human movement, provided in the work of linguistic and socio-cultural anthropologists Drid Williams and Brenda Farnell (referred to as semasiology). It also requires a robust conception of agent causality applicable to the social sciences emerging from a critical realist philosophy of science as found in the work of the philosopher of science Rom Harré and the philosopher of social science Charles Varela. The position taken in this dissertation is that courage among American combat infantry is best understood as an idiom of body movement and the expression of cultural values made manifest in the highly detailed and nuanced social situations generated in training and on a battlefield. A battlefield per se, and as a value-laden context, is the joint creation of persons engaged in a certain kind of embodied talk. I argue that training for battle can be captured in the phrase “domesticated combat.” By this phrase I mean that certain key performative and contextual variables are controlled, but never entirely so, in the training context. To the extent that training replicates key factors faced by infantry on the battlefield is the extent to which courageous action can be trained. The term “courage,” at least as it is used in the United States, will be shown to be an abstract placeholder whose meaning is inseparable from specific semiotic practices of combat infantry in particular contexts. For combat infantry, specifically U.S. Marines, courage will be shown to consist in the selfless pursuit of prized cultural values in situations of moral and physical risk. This study is based on over sixty individual and group, formal and informal interviews with combat and non-combat veterans from World War II through Operation Iraqi Freedom II and beyond. These interviews are complemented by participant-observation in two seven-week training courses with active duty Marines during the summers of 2007 and 2008. This study makes two contributions to anthropological understanding. It provides new ethnographic knowledge of an academically neglected and misunderstood American community, and applies, and develops further special theoretical resources within socio-cultural and linguistic anthropology that preserve and foreground embodied human agency and action. In other words, while this project is important for the empirical reason that few studies focus on modern Western combat soldiers, and none at all utilize an ‘anthropology of human movement’ approach, it is also important for the theoretical reason that it offers a conception of the relationship of biology and culture that is grounded scientifically, and so gives a plausible account of that relationship in the service of a proper representation of dynamically embodied persons living culturally. Failing to ground ethnographic interpretation in a plausible account of the relationship between biology and culture promotes the replacement of the meaning of actors with those of the researcher. As a result opinion often masquerades as insight and advocacy often becomes partisanship
Issue Date:2010-05-19
Rights Information:Copyright 2010 Frank J. Tortorello
Date Available in IDEALS:2010-05-19
Date Deposited:May 2010

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