Paula Loyd's death as a result of burns sustained when serving as a member of a Human Terrain Team in Afghanistan is creating a virtual firestorm of reaction from both the left and right of the political spectrum. The comment threads at Michael Yon's website, and at Wired's Danger Room show some disturbing and ignorant condemnations of Islam as singularly vile and barbaric. Both the threads at Danger Room and this comment at Max Forte's Open Anthropology show a disregard for the lives and efforts of people to stabilize Afghanistan, calling it "imperialism".
While I like debate on the issues, I find the tone a bit disturbing, as the raw emotion prevents any reasoned discussion. Max, an ardent critic of both HTS and social scientist's involvement with the military, used the occasion and the comments at Danger Room to advance his thesis that American activities in Afghanistan as imperialism, even when they go beyond the role of actual combat, and a way to look at what he calls the "American culture of war and fear". Although I don't agree with all of his criticisms of HTS, Max has a valid point in using this circumstance to get at some of these issues.
However, I do have some issues with the presentation and Open Anthropology on this occasion. Max's portrayal of Loyd's position seems designed to support his interpretation:
Attached to a military unit, and the fact that she was a low ranking army officer, seems to vanish as some translate her into a “noncombatant” akin to a nurse, doctor, or priest. As expected, for some her image has morphed into one of a saint, even a Joan of Arc.While she was attached to a military unit, and in the company of soldiers and civilians in various roles, Ms. Loyd was not an Army officer. Unless I've missed something, she was a former U.S. Army Reserve Staff Sgt who deployed to Bosnia, a former civilian employee of the State Department, and a former employee of the United Nations. While in Afghanistan she was a contractor for BAE Systems, which runs the HTS pilot for the DoD. So she was a civilian, not a member of the United States military. She did place herself in harm's way, both for pay and to further what she apparently saw as the greater good for both Americans and Afghans, but this should lead her to expect the threat of bombs and bullets, not of being doused in gasoline and set alight for the crime of asking about fuel prices. This type of attack is not one generally used by and against combatants, but against women and girls that step outside the rigidly defined roles created by an ultra-conservative subset of Afghan society.
Part of the issue with Max's analysis is that he is operating from the assumption that the U.S. mission in Afghanistan is inherently imperial in the manner of 19th century imperial efforts. In this mode combatants, Provincial Reconstruction Teams, and NGOs that cooperate with U.S. or NATO forces become part of the imperial mission, and Ms. Loyd becomes a tool in the mythology and ideology of that mission. As may already be obvious, I tend to disagree with this interpretation of the war in Afghanistan (though Iraq is a different story). In Afghanistan we have a failed state that is the result of a civil war and the 1979 Soviet invasion, and our own failure to help rebuild and stabilize Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal. Current operations are the result of the Taliban's willingness to allow terrorist organizations to operate from Afghan soil in conducting attacks against the United States, and an understanding that developing stability in Afghanistan is in the American interest. While this could lead to an imperial venture, it does not of necessity have to do so. I'm not sure that the link between reconstruction and stabilization and combat operations is automatically imperial in nature.