Research on Policy

The Interest Group for the Anthropology of Public Policy (IGAPP) promotes the anthropological study of policy, including its making, workings and effects. IGAPP seeks to advance the contributions of the anthropology of policy to theory and method in anthropology, as well as to research in public policy.

Soldiers, War and Sacrifice:

How Ethnography Contributes to the Casualty Debate


Jill A Rough

George Mason U

         Examining the impact of US military operations abroad on the typical US citizen is a complex and broad undertaking. How does one examine the impact that war has on the average American—particularly the current decade-long war that has spanned two major conflicts in two separate countries? My recent dissertation examining the impact of military mobilizations on US public support for war offers one possible answer: ethnography. While ethnography may be an obvious answer to most anthropologists, it was not obvious to me. As a doctoral candidate in a public policy program, my training emphasized quantitative approaches. In addition, my

field of national security policy values statistics, metrics and other such data. While I knew part of my research would be quantitative, I quickly realized that statistics

alone would be insufficient. I wanted more information, depth and insight.

         After being fortuitously introduced to ethnography in a qualitative methods course, I decided to incorporate it into my research design. I was specifically interested in the relationship between communities that send their Army National Guard soldiers to war and local public support for the use of military force. With the help of two anthropologists on my dissertation committee, I designed and conducted an ethnographic study of a mid-sized town in Pennsylvania that had deployed local Army National Guard soldiers to Iraq and Afghanistan multiple times since 9/11.

         In the course of seeking to capture any personal and social impacts of mobilizing local soldiers for war, I discovered a contradiction: while the public holds its local soldiers returning from combat in high regard, these hometown heroes are often invisible to the community, unless they come home in a casket.

         This stark difference in how a community welcomes home its soldiers was evident throughout my ethnographic research. Participant observation of a December 2009 “Welcome Home” ceremony for 89 recently returned soldiers revealed that the ceremony was largely insular to the soldiers themselves and those who were directly related to a soldier or already affiliated with the military, such as local veterans organizations. Even more compelling was a post-deployment awards ceremony honoring these same soldiers that drew fewer than a dozen audience members, myself and reporters included, as well as a June 2009 awards ceremony for 161 returning troops that lacked any discernible show of community support. Although local print and television media outlets covered each of these events, one had to question whether anyone in the community really noticed the sacrifice or understood the experiences of these soldiers and their families, many of whom were on their second or third deployment since 9/11.

         In vivid contrast to how the community welcomed these soldiers home were firsthand reports of enormous community turnout for the funerals of fallen local soldiers. Many members of the broader community drove into town from the outlying rural areas to attend the service for a local soldier they had never met personally. Guests waited in line two hours to attend the wake of a local soldier who had died in Afghanistan and one mourning family had to move the location of their son’s funeral three times to accommodate the estimated 4,000 guests who paid their respects for the young soldier who died in Iraq in 2005.

         Despite quantitative data from my dissertation that suggest local casualties are not a factor influencing local public support for the war, one must question why US residents seemingly fail to notice the return of battlefield-proven soldiers but flock to the funerals of fallen ones? Why do everyday sacrifices by local soldiers go

unnoticed when the loss of any one of them would cause the typical person in the US to stop and consider what it means to make the “ultimate sacrifice”? Why do people loudly proclaim they support the troops, but do so seemingly only after they die—and how does this remarkable dynamic impact public support for the use of military force?

         More research is required to answer such questions. Ensuring that ethnographic methods are included in a wide variety of policy-relevant future research is critical to expanding our understanding of social and cultural phenomena such as the impact of military mobilizations and casualties on local public support for war.


Jill A Rough is currently an adjunct professor at the School of Public Policy, George Mason University, where she specializes in national security and defense policy.

Janine Wedel is the contributing editor of Research on Policy, the AN column of the AAA Interest Group for the Anthropology of Public Policy. She may be contacted at