Bureaucraft (I): Soldiers as Statemakers in Baghdad

By Omar Sirri
Submitted to Session P6466 (State and the City: Presences and Absences in the Mashreq, 2021 Annual Meeting
Pol Science
LCD Projector without Audio;
This paper considers the role of soldiers as statemakers in Iraq’s capital city. It does so by centring the urban checkpoint as the site through which soldiers play an integral role in making the state in Baghdad. Checkpoints are often seen as sites of obstruction, monitoring and surveilling the movement of people and goods. While such practices are critical to the instantiation of the checkpoint and its role in effecting the state, what about the men who carry out these practices? How might their years of checkpoint work and accumulated knowledge help bring about the entity they purportedly represent, the state?

Drawing on 15 months of ethnographic research, including two months of participant observation at two state security checkpoints in Baghdad, I zoom in on the personnel who man these security installations. Through their years of service at checkpoints, and their accumulated knowledge watching and probing residents passing through, soldiers have honed and crafted security skills. These skills are hardly coercive at first glance because they have less to do with obvious technical abilities such as weaponry. Instead, in this paper I investigate the social aspects of soldiers’ work that make them statemakers, namely their observations and gestures while interacting with residents, and the conversations and negotiations among and between soldiers on duty.

In conflict and post-conflict settings like Baghdad, security personnel at checkpoints are as much bureaucrats as they are soldiers. Checkpoints are ubiquitous, residents are forced to navigate them every day. Soldiers in turn carry out security routines and practices that are far more quotidian and mundane than spectacular or exceptional, in the process accumulating background knowledge, crafting and honing social practices integral to their work and vital to the production of the state. While checkpoints are indeed obstructive, they are also generative of soldiers as statemakers who learn and carry out ‘bureaucraft,’ a collection of practices vital to engendering the state in Baghdad and beyond.