Australian anthropologist John R. Parsons researches what he calls “the interplay between morality, narrative, violence, and human-nature relationships”. From 2017-2018 he spent eleven months conducting fieldwork with border militias in the Southern United States. “How,” he asks, “in an area where thousands have perished, did the volunteers enjoy what one described as ‘hunting humans?’”
I interviewed John about his research and the time he spent with border militias in the US, work covered by his article “Experience, Narrative, and the Moral Imperative to Act” for the Journal of Extreme Anthropology. Trigger warning for mentions of violence and sexual violence in this discussion.
I began by asking John what drew him to anthropology.
I used to be involved in historical re-enactments for a long time, working with groups that were focussed on Scandinavian and English societies from around the 950s. I was curious about how people lived, how they experienced the world. Re-enactment involves learning about a culture through performing an idea of what that culture would be. You learn about the materials people used in the past, then try to figure out how they would have used them in real life.
Anthropology provided a space where it wasn’t a hobby, but a discipline with theory behind it and conversations around it; a more formalised version of the things I was already interested in.
After working in the film & TV industry for a while, I started driving public buses in Melbourne. I was reading more and more in my spare time, and came across several books around anthropology & archaeology, which really drew me in. I went along to the University of Melbourne, sat in on them talking about what the discipline involved, and thought it sounded pretty interesting. A few years later, here I am!
Why did you focus on the militia operating at the US southern border?
My initial plan for my PhD was to visit the Democratic Republic of Congo, but by the end of 2016 the situation over there was too risky for fieldwork. I’d intended to look at the Force Intervention Brigade, the only UN military force that was actively going out and engaging others in physical combat. I was interested in the use of justified violence.
Unable to go to the DRC, I was looking for other parts of the world where I could explore these questions of violence and justification for violence.
These issues had preoccupied me for some time. In Australia, I knew a private military contractor. One night he told me some stories over drinks. He was blown up something like thirty-five times in two years, was in numerous gunfights, and he’d always talk about these incidents in such a casual way, “Oh yeah, there was a gunfight, and then this guy’s head exploded.”
There was just one story that he told differently, and I wanted to understand why this one story had affected him in a deeper way. How does morality work with violence? Why can we justify some acts, and not others? Places like the DRC offered a situation where these questions can be explored.
In practical terms, the US offered an English-speaking and accessible region; media coverage of the American militias suggested that I could explore similar themes around people justifying violence against an enemy that they saw as physically and culturally threatening the fabric of society. I wanted to understand how and why people went about trying to address that perceived threat, especially in borderlands, with that division between “Them” and “Us”.
I was curious about what participant observation – the practice of ethnography, what Clifford Geertz called “deep hanging out” – brought to that very fraught American context.
Anthropology has always had the idea that “there’s more than what we know” about human societies and cultures. Participant observation is invaluable: though we can never truly know what it is like to be someone else, it is as close as we can come to, “If you want to know how someone feels, walk in their shoes.”
The key to participant observation is longevity. When you first meet someone, when you talk to someone, there’s going to be an element of performance; they tell you what they want you to hear, or what they think you want to hear. By spending a long amount of time with people, those barriers break down and you get to see more of what people actually do, see more of what they actually think.
For a long time anthropology has had a fascination with people who are doing it tough; Joel Robbins calls it “the suffering subject”. And you can see people doing it tough, in very different ways, on both sides of that border.
The border militias I spent time with have power; they’re the US citizens, they’ve got the backing of the law to an extent. Spending time with them lets us understand the people who are voting for Trump, because many of his voters are strongly opposed to migration from the south.
One of the things that really interested me in your article: you mention that 90% of the militia volunteers had some experience with narcotic-related violence, whether that was directly or it had affected a relative or friend. You talk about the way that the stories underpinning the militia movement helped them to make sense of what was going on.
I watched that Netflix show The Social Dilemma recently, looking at how social media provides us with political stories, or news, that we’re more likely to click on, going deeper and deeper into the same topics and themes, over and over.
What I was hoping to do in the article – one small piece of a wider intellectual project – is to reflect on the fact that people are not passive consumers of information. Something leads people to believe, something has to make them lean towards one narrative or the other.
The US border has two main narratives. One’s the narrative Donald Trump talks about, with the “bad hombres” and MS-13 coming across and presenting a threat. Another talks about the cartel violence which people are fleeing, and the death & suffering which exist across that desert border region.
Why does one narrative resonate so much with militia volunteers that they go to the border, that they make sacrifices for these beliefs? They see the border in terms which can’t address the suffering of the migrants.
Most of these people had either had a personal negative experience of narcotic-related violence, or they’d witnessed the consequences of that violence very viscerally; some of them were medical professionals, for example.
They had seen what narcotics do to families, and this wider narrative gives them the ability to make sense of what they’re seeing, and it in turn then has the power to affect their lives to the extent that they voluntarily participate in these arduous operations.
Seeing what these things had done to their community, and perceiving that the border is where the issue starts, drives them to go and try to do something about this violence. They believe “That’s where I can make a difference.”
For the Latinx community in the borderlands, that narrative doesn’t resonate at all. They’re much more likely to feel empathy for friends, relatives, members of their community who have endured the hardships of coming across the border, who are used to being stopped by the authorities to check their immigration status – and therefore the alternate narrative, of fleeing violence and the violence of the desert, is the one which helps them to make sense of what’s happening in their lives.
Is the narrative then reinforced, for the militia volunteers, by the bonding that occurs when they go out on these really gruelling patrols together?.
In the desert, they don’t see this “enemy” that they’re searching for. They’re able to look at all this evidence in the desert, then interpret this in a way that promotes the idea of the “immoral other”, this dangerous enemy that they’re trying to fight.
Everything they do out there, every interaction they don’t have, furthers that notion of the enemy coming in. Everything they do is in response to this unseen figure they’re fighting, a cartel member who is a dude with a gun and very good at violence. So, as they are on patrol, they’re also seeking to protect themselves, and that builds a kind of community during the operations they’re conducting. A camaraderie comes to the fore, a willingness to sacrifice yourself for one another.
My broader argument is that by doing this, by setting themselves against this immoral, unseen “other”, it defines what they are doing as being right and moral. They create a space where they don’t have to worry about the ethical status of the migrant because that migrant is unseen: all there is, when they’re on patrol, is “us” conducting operations for the protection of the community. And they can then enjoy the work they are doing, with all its hardships, because it offers moral certitude.
Those traces of the absent “other” can be in the media as well as physical signs in the desert, I understand. It might be a water bottle abandoned on the ground, but they also use things like surveillance footage from cameras which they’ve installed. There’s kind of a virtual or technological aspect to that representation.
At times, the media has used different militias’ footage, so it kind of goes back and forth between the militias and a wider audience, bolstering that narrative of what the border is. There are moments, which do give the militias’ narrative truth; there are incidents of violence, and people crossing the border carrying drugs.
What’s interesting is the interaction with the border patrol, who do have really sophisticated surveillance technology. Conversations between militias and official border patrols also furthers that narrative as well.
For example, some of the older militia footage clearly shows big bales of marijuana being brought across the border, and that clearly validates their concerns about the cross-border movement of narcotics. However, other footage might just be of a backpack. You can’t see what’s inside that pack.
A border patrol agent I spoke with told me that in these groups, if you saw a group of, say, ten people, two of them would always run off when they see the border patrol. Agents always assumed they were just the smugglers leading the groups.
Border patrol focussed on picking up the migrants, who were mostly too exhausted to run like that, but eventually they did catch one of these runners, and found that their backpacks did contain the smaller, more portable drugs: methamphetamine, heroin. So this truth, that some people are carrying this stuff, means that militia members can now look at their own footage, and if a backpack’s contents can’t clearly be identified, they can assume that it contains these other drugs.
So what’s inside the backpack become an unknown space you can tell a story about. These traces – an abandoned water bottle, a video image, a container whose contents are concealed from us – can all feed the narrative.
What was it like for you, going on operations with them and looking for these traces in the desert?
I found out I’m actually personally very bad at looking for what they call “sign”! I went on a tracking course with them, and it turns out I’m a very poor tracker. They test you to see if you can follow two people who have run off, and while I could see a footprint or a larger, more obvious marker, those micro-disturbances that real trackers use, I just couldn’t see them.
What was really interesting was how my interpretation of the signs differed from theirs. For example, on one operation we came across a purse which had been abandoned in a clearing. We saw water bottles, food wrappers; evidence that people had rested in this area before moving on.
One of the militia members picked up the purse, emptied it out, examined it. On the way out of that gully, I saw a pair of folded-up jeans, which looked to me like female jeans. So I figured the same woman had discarded both the purse and the jeans.
You’re not allowed to talk at that point in the operation, so we didn’t discuss it until later. One of the guys figured that the purse had belonged to a cartel guy, was laughing about it. He didn’t see it as evidence that a woman had passed through there, but evidence of an effeminate cartel member.
The differing interpretation of what we actually see falls back on that border narrative of what you expect to see in the desert. Drugs do move through the desert, but so do a lot of women and children. But the narrative can’t cope with that – only men and bad guys move through the border in this way – so the evidence of the purse and jeans gets reframed.
And that idea of the cartel member being in some way gender-deviant in their eyes is interesting too. You say in the article that gender is also an issue for these communities; it’s overwhelmingly men who go on these operations, while women remain on camp to perform other duties.
The gender of this unseen person coming through is a major issue. There are these so-called “rape trees” in the borderlands, where smugglers allegedly rape women and throw their underwear in trees.
It’s evidence that women have passed through the landscape, but for the militiamen, what’s much more important about those stories is it’s evidence of the immorality of the “other”. They dismiss the evidence of women’s presence to emphasise the narrative of the bad guy, and in doing that they present the women who cross the border as innocent victims.
For the militiamen, they tell this story and it defines their role and their own morality: “Who would do such a thing to women? It’s our job, as men, to be the protectors.”
One woman did go out and join the patrols, but she was always seen as someone who wouldn’t be much help. The tough physical nature of the patrol, the hard climbing and the anticipation of a possible gunfight, combined with their expectations of gender, mean that they expect they will have to look after her, rather than her looking out for them and contributing to the team.
It’s hard to get deeper into those questions of gender because there are so few women out there, which means there’s very little discussion about women.
You were coming to them as a foreign researcher, another uncertain element, maybe someone who they couldn’t trust or rely on when you joined them on operations. How did you build enough rapport to do your job as an ethnographer?
They wanted people to hear their story. Militiamen feel their voices are not being heard, so the more interactions they have with the media and researchers, the more chance that the story will spread. However, they do like to control those interactions: “You’re going to come out here for a day or two, you’ll only be allowed to see these things.” Some groups will be mindful to put a Latino member on camera, to counteract claims that they’re racist; it’s subtle, but they are trying to define the narrative of who they are. Different groups use different tactics.
I made it very clear I wasn’t a journalist. I was a researcher who wanted to know what they did and why they were doing it. Being honest with them about my intention, and about hearing their stories was the key.
I attended an event in the area and got to talking with one of the militia members, discussed what anthropology is, talked about academia, about the border, and over the course of a couple of hours, I showed that I wasn’t there to write a hit piece. That got me an invitation to the border.
Once at the border, everyone is very standoffish. The first day was like a test: “We’re going to show you what the border’s really like, climbing hills in the heat.”
That test applies to every militia member. They push one another to get through it, to rise to the challenge of moving through that very difficult environment, and if you meet the challenge, “You’re one of us.”
It takes time, and on every occasion you meet someone, you have to introduce and explain yourself, but over the year, I attended every operation this group had, and when new people joined, I’m seen as someone who had been there for a long time: an experienced-non member who knew how the group worked. This gave me some standing with the group, and allowed them to accept me more readily.
To what extent are you as the ethnographer dependent on the group, to be able to cope with this hostile desert environment?
The most dangerous thing is the combination of heat and altitude, so a lot of the safety issues were based around that. Also, there are a lot of guns – but if any shooting started, I was expected to run.
One of the reasons I was accepted, I think, was because I proved myself physically, showing that I could cope, I could keep up with the group, could help them if needed, maybe carry someone back if they were injured.
They took responsibility for my safety when they took me out to show me something – I always had one person who would stay with me – but they were also nervous about how I might behave in certain situations. I was under strict instructions that if ever a migrant or cartel member was seen, I should stay still and keep away. This was because they didn’t know what I would do with that person, and also they might not want me to see what they did with any person they caught.
What personally changed for you as a result of this contact with the militia community, over such a sustained period? Do you have to manage the transition between fieldwork and your regular life?
I was lucky; the nature of the operations meant there would be very intensive periods of fieldwork, going on operation, trying to be awake as much as possible, talking with everyone, going with them wherever they’d let me, observing everything that happened and take it all in.
It was very gruelling, but between those short, intense periods of research, I would then be away from the area, calming down and recuperating. My partner is a Mexican-American, with family in Mexico. Our conversations about what I’d seen, heard, and done in the desert with these people helped me make sense of what was going on, it gave me another, alternate first hand perspective on immigration situation in the US.
Being out in the desert allows militiamen to ignore or forget the migrant experience, and even enjoy what they are doing. A key part of participant observation is the researchers’ experience, the contradictions, feelings, etc. This enjoyment happened for me, too. While you may only ever see a person in the far distance, through binoculars in the desert, you do hear the radio communications of smugglers. On the very last operation I went to, we heard coded messages between a group.
I was bored, in the camp, and I started looking at the maps and the militia’s logs of coded messages, figuring out what they meant. One group we were listening to had swapped over to another, and therefore a new set of codes were in play. It was like trying to solve a puzzle, relate the codes to locations.
There was an area called the “phone booth” where you could get phone reception, and I went out there, downloaded a Google Map, and figured out how certain streets related to certain codes. I was able to figure out what town this group were in, just 15 kilometres away.
The militia have these badges they use to identify their roles. On the last day, as we’re packing up, the communications guy comes up to me and says, “I should rip that guy’s badge off him and give it to you, you’ve done more than they have!”
At that point, I realised I’ve been helping this group do what they’re doing. I got so caught up in solving the puzzle that I forgot the wider context. That realisation informed my analysis of the relationship between the militia, their operations, and these wider narratives, but it also showed me personally that you can see yourself doing something so problematic, enjoy doing it, and fall into doing that so easily.
It’s important for anthropologists to explore what’s “out there” but also understand how what’s going on inside you, as a researcher and participant observer, plays into what’s happening.
There are so many issues raised by your research which seem to apply elsewhere: debates over border control from the English Channel to Australia’s “stop the boats” policy, the sense in a globalised age that “the other is over here”, even the way in which wider narratives like QAnon are informing people’s actions and choices.
Without generalising, how can your research speak to those wider issues?
Most people are just trying to do what they consider is right, but how we get to what we consider is right is different for all of us. The experiences and narratives that we live in define what is right or wrong to us.
What I found especially interesting about the militia experience was that most of us, in the moral world that we create, try to become ethical, cultivating themselves towards this ideal of a good person. Here I was among people who are not searching to be better, because to themselves they are already good citizens, moral individuals. They don’t need to work on themselves, because in the moral world they’ve constructed, what they do is right.
What’s coming next for you, John?
I have articles forthcoming, and a monograph based on this research – which I need to be writing!
I expect I’ll continue to address these issues of morality and dignity. I’m concerned as much with the perception of violence as violence itself. That perception has just as much power as real violence. One of the things I’d like to do is visit people who live further away from the border, to see how distance from the border changes that narrative and perception of the border.
I’d like to also look at migrant fieldworkers in these regions, and work more in ethnographic film, creating documentaries that capture the experience of living and working in these places.
Film is a very powerful medium which can show the hard work, horrible conditions, the lack of shade, the lack of water, evoking what it’s like to be there in a way my words alone might not.