ONE afternoon earlier this month, David Tabbert, wearing Ray-Bans and glinting metal earrings, headed out on a shopping trip to one of his usual Brooklyn haunts: Islam Fashion Inc. on Atlantic Avenue.
Though Mr. Tabbert, 28, personally prefers G-star denim and concert tees, he was on the hunt for 150 dishdashas, the ankle-length garments worn by men in Iraq and elsewhere in the Arab world. In July, actors will wear them in a simulated Iraqi village, posing as townspeople, clerics and insurgents at a National Guard training ground in the Midwest.
Mr. Tabbert is a costumer for a company that outfits mock battles and simulated Arab villages that the military organizes around the country.
“I was certainly not pro-war,” he said. “I looked at what we were doing as a positive way to train the soldiers, in light of the fact that they are being deployed anyway.”
Through his work, soldiers learn how to differentiate between villagers and opposition forces, he said, adding, “It’s teaching the people how to not kill people.”
As in New York, where the denizens of Bedford Avenue are clad in American Apparel, as if in uniforms, while Park Avenue wears Pucci, each Afghan or Iraqi social stratum has its own particular dress. Mr. Tabbert studies images on the Internet to determine, for example, the exact embroidery on the epaulet of an opposition leader’s military uniform, and provides some actors with wristwatches to signify the wealthier townspeople.
Aicha Agouzoul, a saleswoman at the store who is from Morocco, only recently learned the nature of Mr. Tabbert’s profession and was, at first, taken aback. Standing near a rack of DVDs with titles such as “The Ideal Muslim” and “The Truth About Jesus,” she said in halting English, “He shows the army what Arab men wear, who is the bad, who is the good.”
–Sarah Maslin Nir, June 23, 2010, “The War Is Fake, The Clothing Is Real,” New York Times
The first thing that strikes me is the appearance of what former student and favorite performer Stephanie Murphy dubbed, “gay fashion patriotz,” or what Jasbir Puar calls homonationalism (Tabbert discusses being a gay man who doesn’t tell when he’s on-base), those normalizing but also differentiating measures distinguishing between good gay patriots and bad “monster terrorist fags,” and also recruiting the former to aid in efforts to regulate and even war upon the Others who make up the latter. Published in the midst of rigorous critiques of homonationalism during the 2010 Pride season (with Judith Butler’s refusal of the Berlin Pride Civil Courage Award in protest of Pride’s commercialism but also its complacency towards, and even complicity with, racism in matters of immigration control and military occupation, and with Queers Against Israeli Apartheid facing and eventually overturning their expulsion from Toronto Pride), this profile about stylist Tabbert, who puts his “gay fashion patriotz” skills toward aiding US war-making, cannot be coincidental (the second half of June sees most of the Pride events in New York City). It is as such an imminently useful example of exactly the forms of homonationalism that came under such concentrated critical fire this year.
I’ve known about these “practice” camps for some time, but I hadn’t thought to consider until now the function of the “costuming” of the “insurgents” for these war games. But it absolutely makes sense that sartorial classification –and I’m curious how distinctions between “good” and “bad” Arabs are being collected and codified through differing clothing practices here– would be a part of such training. As I have said elsewhere about Arizona’s SB 1070, “The cognition of race has never been a simple matter of skin or bones. Especially for racialized others, their clothes are often epidermalized — that is, they are understood as contiguous with the body that wears them, a sort of second skin, as we see with hijab or turbans.”
(Just as “Muslim-looking” persons were targeted for extra surveillance of both the state-sponsored and vigilante sort after 9/11, “Mexican-looking” persons have long been similarly targeted as dangerous “foreign” agents — growing up in San Diego, I heard many horrible stories about both border patrol agents and vigilantes harassing and assaulting “Mexican-looking” persons as likely “illegals” or “criminals” available for such violence. In the perfect mash-up that demonstrates the ever increasingly blurred distinction between police powers and security concerns, as well as the racial-sartorial profiling that here links these distinct but not disconnected state operations to control the movements of bodies, Rep. Sue Myrick (R-North Carolina) frets that Hezbollah might be sneaking across the US border disguised as Mexicans. )
Such a culture of danger as that we have lived with for far longer than this most recent iteration as “the war on terror” –warning against the Others whose presence near us, among us, “out there,” “lurking,” is understood to threaten “our” freedoms– draws upon a politics of comparison that is also practices of classification, about the world and its populations with differential access to freedom and security, and thus civilization and humanity. In this regard, the “war game,” and its extensive behind-the-scenes machinations, involves a series of measures for a certain kind of knowledge production about the alien body, producing knowledge for the calculation of danger, in the service of a broader imperative of liberal war. Liberal war, we can understand in the most basic conceptual shorthand, is conceived of as a “good war,” a rational war, a “war for humanity,” even if its violence is horrific, devastating, and otherwise completely fucked up. It is as such that sartorial “accuracy” –Tabbert studies images on the Internet, he teaches soldiers to distinguish between “bad” and “good” Arabs by their clothes– is just one of many procedures understood as a piece of a rational (and thus liberal and “good”) system of racial differentiation, contiguous with other identification-and-classification projects, such as developing biometrics systems for mobile forensics labs, scanning the irises and fingerprints of Iraqis in order to catalogue persons in an enormous database and determine their degrees of danger.
But in the collection and production of data, details, and descriptions –problematically rendered light-hearted activities with the profile’s invocation of Bedford and Park Avenues as more familiar locales for distinct “tribal” styles– the war’s wardrobe stylist renders populations as knowable, and measurable objects, but also divides them into actionable categories for “taking life and letting live.” Or, as Tabbert says, ““It’s teaching the people how to not kill people,” with the unspoken corollary of teaching soldiers how to kill the right people, who might be wearing the wrong clothes.
2 responses to “Sartorial Classification as a Weapon of War”
Thank you for this fascinating post. It is chilling, really. And it reminded me of something less chilling but nonetheless prominent: sartorial classification of others, when other methods (skin color etc) are not possible. I stumbled upon a blog post a while back, where the poster spoke somewhat disparagingly about some Russian woman in the street, and explained that she knew she was Russian from her “overbranded clothes”. Considering that Eastern Europe is quite a bit poorer than Western (the OP was from England), the contempt toward ‘inappropriate’ wearing of brand names was quite interesting — contempt old money feels toward nouveau riche? An underling who’s aiming way too high? Hard to say, but it was palpable.