Interviewing Military Officers

A Woman Researcher’s Perspective

by | Dec 22, 1998

Guatemalan army soldiers protected “national security interests.” Photo by Stephenie Hollyman.

​We drove up into the residential hills of Villa Hermosa, overlooking the city of Guatemala, searching for the house amongst the many white-stucco, high-walled mansions. I asked the taxi-driver to wait to make sure this was the address the colonel’s secretary had given me over the telephone. I pressed the buzzer and gave my name. A man’s footsteps echoed in the interior courtyard, large dogs barked, and the small window in the gate was opened only to first reveal the snub of an Uzi submachine gun, the weapon pointed toward me. The taxi sped off. After I explained my presence, I was able to begin the first of two two-hour interviews with the colonel, one of more than 50 Guatemalan military officers I’ve interviewed in the last decade.

While interviewing groups of relatives of the disappeared in Chile, Argentina, Guatemala and El Salvador in the 1980s, I had become intrigued by how military regimes in Latin America had sown seeds of resistance among women. How is it, I kept asking myself, that the tactic of disappearance, meant to censor memory and terrorize on the basis of an absence of bodies, had created such an extraordinary presence of protest? The relatives themselves kept referring to “national security doctrine” to explain the repression. I decided that to understand the actions of a repressive State toward its citizens, especially toward the women I was studying, I needed to speak with high-ranking military officers who shape that doctrine.

Since 1984, I’ve conducted long, mostly taped, interviews with Guatemalan chiefs of State, chiefs of staff, intelligence officers, defense ministers and the so-called “Officers of the Mountain” who staged coup attempts in 1988 and 1989. I’ve done so to try to understand several things: what do these officers think about national security, rule of law, democracy and human rights; what are their cultural logics of power and habits of mind; and, how is State-crafting based on violence constituted? If the military loots democratic discourse and maintains a threat mentality, what is the nature of such a violent democracy? How does this help us to refine our concepts of demilitarization and democratization?

People often want to know why these officers have been willing to be so frank with me about their “habits of mind.” Partly it is pure persistence: it has taken me years to obtain these interviews. But partly it also has to do with an ethnographic approach that attempts to capture the perceptions, categories of thought and systems of meanings of the informants through lengthy and systematic interviews. I used this approach–a blend of testimonial and structured interview–in questioning the female relatives, and applied this technique to interview officers with surprising results–surprising even to myself. This interview technique conveys to the officer that I am interested in their view of the world. My style is one of “I am here to listen to your side of the story; tell me that story, no matter how long it takes. You are an intelligent person with an interesting and important story.” Certainly that story is shaped by my questions, but these often arise from earlier comments by the officers; the story then is shaped in by our dialogue.

This said, I am often asked whether, as a woman, I have an advantage interviewing military officers. This question, I sense, emerges from the traditional notion of women using their wiles to get men to show off and speak more frankly. Or perhaps, it emerges from the idea that military officers are more open with women they believe to be naive and thus, less threatening. More positively, some might be suggesting that as a woman I might be a better listener, providing a sympathetic context in which military officers are more comfortable and, thus, more forthcoming.

As a woman researching a male-dominant institution, I have come to understand that, initially, officers perceive of me as a vulnerable and innocent woman in interviews. This is certainly a sexist attitude in many ways but one that, ironically, may provide an avenue into a world that might otherwise remain hidden, especially when one is considered naive about issues usually associated with men, such as national security, guerrilla warfare and threat mentality. At first, I would ask, “Can you help me understand what you mean by the concept ‘national security’?” Officers would respond as though I were their student (which, in effect, I was, learning a new language, a new worldview) and they were my teachers. Being a woman asking this question, though, added a gendered element: I was assumed to be in need of instruction in the male world of security matters. In short, by availing myself of traditional gender roles, I turned the tables by accepting their innocent presumption about my naiveté.

Other researchers and journalists on Guatemala cautioned me that military officers would only provide stock answers or no answers at all: the Guatemalan military was one of the most secretive, least researched institutions in Central America, they warned. In my naiveté, I imagined the military willing to talk if only someone were willing to listen. But, I also believed that what they had to say was worth hearing and indeed worth knowing and understanding. This doesn’t mean I was perfectly confident in my presumptions. It took me two days to summon up my courage to walk over to the National Palace and request my first interview with the colonel-lawyer responsible for writing all the decree-laws under the military regimes between 1982 and 1986. But it did mean that with much persistence, as one male New York Times reporter said to me later, “You got these guys to talk to you about the war. They wouldn’t even give me the time of day.”

Women researchers may have some advantage interviewing people about their worldview because we may be more willing to listen and learn about others’ political and cultural habits of mind. Whether true or not for other women researchers, I can say that I am honestly intrigued by how these officers view the world and place themselves within it. When I ask for interviews, I emphasize that I want to know the story of Guatemala from their own perspective. I believe this made a profound difference in how they responded to my questions.

Yet the advantages that accrue to a woman because of her gender can just as easily become disadvantages. I believe it took me longer to get officers to take me seriously and grant me appointments for interviews. Now, after years of interviewing, they deal with me as someone worth engaging in a continual dialogue because of what, in fact, they have taught me over the years. Yet I have not attained nor do I want to attain the status of honorary male. On the contrary, this world is, in some respects, genderless for me now because I have critically interpreted and not embraced these concepts as my own.

At moments, though, I’ve faced issues of safety and reputation unique to women researchers and journalists. For example, in the torrential month of August 1988, I held a three-hour taped interview with two Officers of the Mountain in my hotel room for two reasons. Wary of army counterintelligence, they, on the one hand, did not want to be seen or heard talking publicly about their coup attempt three months earlier. And, uncertain of my safety, I did not want to leave the hotel with them for the interview.

How, though, I thought, does it look for a woman to be inviting two infamous officers up to her hotel room? I have never been quite sure whether the hotel staff was protecting me by knocking on my door every half hour to make sure I was all right or was checking to see that there was nothing illicit going on. This is something a man would not have had to worry about. Then again, nobody, at the time, had been able to gain access to these particular officers.

Whatever advantages and disadvantages women accrue in researching the powerful, it is also critical to ask, finally, why is it important for someone who has written about women’s resistance to State repression to engage in such research? What does military thinking have to do with women’s issues? My book on the Guatemalan military is an attempt to understand State structures from the perspective of the powerful. If, as women researchers/scholars, we limit ourselves to the study of the powerless (be they women or men), women will never learn how to change the State to serve our own interests. And if women researchers/scholars do not study the shifting logics of State power, we will be even less likely to understand the nature of either women’s resistance to it or our collaboration with it.

Winter 1998

Jennifer Schirmer is a Lecturer on Social Studies at FAS (where she teaches the course “Anthropology of Violence, Memory and Reconciliation”) and Program Associate at the Program on Nonviolent Sanctions and Cultural Survival (PONSACS) at the CFIA. Her book, The Guatemalan Military Project: A Violence Called Democracy, based on interviews with officers, will be published by the University of Pennsylvania Press as part of its Human Rights Series in Spring 1998.

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