Omar Dewachi is Assistant Professor of Anthropology, Social Medicine and Global Health, and co-Director of the Conflict Medicine Program at the American University of Beirut (AUB). Trained as a physician in Iraq during the 1990s, he received his doctorate in social anthropology from Harvard University in 2008. Dewachi has conducted extensive archival and ethnographic research on the human and ecological impacts of decades of Western interventions and violence in Iraq and the broader Middle East. His book with Stanford University Press (2017), Ungovernable Life: Mandatory Medicine and Statecraft in Iraq, is the first study documenting the untold story of the rise and fall of state medicine in Iraq. He is currently conducting ethnographic research on the ecologies of wounds and wounding that explores the biosocial life of war wounds across the Middle East. He is the author of numerous publications that have appeared in a number of medical, anthropological, and global health journals, including the Lancet.
Dirty wars, Dirty Wounds: Iraqibacter and the Ecologies of war in the Middle East
In the wake of the occupation of Iraq in 2003, the US military began reporting on an “invisible killer” that they called Iraqibacter. The moniker refereed to Acintobacter boumannii– a “superbug,” multidrug resistant bacteria causing serious infections and death among wounded military personnel in Iraq. Reports in US media further created a large scare about the bacteria, as it travelled from conflict sites in the Middle East to the United States with the returning injured veterans. While knowledge about these bacteria seemed to be associated with military reports coming out of Iraq, Iraqibacter was in fact being reported across different conflicts across the Middle East and was posing a large challenge to local and regional hospitals and healthcare centers.
In this talk, I reflect on how knowledge on Iraqibcater became central to my ongoing ethnographic research in Lebanon, where I have been working closely with local doctors and institutions to explore the experiences of wounded civilians and combatants seeking healthcare across the region. Raising questions about the emergence of this bacteria and its toxic consequences, I piece together the story of how the anthropological work evolved into a biosocial hypothesis addressing the links of the biology of this bacteria to the history, ecologies and toxicities of contemporary warfare, including the use of heavy metals in weaponry, movement of wounded patients across the region, and the breakdown of healthcare infrastructure under war, sanctions, and occupation in Iraq.