The death merchants

The opening sequence of Andrew Niccol’s Lord of War (2005), starring Nicholas Cage, provides one of the starkest visualizations of the arms trade as it follows the ‘life of a bullet’ – thousands and thousands of them and one in particular – from the point of view of the bullet itself.   You can watch it (and listen to the wonderful Buffalo Springfield) below:

Here is the script:


– Gunpowder is poured into a metal casing, lead slug mounted on top.

A BULLET is born.  A perfect 39mm.

– The BULLET travels along a conveyor belt with thousands of identical siblings in a Ukrainian factory so grey it’s monochrome.

– The BULLET, picked up by a ham-fisted UKRAINIAN FACTORY WORKER, is tossed into a crate.

– The BULLET, lying in its open crate, rolls down a chute where it’s inspected by a UKRAINIAN MILITARY OFFICER holding a manifest.  He seems to stare directly at our BULLET.

UKRAINIAN OFFICER (to his SUBORDINATE carrying a manifest, in Ukrainian) Call it “agricultural machinery”.

– The BULLET’s crate rattles around in an open-bed truck along an industrial road, passes a decapitated statue of LENIN. – The crate containing our BULLET is placed on a ship in the cold grey Odessa harbor.  A container door closes, plunging the bullet into darkness.

– The door re-opens.  The BULLET, still in its crate, now basks in bright, tropical sunshine, surrounded by an azure sea.

– The crate is removed by a pair of slim, dark hands, revealing a glimpse of the bustling, weathered port of Abidjan in the Ivory Coast.  The crate is one of dozens unloaded from the ship.

– BULLET’s POV from another open-air truck, now slogging through a mud-clogged road in lush rainforest.

– The BULLET is unloaded from the truck in Freetown, Sierra Leone – immediately grabbed by the young HAND of a RUF soldier.

– The BULLET is loaded into a 30-round magazine which is inserted into an AK-47 machine gun

– The BULLET waits – in the gloomy chamber.  Suddenly, from outside,the sound of raised voices and gunfire.

– The BULLET and its neighbors start to rise quickly up the magazine towards the chamber as the Kalashnikov is fired.

– Our hero BULLET is next.  Will it see action?

– Smack.  The gun’s bolt strikes the explosive cap, gunpowder ignited, the BULLET driven out of the barrel.

– Shed of its casing – now only a slug – the BULLET emerges into bright sunshine.  It is flying down the main street in Freetown.

– The BULLET gives us a perfect point-of-view of the bullet ahead of it.  They are both flying towards their intended target – a wild-eyed CHILD SOLDIER, a boy no more than twelve, firing an AK-47 almost as tall as he is.

– The leading bullet narrowly misses, whistles past the boy’s ear, striking the whitewashed wall behind – one more pock-mark in a building riddled with pock-marks.

– Our BULLET, following close behind, finds its mark, slamming into the boy’s forehead just above his left eye – his expression, oddly relieved.

– The BULLET carves through the lobes of the boy’s brain where it is enveloped in blood, finally plunged into darkness – the bullet’s final resting place.


I can imagine – I think – all sorts of ways in which today’s object-oriented philosopher-geographers might be interested in this sequence, but there’s also a much more obvious geography embedded in it.  Yet it turns out that it’s not so obvious after all.  One of the liveliest (sic) analyses of the global arms trade is Andrew Feinstein‘s The shadow world: inside the global arms trade (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2011); there are also trenchant analyses in Rachel Stohl and Suzette Grillot, The international arms trade (Cambridge: Polity, 2009).  But if you want to track those shadow geographies and their entanglements with the shifting geographies of military and paramilitary violence, then you have to look elsewhere.  And once you start looking you begin to realise why neither of these books includes any maps.

The Stockholm Institute for Peace Research has been tracking global military spending and the arms trade since 1967, and Ian Taylor has converted their recent tabulations into several maps, like the one below that plots military spending in 2011 as a proportion of GDP.

Armsflow has an animated sequence of global arms transfers from 1950 through to 2006, based on the SIPRI database.  And Worldmapper has some maps showing arms exports and arms imports, but these use data from 2003 only and exclude small arms and ammunition.  In fact most investigations of the global arms trade, until at least the end of the Cold War, were directed at major weapons systems – calibrating the ‘arms race’ – but since the 1990s there has been considerable interest in tracking small arms and light weapons (SALW); le monde diplomatique provided a map of small arms for 2002, but this was confined to the legal trade (though it did show the zones where illegal trafficking was most dense), and there is a visualization of the global distribution of small arms here.  In addition, the Norwegian Initiative on Small Arms Transfers (NISAT) has a series of maps ranking exporting and importing states.

But these maps are static and don’t show the flows involved. But now a new project between the Igarapé Institute in Brazil and Google’s Creative Lab team uses data from the Peace Research Institute in Oslo (one of NISAT’s three partners) to produce an interactive that charts the ‘government-authorised’ global trade in small arms from 1992 to 2010.  I’ve posted a screenshot below but this is an interactive and you really need to move through the image flow. The project claims that 60 per cent of violent deaths in the world are inflicted through the use of small arms and light weapons.  Note: You need Google Chrome to view the interactive.

The Geneva-based Small Arms Survey identifies the major exporters (excluding ammunition) thus:

Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Germany, Italy, and the United States routinely report annual exports of small arms, light weapons, their parts, accessories, and ammunition worth USD 100 million or more. The Small Arms Survey estimates that China and the Russian Federation also routinely achieve this level of activity although Beijing and Moscow do not report doing so. In 2007, customs data alone indicated that these eight countries, along with Canada, Switzerland, Turkey, and the United Kingdom, exceeded USD 100 million in exports.’

And the importers:

‘An analysis of customs data suggests that for the period 2001 to 2007 five countries—Canada, France, Germany, Saudi Arabia, and the United States—routinely imported small arms, light weapons, their parts, accessories, and ammunition worth USD 100 million or more per year. Customs data also suggests that eight additional countries imported at least USD 100 million or more in at least one year during this seven-year period: Australia, Cyprus, Egypt, Japan, the Netherlands, South Korea, Spain, and the United Kingdom. A review of customs data shows that Italy routinely imported more than USD 50 million per year from 2001 to 2007.  The United States is by far the biggest documented importer of small arms.

All this matters because, as C.J. Chivers – the author of a remarkable history of the AK-47, The Gun, notes in Foreign Affairs 90 (2011) 110-121 – small arms and ammunition play a central role in ‘fueling the forever war’.  And, as these fragmentary notes suggest, their cascading geographies also explain how they propel what I call ‘the everywhere war’ too. There are two vectors that need to be emphasized.  First – and Chivers is very good on this – there is a layered historical geography to the diffusion of small arms.  As state militaries spasmodically upgrade their stocks so their discarded models typically enter the arms bazaar in what Chivers calls ‘arms cascades’ – which explains how US Marines in Marja seized stocks of both Lee-Enfield bolt-action rifles and World War II ammunition and automatic Kalashnikovs.  What this example shows, too, is that there is no clear line dividing ‘white’  from ‘black’ (illicit) trade, what Mike Bourne – whose work I’ve just stumbled upon – calls an ‘upperworld’ and an ‘underworld’.   There may not be fifty shades of grey, but Bourne insists that there is ‘an important distinction between the greyness that occurs because of unclear or weakly enforced procedures or corrupt individuals and that which arises through covert arms supply by states’ [‘Controlling the shadow trade’, Contemporary security policy 32 (2011) 215-240].

Second, the geographies of small arms transfer are much more heterogeneous than the visualizations shown above imply: purely private black-market transfers are often intensely regionalized rather than globalized (again, Bourne’s Arming conflict: the proliferation of small arms (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2007) is very helpful here, and there is a clutch of revealing regional studies, notably of arms trafficking in sub-Saharan Africa.  I said something about this – all too briefly – in my ‘War and peace’ (see DOWNLOADS tab) but I need to think much more carefully about it.  My discussion of small arms trafficking in that essay was linked to the ‘new wars’ thesis, and Thomas Jackson has provided a much more incisive critique of the claim that the ‘globalization’ of arms supply feeds into intra-state conflicts, and of the importance of ‘domestic procurement’, in ‘From under their noses: rebel groups’ arms acquisition and the importance of leakages from state stockpiles’, International Studies Perspectives 11 (201) 131-147.  It’s a clunky title but an interesting argument: in Jackson’s view, only well organized non-state actors ‘have the organizational strength and external support to access the global arms market’.

But it’s Bourne’s contemplation of ‘an inglorious mess of hybrids and ever evolving assemblages’, and his continuing riffs on heterogeneity, that open up the most interesting theoretical and political possibilities, for me at any rate.  I recommend his reflections on ‘geopolitical imaginations’ (yes) and ‘netwar geopolitics’ [British journal of Politics and International Relations 13 (2011) 490-513] and (especially) ‘Guns don’t kill people, cyborgs do: a Latourian provocation for transformatory arms control and disarmament’ [Global change, peace and security 24 (2012) 141-163].  That last essay loops back to ways of re-envisaging the opening sequence of Lord of War with which I began…