The Days of the Roundtable

I’m very pleased (and relieved) to say that I’ve received two new grants for my work.

The first is an Insight Grant from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council for my project on Medical-military machines and casualties of war 1914-2014.  I’ve provided an illustrated version of the substance of the application under the DOWNLOADS tab.  The plan is to explore the human geographies of evacuation and treatment of casualties, both combatant and civilian, in four major combat zones: the Western Front 1914-1918; the Western Desert, 1942-1943; Vietnam; and Afghanistan.  Since submitting my application, though, I’ve also become interested in the medical geographies (what my good friend Omar Dewachi calls the ‘therapeutic geographies‘) in which people suffering from both war-related injuries and chronic diseases in Syria make their precarious journeys into Lebanon and Jordan for treatment.  All that in four years…

PRT Farah Conducts Medical Evacuation Training with Charlie Co., 2-211th Aviation Regiment at Forward Operating Base Farah

The second is a grant from the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies at UBC to support an International Research Roundtable in May 2015 on The contours of later modern war.  This will be an invitation-only event (the grant provides for travel and accommodation for each participant), but here is the pitch.  I wrote this in an hour just before leaving for Glasgow, so forgive the rough edges:

Background

Commentators often insist that in recent years the nature of war has been transformed. Military historians who address this question display a fine-grained sensitivity to the details of armed conflict, but the imaginative (theoretical) framework they deploy usually returns to Clausewitz’s nineteenth-century theses On War. Philosophers and social scientists work with a more refined theoretical apparatus, though too often this seems to be confined to annotations of Foucault’s Paris lectures in the 1970s, and yet – unlike Foucault himself – they typically show little interest in the specifities and materialities of armed conflict. The Roundtable seeks to finesse this impasse by bringing together a group of scholars, each of whom has demonstrated both a theoretical and an empirical sensibility, to consider crucial questions about the transformations of modern war.

CREVELD Changing face of warThe objective is not to identify a single rupture – the Vietnam War, the end of the Cold War, the wars conducted in the wake of 9/11 – but to recognize that multiple temporalities are at work so that there are both continuities and contrasts to be identified and understood. Similarly, later modern war cannot be reduced to arguments about the Revolution in Military Affairs and its successor projects, which have indeed changed advanced military operations in all sorts of ways, or to the ‘new wars’ supposedly waged by non-state actors in the rubble of the Cold War and in the peripheries of empire: these twin modalities need to be thought together to provide a more inclusive understanding of the shifting contours of military and paramilitary violence.

In speaking of ‘later modern war’ the intention is to avoid the now tired discussions of the postmodern (what comes after that?), while indicating that the closing decades of the twentieth century witnessed a series of changes – political and legal, social and cultural, scientific and technical, legal and ethical – that started to distance armed conflict from the forms it had assumed during the First and Second World Wars. The term also suggests connections to the logics of what is sometimes called ‘late capitalism’ and to the evolving impositions of neo-liberal political and economic formations.

STRACHAN Changing character of warAdvanced militaries often claim that their conduct of war has become surgical, sensitive and scrupulous. The first of these relies on technical advances in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (much of which now takes the form of geospatial intelligence and high-resolution, near real-time imagery) and on advances in military networks, targeting and weapons systems. The second involves the incorporation of cultural knowledge into asymmetric warfare and counter-insurgency, but it also involves a new sensitivity to public opinion: thus media operations have become central to military campaigns in an attempt to win support from populations both at home and abroad. There is also an increasing sensitivity to casualties, both combatant and civilian, and many commentators have spoken of the humanitarian armature that attends contemporary military interventions as a new ‘military humanism’. Finally, and following directly from these observations, contemporary military power is supposed to be characterized by a heightened ethical awareness and the unprecedented incorporation of international law (and military lawyers) into its operational decisions.

toc_afghan

All of these claims invite critical scrutiny, to recover their developing genealogies (how novel are they?) and to evaluate their practical consequences (what are their material effects?). They assume particular importance as interstate wars have declined, and transnational conflicts have become the dominant modality of armed conflict, as ‘war’ bleeds into terrorism, counter-terrorism and new modes of transnational policing. These changes in turn affect the sites and locations of military violence, and these in turn may be transformed not only by geopolitics and military power but also by global environmental change and the political ecologies of war. In short: is the locus of war shifting in decisive ways?

Programme

The Roundtable will address these questions through four intersecting and interlocking themes that allow for theoretical interrogation and empirical scrutiny: each of these is a stark signpost but its simplicity allows multiple questions (and the connections between them) to be addressed under each heading. In capsule form these are:

IMAGE – the role of imagery (intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance); the images of war that circulate through media, old and new, and their role in public debate;
AGENT – the agents and vectors of military and paramilitary violence; the changing human/technological assemblages through which war is conducted;
VICTIM – the casualties of war (the dead, the wounded, the captured, the displaced); the political, cultural and legal armatures that regulate military and paramilitary violence;
LOCUS – the changing targets, spaces and ecologies of war

When they accept the invitation, each participant will be asked to provide a one-paragraph summary of their present research for posting on a dedicated website. Four weeks before the Roundtable everyone will provide a short (six page maximum) essay, written in an accessible and reference-free form, illustrated as appropriate, and drawing from their work. These may address the theme of the Roundtable in general or in detail, and will be posted on the website. Formal papers will not be presented: the emphasis will on discussion and debate.

There will be four main sessions addressing each of the four key themes:

Day 1:  Arrival

Day 2:

Morning – Walking Seminar (Stanley Park): participants will walk the Seawall as a group but in pairs, changing every 20-30 minutes, to share their research and ideas with one another.

Afternoon – IMAGE (discussion led by four participants)

Day 3:

Morning – AGENT (discussion led by four participants)

Afternoon – VICTIM (discussion led by four participants)

Evening – Public Performance: Either a staged reading of Owen Sheers’ radio play Pink Mist [about soldiers returning from Afghanistan] or George Brant’s Grounded [about a female drone operator], to be followed by public discussion led by scholars on either the Wounds of War or Drone warfare

Day 4:

Morning – Exchanges: small-group discussions (informal) about the key themes and to plan future collaborations and research projects

Afternoon – LOCUS (discussion led by four participants)

Evening – Roundtable Dinner

Day 5:  Dispersal

I also want to invite one or two visual artists to attend the Roundtable, both to take part – the visual is a vital register for both the conduct and the critique of modern war – but also to use the discussions as a provocation for their subsequent work (to be posted on and/or linked via the website).

I’ll keep you posted – I’m immensely grateful to Janis Sarra, Director of the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies, and to my colleagues and friends for their support and encouragement.

I’ll keep you posted.

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