Sand in the gears

imageI’ve just agreed to join a panel at next year’s Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers in Chicago to discuss Deb Cowen‘s The Deadly Life of Logistics: mapping violence in global trade.  I obviously haven’t had time to give much thought to what I might say – these invitations seem to arrive earlier each year, no doubt a reflection of the ‘deadly logistics’ of conference organisation – but I had at the back of my mind the connections between Deb’s work and my own sketches of military logistics in Afghanistan: see, for example, here, here and here.

But now an elegant essay at The disorder of things has prompted me to think about other connections between our projects.  In ‘Logistics, circulation, chokepointsCharmaine Chua uses Deb’s work to reflect on Block the Boat for Gaza and other counter-logistical movements (for a report, see here).  She borrows ‘counter-logistics’ from Jasper Bernes – who pithily suggests that ‘logistics is capital’s art of war’ – to envisage movements like Block the Boat as moments in a dispersed guerilla campaign:

As capital has restructured itself away from industrial production, the mass labor force expelled from the factory floors of the world has now spilled into the streets, articulating their dissatisfaction with the state of things through uprisings, strikes, blockades, and riots. But if it seems that these struggles themselves are scattered across the globe, we might do well to also remember that the world of logistics, even as it has fundamentally restructured capitalist accumulation, is itself an irrevocably scattered form: it is at once a form of economic calculation that manages capital circulation in the totality of its system and a coordinated yet dispersed set of regulations, calculative arrangements, and technical procedures that render certain objects or flows governable. If the global supply chain that has dissipated democratic energies and foreclosed collective action can be thought of as a scattered entity, then, the question arises: what are the supply chain’s points of vulnerability? What would it mean to pay special attention to the materiality of capital flows – and to the possibilities that arise from interrupting the massive concentration of commodity capital at sites of its coagulation or through which it flows? How, in other words, might those rendered apparently powerless in the face of a logistical world find ways to recapture capital’s chokepoints?

Chokepoints – the concentration of the circulation of commodities at certain key sites along the supply chain – might thus present the possibility for strikes and protests to articulate resistance not only symbolically but also materially, by literally grounding capitalist circulation to a halt.

They also present the possibility of throwing sand in the gears of war machines.  There’s nothing novel in recognising the vital importance of logistics to the exercise of military and paramilitary violence (see also Jeff Patton here); time and time again militaries have targeted enemy supply chains – hence all those bitter arguments over the effectiveness of air raids on marshalling yards and petroleum, oil and lubrication stocks in the Second World War; all those insurgent attacks on convoys trucking supplies through Pakistan to ISAF bases in Afghanistan; and the Israeli military’s current preoccupation with Gaza’s tunnel economy.  And in countless wars saboteurs have worked to degrade the supply of materials.


But the global constitution of military supply chains makes it possible to think through a new, more dispersed politics of resistance lodged in sites far from the conflict zone.  I’ll keep you posted.


UPDATE:  I’ve pasted this response from Charmaine from the “Comments” section because the suggestions she makes are too interesting to be missed:

Dear Derek,

Thanks for featuring my essay on your blog and, more importantly, pointing us to the fascinating links between military and commercial logistics. I’m excited to be a part of this conversation. Of course, not only is logistics important to the exercise of military violence — but the military supply chain is at the very root of commercial logistical innovations, exemplified by the fact that containerization was only popularized in the shipping industry after its successful use during the Vietnam War. Cowen’s book details these links brilliantly.

But I’m most interested in your last suggestion, that “the global constitution of military supply chains makes it possible to think through a new, more dispersed politics of resistance lodged in sites far from the conflict zone.” It strikes me, reading this, that the spatial displacements between sites of production and consumption under global capitalism – which many think of as disempowering for and dispersing of struggle – have actually enabled possibilities for resistance in ways and spaces not previously available to the larger public. Toscano, via Sergio Bologna, has pointed out in this vein that the “multitude of globalization” working across the supply chain is composed of both the manual labor of the working class, AND the intellectual labor of those who produce the technological systems which enable logistical flows. Perhaps an obvious point – but I very much like the idea that the logistics multitude encompasses even those of us in academia, so that we too can be part of this “dispersed guerrilla campaign”.

Charmaine Chua

War and demise

Tanisha Fazal has an important article in the latest International Security: ‘Dead wrong? Battle deaths, military medicine and exaggerated reports of war’s demise.’

It is, in part, an artful response to what must surely seem the increasingly astonishing claim that we live in a time of unprecedented peace.  It depends, in part, on who ‘we’ are, of course, but the general thesis has been shouted from the rooftops by (for example) Joshua Goldstein‘s Winning the war on war (2011) and Steven Pinker‘s The better angels of our nature (2011).  Pinker’s thesis is the more general, to be sure: he claims a decline in ‘violence’ in general, not only in military and paramilitary violence.


Tanisha’s argument hinges on the reliance on ‘battle deaths’ as an index of the incidence of war; these statistics are a minefield of their own, though they are used by most of the major databases, but Tanisha argues that many contemporary wars have been distinguished by a diminution in battle deaths and a marked increase in the numbers of wounded who now survive injuries that would previously have killed them.

She identifies four key changes.  The first two are pre-emptive: soldiers in advanced militaries are now healthier, and so they  can survive disease and injury much better than in the past, and they are equipped with protective equipment that reduces their vulnerability (she’s thinking here not only of MRAPs but more particularly of personal equipment that affords the head and trunk some protection against blast injuries).


The second two are reactive, and their emphasis on military medicine and evacuation chains intersects directly with my present research on combat casualty care 1914-2014 (see here and here).  From Tanisha’s summary over at Political violence @ a Glance:

‘… battlefield medicine itself has improved via the availability of anesthetics and antibiotics, which make for more effective surgeries as well as a greater likelihood of avoiding or surviving post-operative infections. Similarly, the return of the tourniquet as part of a general focus on hemostatics appears to have dramatically reduced the percentage of soldiers dying from preventable blood loss.

‘… military evacuation practices have gone from soldiers laying on the ground for weeks waiting for transport by stretchers to mechanized ambulances to medevac helicopters. States invest heavily in military transport for this purpose today; NGOs like the ICRC, however, were at the vanguard of this particular shift.’


That last sentence raises a series of other, crucial questions that I’m also trying to address in my own project: not only the involvement of civilian/humanitarian organisations (and here I’m presently exploring the role of the Friends Ambulance Service on the Western Front in the First World War and in the Western Desert in the Second) but also the part played by militaries in caring for civilian casualties.  How far have they enjoyed the benefits of improved military medicine and trauma care, and how far down the evacuation chain do they move before they are diverted to (often less advanced) civilian hospitals and clinics?

Mumford and sons

Megacities and the US ArmyPublic intelligence has made available a new report prepared by the US Army Strategic Studies Group’s ‘Megacities Concept Team’ after a year’s study called Megacities and the United States Army: preparing for a complex and uncertain future (June 2014).

The authors begin by conceding that ‘Megacities are a unique environment that the U.S. Army does not fully understand’, but since the announcement is made under a banner quote from Robert Kaplan‘s The revenge of geography don’t get your hopes up:

‘Crowded megacities, beset by poor living conditions, periodic rises in the price of commodities, water shortages and unresponsive municipal services, will be petri dishes for the spread of both democracy and radicalism, even as regimes will be increasingly empowered by missiles and modern outwardly focused militaries.’

They start by insisting on the critical importance of megacities for ‘global connectedness and order’ and the ‘global economy’ but warn that megacities are also threat platforms:

‘Large migratory populations reduce the transnational signature normally associated with terrorists, criminal, and espionage activities. Operating from megacities allow hostile actors relative freedom of maneuver as they blend in with the local population.’

You might think this would come as no surprise to a military that is scarcely a stranger to urban warfare, but the authors insist that the unprecedented scale of the problem has created a ‘gap’ in the US Army’s doctrine:

‘The Army’s largest and most recent example of urban operations is small in comparison to the challenges ahead. In Baghdad, the Army fought for almost a decade in an urban environment with a population of 6.5 million people. By 2030, there will be 37 cities across the world that are 200-400% larger than Baghdad.’

What they don’t ask is whether contemporary military doctrine – including the so-called ‘surge’ and the urban counterinsurgency models spun by Petraeus and his COIN artists – were even adequate in Baghdad.  What they claim instead is that megacities make it impossible for occupying armies to ‘isolate [physically or virtually] and shape the urban environment’, and so they call for a transformation in military urbanism that treats cities as interconnected complex systems.  Really.  Hence:

‘Regardless of the fragility or resilience of the city, their stable functioning is dependent on systems of finite capacity. When these systems, formal or informal, real or virtual experience demand which surpasses their capacity, the load on the city’s systems erode its support mechanisms, increasing their fragility. These systems are then more vulnerable to triggers which can push the city past its tipping point and render it incapable of meeting the needs of its population.’

outofthemountains_300dpiMuch of this reads like a weak summary of David Kilcullen‘s thesis in Out of the mountains: the coming age of the urban guerrilla (and he at least does consider how well military doctrine fared in Baghdad). But rather than directly consider Kilcullen’s arguments – on which see my posts here and here – the report instead offers a series of one-page case-studies to illustrate a typology ranging from ‘cities that are highly integrated … with hierarchical governance and security systems, to cities that are loosely integrated with alternatively governed spaces and security systems.’

The case-studies include Bangkok, Rio, SãoPaulo, Lagos and Dhaka – but they begin, disconcertingly but perhaps not surprisingly given recent debates about the militarisation of policing in the United States, with New York.

Finally, the conclusion restates the introduction: megacities are important (‘unavoidable’) and the US Army doesn’t understand them.  Evidently not.

There are at least two issues to consider here.  First, the report says that part of its mandate is to present the Chief of Staff of the Army (Ray Odierno) with ‘independent, innovative and unconstrained ideas’: but there is spectacularly little sign of that in these pages.  I’m not surprised that the authors don’t consider (say) Steve Graham‘s Cities under siege: the new military urbanism (though they would undoubtedly learn a lot from it), but to pass over Kilcullen’s work with a single, glancing footnote reference is surely astonishing.  One of the proudest boasts of the architects of the revised counterinsurgency doctrine was its (their) intellectual credentials – ‘the graduate level of war’ – and yet this report fails to engage in any serious and sustained way with a stream of work in urban anthropology, urban geography, urban history,urban sociology and urban studies that has significantly re-shaped our understanding of contemporary urbanism.

Second – and here the critical point might be reversed – I am puzzled at how little attention is paid to military and paramilitary violence by many scholars of ‘planetary urbanism’.  In part, it’s high time to re-visit the genealogy of the ‘new military urbanism’ and to reflect on previous ‘military urbanisms’: the intimate, predatory relationship between cities and military violence is hardly novel, but its changing modalities need careful analysis.  But it’s also high time to think through the ways in which planetary urbanism cannot be reduced to the machinations of the global economy.  I admire Neil Brenner‘s ‘Theses on urbanisation’ [Public culture 25 (1) (2013)] enormously, and agree absolutely that ‘the concept of urbanisation requires systematic reinvention’ (p. 101).  But his arguments, together with the vivid images that illuminate his text, are silent about later modern war.  And yet his theses about ‘concentration and extension’ – not exactly a reinvention – invite a mapping (one among many, to be sure) onto the terrain of military and paramilitary violence.  He concludes:

‘It is the uneven extension of this process of capitalist creative destruction onto the scale of the entire planet, rather than the formation of a worldwide network of global cities or a single, world-encompassing megalopolis, that underpins the contemporary problematique of planetary urbanisation.’

Exactly so; but ‘creative destruction’ is more than a metaphor and its processes frequently involve new (even ‘creative’) modes of war-making.

Similarly, I’ve also learned much from Neil Brenner and Christian Schmid, ‘The urban age in question‘ [International journal of urban and regional research 38 (3) (2014)], but here too war is conspicuous by its absence.  I don’t think it’s entirely coincidental that so many major inquiries into the urban condition – ones that figure in their intellectual pantheon – should have been undertaken in the aftermath of the Second World War and its systematic assault on cities and their populations.

1101380418_400So let me end with an extract from a conversation I had with Stuart Elden [ACME 10 (2) (2011)] that will also explain the title of this post:

‘In The Culture of Cities, published just one year before the Second World War broke out, [Lewis] Mumford included ‘A brief outline of hell’ in which he turned the Angelus towards the future to confront the terrible prospect of total war. Raging against what he called the ‘war-ceremonies’ staged in the ‘imperial metropolis’ (‘from Washington to Tokyo, from Berlin to Rome’: where was London, I wonder? Moscow?), Mumford fastened on the anticipatory dread of air war. The city was no longer the place where (so he claimed) security triumphed over predation, and he saw in advance of war not peace but another version of war. Thus the rehearsals for defence (the gas-masks, the shelters, the drills) were ‘the materialization of a skillfully evoked nightmare’ in which fear consumed the ideal of a civilized, cultivated life before the first bombs fell. The ‘war-metropolis’, he concluded, was a ‘non-city’.

After the war, Mumford revisited the necropolis, what he described as ‘the ruins and graveyards’ of the urban, and concluded that his original sketch could not be incorporated into his revised account, The City in History, simply ‘because all its anticipations were abundantly verified.’ He gazed out over the charnel-house of war from the air — Warsaw and Rotterdam, London and Tokyo, Hamburg and Hiroshima — and noted that ‘[b]esides the millions of people — six million Jews alone — killed by the Germans in their suburban extermination camps, by starvation and cremation, whole cities were turned into extermination camps by the demoralized strategists of democracy.’

I’m not saying that we can accept Mumford without qualification, still less extrapolate his claims into our own present, but I do think his principled arc, at once historical and geographical, is immensely important. In now confronting what Stephen Graham calls ‘the new military urbanism’ we need to recover its genealogy — to interrogate the claims to novelty registered by both its proponents and its critics — as a way of illuminating the historical geography of our own present.’

And in recovering that genealogy we might also illuminate its geography: both are strikingly absent from Megacities and the US Army.