Journeys from No Man’s Land

Stretcher-bearers

I’ve agreed to join a panel organised by Noam Leshem on Remnants of No Man’s Land: history, theory and excess at the Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers in Chicago next April (I imagine this is a follow-up to the session at the RGS/IBG in September).

The no-man’s lands of the First World War were never limited to the killing fields between the trenches. Their impact was never fully confined by the time and space of the battles: it lingered on the bodies of soldiers, in contaminated ecologies and in the radically altered post-war intellectual landscape. The violence that is unleashed in the no-man’s land and the destruction it wrought does not result in emptiness, in a terra nullius, but in excess that can never be fully contained.

This session invites additional reflections on the excessive quality of no-man’s land: its materialities, ecologies, cultural expressions and political-ideological articulations. It aims to deepen the theoretical import and conceptual power of ‘no-man’s land’, and move beyond its use as merely a convenient colloquialism. Similarly, we seek to engagements with other histories of no-man’s lands that are not solely confined to the Western Front during WWI.

LOBLEY Dugouts in the embankment near Le Cateau

Despite that last sentence, this is what I’ve come up with; these abstracts are always promissory notes, of course, written so far in advance that they can provide little real indication of what eventually transpires.  Fortunately we are now no longer lumbered with the Yellow Pages-style book of abstracts so I doubt anybody will actually read this on the day.  But here goes:

Journeys From No Man’s Land, 1914-1918

During the First World War on the Western Front a central logistical preoccupation of military planners was the deployment of troops to the front line and the evacuation of casualties from the battlefield. These priorities were closely connected – the aim was to provide medical treatment as close to the site of the wound as possible so that troops could be returned expeditiously to the line – but they also often confounded one another as hospital trains headed for the coast were shunted into sidings to allow troop trains to move up. In this presentation I address three questions. First, what it was possible to know about the ‘lie of the land’, particularly in the deadly spaces between the front-line trenches? Here I focus on the connections between aerial reconnaissance, night patrols and trench maps. A second question concerns the arrangements made in advance of major offensives – the disposition of stretcher bearers and aid posts, field ambulances and casualty clearing stations – and the ways in which these visible geometries of the medical-military machine affected the sensibilities of soldiers waiting to go ‘over the top’. Finally, how did the wounded apprehend and navigate No Man’s Land, and how did they make what Emily Mayhew calls their precarious journeys away from the fighting?

There’ll be more posts on this as I circle in towards the presentation.  It’s part of my new research project which explores military-medical machines and the casualties of war 1914-2014, but which is now widening to include other aspects of medical care in contemporary conflict zones like Gaza and Iraq/Syria and the militarisation of medical intervention in West Africa.

The war on Ebola

ECONOMIST The war on Ebola

We’ve been here before – ‘wars’ on this and ‘wars’ on that.  It’s strange how reluctant states are to admit that their use of military violence (especially when it doesn’t involve ‘boots on the ground‘) isn’t really war at all – ‘overseas contingency operations’ is what the Pentagon once preferred, but I’ve lost count of how many linguistic somersaults they’ve performed since then to camouflage their campaigns – and yet how eager they are to declare everything else a war.

These tricks are double-edged.  While advanced militaries and their paymasters go to extraordinary linguistic lengths to mask the effects of their work, medical scientists have been busily appropriating the metaphorical terrain from which modern armies are in embarrassed retreat.

Yet all metaphors take us somewhere before they break down, and the ‘war on Ebola’ takes us more or less directly to the militarisation of the global response.  In an otherwise critical commentary, Karen Greenberg draws parallels between the ‘the war on terror’ and the ‘war on Ebola’:

‘The differences between the two “wars” may seem too obvious to belabor, since Ebola is a disease with a medical etiology and scientific remedies, while ISIS is a sentient enemy. Nevertheless, Ebola does seem to mimic some of the characteristics experts long ago assigned to al-Qaeda and its various wannabe and successor outfits. It lurks in the shadows until it strikes. It threatens the safety of civilians across the United States. Its root causes lie in the poverty and squalor of distant countries. Its spread must be stopped at its region of origin — in this case, Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone in West Africa — just as both the Bush and Obama administrations were convinced that the fight against al-Qaeda had to be taken militarily to the backlands of the planet from Pakistan’s tribal borderlands to Yemen’s rural areas.’

There are other parallels too, not least the endless re-descriptions of terrorism and even insurgency as life-threatening diseases, ‘cancers’ on the body politic.  And, as Josh Holmes shows, there is also an entirely parallel (geo)politics of fear in both cases (see also Rebecca Gordon on the racialization of ‘the fear machine’ here).  Given the threat supposedly posed by ‘the enemy within’, it’s not surprising that US Northern Command has already set up a 30-person ‘military rapid response team‘ for domestic Ebola cases, and that the Department of Homeland Security has been issuing Biosurveillance Event Reports on the Ebola outbreak in West Africa from the National Biosurveillance Integration Center.

National Biosurveillance EBOLA DHS 1 Oct 2014

But as I’ve said, Karen’s is a critical commentary and so, before the military metaphors carry us away,  her conclusion bears repeating:

The United States is about to be tested by a disease in ways that could dovetail remarkably well with the war on terror. In this context, think of Ebola as the universe’s unfair challenge to everything that war bred in our governmental system. As it happens, those things that the U.S. did, often ineffectively and counterproductively, to thwart its enemies, potential enemies, and even its own citizenry will not be an antidote to this “enemy” either. It, too, may be transnational, originate in fragile states, and affect those who come in contact with it, but it cannot be stopped by the methods of the national security state.

To make sense of all this, I think we need to stand back and start with four general observations:

(1) Modern military medicine has long involved more than evacuating and treating the wounded from the field of battle.  It has always had a substantial public health component.  Until the early twentieth century, ‘infectious diseases unrelated to trauma were responsible for a much greater proportion of the deaths during war than battle-related injuries‘.  As militaries started to pay much closer attention to hygiene and disease prevention, Matthew Smallman-Raynor and Andrew Cliff estimate that the ratio of ‘battle deaths’ to deaths from disease amongst the military population fell from 1:0.4 in the First World War to 1:0.1 in the Second World War; then it rose to 1:0.13 in the Vietnam War but in the first US-led Gulf War (1991) it fell to 1:0.01.

Beyond Anthrax(2) Modern militaries are no strangers to biowarfare either.  Both sides in the First World War experimented with chemical weapons, and although the US Army’s explicitly offensive Biological Warfare Weapons Laboratories closed in 1969 the commitment to ‘bio-defense’ and bio-security has ensured a continuing military investment in the weaponisation of infectious diseases (see right).  I don’t subscribe to the view that the Ebola epidemic in West Africa is the result of a rogue US biowarfare program – see for example the claims made by ‘Robert Wenzel’ here: and if you want to know why his name is in scare-quotes, appropriately enough, read Chris Becker‘s takedown here –  nor to the fear that what Scientific American calls ‘weaponised Ebola’ is poised to become a ‘bio-terror threat’.  But I do think it worth noting the work of the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases which has had field teams on the ground in West Africa since 2006, and the importance placed on surveillance and monitoring.

(3) I also think it’s necessary to think through the biopolitics of public health in relation to military and paramilitary violence.  This takes multiple forms.  It’s become dismally apparent that in many conflict zones hospitals, doctors and other health-care workers have become targets: in Gaza, to be sure, but in Syria and elsewhere too.  The treatment of disease has also become a tactical vector: think of the CIA’s use of polio vaccination campaigns as a cover for its intelligence operations and – the conjunction is imperative – the Taliban’s manipulation of polio vaccinations in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas.  Think, too, of the way in which the Assad regime has inflicted a resurgent, even counterinsurgent geography of polio on the Syrian people.  As Annie Sparrow shows (see also here):

‘This man-made outbreak is a consequence of the way that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has chosen to fight the war—a war crime of truly epidemic proportions. Even before the uprising, in areas considered politically unsympathetic like Deir Ezzor, the government stopped maintaining sanitation and safe-water services, and began withholding routine immunizations for preventable childhood diseases. Once the war began, the government started ruthless attacks on civilians in opposition-held areas, forcing millions to seek refuge in filthy, crowded, and cold conditions. Compounding the problem are Assad’s ongoing attacks on doctors and the health care system, his besieging of cities, his obstruction of humanitarian aid, and his channeling of vaccines and other relief to pro-regime territory.

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Late this summer she provided this update:

‘… nearly all the cases of polio have occurred in areas of northern Syria under rebel control, where the government is seemingly doing everything in its power to prevent vaccination. The Syrian government has appealed to the UN for hundreds of medicines for areas of the country it controls, while largely ignoring the far more dire needs of opposition-held areas. Many children, especially newborns, still do not have access to polio immunization. Daily government airstrikes target the very health facilities that should be the foundation of vaccination efforts, as well as the children who should be protected from polio, measles, and other preventable childhood diseases. As Dr. Ammar, a doctor from Aleppo, said to me bitterly after an April 30 airstrike killed twenty-two schoolgirls, “The government’s polio control strategy for children is to kill them before they can get polio.”’

(4) Finally, biopolitics threads its way from the sub-national and the national to the trans-national and so to what Sara Davies calls, in a vitally important essay, ‘securitizing infectious disease‘. (The link will take you to an open access version, which was originally published in International affairs 84 (2008) 295-313; see also her ‘The international politics of disease reporting: towards post-Westphalianism?‘, International politics 49 (2012) 591-613, and the collection she has edited with Jeremy Youde, The politics of surveillance and response to disease outbreaks: the new frontier for states and non-state actors – due out next year).

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In her original essay, Sara shows how powerful states in the global North joined forces with the World Health Organisation to construct infectious disease as an existential security threat that demanded new rules and protocols for its effective containment.  Crucially:

‘The outcome of this has been the development of international health cooperation mechanisms that place western fears of an outbreak reaching them above the prevention of such outbreaks in the first place. In turn, the desire of the WHO to assert its authority in the project of disease surveillance and containment has led it to develop global health mechanisms that primarily prioritizes the protection of western states from disease contagion.’

This has a genealogy as well as a geography (or what Alan Ingram once called a ‘geopolitics of disease’).  Peter Dörrie notes that on 18 September 2014 the U.N. Security Council declared the current Ebola outbreak in West Africa ‘a threat to international peace and security’, and that this was ‘the first time the U.N. had taken this step in a public health crisis‘ (in fact the Council had previously expressed similar concerns about the impact of HIV/AIDS on ‘stability and security’).  Under Chapter VII of the UN Charter this declaration has significant legal implications, as Jens David Ohlin notes here, but what most concerns Peter is how long it took for the Security Council to stir itself.  It issued its statement 180 days after the WHO confirmed the outbreak, and over a month after the WHO had declared Ebola a ‘Public Health Emergency of International Concern’, and in his eyes the international system ‘ignored the problem until it was too big for any solution other than full-scale military intervention.’   But I’ve already suggested, it’s wrong to treat the militarisation of epidemic disease as somehow new.  Of direct relevance to the present ‘war on Ebola’ is this passage from Sara’s essay:

The United States has been a keen participant in disease surveillance and response since the mid-1990s. The United States Department of Defense (US DoD) has had overseas infectious disease research laboratories located in over 20 countries for nearly ten years. The Global Emerging Infectious Surveillance and Response System (DoD-GEIS) mobile laboratories were set up for the purpose of ‘responding to outbreaks of epidemic, endemic and emergent diseases’, and their location in the DoD, as opposed to the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) or Centre for Disease Control (CDC) demonstrates how seriously the United States views the response to infectious disease as a key national security strategy.

So, four observations about the military-medical-security nexus that provide a context for the ‘war on Ebola’.  There are two other issues that should also be on the table before proceeding.

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The first involves the imaginative geographies circulating in the global North that (mis)inform public response to the epidemic.  Many of them can be traced back to colonial descriptions of the coast of nineteenth-century West Africa (and Sierra Leone in particular) as ‘the white man’s grave’, a form of what in a different context Dan Clayton calls a ‘militant tropically’.  The contemporary reactivation of these tropes is clearly a serious concern because it corrodes an effective political response.  As geographer Kerrie Thornhill writes,

African and diaspora scholars, already accustomed to the ‘thousand tiny paper cuts’ of casual racism, demonstrate how these (metaphorical) cuts escalate into real fatalities. Writers such as Nanjala Nyabola and Lola Okolosie point out the abundance of racist tropes depicting West African societies as inherently unclean, chaotic, uncooperative, ungrateful, and childlike. This racism reinforces a global culture of disregard for black African lives, and the perception that they are a source of social and biological contamination.

You can find much more on this in Cultural Anthropology‘s brilliant Ebola in Perspective series.

Health care systems in West Africa Economist

The second is the precarious condition of health care systems in West Africa (Ebola in Perspective is good on this too).  Brice de la Vigne, the operations director of MSF, reminds us that ‘both Sierra Leone and Liberia were at war ten years ago and all the infrastructure was destroyed. It’s the worst place on earth to have these epidemics.’  Other critics suggest that these uncivil wars were not the only culprits.  In their view, it was the neoliberal economic model forced on West Africa by the global North that was primarily responsible for gutting public health systems:

While years of war played a role in weakening public systems, it is the “war against people, driven by international financial institutions” that is largely responsible for decimating the public health care system, eroding wages and conditions for health care workers, and fueling the crisis sweeping West Africa today, says [Emira] Woods. “Over the past six months to a year there have been rolling health care worker strikes in country after country—Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and Liberia,” said Woods. “Nurses and doctors are risking and losing their lives but don’t have protective gear needed to serve patients and save their own lives. They are on the front lines and have not had their voices heard.”

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So – back to the front lines.  Despite the geopolitical-military-security back story, it was Médecins Sans Frontières that made the first public call (on 2 September) for military assistance in combatting Ebola.

‘States with biological-disaster response capacity, including civilian and military medical capability, must immediately dispatch assets and personnel to West Africa… 

‘Many countries possess biological threat response mechanisms. They can deploy trained civilian or military medical teams in a matter of days, in an organised fashion, and with a chain of command to assure high standards of safety and efficiency to support the affected countries…

‘In the immediate term, field hospitals with isolation wards must be scaled up, trained personnel must be dispatched, mobile laboratories must be deployed to improve diagnostics, air bridges must be established to move personnel and material to and within West Africa, and a regional network of field hospitals must be established to treat medical personnel with suspected or actual infections.’

MSF call 2 Sept 2014

Ten days later Peter Piot, the Director of the London School of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene and the microbiologist who helped identify the Ebola virus in 1976, also called for a ‘quasi-military intervention’.  Although he spoke about a ‘state of emergency’, he too wanted to reverse the response prefigured by Giorgio Agamben in such situations and contract the spaces of exception that were multiplying across West Africa.  He had in mind ‘beds, ambulances and trucks as well as an army of clinicians, doctors and nurses.’

What materialised was rather different.

Africom_emblemOn 16 September President Obama flew to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta to announce Operation United Assistance.  He committed 3-4,000 US troops and $750 million in defence funding to the mission, which is being orchestrated by US Africa Command (AFRICOM) through US Army Africa in concert with USAID.  The focus of the US military-medical mission is Liberia. There are close historical connections between the US and Liberia, which originally offered to host AFRICOM’s headquarters in the capital Monrovia; now a Joint Force Command has been set up there.  You can find the 75-page AFRICOM operational order here, dated 15 October 2014, from which I’ve taken the ‘common operating picture’ below.  The title puzzles me – the only ‘Operation United Shield’ (singular) I’ve been able to find was a multinational operation to evacuate peacekeeping forces from Somalia in 1995.  Appendix B is particularly worth reading, incidentally, because it identifies ‘the enemy’: ‘Ebola Virus Disease is the enemy, aided by poor preventive medicine practices in areas where EVD cases are prevalent and difficulties in identifying and treating EVD patients.’

USAFRICOM-EbolaResponseOPORD (dragged)

The US deployment is complemented by the deployment of UK forces to Sierra Leone (Operation Gritrock)and French forces to Guinea.  In both cases there are also close, colonial connections, and the British-led International Military Advisory Training Team Sierra Leone has been on the ground since 2000 (since last year this has been re-tasked as the International Security Advisory Team Sierra Leone).

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(The map above is borrowed from the BBC; in addition, the Guardian has an interactive map tracing the historical geography of Ebola from the first known case in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1976 to the present epidemic in West Africa here).

These forces differ in more than geographical deployment; their capabilities differ significantly too.  The UK is sending 750 troops, including contingents from the Royal Army Medical Corps (notably 22 Field Hospital), who will construct treatment centres (the aim is to add 700 beds to triple Sierra Leone’s existing capacity) and treat doctors and other health-care workers who contract the disease; they are supported by the Royal Navy’s ‘Primary Casualty Receiving Ship’ RFA Argus (which will provide a further 100 beds), and by another 780 volunteer health care staff.

AFRICOM update 29

The US has mobilised troops from the 101st Airborne, whose primary mission is to set up 17 Ebola Treatment Units (each with 100 beds); meanwhile the US Air Force’s 633rd Medical Group is establishing a 25-bed Expeditionary Medical Support System field hospital for doctors and other health care workers who contract the disease (below).  The US Army has also fielded three mobile laboratories to test samples for the virus, reducing the time to diagnosis from days to hours. According to Pardis Sabeti, who leads viral-genome research at the Broad Institute of M.I.T. and Harvard, ‘the faster you can get a diagnosis of Ebola, the faster you can stop it.’

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‘Our enemy is a disease’, declared Lt Col Brian De Santis, echoing AFRICOM’s operational order – but it was quickly made clear that the vast majority of troops will not come into contact with the enemy or any of its victims at all.  This is just as well; most of the soldiers have minimal medical training – just four hours from the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Disease – and the Pentagon’s Press Secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby explained that there is ‘no intention right now that [troops] will interact with patients or be in areas where they would necessarily come into contact with patients’:

‘They’re not doctors. They’re not nurses. They’re not trained for that and not equipped for that. That’s not part of the mission. They will be kept in locations where they can do their jobs without coming into contact with patients.’

Andrew Bacevich thinks all this absurd:

‘It’s like the city that spends all its money to raise up a formidable police force only to discover that what it really needs is a bigger sewage treatment plant. Of course, you can always put cops to work burning human excrement but there are better — that is, more effective and cheaper — ways to solve the problem.’

In effect, this is another case of the military preferring remote operations.  Here is a telling passage from Sophie Arie’s interview with MSF’s president Joanne Liu:

‘“Countries are approaching this with the mindset of going to war,” she says. “Zero risk. Zero casualties.” Liu describes the current military efforts as the equivalent, in public health terms, of airstrikes without boots on the ground. Pledges of equipment and logistical support are helpful—“The military are the only body that can be deployed in the numbers needed now and that can organise things fast.” But there is still a massive shortage of qualified and trained medical staff on the ground. “You need to send people not stuff and get hands on, not try to do this remotely,” Liu says…’

The primary areas for military operations in the ‘war on Ebola’  to date are surveillance, logistics and containment.  I’ll consider each in turn.

Last week Public Intelligence released a series of weekly Security Updates and daily Intelligence Summaries produced by AFRICOM to support Operation United Assistance.  These rely largely on WHO reporting to track the spread of the disease.

USAFRICOM Ebola Security Oct 2014

This is to work at a highly aggregate level.  Most public health experts suggest that the key to stopping the spread of the disease is contact tracing – which, in its essentials, is the same methodology used by the military and the intelligence services to track individuals through terrorist and insurgent networks – and has been used successfully in both the United States and in Nigeria (which was declared free of Ebola on 20 October).  Ezra Klein describes it as ‘almost ludicrously simple’ and ‘as low-tech as medicine gets’, and so it is in principle.

But its application in much of West Africa is immensely difficult: the UN estimates that only 16 out of 44 zones have adequate procedures and personnel in place.  And since many local people are understandably fearful of the consequences of their answers, it is unlikely that military involvement would improve the situation.  Here is Elizabeth Cohen and John Bonifield:

‘People are often uncooperative with the tracers, sometimes even throwing stones at health care workers. They fear that they or their loved ones will be put in the hospital; they’ve seen firsthand that people who go there often don’t return.

“The community perceives this as a death sentence,” [Donald Thea, an infectious disease epidemiologist] said. “Relinquishing your loved one is tantamount to death.”

And health care workers have very little to offer people as an incentive to cooperate. “With smallpox, we could offer people a vaccine, a carrot in essence to induce them to be cooperative. With Ebola, we have nothing,” Thea said.’

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Logistics is the area where the military comes into its own.  MSF had emphasised that its priorities included ‘the mass expansion of isolation centers, air bridges to move personnel and equipment to and within the most affected countries, mobile laboratories for testing and diagnosis, and building a regional network of field hospitals to treat suspected or infected medical personnel.’ Much of the military effort is currently concentrated in these areas, but the other side to mobilising medical personnel, equipment and testing and treatment facilities is, in effect, immobilising the population.

Containment runs the gamut from quarantine through curfews and lockdowns to border closures.  Most observers believe that border closures would be counter-productive: if you want to know why, see Debora MacKenzie‘s short essay here.  The other, seemingly lesser measures also have their dangers.  In its original call for assistance, MSF insisted that ‘any military assets and personnel deployed to the region should not be used for quarantine, containment, or crowd control measures’, and it emphasised that ‘forced quarantines have only bred fear and unrest, rather than stem the virus.’

But others have other ideas.  Major Matt Cavanaugh, from the US Army War College, has made an unofficial, back-of-the-envelope calculation of what a successful ‘containment strategy’ for Ebola would require.  He is adamant that only ‘boots on the ground’ could do the job, though the nature of that ‘job’ remains elusive in his account.  He talks about military logistics – the ability to ‘fix “the last mile” problem’ – but he also notes the need ‘to fill the basic state functions related to health, security, and public order in order to adequately respond to the threat.’  In case that triptych isn’t clear enough, in his subsequent ‘Ebola Manifesto‘ the major declares that ‘There is exactly one organization designed to rapidly hold and control territory and the people on it: the military.’ The figure he eventually arrives at – somewhere between 36,600 to 73,200 troops – is derived from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and suggests that, for some commentators at least, the Ebola crisis is an opportunity to deepen AFRICOM’s investment in what Jan Bachmann calls ‘policing Africa’ [see his ‘Policing Africa: the US military and visions of crafting “good order”‘, Security Dialogue 45 (2) (2014) 119-36]:

‘The spectrum of [AFRICOM’s] activities can be understood most comprehensively through an analytical perspective of policing, in which the aim of establishing ‘good order’ through an expansive regulatory engagement in issues of welfare is applied to contexts of ‘fragile’ statehood and ‘ungoverned spaces’.’

This is not a uniquely American view.  The Daily Mail (where else?) reports that one of the options being considered by Britain’s Chief of the General Staff is a full-scale military lockdown of Sierra Leone:

‘From a military perspective ebola is like a biological warfare attack and should be countered accordingly. There needs to be a clampdown on human movement inside Sierra Leone and possibly to and from the country between now and late 2015 when it is hoped that an antidote will have been developed.’

ByKlg1IIEAAmBwnIt’s hard to know how much credence this should be given, of course, though the very existence of proposals like these suggests that the ‘soft power’ which Joeva Rock sees in the militarisation of Ebola conceals an iron fist.  And Niles Williamson believes that the military-medical missions are a smokescreen:

‘The main purpose of this military operation is not to halt the spread of Ebola or restore health to those that have been infected. Rather the United States is seeking to exploit the crisis to establish a firm footing on the African continent for AFRICOM.’

That may be one of the objectives, but I think it’s a bridge too far to claim it as the main purpose: as I’ve tried to show, the militarisation and securitisation of Ebola has many other geopolitical and biopolitical dimensions.  And Nick Turse has revealed that AFRICOM, far from having a ‘light footprint’, has already achieved a remarkably rapid tempo of operations across the whole continent.

Still, even in its less extreme versions, the ‘war on Ebola’ clearly raises urgent questions about the militarisation of humanitarian aid, about what Kristin Bergtora Sandvik  calls a ‘crisis of humanitarian governance’, and about the violence that is involved in the production of the humanitarian present.

 

‘Life is a rock but the radio rolled me…’

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The war in Vietnam was often heralded as ‘a new kind of war’, one that reached its awful climax in what James Gibson brilliantly criticised as ‘technowar’.  It had many dimensions, including the reintroduction of chemical warfare (Agent Orange and all the other herbicides) and the development of the ‘electronic battlefield’.

But at the time the US Army made the most of its commitment to what it called ‘air mobility’.

As you can see from this contemporary Army video, the concept was claimed as revolutionary (and, in its way of course, counter-revolutionary).  ‘An entirely new concept of warfare known as heli-borne or air mobile operations has been developed by the United States Army,’ claims the commentator, ‘and has been successfully employed to meet the problems posed by South East Asia’s hostile wilderness and bye enemy who hides there.’

In fact, it wasn’t invented in Vietnam, but it was a dominant mode of army operations there: you can download the US Army’s historical report on Air mobility 1961-1971 here, for example, the Vietnam Center and Archive has a helpful page on ‘The helicopter war’ here, and you can read an extract from Walter Boyne‘s How the helicopter changed modern warfare here.  There is also a considerable literature on ‘dust-off‘ that I’m working through for my new research project on casualty evacuation in war zones.

Airmobility 1961-1971

And don’t forget its role in popular culture.  The helicopter loomed large in the iconography of Francis Ford Coppola‘s Apocalypse Now (1979):

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More recently Pete Adey provided a summary of a more general concept of ‘aeromobilities’ [Geography Compass 2/5 (2008) 1318-1336] though his emphasis, perhaps not surprisingly, is on vision.

What interests me here, though, is another capacity, and one without which the potential of air mobility would have remained unrealised.

I’m talking about the voice on the radio.  I’ve written about the role of the forward air controller before, and the parallels between the air strikes they directed in Vietnam and today’s remote operations in Afghanistan (see ‘Lines of descent’, DOWNLOADS tab).

GREGORY From a view to a kill Shock and Awe Extract.001

This destructive power was captured with extraordinary economy by Phil Caputo in A Rumor of War:

Simply by speaking a few words into a two-way radio, I had performed magical feats of destruction. Summoned by my voice, jet fighters appeared in the sky to loose their lethal droppings on villages and men. High-explosive bombs blasted houses to fragments, napalm sucked air from lungs and turned human flesh to ashes. All this just by saying a few words into a radio transmitter. Like magic.

But the radio was part of a much wider network of military violence and military logistics in Vietnam.  Here is Frederick Downs in The killing zone:

With the radio, we grunts could make use of modern weapons. Without it, everything stayed put. We used the radio to call in artillery, naval gun support if it was close enough, air strikes, gunships, dustoffs, Puff the Magic Dragon [the AC-47 gunship], mortars, tanks, APCs and other rifle platoons. The radio kept us supplied. One day our order went in; the next day the chopper flew out with a delivery. We found each other by using grid coordinates and radioing them back and forth. A pilot knew he had the right location when we popped smoke and he identified it over the radio. By this method, we received C rations, ammo, new weapons, grenades, parts for our equipment, shoes, new clothes, underwear, socks, medicine, personnel replacements, beer, iodine tablets for use in the water, mail, and once in a while even a chaplain. To complete the cycle, the radio was used to extract us from trouble. Saving a life was often a matter of seconds. The radio was also a comfort at night. The periodic radio checks assured us that friends and help were always near.

Here too, incidentally, there are lessons for contemporary analysis: satellite imagery is clearly of vital significance for today’s advanced militaries, but so too are satellite communications.  I’ll discuss this is another post, but without those communication links there would be no full-motion video-feeds from all those Predators and Reapers – and their operating range would be dramatically constricted.  Ground operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere would also be virtually impossible without their radio links.

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From 1965 the main field radio in Vietnam was the PRC-25 (‘Prick 25’).  You can find a detailed technical specification here, but here are the key passages:

‘The PRC-25 was about the size and weight of a case of soda. With its battery “can” included, call it a case of soda sitting on top of a six-pack. (It actually weighed slightly more than that, 23.5 pounds) There was a handle on each side at the top to carry it. The radio consisted of two parts, both in metal boxes, called “cans.” The upper can held the radio itself, the lower can held its battery pack. Metal buckles held the two together. The radio was tough and would easily survive a 50 foot fall from a helicopter onto a metal-planked runway. You could throw the whole thing in the water for an hour, completely submerged, then pull it out and expect it to work…

‘The radio antenna was exactly like a metal tape measure, but the bottom foot or so was a round flexible tube that screwed into the radio. There were actually two antennas, a regular one and a long-range antenna, carried in a canvas bag strapped to the side of the radio The radio had a transmission range, with the short antenna, of about 3-4 miles, but various terrain factors could influence this, of course. It helped to be higher up. The long range antenna was supposed to be good for up to 18 miles.

The rule of thumb was that the battery was good for about a day of casual operation, listening mostly, some occasional transmissions. In a period of intense use, transmitting/receiving all the time, it was good for perhaps 2-3 hours. The way the LRRPs [Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols] and SF [Special Forces] used it, shutting it off and only coming up at scheduled times to briefly transmit or listen, it was good for perhaps four days. Spare batteries were usually kept in a spare .30 caliber ammo can. When expended, the battery pack had to be physically destroyed. Inside were flashlight-type batteries which the Viet Cong could use in booby traps or to ignite bombardment rockets.’

Hoffman Humping HeavyNotice first the extraordinary weight of the thing.  I’ve detailed the loads humped by soldiers and Marines in Vietnam before, but you can see from this that the radio operator (RTO) was even more heavily burdened.  He also had to contend with a difficult load distribution: according to Rodger Jacobs ‘radiomen had to wear their radios on their chests because if worn on their backs the thickness of the jungle and the vines would constantly catch on the controls and change the frequencies.’  The best account of the trials and tribulations of an RTO that I know is Phillip Hoffman‘s appropriately titled Humping Heavy (right).

RTO2

Then notice the size of the aerial (above); RTOs carried a ten-feet rigid mast in sections but much of the time used a three-feet whip antenna.  This made the RTO extremely vulnerable: not only was he a marked target, but he was always close to the platoon or patrol commander and so both were hi-vis priorities in an enemy attack or ambush.   For that reason the most prized possession of many RTOs was a North Vietnamese Army rucksack: ‘They’re better than anything the Corps has,’ Jeff Kelly was told.  ‘It’ll hang lower on your back and won’t catch on branches. But the big thing is you won’t be giving off that radioman silhouette.’  Most RTOs taped the antenna down, but Hoffman made the mistake of questioning the wisdom:

Right away he demanded I stuff the flexible, three-foot whip antenna down my shirt to limit me (and by extension him) as a target. He knew a priority of the enemy was to knock out communication, and our commo was located on my back. I complied with his directive but made the mistake of telling him our signal strength would suffer. In no uncertain words he told me never to question him again.

Even with a network of relay stations and airborne retransmissions, communications were uneven and intermittent: the terrain could block signals, especially in the Central Highlands, and rain (especially during the monsoon) could play havoc with reception.  At night even a whisper was dangerous; here is John Edmund Delezen:

Hourly situation reports are sent to the radio relay atop of Hill 950 some three kilometers north of the Khe Sanh airstrip. The “sit-reps” are not sent in the form of words-we dare not speak in the black void; when the relay asks us to acknowledge his call, there are just the two distinct pauses in the constant squelch as the handset is keyed twice. The two small audible clicks are all that connects us with the world, and all that assures the relay that we have not disappeared into the liquid black night.

Artillery fire direction center Vietnam

It could be strangely remote for those receiving the transmissions too (above, an artillery fire support center).  Kenneth Sympson, an artillery officer, explained:

‘Our only contact with the men of the patrols was from radio transmissions—the infrequent call-in at a checkpoint or request for fire on some pretargeted location on their route. They were a noise on the radio and a trace on a map of the region. When you fired an artillery round in support, it was almost as if you were simply throwing it into the night and it just disappeared. It would later strike a place on the map, but there was no life there; there was only some representation for crossing trails or the contour lines indicative of the slope of a hill or a pin hole named Registration Point 3.’

Downs says much the same, describing gun crews anticipating ‘the release of their impersonal death into a grid square.’

But for those beyond the wire those staccato messages were far from abstract or impersonal.  ‘The radio was our link with literally everything outside our platoon,’ said Downs, ‘from supplies to survival’.  And without it, as he also said, ‘everything stayed put.’

Hence my title: and for those too young (or too old) to remember it, listen to this (YouTube).

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.

BlockTheBoat

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”.

Best,
Charmaine Chua

Military logistics

Wartime logistics in Afghanistan

Following up my posts on military logistics in Afghanistan (see here, here and here), Dave Clement and Ryan Evans have produced a new report for Chatham House, ‘Wartime Logistics in Afghanistan and Beyond: Handling Wicked Problems and Complex Adaptive Systems‘.  Part of the discussion inevitably concerns the familiar problems faced by US forces – during both the occupation and the ‘draw-down’ – but the main focus is on the British military:

Over the past decade, thousands of military vehicles and tens of thousands of tonnes of supplies and equipment have been moved into Afghanistan in support of NATO operations. In the near future, this matériel will have to be disposed of or moved out of the country. For the UK military this will be the biggest logistics operation since the Second World War. The process of moving supplies into, around and out of Afghanistan is a resource-intensive operation that has already resulted in numerous instances of local and regional corruption, which have often been accepted as a cost of doing business. 

This report looks at how these and other problems arise and how the United Kingdom’s military supply chain can adapt to deal with them. It makes recommendations for utilizing supply chain resources to serve strategic and operational goals during the build-up and drawdown of forces. It analyses how broader opportunities can, over time, be extracted from managing the military supply chain and its component parts. These include improving local transport infrastructure, supporting reconstruction and development efforts, and delivering influence at local levels. These opportunities could be realized through a variety of means, including increased employment of local workers, targeted resource distribution, and intelligent contracting coupled with robust financial oversight.

Military supply routes, Afghanistan

You can’t read military strategists these days without falling over ‘wicked problems’, but for me the originality of the report lies in its UK focus: a useful complement to the US discussions.  (The map, incidentally,comes from US Transportation Command’s Annual Report for 2011; the 2012 report is here).

You can read a summary, and access the full Chatham House report, here.

Retrograde logistics

In recent years much attention has been focused on the logistics of supplying the war in Afghanistan.  But now the reverse operation is gearing up, and (as anticipated) it’s no more straightforward.  Here’s Nate Rawlings for TIME:

For many good reasons, Afghanistan has been called a logistician’s nightmare. It is landlocked and far from a working port. Much of the country – especially in the east where a great deal of the fighting has taken place – is covered with mountains and threaded by decades-old roads and questionable bridges. The easiest way in and out of the country is a geopolitical minefield and the other two routes are three times as expensive.

And yet, for twelve years, logisticians have supplied troops with the equipment — large and small — necessary to fight a war. They have airdropped pallets of food and repair parts on remote bases, tossed “Speedballs” — body bags filled with ammunition and water — out of helicopters to troops under fire. And along the way, extra equipment has piled up at bases around Afghanistan. According to a December 2012 report to Congress by the by the Government Accountability Office, there is the equivalent of more than 90,000 twenty-foot containers of equipment all over Afghanistan. All together, there is $36 billion worth of vehicles, weapons systems, repair parts and utter junk scattered throughout the country, and bringing it home will cost an estimated $5.7 billion. 

(You can access a gallery of Yuri Kozyrev‘s photographs, all taken in late January this year, that accompany the essay here; some details of the corresponding British operation, including video, are available here).

Now AFP has confirmed that the current estimated cost of withdrawing US hardware and vehicles from Afghanistan – called a “retrograde” (sic) – will be $5–6 billion from 2012 through to 2014.  According to Brigadier General Steven Shapiro of 1st Theater Sustainment Command, a veteran of the withdrawal from Iraq, ‘the retrograde from Afghanistan is one of the most challenging military transportation operations in history in terms of scale and complexity.’  It’s certainly more difficult than Iraq, when equipment was simply trucked across the border to Kuwait ‘where it was packed, cleaned, recorded and shipped on’ within a stable security envelope.  Brigadier General Lee K. Levy explains: ‘If you think Iraq was difficult, I would call that getting your bachelor’s degree in logistics. Withdrawing from Afghanistan is getting your PhD in logistics and we are writing our thesis as we speak.’

1st Infantry Division's retrograde yard at FOB Sharana, Afghanistan

In Afghanistan the most sensitive equipment will again be sent to Kuwait, though this time the US will be forced to use giant C-17 transport planes.  Some of the remaining gear will be sold (but the opportunities in Afghanistan are likely to be less than they were in Iraq, when some $1 billion of equipment were sold off or simply given to the Iraqi military) or even destroyed.  The process requires a labour-intensive inventory, selection and strip-down – you can get an idea of what’s involved in this short video from Bagram – and even then a vast amount will remain to be shipped out.

Soldiers inventory Stryker combat vehicle for retrograde, Kandahar, March 2013 (Sharonda Pearson)

The Wall Street Journal reports that the operation began in earnest last month, when a trial convoy of 20 military vehicles and more than 70 containers of military hardware was trucked through Pakistan and shipped out from Karachi.  According to the Journal,

The military says it now plans to move a combined total of around 100 containers and vehicles per week through Pakistan, a figure that is going to increase gradually over the coming weeks.

When the exodus is in full swing — military commanders expect the logistics push to reach its peak this August — the U.S. will be sending about 1,500 military vehicles and 1,000 containers per month out of Afghanistan. The majority — around two-thirds of that cargo — will move through Pakistan, military officials say.

Shapiro was bullish about the operation – the US Army has made no secret that what it calls the Pakistan Ground Lines of Communication are critical to the success of the retrograde –  and he claimed to be ‘very confident  that the Pakistani military is going to help us move through Pakistan.’  But it remains to be seen whether the outbound supply chain will be any more secure than the inbound one was:  today five NATO trucks en route for Karachi were torched and more or less completely destroyed 120 km. south east of Quetta.

Saucepans, sources and bombers

Sometimes you’re blind to things close to home…  When I wrote about war and logistics I wasn’t aware of my colleague Matthew Evenden‘s excellent work on the supply of aluminium in the Second World War.  How I missed it I have no idea.

Matthew’s essay, ‘Aluminum, commodity chains and the environmental history of the Second World War’, appeared in Environmental History 16 (2011) 69-93.  Reading it made me realise that Martin van Creveld’s classic account of ‘supplying war’ misses a crucial dimension: the technical transformations of modern war constantly draw new materials (and frequently distant sources) into the supply chain.   Creveld is right to emphasize the importance of what he calls ‘the products of the factory rather than the field’ to modern war, but those products are moving targets in more ways than one.

Aluminium provides a brilliant example.  As Matthew says, its strategic importance was tied to the expansion of the air war: aluminium was lightweight, flexible and durable, and an essential component of the new generation of aircraft.  According to Leo McKinstry‘s Lancaster (John Murray, 2009), the production of each Lancaster bomber required nearly ten tons of light aluminium alloy (‘the equivalent of eleven million saucepans’).  The production process was remarkably intricate: each aircraft involved half a million different manufacturing operations spread out over 10 weeks. (For images of production lines in aircraft factories on both sides of the Atlantic, by the way, see the show-stopping series here; as far as I’m aware, there’s no British equivalent to Bill Yenne‘s The American aircraft factory in WWII [Zenith, 2006]).

McKinstry’s equivalence between saucepans and bombers was entirely appropriate.  As the demand for aluminium sky-rocketed, so wartime campaigns to recycle aluminium were started on both sides of the Atlantic: you can hear a satirical radio treatment of “Aluminum for Defense” in the United States, complete with crashing saucepans and “collection parties” (the antecedent of Tupperware parties?), here.  In Britain too saucepans and even milk bottle tops were collected for their aluminium, a campaign that began immediately after the fall of France in 1940.  According to one contemporary report:

‘Although these contributions were to be voluntary, the timing of the appeal, its tone, and the manner in which it was put forward left the impression that the country’s need for scrap aluminum was urgent. As a result, the response from the housewives was immediate and their contributions were reported to be of quite considerable proportions.  Almost as prompt were the criticisms and complaints raised from trade and parliamentary quarters, as well as by some groups of skeptical housewives. Thus many scrap metal merchants became indignant when the appeal was made, calling attention to the tons of scrap in their yards for which they were unable to find a market. To this objection it was pointed out in Parliament that not all aluminum scrap was suitable for use in aircraft production. This limitation was especially true for the scrap held by these dealers, whereas that obtained from household utensils was excellent for this purpose.’

Incidentally, those who yearn for a time when air forces have to raise funds through bake sales might contemplate the “Wings for Victory” campaign, and its enlistment of children to contribute savings stamps for the purchase of new bombers.  When one of these aircraft was exhibited in Trafalgar Square in 1943, children lined up to plaster their stamps all over a thousand-pound bomb.  Here – as in the clarion call for the nation’s saucepans – war becomes domesticated, even homely.  War enters the domestic interior in countless other ways of course – through air raids, conscription, evacuation, and rationing, for example – but the enrollment of everyday objects, like savings stamps and saucepans, contrives to make violence not ‘harmless’ exactly but certainly ordinary, mundane, as this photograph from the Imperial War Museum shows.  Here two women factory workers fill bombs covered in savings stamps in what, to my eyes at any rate, looks like a ghastly parody of cooking; the biggest so-called ‘blockbuster’ bombs were called “cookies”, perhaps not incidentally, and aluminium was a vital component in many explosive mixes too.

Aluminium was needed for aircraft besides the Lancaster:

‘Saucepans into Spitfires’ (Imperial War Museum)

And, given the demand right across the sector, the British had to look further than their doorsteps and kitchens, though surprisingly McKinstry says nothing about this in his otherwise fascinating discussion of the production process (Chapter 12: “At the machines all the time”).  The British government soon realised the need to bring domestic aluminium production under state control, and by the early 1940s an intricate system of Acts, statutory Orders and commercial contracts had extended the security of the supply chain across the Atlantic to Canada (there is an excellent, if dry account in Jules Backman and Leo Fishman, ‘British wartime control of aluminum’, Quarterly Journal of Economics 56 (1) (1941) 18-48, from which I took the previous quotation about domestic recycling).

Matthew describes in detail a commodity chain that started in British Guiana (which provided most of the bauxite used in North America’s smelters), and reached across the Caribbean to the eastern seaboard of the United States, where it was transported by rail into Quebec for smelting.  The ingots were then shipped out to rolling mills and fabricating plants in Canada and the United States, across the Pacific to Australia, or across the Atlantic to Britain.  As he emphasises, the chain was militarised at every point, and a primary concern was to secure the supply chain by providing air cover or convoy escorts: the great fear was of a U-Boat attack.  The map below, taken with permission from Matthew’s essay, “reminds us of the unprecedented capacity of the Second World War to gather and scatter materials with untold human and environmental consequences, linking diverse locations with no necessary former connections.”  And here too, as I argued in a previous post, the friction of distance is no simply physical effect: it is shot through with political, economic and strategic calculations.

Not so trivia:  When Sir Charles Portal, Arthur Harris’s predecessor as commander of Bomber Command, retired from the Royal Air Force he became Chair of British Aluminium.  And the roof of the new Memorial for Bomber Command in Green Park is made from aluminium recovered from a Halifax bomber that was shot down over Belgium.

One last note: Matthew’s article is a much richer argument than I’ve conveyed here, and his primary interest is embedding this supply chain in a wider environmental history – so in a future post I want to turn my attention to some of the connections between modern war and ‘nature’…