Trauma Geographies

I’ve been invited to give the Antipode lecture at the RGS/IBG conference on 29 August.  Here’s the abstract:

Trauma Geographies: broken bodies and lethal landscapes  

Elaine Scarry reminds us that even though ‘the main purpose and outcome of war is injuring’ this ‘massive fact can nevertheless ‘disappear from view along many separate paths.’ This presentation traces some of those paths, exploring the treatment and evacuation of the injured and sick in three war zones: the Western Front in the First World War, Afghanistan 2001-2018, and Syria 2012-2018. The movement of casualties from the Western Front inaugurated the modern military-medical machine; it was overwhelmingly concerned with the treatment of combatants, for whom the journey – by stretcher, ambulance, train and boat – was always precarious and painful. Its parts constituted a ‘machine’ in all sorts of ways, but its operation was far from smooth. The contrast with the aerial evacuation and en route treatment of US/UK casualties in Afghanistan is instructive, and at first sight these liquid geographies confirm Stephen Pinker’s progressivist theses about ‘the better angels of our nature’ [see also here]. But this impression has to be radically revised once Afghan casualties are taken into account – both combatant and civilian – and it is dispelled altogether by the fate of the sick and wounded in rebel-controlled areas of Syria. For most of them treatment was dangerous, almost always improvised and ever more precarious as hospitals and clinics were routinely targeted and medical supplies disrupted, and evacuation impossible as multiple sieges brutally and aggressively tightened. Later modern war has many modalities, and the broken bodies that are moved – or immobilised – in its lethal landscapes reveal that the ‘therapeutic geographies’ mapped so carefully by Omar Dewachi and others [see here and here] continue to be haunted by the ghosts of cruelty and suffering that stalked the battlefield of the American Civil War in the years following Lincoln’s original appeal to those ‘better angels’.

The presentation will tie together several strands I’ve laid out in posts on Geographical Imaginations; the next installment of my analysis of siege warfare and geographies of precarity in Syria will appear shortly.

A long day’s journey…

Anti-landscape of the Western Front.001

A note from Antipode to say that the latest edition is now available online and, unless I’ve mis-read things, is open access (for now, at any rate).  It includes what the editors say ‘might well be Antipode‘s longest ever paper’ – pp. 3-56! – my ‘Natures of war’ essay here.

JARMAN Sand.001

War Material

SARGENT Two soldiers at Arras

I’m thrilled to say that the (very!) long-form version of The Natures of War, the 1st Neil Smith Lecture which I gave at the University of St Andrews in November 2013, is now online (‘Early View’) at Antipode, all 54 pages of it.

Here is the abstract:

“Nature” is more than a resource bank whose riches can trigger armed conflict and finance its depredations; it is also a medium through which military and paramilitary violence is conducted. The militarisation of nature is part of a dialectic in which earthy, vibrant matter shapes the contours of conflict and leaves its marks on the bodies of soldiers who are both vectors and victims of military violence. Three case studies identify some of the central bio-physical formations that became entangled with armed conflict in the twentieth century: the mud of the Western Front in the First World War, the deserts of North Africa in the Second World War, and the rainforests of Vietnam. Taken together, these reveal vital connections between the materiality and corporeality of modern war and their continued relevance to its contemporary transformations.

You can still find the original, non-Harvard style version under the DOWNLOADS tab – and I’m truly grateful to Andy Kent for relieving me of the task of converting my original MS into the Harvard system.

The image above, incidentally, is John Singer Sargent‘s Two soldiers at Arras (1917), and is a perfect illustration of this passsage from the essay:

In the face of these horrors, some soldiers came to regard themselves as having become as “un-natural” as the militarised, industrialised natures in which they were embedded. The Tommy “will soon be like nothing on earth”, wrote one officer on the Somme in January 1916. “If only we could be clothed in rubber all over and fed through a tube I think some real progress in our equipment might have been made”. He was only half-joking. The next phase in the emergence of this cyborg warrior can be seen in the tank battles that raged across the deserts of North Africa during the Second World War. But, as I must now show, even in the midst of this more fully mechanised warfare, bio-physical entanglements remained immensely powerful—and the human body intensely vulnerable.

I then do the same for Vietnam.

My plan is to rework this version: to incorporate as many of the images I used in the Vietnam extracts I posted online here and here (together with others from the Western Front and the Western Desert), to add a fourth case study of Afghanistan, and to include the revised version in a new book of essays that I’m calling War material.

The plan looks like this (in each case the original essays, apart from the intro, are available under the DOWNLOADS tab too; I’m re-working those versions, planing away any overlaps, and adding more images):

Chapter 1: War material

Chapter 2: Gabriel’s map

Chapter 3: The Natures of War

Chapter 4: Doors into Nowhere

Chapter 5: Lines of Descent

These are all more or less ready to go, apart from the introduction, but I’m debating whether to add a sixth chapter, called ‘Wounds of war’, which would parallel ‘The Natures of War’ in many ways and chart the changing geographies of casualty evacuation from war zones, 1914-2014.

Each of the essays in the book, even in their present form, has something to say about the way in which the conduct of modern war has – and has not – changed over the last hundred years, but the title also tilts at those who seem to think that everything we need to know about modern military violence was uncannily anticipated by Michel Foucault in his (I too think brilliant) Paris lectures in the 1970s so that this absolves them of the need for any research or even reading into the materialities of war (a strangely non-Foucauldian assumption, given his own frequent immersion in the archive and his densely empirical way of working).

I’d be grateful for any comments or suggestions.