Shadow World

I am thrilled to announce our next Wall Exchange at the Vogue Theatre (Granville Street) in downtown Vancouver at 7 p.m. on Tuesday 7 November: Andrew Feinstein on ‘The shadow world of the global arms trade’.  One of my earliest posts was about what I called The death merchants, and I drew attention to Andrew’s wonderful work there.  So it will be a real treat to hear him live:

In this Wall Exchange lecture Andrew Feinstein draws back the curtain on the shadow world of the global trade in weapons—its systemic corruption, highly technical nature, and the pervasive secrecy in which deals are concluded.

Feinstein will propose mechanisms to clean up and properly regulate the global arms trade. In addition to the death and destruction caused by its products and the massive costs of the world’s defense spending, the lack of properly enforced regulation and control makes the occurrence of unintended consequences inevitable. This results in the very weapons sold by many Western governments being used against their own citizens. Nowhere is this more evident than in the so-called ‘War on Terror’, in which suspect intelligence and fluctuating alliances with non-state groups and countries such as Saudi Arabia undermine our security.

Andrew Feinstein is Executive Director of Corruption Watch, an NGO that details and exposes the impact of bribery and corruption on democracy, governance and development. Andrew was named amongst the 100 most influential people in the world working in armed violence reduction. Along with two colleagues, he was voted South Africa’s anti-corruption hero of 2014.

His critically-acclaimed book The Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade reveals the corruption and malfeasance at the heart of the global arms business, both formal and illicit. A documentary feature film of the book premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York in April 2016, and was awarded Best Documentary Feature at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, the Valladolid International Film Festival and the Belgian Ensor Award.

Andrew was an ANC Member of Parliament in South Africa for over seven years where he served under Nelson Mandela. He resigned in 2001 in protest at the ANC’s refusal to countenance an independent and comprehensive enquiry into a multi-billion dollar arms deal which was tainted by allegations of high level corruption.

You can read much more about the presentation here, where you can also watch a trailer for Andrew’s award-winning documentary Shadow World (which will be on PBS on 20 November 2017).

The event is free, but you need to register in advance: online here or via Ticketfly on 1-888-732-1682

Academics against the arms trade

Yoked to my previous post – and a distant echo of one of my earliest posts on ‘The death merchants‘ – is an important message from the editors of Critical Military Studies:

Dear academic friends and colleagues,

As many of you will know, from September 12th-15th the DSEI [Defence and Security Equipment International] arms fair will take place at the ExCeL Centre in East London. DSEI is one of the largest arms fairs in the world, with over 1500 companies and representatives from more than 100 states. As you can imagine, it also generates a lot of opposition. The Stop the Arms Fair coalition have called for a week of action before the arms fair begins, and as part of this we’re organising an academic conference, on Friday 8th September, that will take place in front of the ExCeL Centre. The conference will cover a series of issues related to militarism, with a series of talks, workshops and performances co-organised by activists and academics. Topics for workshops include:

–    Militarism and (gendered) embodiment
–    Recognising and resisting border militarism within universities
–    Militarism and contemporary colonialism
–    The purpose of radical theory

The team behind the workshop did this two years ago when the arms fair last happened, and the event was a huge success, providing participants with the opportunity to meet new people, have some wonderful conversations about the nature of militarism and the purpose of academic practice, and put academic ideas into action in an exciting and unusual manner. You can read a write-up of that event by Chris Rossdale in Critical Military Studies. There is a website for this year’s event here and Facebook event. Updates and logistics information will be available on both of those, but you can also get in touch with Chris Rossdale at if you want more details.

If you can’t make the conference (and even if you can), we are also currently circulating an open letter for academics to sign, signalling opposition to the arms fair. This will be published in a media outlet around a week before the action. We would be very grateful if you could sign it and circulate it to people and networks you think might be interested. You can find the letter here.

You can find more details (wherein the devil lurks) at DSEI’s website here, including this gem:

‘DSEI Strategic Conferences take place on 11 September (Day Zero) … 2017 brings Brexit and a change of US government, this combined with a competitive global defence & security market means DSEI can promise a conference and seminar programme that will challenge day to day thinking. Both events will tap into the ideas and theories of the people who drive the defence and security sector forward in pursuit of innovation and long-term economic prosperity…’

In case you’re wondering, admission is now £1,150 for ‘Industry/Academia’ but a snip at £150 for students….

Laboratories and assemblages

I’m on my way home from Bergen, where I was taking part in the Norsk Sakprosafestival (loosely, ‘Non-Fiction Festival’).  I gave a sawn-off version of ‘Angry eyes’, followed by a conversation with the ever-interesting Kristin Bergtora Sandvik, and took part in a panel discussion on ‘Freedom’ with Astri Suhrke, Kareem Amer, Jonny Steinberg, Ilan Pappe and Hilde Sandvik.  I had a marvellous time, and I’m deeply grateful to my hosts and especially Oyvind Vagnes for their warm welcome and generous hospitality.  This was the first time the festival has been held outside Oslo, and I hope it continues for many years to come.  It certainly deserves to do so.


Over dinner, Ilan (whose new book is on ‘the largest prisons in the world’, Gaza and the West Bank) reminded me of an excellent film that I’d neglected to write about when it first came out – and given my previous post, and the horror of Gaza over the summer, it’s not too late to do so.

The film is Yotam Feldman‘s The Lab, which was released in North America in August.  Feldman writes:

The Lab is a cinematic investigation into the lure of Israeli weapons in the international arms trade. Why are countries all over the world lining up to buy Israeli arms? And how did such a small country become one of the biggest military exporters in the world? Israeli salesmen and executives in huge arms corporations seem eager to promote their products and pride themselves on their booming business. Profits have never been better — sales are doubling every year, and the potential seems unlimited.

But the product they are selling is unique. Rather than rifles, rockets or bombs, the Israeli companies sell their experience. The long-running conflict with the Palestinians has created a unique and unrivalled laboratory for testing technologies and ideas relating to “asymmetric warfare” — a conflict between a state and civil or irregular resistance. In this manner the Israeli conflict with the Palestinians may be seen as a national asset — rather than a burden…

While making the film, I witnessed the relationship between a network of military generals, politicians and private business; the use of current military operations as a promotional device for private business; the brutal employment of the Israeli experience, and the blurred lines between what is legitimate and forbidden in this line of business.

You can read Jonathan Cook’s characteristically perceptive take on the film’s central argument here, from which I’ve taken the following extract:

The title relates to the film’s central argument: that Israel has rapidly come to rely on the continuing captivity of Palestinians in what are effectively the world’s largest open-air prisons.

The reason is that there are massive profits to be made from testing Israeli military innovations on the more than four million Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank.

According to Feldman, that trend began with Operation Defensive Shield, Israel’s re-invasion of the West Bank and Gaza in 2002, which formally reversed the process of Israeli territorial withdrawals initiated by the Oslo accords.

Following that operation, many army officers went into private business, and starting in 2005 Israel’s arms industry started to break new records, at $2 billion a year.

But the biggest surge in sales followed Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s month-long assault on Gaza in winter 2008-09, which killed more than 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis. Record sales in the wake of that attack reached $6 billion.

These military operations, including the most recent against Gaza, last year’s Pillar of Cloud, the film argues, serve as little more than laboratory-style experiments to evaluate and refine the effectiveness of new military approaches, both strategies and weaponry.

Gaza, in particular, has become the shop window for Israel’s military industries, allowing them to develop and market systems for long-term surveillance, control and subjugation of an “enemy” population.

But Feldman’s still sharper point is that this means that the claim ‘we are all Palestinians’ has a greater purchase than most of us realise:

The effects of Israeli theory and technology on other countries can hardly be overestimated. Forces choosing to employ Israeli-cultivated military techniques ultimately begin to alter their political and social circumstances. Therefore, countries all over the world are increasingly “Palestinizing” (or “Israelizing”) their conditions. Both sides — seller and buyer — become partners in the development of a form of future war between the state and civil resistance groups.

War, police and assemblages of intervention

This needs to be added to the mix when we (re)think about contemporary war/police assemblages – which is an appropriate note for me to cheer the publication today of War, police and assemblages of intervention, edited by Jan BachmannColleen Bell and Caroline Holmqvist.

This book reflects on the way in which war and police/policing intersect in contemporary Western-led interventions in the global South. The volume combines empirically oriented work with ground-breaking theoretical insights and aims to collect, for the first time, thoughts on how war and policing converge, amalgamate, diffuse and dissolve in the context both of actual international intervention and in understandings thereof.

The book uses the caption WAR:POLICE to highlight the distinctiveness of this volume in presenting a variety of approaches that share a concern for the assemblage of war-police as a whole. The volume thus serves to bring together critical perspectives on liberal interventionism where the logics of war and police/policing blur and bleed into a complex assemblage of WAR:POLICE. Contributions to this volume offer an understanding of police as a technique of ordering and collectively take issue with accounts of the character of contemporary war that argue that war is simply reduced to policing. In contrast, the contributions show how – both historically and conceptually – the two are ‘always already’ connected. Contributions to this volume come from a variety of disciplines including international relations, war studies, geography, anthropology, and law but share a critical/poststructuralist approach to the study of international intervention, war and policing.

Here’s what it contains (and you can see that The Lab adds a really important dimension to the discussion):

Assemblages of War:Police – An Introduction, Jan Bachmann, University of Gothenburg, Colleen Bell, University of Saskatchewan, Caroline Holmqvist, Swedish National Defence College

Part I: Ordering
1.The Police Power in Counterinsurgencies: Discretion, Patrolling, and Evidence, Colleen Bell, University of Saskatchewan

2. Policing Africa – The US Military and Visions of Crafting ‘Good Order’, Jan Bachmann, University of Gothenburg

3. Security Sector Reform (SSR) and the War:Police Assemblages of International Interventions, Marc Doucet, St. Mary’s University and Miguel de Larrinaga, University of Ottawa

Part II: Othering

4. The Enemy Live: A Genealogy, Laurence McFalls, University of Montreal and Mariella Pandolfi, University of Montreal

5. The Utility of Proxy Detentions in Counterinsurgencies, Laleh Khalili, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London

6. Tribal Militias, Neo-Orientalism and the US Military’s Art of Coercion, Oliver Belcher, University of Oulu, Finland

7. Checkpoints and the Gendered Policing of ‘Civilized’ Nation-State Boundaries in Southern Thailand, Ruth Streicher, Free University of Berlin

Part III: Spatializing

8. A Mediterranean Police Assemblage, Barry J Ryan, Keele University

9. Air Power as Police Power, Mark Neocleous, Brunel University

10. Intervention and Ontological Politics: Security, Pathologization, and the Failed State Effect in Goma, Peer Schouten, University of Gothenburg and Kai Koddenbrock, University of Duisburg-Essen

Afterword: War and Crime, Military and Police: The Assemblage of Violence by Security? Didier Bigo, King’s College, University of London and Sciences Po

The death merchants

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

Here is the script:


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

A BULLET is born.  A perfect 39mm.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

And the importers:

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

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

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

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