Logistics and violence

Over at The Disorder of Things Charmaine Chua introduces a lively podcast in which she discusses Logistics – violence, empire and resistance with Deb Cowen and Laleh Khalili.

Together, we take a look at the increasing ubiquity and prominence of logistics as a mode for organizing social and spatial life. We discuss how this seemingly banal concern with the movement of goods is actually foundational to contemporary global capitalism and imperialism, reshaping patterns of inequality, undermining labor power, and transforming strategies of governance. We also ask: what might a counter-logistical project look like? What role does logistics play in anti-colonial and anti-capitalist struggles across the globe?

On her own blog, The Gamming, Laleh links to lecture she gave at Georgetown on ‘The Logistics of Counterinsurgency’:

It is a banal cliche of military thinking that the deployment of coercive forces to the battlefields requires a substantial commitment in logistical support for the transport of goods, materiel, and personnel to the war-zone, the maintenance of forces there, and their eventual withdrawal from there. In counterinsurgency warfare, which is predicated on the deployment of large numbers of forces, persuasion or coercion of civilian populations into supporting the counterinsurgent force, and the transformation of the civilian milieu as much as the military space, this logistical function becomes even more crucial. In this talk I will be thinking through the ways in which the making of logistical infrastructures – roads, ports, warehouses, and transport – has been crucial to the wars the US has waged since 2001 in Southwest Asia, and how these infrastructures in turn transform the social, political, and economic lives of the region they leave behind.

It’s a wonderfully wide-ranging survey (Afghanistan, Israel/Palestine, Vietnam, Morocco and more), and it’s also a richly illustrated and immensely thoughtful performance.

In addition, Laleh’s lecture provides a brilliant context for my limited incursions into logistics in Afghanistan (here, here and here), an arena which I am now revisiting to understand both the supply of medical matériel and the evacuation of casualties.

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

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.