For King and Countryside

Richard Harpum/Tommy

‘For the British soldier in the First World War, nature was always a matter of life and death’:  John Lewis-Stempel

When I was working on ‘Gabriel’s map’, and later on ‘The natures of war’ (both available under the DOWNLOADS tab), I immersed myself in the ways in which industrialised war violated the rural landscapes of Belgium and France on the Western Front during the First World War.  But I also noticed there (as in other war zones) the redemptive possibilities of ‘the natural world’:

A few miles behind No Man’s Land lay an agrarian landscape that would have been familiar to most European troops – though not to the considerable contingents from other continents – and many of them took refuge in a reassuring rurality whenever they were removed from the front line. Moving up to the trenches from Belancourt on a glorious June afternoon in 1916 the young Max Plowman exulted in the scene:

‘The tall corn is ripening, and between its stalks poppies and cornflowers glow with colour. Through the valley we are descending a noisy stream finds its way, and on the hills beyond, great elm-trees stand like wise men brooding. It is a lush green country, full of beauty. The war seems far away.’

Pastoral conceits like these – and they were by no means uncommon – were testaments to the horrors that closed in as the troops neared what Plowman later called ‘the palsied zone’. As he and his men marched towards Fricourt, they crossed the old front line. ‘The country here is stricken waste: the trees that formed an avenue to the road are now torn and broken stumps, some still holding unexploded shells in their shattered trunks, others looped about with useless telegraph-wire.’ Later still, he described the sun glaring down ‘on earth that has lost its nature, for, pitted everywhere with shell-holes, it crumbles and cracks as though it has been subject to earthquake.’ As the landscape ‘lost its nature’ – a loss for which the all too human violence of war was responsible – so it also appeared less human. Yet even there, in the midst of all that, it was still possible to find sights and sounds that evoked the pastoral: the cornflower blue sky, the crimson rose, the fluting song of the lark. But these were all fleeting moments, and when he was finally relieved Plowman wrote that ‘it is cheering to be going westward: the farther you go in this direction the more human the world becomes.’  The opposition between the ‘un-natural’ and the ‘human’ really pits the savage against the domesticated, but passages like these are double-edged. They form a repertoire of ‘Arcadian resources’ in Paul Fussell’s resonant phrase, which function as what he saw as a characteristically ‘English mode of both fully gauging the calamities of the Great War and imaginatively protecting oneself against them’. Protection here is about more than solace, I think, because opposing these imaginative geographies works to repress the transformation of the domesticated into the savage which confirmed what Claire Keith saw as ‘the frightful interdependence of human death and environmental death’.


Those redemptive, even Arcadian moments have now been gathered and pressed within the pages of a new book: John Lewis-Stempel‘s Where Poppies Blow: the British solider, Nature, the Great War (2016):

Where Poppies Blow is the unique story of the British soldiers of the Great War and their relationship with the animals and plants around them. This connection was of profound importance, because it goes a long way to explaining why they fought, and how they found the will to go on.

At the most basic level, animals and birds provided interest to fill the blank hours in the trenches and billets – bird-watching, for instance, was probably the single most popular hobby among officers. But perhaps more importantly, the ability of nature to endure, despite the bullets and blood, gave men a psychological, spiritual, even religious uplift.

Animals and plants were also reminders of home. Aside from bird-watching, soldiers went fishing in village ponds and in flooded shell holes (for eels), they went bird nesting, they hunted foxes with hounds, they shot pheasants for the pot, and they planted flower gardens in the trenches and vegetable gardens in their billets.

In an interview, the author explains:

When the poet Edward ‘Adlestrop’ Thomas was asked why he was volunteering for service in the Great War, he picked up a handful of earth and said, ‘Literally, for this’. Men went to fight for King and Countryside, as much as King and Country. Nature worship was almost a religion in Edwardian England.

And when men arrived in France, they lived in trenches – inside the earth. ‘Certainly I have never lived so close to nature before or since’, Corporal Fred Hodges of the Lancashires observed, in words that spoke for the generation in khaki.

There was no escape from Nature 1914-18. Skylarks, say, buoyed men’s spirits -one Scottish miner said about the Western Front ‘What hell it would be without the birds’- and some Nature killed the soldiers. We think of the Great War as the first modern war; actually, it was The Last Ancient War. Disease, courtesy of rats and lice, was diabolical.

But I suppose, above all else, Nature healed the mind. Men looked at the poppies growing in the mud and the swallows which shared their dug-out and saw hope – a future for themselves and humankind.

You can capture exactly that sense in some of John Masefield‘s poetry, written when he was serving as a medical orderly – the book begins with his ‘August, 1914’ – and you can read more in the Preface and the first chapter of Where Poppies Blow (the splendidly titled ‘For King and Countryside’) available here.  As the remark I’ve used as my epigraph makes clear, though, there was always (and remains) a desperately dark side to the entanglements with a militarised nature.

The nature(s) of war and biomimetic war

Charlie Haughey, VietnamOne of my tasks this past week has been to complete the revisions to ‘The Natures of War’ which, to my delight, Antipode has agreed to publish in its entirety (and with a handful of illustrations too).  I’ve added a discussion of the ways in which the narratives on which I draw – for the Western Front, the deserts of North Africa, and Vietnam – were all, for various reasons, ‘white boy’s stories’.  I had made it clear that there were troops from other continents fighting and dying on the Western Front, for whom the militarized nature of trench warfare in Europe would have been doubly strange (see also here), and I had also explained that in Vietnam there were at least two other stories to be told: most of the US memoirs were written by white soldiers so that the experiences of African-Americans were written out of the narrative, and the (not so different, as it happens) experiences of Vietnamese fighters only flickered in the footnotes.  I now address all these issues in the body of the text, and the racism of military violence – the racism within militaries ad coalitions as well as racial violence directed at ‘the enemy’ – speaks directly to racializations of nature, and I plan to write another essay drawing on the few extant and relevant memoirs from the People’s Army of North Vietnam and their ancillaries (for a taster, see here: scroll down).

But Juanita Sundberg has raised an altogether different though related question, about the ways in which non-white and (post)colonial subjects construed violence and, indeed, experienced it as quotidian.  In short, is war itself – in so far as its dominant conceptions privilege Europe and North America – seen from the position of a white subject, which is then confounded by the ‘intemperate natures’ of desert and rainforest?

The unrevised draft is still under the DOWNLOADS tab.  More soon.


While I’ve been rooting around with these questions, I discovered another way of thinking about ‘The Nature of War’.  Not sure how I missed this, but over at the Vision Machine Roger Stahl previews an essay on ‘The Nature of War’ and the ways in which

‘the discourse of “war” in news, pop culture, and weapons industry PR has taken on a host of biological metaphors. I call this discourse “biomimetic war,” and it is one that, in the end, tacitly extends military jurisdiction to the governance of life itself…

13sd1Of course, biological metaphors have been a part of war/security discourse for a while. Consider the fact that “drone” came from a WWII experiment in unmanned flight that relied on a control center called the “Queen Bee.” Surveillance, especially during the Cold War, has been rife with “bugs” and “flies on the wall.” In the post-9/11 period, however, the biological has edged toward the center as ultimate object of military power. War has gone ecological. Here, terrorism fuses with the natural disaster, Homeland Security responds to disease outbreak and domestic bombing alike, and the specter of biological weapons haunts the public imagination. In such a discursive environment, the contest we call “war” has effectively been mapped onto the biosphere as a permanent and ubiquitous condition determined less by the policing of national boundaries than policing life systems. ‘

You can download the full essay, ‘Life is War: the rhetoric of biomimesis and the future military’ at Democratic Communique 26 (2) (2014) 122-137 here.

The Natures of War

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I have – at last – uploaded what I hope is the final version of ‘The Natures of War’ (DOWNLOADS tab).  It’s the long-form version of the first Neil Smith Lecture I gave at St Andrew’s (Neil’s alma mater) almost exactly a year ago (you can access the online video here).  The basic argument remains the same, but the written version is substantively different (and much longer).  If you do have any comments or suggestions, or you spot any egregious errors, please let me know.  Here’s the introduction:


In his too short life, Neil Smith had much to say about both nature and war: from his seminal discussion of ‘the production of nature’ in his first book, Uneven development, to his dissections of war in the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries in American Empire – where he identified the end of the First World World and the end of the Second as crucial punctuations in the modern genealogy of globalisation – and its coda, The endgame of globalization, a critique of America’s wars conducted in the shadows of 9/11. And yet, surprisingly, he never linked the two. He was of course aware of their connections. He always insisted that the capitalist production of nature, like that of space, was never – could not be – a purely domestic matter, and he emphasised that the modern projects of colonialism and imperialism depended upon often spectacular displays of military violence. But he did not explore those relations in any systematic or substantive fashion.

He was not alone. The great Marxist critic Raymond Williams once famously identified ‘nature’ as ‘perhaps the most complex word in the [English] language.’ Since he wrote, countless commentators have elaborated on its complexities, but few of them have paused to note that ‘war’ was not one of Williams’s keywords (though ‘violence’ – ‘often now a difficult word’ – was). Williams was radicalised by the rise of European fascism; he joined the British Army in 1941 and served as a tank commander during the Second World War. Yet at its end he found the world had turned, and it was for that very reason that he sought to find the terms for a post-war world in which, seemingly, ‘war’ had no place.

‘In 1945, after the ending of the wars with Germany and Japan, I was released from the Army to return to Cambridge. University term had already begun, and many relationships and groups had been formed. It was in any case strange to travel from an artillery regiment on the Kiel Canal to a Cambridge college. I had been away only four and a half years, but in the movements of war had lost touch with all my university friends. Then, after many strange days, I met a man I had worked with in the first year of the war, when the formations of the 1930s, though under pressure, were still active. He too had just come out of the Army. We talked eagerly, but not about the past. We were too much preoccupied with this new and strange world around us. Then we both said, in effect simultaneously: ‘the fact is, they just don’t speak the same language’.’

I want to track backwards and forwards from Williams’s war-time experience to trace three different co-productions of nature and military violence: the soiled earth of the Western Front during the First World War, the deserts of North Africa during the Second World War (an armoured campaign very different from the European theatre in which Williams served), and the rainforests of Vietnam. My accounts can only be sketches, but they share a way of thinking of ‘nature’ (in all its complexity) as a modality that is intrinsic to the execution of military and paramilitary violence. In much the same way that ‘space’ is not only a terrain over which wars are waged – the fixation on territory that remains at the heart of modern geopolitics – but also a medium through which military and paramilitary violence is conducted, so ‘nature’ is more than a resource bank whose riches can trigger armed conflict and finance its depredations: the problematic of resource wars and conflict commodities. The spoils of war include the short-term bludgeoning of landscapes and the long-term toxicity of contamination (what Rob Nixon calls ‘slow violence’), but it is also important to trace the bio-physical formations – the conditions, provided the term is understood in the most active of senses – that are centrally involved in the militarisation of ‘nature’. For nature too is a medium through which military and paramilitary violence is conducted.

I speak of ‘co-productions’ and ‘formations’ in order to signal in advance three issues that will reappear across all three studies. First, each of these wars was in large measure what Paul Saint-Amour calls, in relation to the first of them, an optical war: they depended on geo-spatial intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance which in its various forms provided the essential basis for the maps, plans and orders that activated the war machine. And yet the remote orderings of military violence were never autonomous projections onto a pure plane; they also depended on the bodies of soldiers whose apprehension of the battle space was always more than visual. In part, this was a matter of affect, but it was also a matter of knowledge – of a corpography rather than a cartography – whose materialities also inflected imaginative geographies of militarised nature. Second, those diverse stocks of knowledge about the battle space were invested in the co-production of a ‘trickster nature’. It was commonplace to describe the Western Front as a surreally empty landscape in which the capacity for military violence was hidden from view once men withdrew into the troglodyte world of the trenches. But I have in mind a more pervasive sense of uncertainty instilled by a militarised nature: one where the earth and air could kill through an infected wound, a buried mine or a cloud of gas, and whose camouflaged landscapes could wreak havoc with the military gaze to dissemble and distract, lure and entrap. Third, this was a hideously hybrid ‘cyborg nature’ whose terrain and life-forms were saturated with the debris of violent conflict: burned-out vehicles and bombed-out buildings, barbed wire and exploded munitions, discarded weapons and abandoned supplies, toxic residues and body parts. So far so familiar, except that none of these entanglements was inert; they shaped the military operations that took place through them. In all three ways each of these battle spaces was composed of ‘vibrant matter’ that was often also deadly matter.


This version is so long I’ve cut all the illustrations, but I have uploaded the original lecture slides too (DOWNLOADS tab); I’ve already posted early versions of some of the sections – and those were illustrated – here and here.