Logistics in war

I’ve written about military logistics before – here and here (the last is also available under the DOWNLOADS tab as ‘Supplying the war in Afghanistan’) – and that early work, both historical and contemporary, intersects with my current work on casualty evacuation, so it’s good to find a new-ish blog on Logistics in War, managed by David Beaumont; its base is Australia but it casts its remit far and wide and, in a recent post, engages with Deb Cowen‘s work and my own.

It is the purpose of this blog to instigate and inspire, continue and create, a discussion on military logistics that is so often sorely lacking (or if it does occur, does so behind closed doors). Although the blog currently reflects an Australian and Army orientation, its vision is to become broadly applicable; to reflect the many different approaches to logistics as practiced by different military Services, the Joint domain, and militaries of all persuasions.

Furthermore, the blog will support the establishment of an international community of military logisticians that can share ideas, concepts and useful material in an insightful, courteous and professional manner which reflects the values of the militaries and Defence organisations that its readers may serve in. In time, guest posts will be added to the site, including from the international military logistics community.

‘Logistics in War’ aspires to provide life to a topic area that is generally dry, overly technical and grossly specialised. Its practical perspective serves the logistician and commander alike. Logistics is, after all, the conjunction of military strategy and operational concepts with the realities and practicalities of war. It deals with facts and the compromises of commanders who must shape their decisions upon the limitations and constraints of their force. As Thomas Kane, in the great Military logistics and strategic performance, puts it, logistics is an ‘arbiter’ in battle and in war. It is therefore well worth our while to understand it.

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