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.

When soldiers fall

CASEY When soldiers fallNews of an important new book that feeds directly into my new project on medical-military machines and casualties of war, 1914-2014: Steven Casey‘s When Soldiers Fall: How Americans Have Confronted Combat Losses from World War I to Afghanistan (OUP, January 2014).  My own project is concerned with the precarious journeys of those wounded in war-zones (combatants and civilians) rather than those killed and the politics of ‘body-counts’, but Casey’s work presents a vigorous challenge to the usual assumptions about public responses to combat deaths:

The extent to which combat casualties influence the public’s support for war is one of the most frequently and fiercely debated subjects in current American life and has cast an enormous shadow over both the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. The common assumption, based largely on U.S. experience in past wars, is that the public is in some way casualty averse or casualty shy, and that as losses increase its support for a war will inexorably decline. Yet this assumption has been adopted as conventional wisdom without any awareness of one of the most important dimensions of the issue: how has the public become aware of the casualties sustained during particular wars? To what extent has the government tried to manipulate or massage the figures? When and why have these official figures been challenged by opportunistic political opponents or aggressive scoop-seeking reporters?

As Steven Casey demonstrates, at key moments in most wars what the public actually receives is not straightforward and accurate casualty totals, but an enormous amount of noise based on a mixture of suppression, suspicion, and speculation. This book aims to correct this gap in information by showing precise what casualty figures the government announced during its various wars, the timing of these announcements, and any spin officials may have placed upon these, using a range of hitherto untapped primary documents. Among the nuggets he has uncovered is that during World War I the media depended on Axis figures and that the Army and Navy did not announce casualty figures for an entire year during World War II. Organized chronologically, the book addresses the two world wars, the limited wars in Korea and Vietnam, and the recent conflicts that are part of the War on Terror. Using sources such as the private military command papers of Generals Patton, MacArthur, and Westmoreland, and previously unopened New York Times archives, it offers the first analysis of how the U.S. government has publicized combat casualties during these wars, and how these official announcements have been debated and disputed by other voices in the polity. Casey discusses factors such as changes of presidential administration, the improvement of technology, the sending of war correspondents to cover multiple conflicts, and the increasing ability to identify bodies. Casey recreates the complicated controversies that have surrounded key battles, and in doing so challenges the simplicity of the oft-repeated conventional wisdom that “as casualties mount, support decreases.” By integrating military and political history, he presents a totally new interpretation of U.S. domestic propaganda since 1917, filling a major gap left by a spate of recent books. Finally, it provides a fresh and engaging new perspective on some of the biggest battles in recent American history, including the Meuse-Argonne, D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge, China’s intervention in the Korean War, the Tet Offensive, and the recent campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Amazon has temporarily withdrawn its Kindle edition because there are technical issues that it is working with OUP to resolve: I hope this is sorted out soon…  But for now you can read an extract over at Salon, ‘How Richard Nixon reinvented American warfare (…and paved the way for Iraq and Afghanistan)’:

Determined to prop up South Vietnam in an election year, Nixon’s casualty sensitivity had not extended beyond American lives to enemy noncombatants. “Now, we won’t deliberately aim for civilians,” he told his senior advisers at one point in 1972, “but if a few bombs slop over, that’s just too bad.” In Nixon cold calculation the American electorate was principally concerned with U.S. losses; it cared far less about what happened to civilians….

In the wake of defeat, the U.S. government tried to learn the appropriate lessons. As well as reconsidering military-media relations, officials thought long and hard about the conditions under which the public would support the use of force—and the prospect of casualties—in the future. Sometimes, they looked back beyond Vietnam to an earlier era when the media had appeared more manageable and the public less skeptical. Of course, even during the two world wars and Korea, the government had always faced searching questions about the veracity of its casualty information. But Vietnam had clearly changed the rules of the game. Trust in government was much lower. The media was even keener to probe for the story behind the official narrative. And the whole debate was now even more sensitive to the human cost of war. These were all legacies that the two Bushes would have to grapple with in the post–Cold War era, as they took the United States into war against a new set of enemies.