/ Published November 28, 2017
Ecologies of Power: Countermapping the Logistical Landscapes and Military Geographies of the U.S. Department of Defense by Pierre Bélanger and Alexander Arroyo. The MIT Press (https://mitpress.mit.edu), 1 Rogers Street, Cambridge, Massachussetts 02142-1209, 2016, 448 pages, $39.95 (softcover), ISBN 978-0-26252-939-6.
Pierre Bélanger and Alexander Arroyo’s analysis focuses on the aspects of Department of Defense (DOD) operations that are constructive and visible in the process contravening the fashion in war studies of foregrounding (to the extent possible) covert operations, state secrecy, and the destructiveness of military force as emblematic of modern war.
As a landscape designer and critical geographer, respectively, the authors are primarily interested in how the US military’s global logistical chain, and the technology-laden operational approach it supports, produce spaces: the various ways in which the parcels of our world are defined and made different. The focus of the text is therefore not on warfare as such, but on the various political, economic, and material factors that coalesce together to set the terms under which contemporary conflict occurs and shape the form it takes; war, along with various other social and political aspects of our world, are the products of complex, interlocking ecologies. This foundation, engaged as a complex arrangement of factors that are both material and social, give rise to both the operational considerations of modern warfare and the threats which hallmark it. Although the text is designed to elicit reflection on how conflict constitutes itself, rather than provide the ultimate “closure” of an argument, the agenda it sets for itself is nonetheless ambitious. The text accomplishes its goal of creating opportunities for the reader to question why modern warfare is approached the way it is on the part of both the DOD and its enemies, but its lack of engagement with the literature on warfare itself hampers the effectiveness of the argument.
The key weakness of the text is that it does not define what war is, even though a key aspect of the text is to disrupt prevailing understandings of what warfare is and how it constitutes itself. The problem is that the text asserts, without elaborating, that how we think about warfare today is bereft of particular kinds of nuance. This is an element of its genre—a spate of critical work that seeks to unsettle ideas about complex phenomena like war and replace them with broader, less deterministic and more dynamic ways of thinking. Even so, without clearly defining what exactly is being disrupted, the text comes to rely on a series of seemingly arbitrary differentiations that is apt to strike those familiar with military affairs as either unproductive or unoriginal. For example, the chapter on improvised explosive devices (IED) illustrates how operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan are heavily shaped by the transportation networks upon which International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and coalition forces either rely upon or are required to create as part of ongoing stability operations. It would seem, according to the layout of the text, that Bélanger and Arroyo do not consider these operations part of modern war fighting, a fairly odd assertion that would be better served had it been placed in the context of contemporary war studies. Further, the chapter discusses the various tensions created in Afghanistan by ISAFs support of agricultural reform, which is linked back to IEDs and the resurgent Taliban. Again, it is seemingly arbitrary to insist that this is not war, nor part of war, in the current context. Further, the idea that weapons systems are a function of their context is all but a cliché without more elaboration on the theme. When the text turns to an analysis of communications related to ongoing unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) operations, the insistence that this is not warfare becomes all but untenable. To recapitulate, Bélanger and Arroyo’s text is designed to disrupt the assumption that modern conflict is separate from global economic flows, sociocultural context, and other aspects of our world, but it is not sufficiently clear what, and how, it is accomplishing this without a clearer articulation of war as understood in a more conventional sense.
Defining its disruptive focus in more specific terms would have allowed the rather impressive elements of the argument to carry more force and perhaps have more impact on practitioners. For example, the chapter on nutrition, namely the prevalence of chocolate milk as a staple of combat soldiers’ diets in theater, is excellent. By tracing how chocolate milk has become an essential part of combat nutrition, Bélanger and Arroyo bring to light the contingency and impact of otherwise seemingly banal elements of the Western way of war. Providing soldiers chocolate milk is not merely pragmatic, but is supported by a massive logistical infrastructure summoned into existence by cultural preferences and the political economy of defense procurement. In this way, the chapter successfully disrupts the idea that everything we provide our Soldiers is a necessity in the strictest sense, opening the door to reflection on why we chose to provide other things and sustain the massive logistical networks required to provide them.
Ecologies of Power is an interesting text that accomplishes some of its goals. However, its avowed goal of studying those elements of the modern DOD that are unrelated to direct conflict rests on an incomplete analytical apparatus. The focus of its disruptive energies is not clearly articulated, and as a result many familiar with military affairs are unlikely to respond in the way the authors intend. Even so, it’s truly an original form of engagement with the question of modern warfare providing a productively disruptive rejoinder to the common sense of military affairs, as evidenced by its military history of chocolate milk.
Dr. Jack Adam MacLennan
401 Chennault Circle
Maxwell AFB, AL 36112-6010