No humanitarianism without a war!

It is no more exclusive military operations by nation-states since non-state actors, and even cartels, engage in it

By Author Pramod K Nayar   |   Published: 6th Apr 2019   12:02 am Updated: 5th Apr 2019   9:42 pm

The Irish poet WB Yeats summarised the futility of war in two lines in ‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’:

Those that I fight I do not hate
Those that I guard I do not love

War brings distant parts of the world, and its people, into violent contact with each other. It becomes a way of ‘knowing’, even! While soldiers head into ‘enemy space’ for surgical strikes or invasion, we, the diffused audience in the age of televisual wars, encounter distant geographical territory as well. However, to think of war as an exclusive military operation by nation-states is inadequate since non-state actors and organisations, even cartels, also engage in terror attacks in distant territories.

We see two kinds of space unfold on our screen, coterminous with military action: battlespace and borderlands, as the geographer Derek Gregory terms them. Battlespace is both multiscalar and multidimensional: there is no ‘front’ where the war is fought, since all territory is converted into battlespace. One needs to only look at how civilian areas are also bombed in the course of both military and terrorist attacks to recognise that there is no territory that is not potentially or in actuality a warzone.

Spaces of Conflict

That said, what is vaguely disturbing is that for the world’s military powers, parts of the Global South are integrated into their imagination solely as spaces where military exercises and attacks can be carried out, or military bases and prisons established (such as Guantanamo Bay in Cuba or Abu Ghraib in Baghdad) – from Somalia to Nicaragua. That is, the borderlands exist, in Gregory’s words, as ‘shadowlands, spaces that enter European and American imaginaries in phantasmatic form, barely known but vividly imagined’. They can only be imagined as spaces of conflict, of embedded violence or spaces to be pulverised under some guise or the other.

Drone warfare is an excellent instance of the blurring of borders and boundaries because the distant is bombed via remote control with no human loss on the invading side. These distant places enter the First World imagination as spaces that have been identified, hit and destroyed – nothing beyond that. Once upon a time, maps helped us imagine a world in all its diversity and expanse, now televisual war achieves the same results.

This also means that no place is free of the potential of an airstrike or a bomb attack. And hence Gregory’s frighteningly ordinary term, ‘the everywhere war’ (2011):

‘moments of pure laceration’ that puncture the everyday, as a diffuse and dispersed ‘state of violence’ replaces the usual configurations of war. Violence can erupt on a commuter train in Madrid, a house in Gaza City, a poppy field in Helmand or a street in Ciudad Juarez: such is the contrapuntal geography of the everywhere war. It is also to claim that, as cartographic reason falters and military violence is loosed from its frames, the conventional ties between war and geography have come undone…

‘Banality’ of War

From the ‘banality of evil’, have we reached a ‘banality’ of war, where war is everywhere, a feature of everyday, ordinary lives as real or as potential? Looking at the news reports, one tends to say ‘yes’.

But to isolate everywhere war from its related dimensions in the 21st century is to ignore the very real features of life. War is increasingly woven into, and as, military intervention, humanitarian intervention and global neoliberal economies that hinge on sanctions, so-called ‘free trade’, privatisation, seizure of natural resources and deregulation of markets in the Global South.

The influence wielded by global conglomerates and transnational corporations upon the nation-states in the Global South is an exercise of financial power tied in with military power. This is what the social theorist Zygmunt Bauman has termed ‘meta-sovereignty’, competition between groups of states rather than between the states themselves and ‘perched on the “tripod” of military, economic, and cultural sovereignties’.

Military Neoliberalism

This emerging geography of the everywhere war that is irrevocably aligned with and embedded in such a meta-sovereignty is a form of military neoliberalism, argues Michael Schwartz (2011). This is what we need to study as new technologies of mapping the world: we move from militarisms – not restricted to nation-states, let us emphasise – to cultural, financial and humanitarian cartographies of the Global South by the conglomerates and transnational organisations.

These humanitarian crises are quite often the outcome of military conquests and exploitative regimes of operation that deny access to natural resources or reorganise the region’s economy in ways unfavourable to that region’s inhabitants, which then makes the crisis itself a component of military neoliberalism.

In everywhere war, there is no region that needs to be left out, just as in the case of neoliberalism. It is absurd to think or imagine an isolated region not open to exploitation – whether this is the Antarctic (which we now discover may have uranium deposits) or the interior Amazon. Everywhere war means that any place on earth, and by extension any people, are open to the ‘jurisdiction’ of military neoliberalism which, after the bombing and the conquest, sees the superpower airdropping peanut-butter sandwiches in the same area as a part of its humanitarian efforts (this was done in Afghanistan in 2000-2001, and termed ‘humanitarian daily rations’)!

Military neoliberalism is the new technology of cartography, and is an indispensable tool of conquest. Military neoliberalism makes it impossible for us to see military action in distant Congo or Vietnam (again, ‘once upon a time’), as distinct from economic, humanitarian cultural and political action. The worry is that humanitarian action, in the age of everywhere war, itself can only be read backwards into this narrative of exploitation and conquest.

There is, clearly, no humanitarianism without a war.

(The author is Professor, Department of English, University of Hyderabad)