Somewhere between the relational turn in social science and increasingly granular approaches to warfighting, the reality of international relations, and accounts of the wars being fought from core to periphery, have been looking more and more like exercises in hacking deep ecology. In The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One, David Kilcullen leverages”conflict ethnography” to help explain insurgencies in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere. In Blue Helmets and Black Markets: The Business of Survival In the Siege of Sarajevo, Peter Andreas fine tunes international political economy through a close reading of the lives of the city’s residents. Similarly, in Shadows of War: Violence, Power, and International Profiteering In the Twent-First Century, Carolyn Nordstrom digs into the “deep politics of war”.
The list goes on. Some academicians, I’m sure, would probably shake their heads and mutter “big deal – we’ve been doing that forever…”. I suppose the point isn’t a vapid assertion that anthropologists are out there doing ethnographic studies, or that historians are telling more richly detailed stories of what’s going than anyone else. Or even that warfighters are relying increasingly on thick description to better understand the battlespace. What’s interesting about this – not what’s new, which isn’t what I’m suggesting, but what makes this more engaging and accessible – is that there’s a deep ecology of virtual violence, ambient warfare, and fluid interfaces, and no single discipline has a lock on how best to decipher and map out its surfaces to get at the underneath of things.
Interestingly, references to “epicenters” keep popping up. Shadows of War, the book’s jacket description tells us, “is grounded in ethnographic research carried out at the epicenters of political violence on several continents.” The point not made is that digging at the details, getting to the story beneath the story, means looking to the event beneath the event – to that spot beneath the epicentre that actually constitutes gound zero: the hypocenter. Thick description is the stuff of better storytelling, exposing the sub-rosa details that enable a more critical appreciation of war’s frames, regimes, paradigms, artefacts, and metaphors. I won’t go so far as to suggest that this represents a turn in the literatures – more that there’s much to recommend hacking the deep ecology of conflict and crisis to better understand, in empirical terms, its hypocenters.
Not everyone tells a good story. More often than not, it takes a concerted journalistic effort to translate things for public consumption. Sometimes, some would argue – if I can be forgiven the green metaphor – journalists focus on intimate details to the point of losing the forest for the trees. When the storytelling is good, on the other hand, the trees, forests and everything else spin a rich weave. Which is a long-winded way of getting to the point that I read something neat a couple of weeks ago. Stumbling across Peter Beaumont‘s The Secret Life of War: Journeys Through Modern Conflict, I was struck by the excerpt on the back cover: “Most of the time contact is less awful than the anticipation of it. In the action and adrenaline, an occult layer is stripped away. What follows is the moment when war reveals itself: a busy-ness about staying alive even when you are curled up in a ditch or hiding in a basement.”
I’ve only just started reading The Secret Life of War. The writing is brilliant, evocative, textured, and resonates with something I’ve been thinking about for years now: the tactile realities of guerrilla warfare. Not post-modern desciptions of thin air, or theoretical disquisitions on invisible terrorists, but the material ghosts hovering about behind the murky translucencies of the fog of war and politics. The ones, as opposed to the zeros. “Observed from a distance,” Beaumont writes, “war is defined by its most visible phenemena – the killing, destruction and displacement. They are solid things, assessable through numbers, statistic and dates – even the bald two-line report describing how [a soldier] died,” the details of which “are boringly, intentionally prosaic, skulking around the edges of his death.”
They represent the aspect of conflict it is possible easily to map through its battles and altering front lines, the war of press conferences, statements and newspaper reports. But conflict has another quality that exists at the margins of observable violence. A hinterland electric with words and stories, with the telling and retelling that enfolds war’s central facts, it is this periphery that gives to conflict its real, deep and resonant meaning. Alive with voices… searching for ways to describe their experience, it is imaginative and unreliable – dense with evasions, excuses, lies and hatreds. Yet even this unreliability is more truthful, more personal and more authentic than the cleaned up and sterile official version: real and human as it is in its failings.
It wasn’t until I actually started reading The Secret Life of War that I realized my connection of sorts to Beaumont. I’d initially confused him with Peter Jouvenal, the founder and owner of the Gandamack Lodge in Kabul, once described as “the hardest pub in the world.” I had the opportunity to visit the Gandamack in late May. The drive leading up to its steps is accessible from the street but protected behind non-descript armoured blast doors and ensconced, like so many locations in Kabul, within its own guarded urban compound. At the time, I wanted to look up its owner, Jouvenal, a former soldier and BBC journalist, and maybe buy him a drink in his own bar. I didn’t, to my regret. Maybe another time. Now, as I read this book, by Beaumont, I’m reminded of that brief experience. The dusty, sepia-toned night drive in an armoured SUV to get to the Gandamack. The halved 500lb Soviet bomb casings that serve as plant pots in its courtyard. The vintage weapons that line its atmospheric foyer. The menu that offers not “sauteed aubergine” but, in an hysterical misspelling, “sated aborigine”. The business cards (now, including my own), tacked to the heavy wood beams in the Gandamack’s cramped, musty, basement bar – most of them of soldiers, security consultants, academics, internationals working for the UN, NATO, or NGOs.
I look forward to going back, soon, to finding and feeling the grit and grime of places in between, to sorting through the truthful unreliability of that hinterland electric with words and stor