New Article: “The Embodiment of War”

Been looking forward to this. I just published an article in the Annual Review of Anthropology titled “The Embodiment of War: Growth, Development, and Armed Conflict.” In essence, the article conceives of war as an extreme “environment” that has many long-term effects on human biology, particularly for civilians in the earliest stages of life (children, infants, and prenatally).

Obviously, most people know that civilians are harmed during war, including through injuries (fatal and non) and psychological distress. I tried to go beyond this, reviewing the effects various wars have had on biological variables, including birth weight, child growth, maturation (ex. menarche), and the development of chronic diseases via the DOHaD hypothesis.

I’m hoping to build on this.

Figure 2. Some of the stressors faced by conflict-affected populations.

The Afterlife of the War in Laos

The HALO Trust organization posted this video showing how much effort it took to destroy a 750 pound bomb found in the village of Ban Nonsômboun, Laos. The bomb was dropped by US planes over forty years ago, but was still active. Altogether, the organization says it took “53 days, 250 people and 200,000 sandbags to safely dispose of the gigantic bomb in Laos which could have killed thousands if it was not found by our team.”

 

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War and Civilian Deaths in Iraq/ Iran

“To generalize about war is like generalizing about peace. Almost everything is true. Almost nothing is true.” ― Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried

 

As tensions between the U.S. and Iran seem to be growing, I think it’s important to remember how destructive the war with neighboring Iraq was.

Estimating civilian casualties is a notoriously difficult task (Roberts 2010), though several studies have attempted to elucidate how many civilians died as a result of the war (below). These were done at different points in time and primarily entailed through surveys that inquired about deaths in a sampling of households. Some of these studies included violent deaths only, while others looked at “excess deaths” that included deaths directly due to violent causes and indirect ones due to a breakdown in infrastructure. Estimates ranged from 8,000 to as high as 940,000+.

Iraq Deaths

Five surveys on Iraqi civilian deaths, with inclusive years in parentheses. Three of these looked at “excess deaths,” which include both deaths due to violence and indirect deaths stemming from the breakdown in infrastructure due to the war. The two studies with asterisks included only deaths due to violent causes.

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The Elusive “Precision Warfare”

Tirana Hassan of Amnesty International recently said this about the ways the great modern militaries have failed to protect civilians:

“The great military powers cynically boast about ‘precision’ warfare and ‘surgical’ strikes that distinguish between fighters and civilians. But the reality on the ground is that civilians are routinely targeted where they live, work, study, worship and seek medical care. Parties to armed conflict unlawfully kill, maim and forcibly displace millions of civilians while world leaders shirk their responsibility and turn their backs on war crimes and immense suffering.

“Russia, China and the United States continue to abuse their veto power by blocking draft resolutions that aim to prevent or stop atrocities from taking place. Every time this happens, they are putting innocent people living in these danger zones at grave risk.”

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Red States versus Blue States: Who Would Win a Civil War in the U.S?

Summary: Nobody will win. It would be catastrophic, as is true of nearly all wars.

 

“Nearly every government that goes to war underestimates its duration, neglects to tally all the costs, and overestimates the political objectives that can be accomplished by the use of brute force.”   

– The Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs (source)

 

Last week congressman Steve King, a Republican from Iowa, created yet another controversy by posting an image on social media that asked whether red states or blue states would win in a second U.S. civil war (the clear implication is that the red states would). Understandably, King received a lot of criticism for this, for contributing to a political ecosphere that is already steeped in heated rhetoric, in which real political violence has been on the increase. King has since deleted the image, but he is not alone. With anxieties and polarization growing, talk of a possible second civil war in the U.S. is still relatively rare, but I can’t recall another period in my lifetime where I’ve heard it with such regularity. Even Stanford’s Niall Ferguson has written about this.

Others have opined on King’s glibly pondering civil war as a sitting member of Congress, the fact that he overlooked the fact that his own state is “blue” in the image, his transphobia, or his timing (the post came just a day after a white supremacist killed 50 people in New Zealand mosques). I’d like to focus on the idea of “winning” a civil war.

First, a step back. The way that we initially frame a question has a big impact on our thinking. As the linguist George Lakoff wrote around the time of the First Gulf War, “metaphors can kill.” To frame war solely in terms of winning and losing (ex. an image of two boxers) does a great disservice to what actually happens during wars. Lakoff continued: “It is important to distinguish what is metaphorical from what is not. Pain, dismemberment, death, starvation, and the death and injury of loved ones are not metaphorical. They are real and in a war, they could afflict tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of real human beings, whether Iraqi, Kuwaiti, or American.” Certainly, the same suffering would apply to a civil war in the U.S.

In a similar vein, the former war correspondent Chris Hedges wrote in his book “War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning,” that we should distinguish between “mythic war” and “sensory war.” Mythic war is deceptively seductive, offering people the chance to participate in some great noble cause, though people’s justifications may vary (to defeat evil, for freedom, for party, for God, for country, for one’s ethnic group, to avenge past wrongs, etc.). Mythic war’s perennial appeal resides in its apparent opportunity to help people find meaning by contributing to something potentially historic and bigger than themselves, particularly for the marginalized and for those who have struggle to find meaning in their lives. For these reasons, Hedges wrote, war can be an “addictive narcotic.”  

By contrast, sensory war refers to the on-the-ground experiences, the fear, the atrocities, the “blunders and senseless slaughter by our generals, the execution of prisoners and innocents,” ultimately revealing that – quoting Harry Patch – war is “organized murder and nothing else.”

 

Historical Lessons: How Destructive Would a Civil War Be?

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Weapon$ over Civilians

President Trump’s made some more controversial comments this week, this time in a statement downplaying the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which the intelligence community said likely came at the behest of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Instead, he emphasized that the United States would maintain its business relationship with Saudi Arabia, including the importance of KSA’s oil supply and their desire to purchase weapons from the United States.

President Trump’s made some more controversial comments this week, this time in a statement downplaying the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which the intelligence community said likely came at the behest of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Instead, he emphasized that the United States would maintain its business relationship with Saudi Arabia, including the importance of KSA’s oil supply and their desire to purchase weapons from the United States.

I’ve seen a lot of public criticism of these comments, and rightfully so, but they seemed to focus primarily on Trump’s willingness to overlook the ability of a head of state to order a murder of a single person. However, I wanted to focus on a bigger problem, which is the cold calculation of the desire to profit from the sale of weapons and military equipment. He wrote:  

After my heavily negotiated trip to Saudi Arabia last year, the Kingdom agreed to spend and invest $450 billion in the United States. This is a record amount of money. It will create hundreds of thousands of jobs, tremendous economic development, and much additional wealth for the United States. Of the $450 billion, $110 billion will be spent on the purchase of military equipment from Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and many other great U.S. defense contractors. If we foolishly cancel these contracts, Russia and China would be the enormous beneficiaries – and very happy to acquire all of this newfound business. It would be a wonderful gift to them directly from the United States!

I’m not that naive. I understand that the sale of military equipment is a business. In this case however, the crass prioritization of profit is happening at the very same time that civilians of Yemen are dying by the droves, to a large extent from weapons sold by the U.S. to Saudi Arabia. An estimated 85,000 Yemeni children may have starved to death as a result of the war (so far), with the wider population on the brink of famine. It is a pattern of war that civilians consistently bear the brunt of it all, dying at a higher rate than combatants.

A 10-year-old Yemeni boy suffering from severe malnutrition. (Photo: Ahmad al-Basha/AFP/Getty Images)

It seems to me that the celebration of military contracts worth billions of dollars while the very source of that profit inflicts incalculable suffering on actual lives is extremely callous and obscene. The emphasis on the injustice of letting people get away with Khashoggi’s murder is well-placed. But I think there could be much more emphasis in our public discourse that American companies are profiting by inflicting pain and death on innocent people. It is dirty money.    

Links Between War & Famine: From the Chevauchée to Yemen, S. Sudan, Ukraine, and Syria

 

“Armed conflicts lead to hunger and reduced food production and economic growth in developing and transition countries. Reciprocally, food and economic insecurity and natural resource scarcities–real and perceived–often precipitate violence.”

-Marc Cohen and Per Pinstrup-Andersen (1999)

 

Recent images coming out of war-torn Yemen are heartbreaking. After three years of fighting between Houthi rebels and a Saudi-led coalition (backed by the US, UK and France), an estimated eight million people are near starvation. The war has exacerbated the nutritional situation in what was already one of the poorest countries in the region, causing infrastructure to crumble and unemployment rates to skyrocket. A blockade of Yemen’s ports has also led to a rise in food prices and to a lack of medical supplies, leaving people dependent on insufficient amounts of food aid.

BBC

A malnourished infant in Yemen, with a low upper arm circumference (source: BBC).

 

This has been building for a while. Nearly two years ago, a BBC report cited statistics from the UN that 370,000 children in Yemen were starving. Even infants, who may be buffered from difficult economic conditions via breastfeeding, were not spared as many mothers were too malnourished to produce milk.

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