Sexual Exploitation and Abuse in Aid Work

The internet is abuzz this week with the breaking news about revelations that Oxfam workers paid for sex with women and children in Haiti in 2011, while deployed to the country in the wake of the devastating 2010 earthquake, from which the country is still recovering.

The 2010 earthquake killed 200,000 Haitians and caused more than 1.5 million people to become homeless, as well as devastated the national economy. For years, people have lived in tent cities, supported by numerous international aid organizations, including various UN agencies.

As numerous studies have now pointed out, women are made especially vulnerable in the wake of crises, such as that which rocked Haiti in 2010. Because of pre-existing social, political, and economic inequalities, which mean women pre-crisis have limited material means to support themselves or families independently combined with a high burden of care responsibilities, both the effects and costs of natural disasters and other acute crises often gravely magnify women’s subordination.

It is precisely because of Haiti’s already starkly stratified society, wherein gender intersects with class-based and racial inequalities, that not long after the quake, reports began to emerge of systematic sexual exploitation and abuse occurring in the country. One of the early scandals involved reports of troops belonging to the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti – MINUSTAH – gang raping (or, in the industry lingo, perpetrating ‘collective rape’ against) an 18-year-old Haitian man, which was caught on video. However, long before this incident, reports were indicating an alarming extent of rape and sexual violence against women and children as young as 2 in the tent cities. Further reports allege sexual exploitation of women and children in ‘exchange’ for food, money, or other consumables. The Interuniversity Institute for Research and Development in Haiti noted how common the “sex-for-food” exchange was in camps in Haiti, saying:

 “In particular, young girls have to negotiate sexually in order to get shelter from the rains and access to food aid.”

But even before the earthquake, UN aid workers were implicated in systematic sexual abuse of female children (resulting in the expulsion of over 100 Sri Lankan troops from Haiti in 2007), and of ‘rampaging’ in Port-au-Prince, firing 22,000 rounds of ammunition, killing 23 people. Thus, these new revelations must be placed in a longer history of (neo)colonial violence and exploitation that has characterized the international community’s engagement with Haiti for over a decade.

80 percent of Haitians live in poverty. Before the earthquake, the country was one of the lowest-ranked in development indicators by the UNDP (149th out of 182), a situation only exacerbated by the adoption of neoliberal economic policies as a condition of receiving US and international assistance for decades. These policies, combined with foreign aid policies, have “for decades undermined the capacity of the Haitian state to meet the needs of its citizens” (Horton 2012: 299). Thus, the social support that should have been available to vulnerable populations has long been absent, or problematically tied to funding priorities of external agents. These conditions have made women affected by the earthquake even more dependent on international agencies for what life-sustaining provisions they may offer. Two years after the earthquake, it was largely poor women who remained as the primary residents of official and unofficial tent camps.

A situation, obviously, rife for exploitation.

According to researchers, post-earthquake societal and camp conditions have facilitated sexual exploitation of women and girls through various means. In some camps, male-dominated committees are responsible for the control and distribution of aid, and women have reported being forced to negotiate sex in order to obtain access to vital supplies. Women community leaders have repeatedly linked women’s economic situation post-earthquake with a rise in the number of women and girls engaging in ‘sex work.’

But to claim that these girls and women are exercising agency in exchanging sex for food, or money, or protection may be misguided. Before the earthquake, a 2005 study by the IOM found that, while some cited poverty and lack of opportunity as the reason they engaged in ‘sex work,’ others were trafficked against their will.

Of course, with the most recent revelations brought forward regarding Oxfam, accusations are being levelled against the organization’s toxic and masculinist environment and lack of moral leadership. The UK International Development Secretary is threatening to cut aid funding in the wake of the scandal.

What is not being talked about is both the link between peacekeeper sexual exploitation and abuse and aid worker sexual exploitation and abuse, and the systemic structural conditions that make exploiting vulnerable women around the globe both thinkable and actionable for renegade aid cowboys. While one quite decent analysis rightfully points to the economic disparity between aid-recipient states and deployed rich, Western humanitarian workers as an obvious source of the problem, nowhere does the author or other commentators note what gender is doing in this equation.

In a global and historical perspective, we know that rampant sex-based economies that now characterize countries like Thailand and the Philippines were born of the sexual exploitation and abuse of women by foreign (US) militaries. Prostitution industries have more or less formally been established around military bases throughout the 20th century, and laid the groundwork for prostitution becoming a considerable market sector for host countries. As Jeffreys puts it:

“military prostitution caused the industrialization of prostitution in a country” and “local women and girls became the raw materials of the global sex industry, not only prostituted within local and sex tourism industries at home but trafficked into prostitution worldwide.”

Underpinning this system is the widespread expectation that rich(er), (more) powerful, (white) men are entitled to extract sex from women and girls over whom they can exercise control. That patriarchal systems not only enable the expectation of women’s sexual availability and men’s entitlement to it, but should also be understood as intimately tied to male dominance as a systemic feature of society. To quote MacKinnon, the exceptionality of these acts as especially exploitative overlooks the extent to which “men do in war what they do in peace.”

Consider these revelations of abuse in the context of a recent study by Promundo which found that 26% of British and American males agree that “A ‘real man’ should have as many sexual partners as he can,” while 40% believed in men’s economic primacy over women. Furthermore, men who expressed such sentiments were six times more likely to have reported sexually harassing a woman or a girl.

Given that the industry as a whole is fraught with power relations inscribed in patriarchy, colonialism, and capitalist class relations, I’m happy to see that this scandal has raised questions about the durability of the aid industry as a means for addressing post-conflict and post-crisis societal issues. But to represent sexual exploitation and abuse as an isolated (to an organization, geographical region, or industry) phenomenon overlooks how the abusive relationship engendered in this scandal is made possible (probable!) by wider power relations in which the various agents of this story sit.

Respectability and the protective logic of liberal masculinity in Australia’s arms trade

On the 29th of January Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced a $3.8 billion fund to encourage local arms manufacturers to increase their trade with the aim of Australia becoming one of the top 10 arms exporters in the world. The reason behind the push, he explained, was twofold. First, he explained that given the size of Australia’s defence budget (around 12th largest in the world) “we should be a lot higher up the scale.” Second, he explained that Australian workers needed the manufacturing jobs. The new arms initiate, named the Defence Export Facility, and the justifications used to back it up are classic protective moves in the handbook of liberal masculinity.

Malcolm Turnbull stands in front of a Bushmaster Infantry Mobility Vehicle

For any student of feminist international relations, this distinction will be a familiar one. In 1992 Ann Tickner wrote about how different models of masculinity are deployed in international relations, showing how notions of manhood are deployed by states to justify their actions. Turnbull’s justifications for increasing the export of arms fits comfortably within the liberal logic of protection. Like most liberal articulations of institutional masculinity, the violence behind the decision to invest almost 4 billion dollars in promoting the arms trade is hidden behind economic ‘rationalism’ and vague allusions to protection.


In this mode the arms trade is good for Australia because it will provide jobs and a stronger military. However, unlike more robust articulations of militant nationalism, it does this through promoting the market economy. The program makes militarism respectable by creating “tens of thousands of jobs for Australian manufacturers.” This kind of approach does not contain the violent ‘fire and fury’ rhetoric of recent American militarism but couches masculine protection in a veneer of economic necessity and mutual benefit. But like most liberal logics of protection relies on an impressive capacity for double-speak and structural violence.

Australia, like the Scandinavian social democracies we often hope to be compared to, makes a good show of trying to position ourselves as enlightened (liberal) global citizens by quickly adopting humanitarianism, human rights and a gender-sensitive approach to foreign policy. However, like Sweden, our humanitarianism has centred much more on presenting a ‘human face’ to the world through charity and another posturing while simultaneously pursuing an economic agenda that supports the structural conditions behind the violence. Or as Jacqui True has put it in relation to Sweden: “How is it possible to sell arms (when, regardless of whom you first sell them to, they often end up perpetrating crimes) and at the same time promote a humanitarian, human rights approach to foreign policy?”

At a time when the world is particularly preoccupied with the overt masculine violence of Donald Trump, it is worth being reminded of the more insidious logic of masculine liberal protection. Throughout his tenure as Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has striven to distance his ‘leadership style’ from that of his predecessor Tony Abbot. Abbot sort to live up to perform the kind of over exaggerated machismo of militant nationalism which might make a men’s rights activist blush (and Mark Latham swoon). This entailed threatening to ‘shirtfront’ Vladimir Putin and never squandering a chance to show his explicitly demonstrate his patriarchal credentials for a howling mob.  In contrast, Turnbull has consistently tried to position himself as a rational liberal businessman, avoiding the most brutal jingoism of Australian nationalism in favour of dispassionate arguments for order and profitability.

Tony Abbott embracing muscular nationalism

When a leader like Turnbull puts forward the argument that “we don’t see threats from our neighbours in our region, but nonetheless all countries must plan ahead” the structural violence of Australian foreign policy can hide much more easily than behind a populist leader. But that doesn’t make it less violent. When pundits in the Australian left have visible conniptions over the explicit brutality of Trump’s rhetoric and foreign policy it is easy to forget the respectable violence of Australian politics.

The politics of respectability are particularly dangerous in Australia’s politics because of the way that they are used to silence critical voices on settler colonialism, militarism, heteronormativity and racism. Most recently this has flared up in rabid attempts to sack Tarneen Onus-Williams from the Koorie Youth Council in Victoria for pointing out the colonial foundation of the Australian state, but the use of gendered respectability to circumvent radical critique is deeply embedded in the structure of Australian politics. In justifying the right to rule liberal masculinity relies on the politics of respectability to compartmentalise issues and deflect critique. Working against violence demand an attentiveness to how masculine logics can cloak themselves in respectability through contrast with more overt examples of masculine violence. Liberal politicians rely on the promising to save politics from the aggressive masculinity of more overtly militant men and from the disorder of radical change. When actors present their militarism in respectable terms, it’s imperative to remember how the logic of protection operates to make structural violence appear natural, inevitable and justified.



Why Feminism is Integral to Understanding ‘Conflict Related Sexual Violence’

Last year, I was invited to participate in a couple of workshops on conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV). One was academic, with a specific focus on how we can know something about sexual violence in war and the methods used by researchers to come to know this violence. The other was more practitioner-oriented, and was attended by some of the key players of international policy-making on CRSV. While both were invigorating and inspiring events, what struck me from discussions in both is how far removed the study of wartime sexual violence has come from its feminist roots.

In recent decades, academic and policy interest on sexual violence in war has grown exponentially. Far from its origins on the margins of studies of war, sexual violence is now a central topic and efforts to understand its causes and consequences span the disciplines interested in armed conflict, political violence, international security, and humanitarian crises. However, as the issue has become mainstream, much of its early feminist-informed analyses have been lost to increasingly positivist socio-political and scientific approaches to understand this violence.

But much is lost in this maneuver. As I’ve written about elsewhere, the harmonized ‘rape as a weapon of war’ narrative that has been produced through the elevation of sexual violence to the international security agenda “has produced an unsustainable and ineffectual paradigm that is based ultimately on the fetishization of this violence.”

While early feminist analyses of rape in war contributed to this amalgamation of all forms of CRSV as a single, coherent phenomenon, recent corrective efforts by critical scholars to disaggregate and contextualize CRSV has resulted in a near abandonment of feminist frames for understanding this violence. While feminists have pointed out that rape in war, like rape in so-called times of ‘peace’, cannot be understood except through an analysis of patriarchal power disparities between the sexes, some have argued that because patriarchy is a constant structural feature of societies, it cannot be causal or independently explanatory for sexual violence.

But if we throw the baby out with the bathwater, as we have seen done in not only scholarship, but also policy and advocacy on sexual violence in armed conflict, we end up with the explanation that either men are animals who can’t control their insatiable sexual urges, for which war provides the convenient breakdown of social barriers to their animal impulses; or, that rape and sexual violence is genderless, equivalently perpetrated and experienced by members of both sexes, and thus understandable only as either an innate human quality or the result of a few ‘bad apples.’

The value of sexual violence must be seen through the lens of sexual politics. That is, the recognition that (the physical act of) sex and sexuality are deeply set within human social relations and comprehensible only in relation to “the variety of attitudes and values to which culture subscribes” (Millet 1970, 23). Such a perspective invites us to critically interrogate the ways in which sexual violence is enacted within a system of sexual domination, which simultaneously inscribes meaning and power to violated/violating bodies and to the act itself. This meaning and power is not isolated to CRSV, but visible also in the typical link between cruelty and sexuality in our everyday ‘peacetime’ societies, as well.

That is because sexuality is a social construct borne out of patriarchal relations. As such, sexuality is made meaningful as a relation of dominance and submission, gendered through dichotomous symbolisms that associate dominance with the masculine and submission with the feminine. In this way, the gendered nature of sexual violence comes from its construction within a system of patriarchy, while the gendered effects are not limited to the biological sex of either the victim or perpetrator.

Ultimately, the study of sexual violence in armed conflict requires feminism in order to understand how power and sexuality are mutually constituted in ways that make sexual forms of violence particularly egregious and humiliating, reaping for the perpetrator personal, social, political, and/or economic dividends.

Sex and Death in the Irrational World of Nuclear Defense

The blogosphere is a-Twitter with Donald Trump’s recent reaction to a speech made by North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un as part of his New Year’s address to the nation. In the speech, he stated:

“The US cannot declare war against us. The entire US territories are within our firing range and the nuclear missile button is right there on my desk,”

“We have secured powerful deterrence against the nuclear threat from the US.”

His speech was followed by a series of social media posts flaunting his nuclear capabilities:

In response, Donald Trump, in usual fashion, responded via social media with a tweet now heard ’round the world:

While many have noted this tweet as the latest in a series of misguided, reactionary social media responses to global political issues that have come to define Trump’s presidency, the obvious analogy to penile (dys)function has been less commented on.

In 1987, Carol Cohn published what has become one of the germinal works of feminist theory in international relations: “Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals.” The piece is an auto-ethnography and participant observation based on her time at a university center on defense technology and arms control, “The Center.” She sheds light on the gendered language through which unfathomably destruction and mass death becomes rationalized, palatable, and even funny in The Center. The ‘technostrategic’ language used by Defense Intellectuals obscures the physical realities of these weapons and instead  is “abstract, sanitized, full of euphemisms…sexy and fun to use.”

In particular, she notes the sexualized vocabulary of the nuclear standoff during the Cold War found the language used by defense staff suffused with sexual, mostly phallic imagery that creates a sexualized intimacy between the developers and handlers of the weapon and the weapon itself. She notes: “homoerotic excitement, heterosexual domination, the drive toward competency and mastery, the pleasures of membership in an elite and privileged group.” The association of nuclear power with male sexual prowess, she finds, mirrors the famous US Marine Corps chant: “this is my rifle, this is my gun, one is for killing the other’s for fun.”

How does feminist theory help us understand Trump’s reaction to Kim Jong-Un? Chris Cillizza, writing for CNN, notes:

“In Trump’s mind, the first, second and third most important measures of success are size. Everything he is involved with must be the biggest, the tallest, the most well-attended, the most expensive, the best.
A bit of armchair psychology would suggest that relentless focus on size is born of insecurity.”

Yet, we cannot understand such insecurity manifesting through obsession with size without feminist analysis. As Penny Strange wrote about the arms race, in 1989,

“striving for mastery and superiority [is] a striking feature of a male-dominated society; we see it as not only widespread, but also admired, desired and cultivated in half the human race, and an acceptable mode of political discourse and international relations.”

This is only made possible because international relations exist in a global system of patriarchy, wherein the physical ability to subjugate someone or something “becomes necessary proof of manhood.” That subjugation need not be only physical, but economic, political and social as well. Each is merely an expression of the same underlying drive for dominance and “are convertible one to the other.”

Of course, Trump (nor Kim Jong-Un) would be the first head of state to act out of masculine anxities. David Halberstam accounts for the behaviour of US leaders in the Vietnam War, noting that:

“President Lyndon B. Johnson had always been haunted by the idea that he would be judged as being insufficiently manly for the job…. He had unconsciously divided people around him between men and boys. Men were the activists, doers, who conquered business empires, who acted instead of talked, who made it in the world and had the respect of other men. Boys were the talkers and the writers and the intellectuals who sat around thinking and criticising and doubting instead of doing…. Hearing that one of the administration was becoming a dove on Vietnam, Johnson said ‘Hell, he has to squat to piss.'” (Emphasis added).

What these analyses point to is the limited scope we have for de-escalation when one’s willingness and ability to “push the button” is so tied up to their self-conception of worth constructed within the norms of masculinity under patriarchy. But also, that a simple change of leadership may not be sufficient, when those leaders are in many ways reflective of wider societal expectations of manly behaviour when at the helm (or fingertips) of the nuclear ‘button.’

Reading a life: Interpreting life-history transcripts honestly

“Life history research brings us to the level of personal experience. Where you are not just dealing with figures, abstractions or cultural categories, we are dealing with real living breathing people and their experiences.” Raewyn Connell


“I must confess that I found the analysis of my data intensely problematic. I wanted to be faithful to the methodological approach I had decided upon and to treat the interview data simply as discursive artefacts, but this was complicated by the fact that I was analysing texts that I had created through an encounter with another person. I breathed the same air as these people, they welcomed me into their offices, and we talked beyond the research, sharing small details of our lives. Deconstructing their words… felt decidedly wrong, as though I were trying to catch them out, trip them up, or twist their words. As I made notes, I could hear them in my head: “That’s not what I meant!”

Laura Shepherd (2016) Gender, UN peacebuilding, and the politics of space: Locating legitimacy, Oxford University Press, New York. p.29.

In 2012 I was given the opportunity to travel to Bangkok to take part in a clinic organised by Partners for Prevention (P4P) on the life-history research. The clinic, which was run by Raewyn Connell, went through the basics of conducting life history research and how to read life-history transcripts. In the clinic, we were trained in how to conduct biographical interviews, and how to interpret interviews which narrate individuals lives through a critical feminist lens. In the coming year, I had the opportunity to work on some life-history research with P4P which explored men’s relationship with gender-equality after the Aceh conflict. These transcripts were the result of interviews conducted by UN Women Indonesia that had been transcribed and translated into English.

I found working with these transcripts difficult. Based on reading the record of a few interviews I began to try and interpret the trajectory of 12 men’s lives, as a way to explore their pathways towards and away from violent practice. Reading the transcripts, I tried to become familiar with these men’s lives, where they were born, what they valued, how they had lived and whom they loved. With more than 140,000 words of interview transcript, the stories they told were complex, contradictory and often difficult to interpret. While I was happy with the research chapter that came from this work (exploring anti-colonial politics and men’s support for gender equality), I felt awkward about trying to write the lives of men I hadn’t met.

The most recent life-history research I have conducted, on men’s pathways out of jihadi networks in Indonesia, presented a very different challenge. This research, conducted with Noor Huda Ismail, was conducted in person, with multiple interview sessions, long periods of hanging out, eating, talking about politics and the news, smoking clove cigarettes, and with a few former fighters driving around Central Java. This research did include discrete periods of interviewing but was surrounded by far longer periods where we chatted about unrelated topics, such as their thoughts on Donald Trump (not positive), their favourite rapper (Tupac over Biggie), or the traffic in Jakarta (hellish).

This research has presented a very different challenge to the research with P4P. This time the struggle was more a process of trying to disentangle my own experiences, attachments, and thoughts about someone from what the transcript actually said. Laura Shepherd discusses the difficulty of interpreting the words of participants with whom she had met in person and spent time with. She makes the case that for her own purposes, interviews can still be used as part of discourse analysis because:

“an interview is a limited encounter. Even loosely structured interviews, such as those I conducted, have a beginning, a middle, and an end, at which point the research participant is thanked for their time and the researcher leaves the building. The boundaries around the research encounter, therefore, produce a text that is also bounded, which lends itself well to discourse analysis.”

Laura Shepherd (2016) Gender, UN peacebuilding, and the politics of space: Locating legitimacy, Oxford University Press, New York. p.27.

While the research I have been conducting is quite different in approach and assumptions from Shepherd’s (being life-history work rather than discourse analysis), the difficulty of disentangling the personal encounters and the transcripts is consistent. Her comments on the uncomfortable feeling that the research process was intended to “catch them out, trip them up, or twist their words” is something I continue to struggle with.

Reading gender into transcripts involves looking at comments, stories and experiences which the interviewee doesn’t take to be primarily about gender, and interpreting them through a feminist lens. For both projects where I have used life-history methods, this has involved drawing on historical information, social theory and feminist knowledge to chart gender relations as the “linking thread… along which violence runs.”

Charting these relations is likely to go beyond, or even in contrast to, how an individual thinks about their own experience. To draw out the gendered experience this relies on reinterpreting individuals’ stories through frameworks which are likely to feel very alien to the person who has opened up to narrate their life to you. Or as Raewyn Connell  puts it, “life history data doesn’t stand alone, we need to compare it to all kinds of other sources as aids to interpretation for the information we have.” Drawing on these sources to interpret the transcript in ways the participant might not expect does feel uncomfortable within the research relationship.

This results in treating the interview transcript as an authority in recording the biography of an individual which is then employed to make broader social or political claims about their milieu which they are likely to disagree with. This creates a tension between reading transcripts as a freestanding record and viewing them as recordings of a particular conversation within a broader relationship. Interpreting the social significance of transcripts honestly relies on comparisons which fit uncomfortably with the messy and complex lives of people you have come to know.

De-centring ‘militarisation’ in the study of collective masculine violence

Reading Cynthia Enloe’s work on militarisation for the first time really shocked me on a personal level. At the time I was an 18-year-old who had grown up watching war movies, playing military strategy computer games, listening to heavy metal music preoccupied with war and spending a significant chunk of my time assembling, painting, and playing with military miniatures. The idea of the military as an institution and tradition which permeated my gender identity simply made sense. My encounter with Enloe also required me to rethink my relationship to the aesthetics of military institutions seriously and had a big role in the topic I eventually chose for my PhD thesis three years later.

The album art from Agent Orange by Sodom. The concept of militarization went a long way to unpack the fascination with military-themed cultural products.

While I still think the idea of militarisation has a lot to offer, I am increasingly uncomfortable with how often and how broadly it is invoked. Earlier this year Marysia Zalewski wrote a think piece for the Critical Military Studies special issue on “Masculinities at the Margins” on the topic of military masculinities. In that piece, she laments that the idea of military masculinities has become “overly familiar and ‘comfortable.’” Zalewski, in characteristically incisive fashion, asks the reader to consider what military masculinities mean at a stage when military roles are increasingly affixed to female bodies and to consider the blurry boundaries of military practice. I greatly appreciated this injunction, but my own discomfort comes from trying to navigate a different kind concern. The fear that my own use of ‘militarised masculinities’ has centred European style military institutions as the natural and inevitable holders of collective violence.

Over the past year and a half, I have spent a lot of time trying to understand the role that masculinities play in mobilising young men to join Islamist networks in Indonesia. One aspect of this work that has struck me most significantly is the absence of military signifiers, in the aesthetics, narratives, and ordering principles of these groups. Notions of collective violence, discipline and heroism are present, but these factors were not linked to aspirations of a military tradition. At least not in the sense of formal army with associated traditions of soldiering and service to the state.

Instead, very different traditions, aesthetics, myths and practices have emerged as being the structuring force in men’s lives. These forces build on tropes around collective violence but do not link them to what one might think of as military institutions. One interview which I conducted with Noor Huda Ismail as part of a small project on men’s lives after jihad stuck out in this regard. We were speaking to a young man who had participated as a trainer and recruiter in an Indonesian jihadi network. When we asked him how he became interested in the network, he recounted meeting a man from an Islamic boarding school (pesantren) and being amazed at the man’s beautiful white clothing, his neatly kept beard, his cleanliness and perfumed scent. He spoke about the man’s sophistication, strength and desirability. This encounter resulted in a long-term project of self-reaction to embody his idealised vision of a pious Muslim warrior.

Nusra Front, “Day of the Infiltration” (2012), sourced from Asfshon Ostovar’s chapter The Visual Culture of Jihad, in Jihadi Culture: The Art and Social Practices of Militant Islamists edited by Thomas Hegghammer.

This process has a lot in common with militarization. It is one of a young man undertaking ‘body work’ in a desire to emulate the imagined role of a valorous warrior. But the signifiers, the narratives, and the tropes which this young man drew on were not built on a military tradition, and not a process was that of militarisation. These practices represent a different historical cluster of practices that are linked to collective violence in the Indonesia archipelago. The recent edited volume Jihadi Culture edited by Thomas Hegghammer has gone a long way to explore some of these traditions and the associated narrative and aesthetic components, albeit without a focus on SE Asia. Through this volume does not include a gender focus it shows the memetic quality of jihadi narratives which do not necessarily rely on a genealogy tied to formal militaries.  They are often positioned in direct opposition to the idea of the military, which was associated with colonial histories and the oppression of a secular government.

I am inclined to think that the overwhelming focus on processes of ‘militarisation’ is a product of particular histories of collective violence that have been so salient during the past 150 years. In conducting my own research, I now worry that my initial fascination with the military and militarism might result in viewing collective violence through camo-tinted glasses, rather than viewing patterns of collective violence in their own right. By writing work on violence in the Global South as being about a process of militarization, I fear other genealogies of violence may be written out by an approach to violent masculinities which is perpetually measuring performances in relation European military traditions. While state militaries and militarisation are clearly still vitally important subjects of study and analysis, I hope to show more curiosity around dynamics of collective violence that do not hold militaries or military-like institutions at their heart.

Discerning the Truth in War

“The first casualty when war comes is Truth.”  — Hiram Johnson, 1918.

Since the 2016 US Presidential election, political analysts, scholars, and pundits alike have lamented the death of truth and the ushering in of an era of ‘post-truth’. But as a researcher interested in war, I began to wonder what the era of ‘post-truth’ meant for knowing war.

Has war ever been knowable

Throughout history, war has been fought not only in the trenches, between the armed troops, but most importantly in the ‘hearts and minds’ of the civilian populations who provide the monetary, logistical, and reproductive support for the war effort. Convincing risk-averse people to risk life and loved ones for abstract political agendas has long required propaganda and black-and-white narratives of the moral superiority of ‘us’ versus the explicit evil of ‘them.’ These narratives circulate as part of the affective economies of war that make war conceivable and acceptable for the human labourers needed in the efforts.

As I write this, I am in the field conducting research on the conflict in the region (formerly?) of eastern Ukraine known as Donbass. Since 2014, a very conventional style of war has been waged over control of the region after the 2014 Euromaidan revolution polarized the country and germinated a separatist campaign in Donbass. A group advocating separation held a referendum in May 2014, to which the Ukrainian government responded by sending in the armed forces.

But even that description is largely problematic because, at the time, the Ukrainian armed forces were in disarray. By some accounts, they were non-existent. The Euromaidan revolution saw massive lustrations carried out throughout the institutions of the state, including defence institutions. Thus, many of the militants who descended on Donbass in the lead-up to and following the referendum were not formally with the armed forces, but were rather gangs of ‘hooligans‘ and far right-wing activists who had taken it upon themselves to defend the nation from internal and external threats.

When I began this research, I sought to discern Truth in this war. But the accounts from each side are so diametrically opposite. My Ukrainian respondents all spoke with certainty that this was not a civil war, but an invasion. Some recounted first-hand their evidence – that they had personally seen or taken captive Russian soldiers as prisoners of war. My separatist respondents all emphasized the grassroots nature of their movement and that the fight was not just for autonomy in the region, but fundamentally a fight against fascism.

On both sides of the conflict, both fear and love play important roles in the affective economy of this conflict. The fear is deeply ideological. For Ukrainian nationalists, it is a fear of losing their short-lived independence to a Russian neo-imperialist agenda. For the separatists, it is a fear of nazism and loss of political, social, and economic freedoms. While both sides are deeply tied to their ideological standpoint, neither is open to the idea that the other side is genuine. The Ukrainian nationalists believe that the narratives of independence, self-determination, and social improvement are a smokescreen of Russian propaganda. Meanwhile, the separatists believe that the neo-nazis are misinformed puppets of capitalist oligarchs who seek integration with Europe not as a means of improving the living conditions of Ukrainians, but as a way of further forcing down the cost of labour and exploiting the working classes.

One respondent puts it this way:

“Now, in the era of the information revolution, when all the information is available and everyone produces the information that he wants, people are not accustomed to reading about one piece of news from two, three, four sources and drawing a conclusion for themselves. They are accustomed to reading either the first thing they encounter or what someone advises them, and they tend to believe it. They believe that they have made their own conclusion and that this opinion is their conscious decision. But there is no culture of information processing. There is information, but people do not know how to process it. I made a decision for myself ten years ago that I need to read the same piece of news on five or six different resources to draw conclusions for myself. However, there are no independent resources, unfortunately; all of them are biased.”

Another, very much a veteran of the war, who has been fighting on the front line since December 2014, confided in me: “This is no longer a military or economic war. Now, it’s an information war.”

The challenge, as a researcher, is not only in discerning the Truth in war, but, perhaps more so, the politics and circulations of different versions of the Truth that give meaning and value to violence. While I cannot hope to determine the geopolitical strategies that lay behind various countries’ (in)action in response to this war, one thing I feel confident in concluding from this research is that no matter where the Truth ultimately lies, the versions of truth circulating here form an integral element of the affective economy that drives this war.