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Adam Moore (2019) begins Empire’s Labor: The Global Army that Supports the U.S. Wars in Nepal. At first glance, this seems like an odd vantage point from which to launch an inquiry into the “U.S. military’s overseas operations, both recognized wars and clandestine campaigns” (1). While the U.S. empire-state did provide Nepal with humanitarian and logistical assistance in the aftermath of the 2015 earthquake, the country has never officially served as a key front in the U.S. long war on terror (Sharma 2015; Singh 2019). But as Moore goes on to show, it is impossible to understand how the U.S. military wages war in the colonial present without considering the logistical infrastructures of subcontracting and labor recruitment that chain the fortunes of everyday Nepalese households to far-flung battlespaces in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. This “global army of [subcontracted logistics] labor,” Moore argues, has become an “inextricable facet of the present-day U.S. military empire” (14).
Much work has been done by geographers – and scholars from other cognate disciplines – to map the ever-evolving configuration of “logistics spaces” that the U.S military-industrial complex assembles to link “factory to foxhole” (Attewell 2020, 2020a; Beasley 2019; Chung 2019; Cowen 2014; Gregory 2012; Khalili 2017, 2020). Military logistics appears in much of this literature as bundle of technological innovations and material practices that is constantly struggling to smooth over what Derek Gregory (2012) identifies as “the frictions of distance”. To paraphrase Foucault (1980), it is geography – or, more specifically, the challenges posed by geography – that lie at the heart of military logisticians’ concerns. Empire’s Labor builds on this emerging literature by foregrounding the everyday work that goes into making logistics possible under conditions of war and counterinsurgency. Who, Moore asks, does the U.S. military-industrial complex exploit to carry out the everyday work of logistics? Where do these workers come from? What routes do they take to get to the war zone? Under what conditions do they labor? What forms of resistance do they partake in? And finally, what are the afterlives of their service for empire? Over the course of Empire’s Labor, Moore draws on close readings of primary documents and extensive interview work with Bosnian and Filipinx nationals to trace the heterogeneous geographies of military labor recruitment, “the histories that have produced them, and the various political, economic, and social entanglements that radiate back out along them” (195). What Empire’s Labor ultimately offers is a more concrete sense of how transnational military supply chains expose differently racialized workforces to various forms of slow violence and death – both on and off the battlefield – even as they double as potential vehicles for upward class mobility (Attewell 2018; Berlant 2007).
By emphasizing the thoroughly racialized nature of this offshored logistics “army”, Moore brings Empire’s Labor into direct conversation with other recently published work in ethnic and American studies that explicitly frames U.S. empire-building across the decolonizing world as a transcalar problem of labor management (see De Leon 2019; Friedman 2013, 2017; Gonzalez 2021; Man 2018). Moore never explicitly invokes Cedric Robinson’s (2000) concept of racial capitalism. And yet, his interviews nonetheless underscore the extent to which racialism has permeated the infrastructures of U.S. military subcontracting. The post-Cold War period was marked by an acceleration in the offshoring of military labor recruitment, thereby setting the stage for the proliferation of increasingly complex and modular regimes of relational racialization. Moore’s analysis exposes how military supply chain managers exploit migrant logistics workers along multiple axes of social sedimentation. Although the distinction between American, Third Country, and local nationals remains a primary determinant of wage scales and benefits, these are slippery categories that are constantly in flux. Bosnian nationals who worked for Kellogg Brown and Root in occupied Iraq under Logistics Civil Augmentation Program (LOGCAP) III often boasted to Moore about how their contracts granted them a measure of proximity to their American colleagues in terms of wages, responsibilities, and benefits. Their elevated status, however, did not survive the transition to LOGCAP IV, which infamously introduced a four-tiered contracting structure that distinguished between American, Western European, Eastern European, and Asian workers. As subsequent Bosnian recruits were quick to find out, unscrupulous prime contractors such as DynCorp had no qualms about stretching the racial category of Asian to encompass Eastern Europeans as a way of cutting costs. But even if Nepalese, Indian, and Fijian workers generally occupied the most precarious positions along US military supply chains, this was not always the case for their Filipinx colleagues, who were able to leverage their English language skills, their long history of laboring for U.S. empire, their reputation for flexibility and docility, and their government’s contributions to the “coalition of the willing” to secure additional privileges.
If Empire’s Labor offers a more concrete sense of the role that the U.S. military-industrial complex plays in reproducing racial capitalist formations in the colonial present, it also clarifies the extent to which these geographies are haunted by longer histories of imperialism, colonialism, and settler militarism (Nebolon 2017). How, Moore asks, are the afterlives of prior combinations of logistics and empire reproduced as an inheritance for subjected peoples in the colonial present? Moore’s reading of the archival record emphasizes how U.S. military supply chain managers have historically relied on Filipinx builders, truckers, engineers, sailors, stewards, and cooks to carry out the everyday work of empire across the Pacific. These transnational infrastructures of labor recruitment and management have endured over time, laying the groundwork necessary for subsequent generations of Filipinx overseas foreign workers (OFWs) to find employment with U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. As Moore points out, not all labor supply chains look the same at a granular level. Filipinxs, Bosnians, Indians, Fijians and Nepalis are shepherded or smuggled through multiplicity of spaces (hotels, airports, shopping malls, etc.) by a diverse ensemble of middlemen (recruiters, agencies, consultants, body shops, etc.) whose only task is to find efficient ways of meeting the U.S. military’s voracious and seemingly unending need for precarious logistics labor. What Moore’s comparative analysis of these different routes shows, however, is that they were not assembled overnight, but rather, were built up over time through successive moments of logistical intervention (see Chang 2017).
The workers that Moore interviewed for Empire’s Labor undoubtedly felt the accumulated weight of these histories and geographies as what Ruthie Gilmore (2007, 28) describes as “the state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death”. Those who were not able secure the privileges afforded by coveted “white” Common Access Cards or “coalition” badges instead endured numerous forms of slow violence, including daily micro-aggressions, constant hyper-surveillance, wage theft, mandatory overtime, strict movement control, and limited access to communication technologies. The constant hazards that defined life in a war zone – rocket attacks, improvised explosive devices, kidnappings, etc. – also meant that a number of unlucky workers never made it back home. Contractors and body shop owners tried to manage surplus workers as interchangeable components of a supposedly docile mass. But the workers themselves often refused to play their assigned role, devising various strategies for “making do” under the exploitative working conditions of militarized supply chain capitalism (Tu 2021). These ran the gamut from the confrontational (strikes, slowdowns, and blockades) to the covert (jumping, or the practice of switching employers) to the affective (building community, forging intimate relations, and even starting families).
Many of Moore’s interviewees emphasize how they were driven to war work by a desire to provide for their families back home. It is precisely for this reason that the violent effects of the U.S.’ long wars “radiate far beyond the immediate battlefields”, deeply impacting the very places where most of the recruitment for war work is concentrated (174). The afterlives of war are felt unevenly by such communities. Some workers are able to transform their accumulated wages into “other forms of capital” – housing, education, etc. – that will “benefit their families for generations to come” (190). But others have fewer reasons to be optimistic about the future, finding it difficult to navigate – much less survive in – the “suffocating reality” of their new post-war lives (190). Their embodied experiences serve as a stark reminder of how the time of afterwar for war workers is a time of organized abandonment, social alienation, and premature death (Shaw Crane 2019).
In the concluding chapter of Empire’s Labor, Moore returns to one of the overarching questions that guides his inquiries for most of the book. “How”, he asks, “has the revolution in military logistics and contracting impacted the ‘American way of war’” (192)? Empire’s Labor confirms how the “ability of the U.S. to project force, continuously and on a planet-wide scale, depends…upon the immense logistical resources that it can bring to bear” (193). It also emphasizes the centrality of labor to the everyday functioning of military logistics spaces.
On a more speculative note, however, I argue that Moore’s book also opens a space for geographers to intervene in the intellectual project of building a more explicitly spatial theory of empire: one that foregrounds how empire-building has historically been grounded in the geographical management of bodies, populations, and circulations, not only at the “macroscales of policy and strategy”, but also in the intimate spaces of everyday life (Stoler and Bond 2006, 95). In recent years, books such as Simeon Man’s (2018) Soldiering Through Empire, Andrew Friedman’s (2013) Covert Capital, Stuart Schrader’s (2019) Badges Without Borders, and Beth Lew-Williams’ (2018) The Chinese Must Go have all brought geographical concepts to bear upon the transcalar problem of empire. Moore’s work, I think, presents a compelling case for why it is essential for geographers to be in conversation with such debates.
Empire’s Labor also makes important contributions to the geographical study of logistics: or perhaps more specifically, the logistics of logistics. Yet Moore’s decision to focus on military supply chains, I think, raises a whole series of interesting questions regarding the entanglements between logistics and social reproductive work that remain unexplored in his or other studies. It is significant that much of the “Asian” labor recruited by contractors and body shops provided soldiers – and other, more valued employees – with cleaning, cooking, and entertaining services. For the Filipinxs working on military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, this, too, was an inheritance of U.S. empire. As Vernadette Gonzalez (2015, 91) reminds us, “American empire in the Philippines” was profoundly reliant upon the “imperial cultures of domesticity that the United States exported to its colonies”. My own research on Vietnam War logistics suggests that U.S. war managers have long been aware of such proximities. One archival document distinguishes between the “public” and the “private” faces of military logistics (Hobson 1967). Another explains military logistics as “something we all do in our everyday lives”: namely, household management (Anonymous 1965). As Figure 1 shows, U.S. military bases in Vietnam were staffed by thousands of Vietnamese and Cambodian women who were colloquially known as “hooch maids” (Attewell and Attewell 2019).
Like the truckers, warehouse workers, stevedores, cargo checkers, and sailors who kept vital commodities circulating across transpacific space, these southeast Asian women played a central, yet understudied role in ensuring the social reproduction of imperial life in war-torn South Vietnam. Under the conditions of counterinsurgency and military occupation, domestic work is logistics work (Attewell and Attewell 2020). Better understanding these entanglements remains a key task confronting critical logistics geographers moving forward.
Finally, while Moore devotes a whole chapter of Empire’s Labor to activism and resistance along military supply chains, it is clear that more work still needs to be done in connecting these moments of struggle to broader anti-imperial, abolitionist, and decolonial movements. Activist-scholars such as Ruthie Gilmore (2007, 2020), Mariame Kaba (qtd. in Ewing 2019), and Angela Davis (2020) constantly stress the need for a more transcalar conception of abolition that takes direct aim at the “stretched out and sequential connections” that have always chained the U.S. carceral state with the U.S. empire state (Friedman 2013, 13). If logistics enables mass incarceration, policing, and empire, then the key political question remains: how does one organize and mobilize the fragmented workforces who toil along military supply chains to such abolitionist ends? Although the complex geographies of military subcontracting that Moore maps in Empire’s Labor often make it difficult for differently racialized and gendered supply chain workers to recognize each other as co-workers, recent demonstrations of solidarity between domestic port worker unions and Black Lives Matter protestors suggest that other futures of revolutionary intercommunalism remain within our grasp (Newton 1974; Schuler 2020). As our current moment of crisis and emergency deepens, it becomes incumbent on us to seize them; to remember, following Charmaine Chua (2014), that “the disorder of things is in the blockade”.
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Wesley Attewell is currently a Visiting Scholar in the Asian/Pacific/American Institute at New York University. He works at the intersection of geography, Asian diaspora studies, and American studies to map the transnational landscapes of US empire-building from the Cold War on. His first book, Developing Violence: Disassembling the USAID Complex in Afghanistan is currently under contract with the University of Minnesota Press.