Vasiliki:                                    00:18                       This is a special four-part series on the Military Present, hosted by the Anthropological Airwaves podcast. Each episode of this series brings anthropological airwaves listeners and interview with a scholar researching the logics, histories, technologies, and wounds of militarized violence in the United States and abroad. My name is Vasiliki Touhouliotis.

Emily:                                        00:42                       And I’m Emily Sogn. We are both ethnographic researchers whose research explores the military present, a term we use to describe how the president is shaped by the technologies, logics, histories, and economy of war.

Vasiliki:                                    00:55                       While the military present may vary depending on where one lives and what subject position one inhabits. It often entails the constant surveillance of certain bodies and practices, a state of constant preparedness for war, racialized threats, hierarchies of lives, aspects of fear and terror and toxic ecologies.

Emily:                                        01:17                       This series as part of our own efforts to understand how the military presence is being shaped and in some cases transformed by the rhetoric and policies of the administration of Donald Trump. What is the shift in political power mean for militarisms domestically and internationally and especially in the context of the US states longstanding colonial and settler colonial projects?

Vasiliki:                                    01:39                       Let’s take a brief glimpse at the past year, a truly terrifying and disorienting year that has brought to us by some accounts, the closest it’s been to nuclear war. Since the height of the Cold War,

News Speaker 1:                01:52                       The United States and North Korea exchanged new warnings today, the North threatening again to attack Guam and the US warning of a response that would knock out the communist regime and destroy its people.

Donald Trump:                    02:07                       North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury.

Vasiliki:                                    02:17                       Military and security state have received tremendous boosts in their budgets as more bombs are being dropped and more troops deployed to the battlefields of the US’s so-called “War on Terror” now in its 16th year and increasingly framed as a humanitarian project.

News Speaker 2:                02:34                       Well, the news on the US war in Afghanistan, the US air forces is on track to triple the number of bombs dropped there this year compared with last year. The major increase in bombing comes as the trump administration has deployed thousands more US troops to Afghanistan in recent months. The ongoing US war in Afghanistan is the longest war in US history.

Vasiliki:                                    02:55                       It was on one of these battlefields that the US dropped the world’s powerful non-nuclear weapon this year.

News Speaker 3:                03:02                       The bond is called a Gbu 43 slash be massive ordinance air blast, but it’s also known as the mother of all bombs and it has never been used in combat before.

Vasiliki:                                    03:13                       US missile strikes against a Syrian air force base were celebrated in the media as an act of beauty and moral good.

News Speaker 4:                03:19                       We see these beautiful pictures at night. I am tempted to quote the great Leonard Cohen. I’m guided by the beauty of our weapons

Vasiliki:                                    03:28                       The sustained US bombing campaign against Isis in the Middle East, brought about a surge in civilian deaths. Arm sales to Saudi Arabia increased despite the intensifying humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen, caused by Saudi Arabia’s bombing. Amidst all of this, the US government’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel legitimizes Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands and reflects a flagrant disregard for international law.

Emily:                                        03:55                       Militarism and aggression toward a variety of enemy others has not been limited to activities outside us borders, this year has also seen a dramatic and exceedingly disturbing rise and rhetoric and policies that are actively hostile to anyone seen to challenge the imagined coherence of the nation, which itself is cast increasingly in the nativist terms of citizenship, whiteness, and the reproduction of Judeo Christian values. This has been reflected strikingly in Trump’s political speech concerning so-called “immigration reform”.

Donald Trump:                    04:25                       We are going to end catch and release under my administration, anyone who illegally crossing the border will be detained until they are removed out of our country.

Emily:                                        04:41                       And while discrimination against Muslims has been tacitly enabled in policies since the 9/11 attacks recently, there’s been a troubling normalization, a blatantly anti-Islamic sentiment coming from the highest offices of government.

News Speaker 5:                04:53                       The president today avoided questions about the extremist videos. He retweeted. Three videos were originally posted by a tiny anti-Islam ultra-nationalist party called Britain First, a group known for hate-filled incitement.

Emily:                                        05:08                       Beyond the realm of discourse, people and institutions that openly target vulnerable populations have been the beneficiaries of support from the trump administration has evidenced in the president’s pardoning of former Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

News Speaker 6:                05:22                       Arpaio made a name for himself by forcing prisoners to within canvas tents in triple-digit temperatures.

Joe Arpaio:                            05:27                       I already have a concentration camp; it’s called “tent city”.

Emily:                                        05:31                       Bolstered by this permissive atmosphere, agencies like Immigration Control and Enforcement, or ICE, have sharply intensified their tactics causing an overall rise and deportations up-heaving lives, breaking up families, and creating a general atmosphere of terror for anyone who’s claimed to belonging can be called into question.

Vasiliki:                                    05:52                       Across the political spectrum, analyses of militarism in the Trump era have asserted that many of the policies and tactics that characterize this moment are without precedent, whether expressing horror at the use of new weapons or military strategies or confirming the administration’s belief in the existence of new threats and new enemies. A discourse of the military present seems obsessed with the idea that there are indeed new dangers that make this moment uniquely precarious.

Emily:                                        06:21                       While acknowledging the real fears and anxieties provoked by the political climate. We wonder if too often this concern with the present as a set of singular events obscures a longer American project of producing and targeting racialized enemies both within the United States and abroad. We want to ask, how might anthropological inquiry help us understand the military present while critically engaging this powerful discourse that presents so much of what is transpiring is new. What genealogies of the military the president might be drawn to help us simultaneously appreciate his historical continuities and ruptures?

Vasiliki:                                    06:57                       To help us parse through these questions. We reached out to Joe Masco, professor of anthropology at the University of Chicago. His book “Theater of Operations,” provides an important corrective to anyone trying to take an ahistoric approach to the military presence and exposes the important political work that gets done by calling something new. We invited Joe to join us from Chicago and asked him to reflect on militarism in the Trump era.

Joe:                                             07:33                       Consequences of having a gigantic global infrastructure of militarism that doesn’t have coherence from the top is a serious issue just in and of itself, and that’s before we get to any of the explicit projects around the continuation of war on terror policies or Trump’s kind of anti-immigrant stance and so on. So it’s a very consequential moment, that I think we’re in right now, but it’s not one that pulls on a deep strategic project and that’s very different than say even in the years of the early 2000s, right after 9/11 in which a quite belligerent, aggressive US nationalist project was right at the start of the war on terror. But at that moment there was a strategic vision around what was trying to be built. It was a very aggressive and very violent vision, but there was some coherence to its sense of itself.

Joe:                                             08:32                       Anyway. So we’re at a very peculiar moment. We’re dealing with a hugely consequential set of policies that are ongoing that have also been very naturalized in terms of American domestic discourse and have very, very little actual reporting around them now. So perhaps another thing we could talk about at some point of our conversation today is just how militarism becomes normalized and rendered a background frequency to an everyday life where people are thinking mostly about other things. And you know, the incredible kind of cultural work that goes into making mass forms of violence. And large-scale deployments of money and people and machines, a background concern,

Emily:                                        09:20                       You can’t see us, but we’re both nodding very enthusiastically as you’re speaking because this is really the kind of conversation that we have in having amongst ourselves and exactly why we were excited to talk to you about this.

Vasiliki:                                    09:32                       Yeah. I’m actually, I’m really curious to ask a little bit about your characterization of this current moment as incoherent. I’m curious what you see this incoherence doing in terms of what kind of effect it’s mobilizing.

Joe:                                             09:49                       One way we could talk about it is to do a little bit of a genealogy on what happens with American military thinking right after World War II. So there’s a massive reorganization of us institutions in 1947 and one of the crucial aspects of that is the department of war becomes the Department of Defense. And in the shift from war to defense, we have a real effort to redefine what the role of the military is. And actually from that moment on, the US doesn’t actually really declare war formally. You have to go back to World War 2 to get a kind of formal declaration of war, but what you have from 47 on is a constant deployment of American resources around the world, both covert and overt with the idea that the future becomes something that can be managed through militarism and essentially since that era, you know, mid 20th century, the US has been involved in military activities in some capacity somewhere on the planet, pretty much constantly.

Joe:                                             10:57                       One of the strange aspects of about American militarism is that it only enters into public discourse in certain moments and under certain conditions and there’s an effort to make things that are actually very long-term commitments seem episodic. One way that gets managed is through a very conscious effort which begins, you know, in a serious way in the early cold war to use an affect and emotions as a way to mobilize citizens. Subjects in relationship to warfare. The big switch after 9/11 in 2001 was the reconfiguration of the entire US security apparatus around an image of a terrorist that can’t be deterred. That’s not rational. That is not also state based but is a more loose assembly of people and could be there for really anywhere on the planet at any given time and it’s a massive increase, let’s say, in the affective intensities of danger that are used to anchor citizen-state conversations around militarism, but also that craft a new orientation crucially to the future. My take really the large trajectory of American militarism over the last 75 years is that it captures a bigger part of the budget, a bigger part of the imaginary, and relies on a certain kind of an affective mobilization that has really profound consequences, not only in terms of what it does around the world — the war on terror has been a very violent affair indeed — but also what it forecloses in terms of other kinds of security projects that don’t get funded, other kinds of domestic priorities that seem a lesser form of violence in comparison to the spectacularly imaginative world of counter-terror and that also makes the future a increasingly negative affair that one approach is not with some creativity and enthusiasm for what might get built, but more in a mode of constant endangerment and escalating concerns for the wide range of things that just might happen.

Emily:                                        13:08                       One of the things that I think I hear you saying is that, you know, we’re thinking about the Trump era, that there is something that is distinctly different in terms of an escalation, but that this escalation was kind of enabled by a preexisting affective formation and security apparatus that enabled this escalation to, to happen in the particular way that it is now.

Joe:                                             13:31                       Yeah. And I think if we go back to what Trump has promised around militarism, he basically promises that wars should be winnable, like, you know, he suggests that, you know, as part of the fantasy of like a return to a pure moment of kind of white supremacist and masculinist ascension and where also the US could have always a set of enemy formations that allow him to blame certain figures for existing conditions. So the figure of the immigrant is, you know, a key weapon in his affective mobilization. And so he is making a move that has happened at other moments in American history where he’s trying to identify a kind of person that could be blamed for kind of stealing prosperity from the rest of the country. And he does it in a very crude, in a very direct way. So you know, part of, part of why I think also his particular project is, is unsustainable is because it doesn’t actually match an existing world in any way. It’s a, it’s a real invitation to both fantasize about a version of American life that never existed in the first place, but it also relies on not actually understanding existing conditions either domestically or internationally.

Emily:                                        14:52                       So, it seems like part of what you’re saying is that there is something that is distinctly new about trump’s kind of strategic deployment of American militarism and ideas of nationalism within that. But that there’s a longer genealogy, there’s a longer kind of continuum that has put a lot of things in place in order to allow this to happen.

Joe:                                             15:16                       It’s sometimes useful to go back to the early-2000s and remember exactly what the initial framing policies of the War on Terror and indeed the George W. Bush administration and its first term, what it did, because I think Trump is kind of a strange echo of that earlier moment. The George W. Bush administration also was involved in massive threat amplification, the production of a particular kind of enemy that the US could declare war on. And if we look at the way in which the original authorization of force was written in September of 2001, the Congress has one sentence in it which says that the president is authorized to prevent any future acts of terror as the president designates them or sees them. And so what that authorization does is it gives the president the ability to decide what a terroristic danger is before it actually occurs.

Joe:                                             16:18                       It’s, it’s a very extraordinary new kind of power. And so the logics of preemption that emerged in the early days of the Bush administration was basically a decision to act before a crime or an act of violence or an act of terrorism occurred to try to prevent those things from happening. So one of the reasons why the current configuration of the war on terror that Trump inherits is so scary actually, is because he actually has extraordinary powers to decide which imaginary dangerous from all the ones that you could dream up about things that might happen are the ones that require an immediate federal response. The perverse thing about preemption as it works in these particular worlds is it tends to focus everyone’s energy on a certain set of scenarios, in a certain set of outcomes and can even make those things become true in the effort to prevent them from materializing.

Vasiliki:                                    17:21                       Joe, it’s really interesting in your response to our questions about this particular moment of militarism and nationalism and imperialism in the US. You keep hearkening back to the early-2000s and to the Bush administration and the beginning of the so-called War on Terror. And I’d be curious to hear your thoughts about how you see the role of the Obama administration and its particular brand of militarism.

Joe:                                             17:50                       You know, I think the 2008 election in for many people was an election about warfare. And there was an expectation that Obama as he came into office would be kind of the anti-Bush on the War on Terror. But if you listen carefully to what he said in the campaign, he always said that he actually had a place for war in his program. And what he essentially tried to do was rationalize and bring into some form of legality, many of the most extreme aspects of what the Bush administration had done. So there was, you know, a formal effort to try to close Guantanamo. There was an effort to get rid of the torture program. There was an effort to think about diplomacy as a more serious aspect of American power around the world. But there was also a deep structural commitment to drone warfare and a commitment to killing as a way to execute American policy around the world.

Joe:                                             18:55                       And I think, you know, part of the long-term kind of historical assessment of the Obama administration will be trying to reconcile the differences between some of the principles that he advocated both in the campaign and in his speeches and then the specific actions that his administration supported and I think, you know, we are now in a world that is very confusing and upside down precisely because there don’t seem to be any true limits on presidential power on covert action and so many of the kind of worst activities of thecounter-terroristt state are now open ended questions about whether, whether those activities could be pursued again or whether they’re even happening now in covert. Just more corporate terms.

Vasiliki:                                    19:44                       Yeah. I was going to say that it seems that one of the other things that the Obama administration did is it introduced new techniques of invisibility and it seems that we’re also living the legacy of those particular techniques right now.

Joe:                                             19:59                       Yeah. I think that’s really an astute judgment. And you know, one way you can kind of identify some places where that happens is in the new language of militarism itself. So there’s really not a discussion, even in a casual sense of war anymore. The formal term that’s used in the Defense Department is an overseas contingency operation. So pretty much all the deployments of US troops around the world now comes under this category that was once a little side note in defense department planning for things like humanitarian interventions and that now has been stretched to include, you know, pretty much any scale of intervention or violence that the US has performed since 2001 can now be just more overseas contingency.

Emily:                                        20:50                       So in “Theater of Operations,” you make a compelling argument that national security as a kind of collective experience, uh, and then it unites military domains making war with the civilian populace that is ostensibly being defended. I’m thinking specifically of recent events in which the idea of security is used in the service of one part of the populace protecting itself against another. So here I’m thinking about incidents of racialized police violence, for example, when officers are let off the hook for shooting an unarmed citizens on the basis of, of feeling threatened or current immigration proposals that conflate religious belief or country of origin as legitimate evidence of a potential threat. Um, so I’m curious what your thoughts are about the concept of an affective mobilizations and how it works to predict and preemptively neutralize threats both to the state and to particular identities within the state.

Joe:                                             21:44                       Yeah, thank you. Well, I think one simple way to put it is that any logic that is deployed externally to the domestic order under a logic of militarism comes home in one fashion or another. And so we’ve got now a series of different forums of domestic violence that are operating in a very similar way to the mobilization of American power as well under logics of preemption and anticipatory defense. And I think that’s just a very scary thing and I think we’ll continue to see more deployments by, you know, different components of American society that under the pressures, particularly under the trump rhetoric, which is very much about dividing across race and class and citizensship and immigrant lines. This kind of logic can be deployed by kind of any member of the populace. But of course the way in which it gets rationalized in terms of courts and in terms of official power, often mirrors the long standing traditions of white supremacist governance in which certain modes of violence, certain modes of authority simply aren’t challenged in the same way or are de facto supported by a given institution.

Joe:                                             23:05                       So I do think this is a prime example of how militarism, despite all of the formal efforts to imagine it as something that is now only happening outside the United States comes home and changes modalities of everyday life. And I think about like the military now is like activating a de facto social contract all the time. Whether it’s been one that’s been officially agreed to through things like elections and, and policy or whether there’s a kind of de facto and implicit support for it by simply allowing policies, procedures, actions, certain kinds of violence to go forward without contest. And you know, I think that’s the one of the central grounds for the political right now is fighting precisely around how is it that official power, whether it’s in the form of police, or military, or intelligence agencies can properly be used. And I think there’s a huge cost for not having that conversation.

Emily:                                        24:07                       This has been a fascinating conversation and we just thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us, this is exactly the kind of conversation we were hoping to have. So we really, really appreciate it.

Vasiliki:                                    24:16                       Thank you listeners for tuning into this episode of the Military Present podcast, hosted by anthropological airwaves. In our next episode, scholar Madiha Tahir, takes us to the federally administered tribal areas in Pakistan where the US has been carrying out drone strikes. Madiha will shift our analytic gaze away from the body of the drone, and toward the body on the ground that is surveilled and targeted by the drone.

Emily:                                        24:49                       It’s an exciting conversation that we aim to build on in future episodes. We hope you’ll tune in again.

 

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