Emily:                                        00:18

Welcome to the fourth and final episode of the military presence podcast, hosted by anthropological airwaves.

Vasiliki:                                    00:23

Each episode of this special four part series interrogates and explores how the present is shaped by the technologies, logics, histories, and economy of war, through conversations with scholars of war and militarism.

Emily:                                        00:23

My name is Emily Sogn.

Vasiliki:                                    00:41

And I’m Vasiliki Touhouliotis. We are both ethnographic researchers who study the effects of militarism and organized violence both within and beyond the geographic and temporal boundaries of so called conventional war.

Emily:                                        00:55

In the first episode, we spoke to Joe Masco about the historical formation of an affective politics that creates an ethos of continuous, yet increasingly incoherent militarization justifying itself as a response to a monopoly of perceived threats. Next, we spoke to Mahida Tahir about the ways in which new weapons technologies, particularly drones, have reshaped social landscapes in places like the Waziristan region of Pakistan where threats both in the air and on the ground have become an ever present fact of everyday life.

Vasiliki:                                    01:25

In our last episode we spoke with was Wazhmah Osman about the embodied effects of nearly four decades of continuous war in Afghanistan. we talked about how the deployment of new military strategies and the use of new supposedly more precise weapons obscures the deep yet everyday cumulative damage that is caused by ongoing war

Emily:                                        01:49

In our episode today we’ll be talking about war as a form of governance asking how war orders and creates the terms by which different forms of injury caused by war can be recognized and acted upon. We were prompted to frame a conversation around this topic as a response to what we see as a troubling absence of public discussion of the deaths and illnesses that are caused by war, but which get obscured as such by the language of by products, secondary effects, or collateral damage,

Vasiliki:                                    02:15

While injuries and deaths caused by bullets and bombs are typically considered the primary and sometimes even the only effects of war. They are hardly the only forms of damage that are produced in areas exposed to military activities. In our own research, we encountered subjects exposed to the heavy metals, have bombs which contaminate soil and water burn pits in places like Iraq and Afghanistan that released toxins into the air and even the pollution of the much more innocuous sounding use of jet fuel by US military planes and solvents to clean military equipment.

Emily:                                        02:49

What are the longer histories and logics that have shaped how we understand what can be considered, the direct or indirect consequences of war? Now has the distinction between these two shaped how different forms of damaged manifest themselves in bodies, landscapes, and social systems. In order to pursue those questions further, we’ve invited Omar Dewachi to be in conversation with us.

Vasiliki:                                    03:12

Omar is an assistant professor of anthropology, social medicine and global health, and the co-director of the conflict medicine program at the American University of Beirut. Omar and I spoke in Providence, Rhode Island where Omar was presenting at the Middle East Toxic Wars conference at Brown University and Emily joined us from New York.

Emily:                                        03:50

Omar, we wanted to begin this conversation by asking you about the empirical phenomena that you’ve been tracking in your work on the effects of war on Iraq health system.

Omar:                                        03:57

I’m a trained physician and an anthropologist and my work has been mostly looking at the human and environmental cost of the US interventions in Iraq. I grew up in Iraq during the 1970s-80s, and I was trained as a doctor in the 90s. My entry into medicine was actually during the aftermath of the first Gulf War and the 12 years of sanctions on the country. During that period. It was very clear that war that happened in 1990 was not over after the end of the military activities, Iraq in your 12 years of sanctions. That in very different ways transformed the everyday life everyday practices of medicine, of survival also in that country. So my work has been really focusing on this empirical problem of war. In my book, I’ve tried to document the breakdown of Iraq’s healthcare and thus also the breakdown of the state in Iraq.

Omar:                                        04:58

My interest in that was also to show that Iraq was not just a place that entered discourses in the US and globally as a country that was just run by an authoritarian dictator, but actually a place that had a history of social institutions, medical institutions, and in many ways Iraq, uh, acquired and had a very important status in terms of medicine and healthcare across the Middle East. That story was somewhat the opposite from the conversations about Iraq and the war in the immediate aftermath of the invasion. We saw a lot of discourse is emerging on Iraq, describing it as ungovernable. I was really very fascinated about, uh, these discourses and try to explore more this question of ungovernability. My effort was really to talk about the breakdown of the country’s healthcare system throughout history and then show how healthcare has been a platform for state making in the country, but also it’s the platform where it was used to destroy the architecture of rule and architecture of governance in Iraq when phenomena that was really fascinating for me on the ground was to see a lot of Iraqi patients leaving Iraq, coming to Lebanon to seek healthcare.

Omar:                                        06:11

I became very fascinated by the question of these physical wounds that many of these patients were injured in these suicide bombings event or in a sniper attacks or an airplane bombing or what have you. I began really following these wounds, what I began calling these traveling wounds. What became clear to me is that this wound also was a continuation of the story of the destruction of Iraq’s healthcare. There was a whole infrastructure that was wounded in Iraq and this a rendering a life to be so ungovernable because of the breakdown of healthcare began to be a almost manifesting through these war injuries and wounds. The more I followed the wounds, the more these wounds were. Also opening up new avenues of understanding the different, uh, environmental and physical, social and psychological aspects of wounding and wounds.

Vasiliki:                                    07:09

So yesterday you gave a really interesting presentation at the toxic wars conference at Brown where you talked about this thing called a Iraqibacter and other multidrug resistant pathogens that are spreading throughout the Middle East. Can you explain to our listeners what this is?

Omar:                                        07:26

When I started interviewing the doctors and trying to understand what was going on with these injuries, there was a clear idea that many of these Iraqi patients came with very complicated wound infections. In fact, many of the Iraqi cases were put in isolation just to make sure that they were not carrying a superbug that could actually spread through the hospital. So one of the, uh, infections that seem to be creating a problem to the, uh, the doctors, there was this one multidrug resistant bacteria called Acinetobacter baumannii. Of course, the term Iraqibacter invokes a lot of the discourses on tropical medicine, invokes the history of the 19th century colonial medicine that always associated diseases with places, uh, these, uh, and that always kind of linked these conditions to a certain kind of an ecology of land geography, territories and populations that they were dealing with.

Emily:                                        08:28

I’m curious about how your work following the Iraqi doctor in Iraq and outside of Iraq, how this all links back to your argument about ungovernability. It seems to me that the way that the bacteria is being marked now in medical discourses mimics the casting of Iraq itself, is ungovernable.

Omar:                                        08:42

I mean, the history of ungovernability in Iraq has to do a lot with how Iraq was also seen during the first world war, uh, under the British mandate. When the British invaded Iraq in 1914 and occupied by 1917, most of the experience of the military in Iraq, ack then, the British military was a one of affliction and disease. And, uh, the descriptions of Ottoman Mesopotamia at that time, as they called Iraq, was somewhat similar to what you see right now in the way the U.S. military describes that place in terms of this is a place where soldiers go to die or places Britain, uh, as a, uh, as infected with all these different bacteria. And, and this basically as I show also in the book, became one of the main platforms of trying to reverse these afflictions through building the, the state in Iraq.

Omar:                                        09:35

So health and medicine became really one of the central pillars of building the Iraqi state under the British mandate. And as I show, it kind of becomes also a main platform for the postcolonial state during the development era in the 1950s, and even during the Iran Iraq war in the 1980s. What you see in the post 19 nineties Iraq is the production or actually kind of the development of a certain kind of condition in the country where ungovernability becomes augmented and becomes part of the condition of life. This is not just a in terms of abandonment or exceptions or the recession of the state, but it’s actually through the material life of the patients and doctors and the state itself. So one cannot really separate the relationship between the states and the population in a place like a post 1990s Iraq where you see both the state and the population are struggling for survival.

Omar:                                        10:36

And what I try to show is not to really kind of dichotomize this relationship of the state in terms of power and a population in terms of resistance, but to show that these kinds of relationships were intermingled and what really you see from the First World War to the post 1990s, that these modes of power, these modes of biopolitical interventions produce these diseases through its own kind of means to intervene. So the more you’re trying to intervene to solve a problem, the more you creating a different kinds of problems on the ground. And in many ways you create your producing exactly that what you came to eradicate. So this dialectic of governing and ungoverning was something that we should be able to see as part of this, uh, dynamics of the biopolitical,

Emily:                                        11:30

So ungovernability, as I understand you describing it here, is both the pretext for intervention and also the unintended but quite lethal effect of the intervention. And it’s a consequence that is not limited just to Iraq, but spreads outside of the initial war zone in ways that are not predictable and as of yet not manageable.

Omar:                                        11:46

I think. I think one way to, to see the emergence of these bacteria is have to do a lot with the and the war interventions. The more you’re trying to govern Iraq, the more Iraq slips out of this control and then you create a backlash through this bacteria. This bacteria, of course, is not necessarily contained within Iraq. It’s been migrating with the US soldiers back to the United States. One could actually kind of put a question, is this a kind of empire strikes back kind of story? So the more you look at why does bacteria evolved or why this bacteria, what’s his history, why would it emerge during this moment of time is a fascinating question. The hypothesis that we basically have is that, uh, at least two main hypotheses. One is that the, uh, effect of the sanctions in Iraq might have really played a major role in the development of this bacteria during that period.

Omar:                                        12:41

Iraq was a isolated by the international community and actually antibiotics were considered as dual use. That is to say they were, it could be used for civilian use and for military purposes and the impact of that on the hospital, the doctors and the work in the hospital. And this is something I experienced as a physician working there, is that we used to, for example, give a broad spectrum antibiotic to every single patient that enters the hospital for any minor or major operation. And this over time this was conducive, uh, eventually on the, uh, to the, uh, evolution of bacteria to become more and more multidrug resistant. Now another hypothesis which is less understood, and this is something I think has to do a lot with the toxicity story that we were talking about yesterday in the conference, is the role of heavy metals in the evolution of this, uh, or the emergence of this bacteria as a multidrug resistant or antimicrobial resistant infection. There has been some research on the relationship between heavy metals and, uh, as a trigger of sensitivity to micro antimicrobial resistance in a industrial and agricultural settings and specifically to this one bacteria and that aspect of the relationship between these heavy metals that contaminate many of these, uh, war landscapes that could come from ammunition. They could come from the destruction of the lived environment, like the houses and the infrastructure. In general. We believe that there might be an association between the presence of these heavy metals and the evolution of this bacteria.

Vasiliki:                                    14:26

As somebody who’s interested in telling a story about war that’s not framed in terms of the distinction between war and peace and that looks beyond kind of death tolls and representations of the immediate lethality of war. I’m interested in what seems to be the provocation of your work, and correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems like the provocation of your work is to take like the Iraqibacter and take it as our ethnographic object, so I’m sort of curious if we do that: what kind of story about war are we able to tell? What kind of understanding of the temporality of war does this open up to and how does it complicate notions about what our primary and secondary are? Direct and indirect effects.

Omar:                                        15:13

I mean my, my attachment to this project is not definitely not just the bacteria but the human aspect of that and I think the bacteria really is a partly is a material story in many ways because it is a threat like you know, HIV or disease or, but Acinetobacter specifically is very interesting object to look at. Partly because it [is] almost like an archive of of war. The genetic makeup of the bacteria really contains a history of what has happened to this microbe or this bacteria over time and in a way understanding it, that even in the lab will allow us to see overtime what has had happened in terms of its mutations at many different levels. The story again, at the end of the day, cannot be understood by just looking at the bacteria. We have to look at the human practices that had allowed to its emergence and, uh, the broader environmental questions that had given rise to this problem at this specific moment of time.

Omar:                                        16:19

So in, in, in many ways the idea that there is a direct outcome of war and an indirect outcome of war or direct effect or indirect effect, it becomes completely blurred because definitely when one could see it as a, as a product of an unintended consequences. However, the story of this bacteria tells us about the environmental contamination. It tells us about the human transformation. It tells us about the global story of antibiotic resistance right now and the absence of questions of a war as a driver of antimicrobial resistance in general, I think globally the world is now recognizing that antimicrobial resistance is going to become the biggest problem over the next 30, 40 years. The World Health Organization has announced that this is going to be the biggest health problem that will face healthcare systems and human beings, it actually involves the question of agriculture, it involves the question of industry, and it involves also the pharmaceutical industry, partly because there is less investment in producing new medications and what we might witness over the next decades is the end of the antibiotics era. So in many ways this tells a different story also of war, not just the war in Iraq, but it tells us our own kind of story of war against microbes that we’ve maybe started then also under the, another kind of war, which is the Second World War, which when the antibiotics were first used on, on soldiers. And uh, now we see the fear of the end of antibiotics in the ongoing war and terror and conflicts in the Middle East.

Emily:                                        18:08

Omar, one of the things that Vasiliki and I have been grappling with is the potential danger of changing our analytics to grasp the slow deaths of war is to potentially eclipse the fast and immediate ways in which war kills and the political economy of this kind of fast killing. I’m curious what you think are methods for holding both temporalities of war together.

Omar:                                        18:30

I think what really the questions of war invoke for us is to think about field work and to think about how are we methodologically empirically following questions of war at the ethnographic level. In my work, what I try to do is to, for example, look at the question of the wound. The wound is not necessarily or it’s vulnerability of that wound is not necessarily an epistemological or an ontological question. I take it more of as a methodological one. My question always on the ground is what happens if I follow that wound and see where it takes me and rather than give it a name as slow or fast or as the, this is a wound that will immediately cause an immediate death or a slow death. I would try to really understand what is going on with it in terms of the physical body of those who are injured or looking at the science that, that is being produced around it or following its manifestations at different incarnations of that, of that wound in the social and the biological and in the psychological.

Omar:                                        19:34

Even. So what I would argue for is the same thing I did with the ungovernability. I’m not really trying to create a concept or reify what something that is ungovernable, but if the question is what if I really follow this breakdown of power throughout the storyline or throughout the field investigation that I’m doing that allows me to be more truthful to the anthropological inquiry and later on then I can give it a name. But I think what the questions of war is not to really define its temporality within these limited ways. The more interesting part is to take these stories towards their end in a way that definitely takes time and takes a lot of commitment to the field, the places that you’re investigating, to the questions that you investigating. And in many ways, they’re a very troubling because you get to live with these questions of human suffering for a long time, and this is the story I guess, of a place that I grew up in, the story of this region that I’m a part of a. and I think that is for me as the central role of how I see my ethical engagement with these questions and how I developed my analytical attachment to them.

Vasiliki:                                    20:55

I really appreciate your answer and your call for very rigorously empirical study of war and I think that you are pointing out there is a real kind of ethics to doing that and really important ways in which actually analytics, I’ll oftentimes blunt what we see. Even though we rely on them so heavily in order to make certain phenomenon visible, they they can actually oftentimes have the opposite effect. So thank you so much Omar.

Emily:                                        21:24

And thank you to all of you that have been listening to this special series on the military president over the past four episodes.

Vasiliki:                                    21:34

We are incredibly grateful to the producers of anthropological airwaves for giving us this valuable opportunity to host what we think is an important dialogue about war and militarism in this current political moment.