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It is with you always, war, waiting to explode your life and throw you down beside a river to die. War wants death, always; war wants to quiet your mother's songs. War wants your sorrow.
War is one of those impossible words: it refers to war as a soldier in Sudan lives it, as a child in Sri Lanka experiences it, as a torture victim in Argentina's dirty war felt it, as a Greek in Troy died it. A mere three letters covers a sweep of hundreds of thousands of events across several millennia. How do we understand so vast a phenomenon while retaining the vibrancy of the lives that constitute it?
There is an image of war that has stuck in my mind for nearly two decades. It seems to point toward some deep understanding, something that stands just outside of conscious grasp, or maybe beyond intellectual thought to a more profound conception of ... what? Not just war, butsomething that tugs at the heart of what it means to be human. And in the curious combination that links devastating disasters with the profoundly mundane, this image involves a watermelon amid some of the worst violence marking recent decades. A Sri Lankan acquaintance and I had traveled to the July 1983 Kataragama religious festival in southeastern Sri Lanka. She is a middle-aged woman from the capital city of Colombo, a mother with a ready laugh and a maternal charm that holds a bit of impishness. We had shared a room, and I remember her unpacking her travel bag the first day; she had a towel, food, and other useful items I had not thought to pack. She laughingly lectured me: "Carry what you will need."
The 1983 riots in which thousands were killed in seven days broke out the last night of the festival. No one knew the violence was about to erupt as they said goodbye to one another and began their journeys home. Almost no one: curiously, the last two evenings of the festival several of the homeless "mentally ill" people spoke at length and with great emotion about the impending violence. One directed his agitated monologue at me, perhaps because I was a foreigner. As a large crowd gathered around us, he launched into an aggressive explanation of the cataclysmic violence that was soon to erupt, the blood that would stain the streets and homes of the country, the screams of pain and anger he could hear, and the ways in which the responsibility for this violence went all the way to my country in cycles of global inequality. The audience around us sought to brush off his belligerent words with a reference to his madness, but a troubling clarity in his speech unsettled all of us.
Just before my traveling companion and I left Kataragama, she found a large watermelon, and bought it to take home to her family. She tried to give me a hug as we parted company to travel to our respective homes and broke out laughing as she juggled her suitcase in one hand and the watermelon in the other.
The bus she took to Colombo arrived at a city overtaken by flames and overrun by mobs. The next time I saw her, she told me of that night:
We left the Kataragama festival that is meant to put the world together and arrived home to find the world being taken apart. We arrived to a nightmare worse than any the mind could conceive in dream. As we took the bus out of Kataragama, night began to fall, and we were lulled to sleep by the rocking of the bus, the camaraderie of sharing food, and warm memories of the festival. Sometime after midnight as we began to near Colombo, we opened our eyes to a world gone mad. Entire blocks of buildings were in flames, and people broke out of these buildings aflame themselves. Buses and cars burned in the roads, some with the occupants locked inside. Crowds of people ran in the streets, some shouting and beating people, overturning cars and setting them on fire, attacking homes and businesses. ... others running for safety and for their lives. Nothing made sense. As buses were being stopped, passengers being hauled out and killed, and the vehicles firebombed, our bus driver stopped suddenly and turned all of us passengers out onto the street, and drove away. It was nowhere near the bus terminal, and none of us knew where we were. This fact startles me to this day: I grew up in this city, I know it as home; I know its streets and alleys, its shops and landmarks. I know my way around by a lifetime of knowledge-the pretty wall Mr. Wickramasingham built on this corner, the funny shaped tree in the open field by Mrs. Dharmaratna's shop, the temple my friend took her child to when he fell ill, the movie theatre painted bright blue. But that night, I didn't know where I was, or how to get home. I didn't recognize the city I spent my whole life in. Even that isn't really true: it tore such a cruel wound because I recognized it and I didn't, all at once. Amid the familiar was such horror. Those pretty walls and funny trees, the shops and temples, were in flames or destroyed, the dead and wounded lay there now, and mobs seemed to appear from empty space, overpower all reason, and disappear again, only to be replaced by another just down the road. The police did nothing, or maybe they did too much. I had all my belongings from my trip with me, my handbag, my wrap, my suitcase, and that large watermelon. I just set my feet moving and tried to find my way home. Every street I turned down seemed as unfamiliar as the last. The horror never stopped. Fires, mobs, beatings, murder. I was exhausted, and my mind could not grasp what it saw. Nothing was clear: not who was killing whom, nor why. Not where it might be safe nor how to get there. Not how to respond nor whom to turn to, and no way of finding out. I walked for hours. I grew painfully tired, and the things I was carrying seemed to weigh more and more. At some point, I stopped and set my handbag down on the sidewalk and left it there. It just seemed too much to carry. A while later I took my wrap and wiped the sweat and soot off my face, and left the wrap there on someone's fence as I picked up my suitcase and that watermelon and trudged off again in search of my home. Somehow in my mind I thought I'd go back and collect my handbag the next day-I really thought it would just be sitting there where I left it. That's how hard it is to think realistically when everything around you is unrealistic. I left all my identification, my money, everything sitting there on the road while I carried off that heavy unwieldy watermelon with me. Sometime later, it might have been hours or days to my mind, the suitcase became unbearably heavy, and I set that down too and left it. But I never let go of that watermelon. To this day, I can't explain it. But I carried that watermelon all night long through all the chaos and horror, and finally arrived home clutching that darned thing, having left everything else on the road. You know, my handbag had all my necessities in it: my identification, my money and bank cards, my glasses and licenses. My suitcase had my favorite saris, my daily necessities and medicines, and presents and blessed religious relics for my family. I have always been considered the organized and responsible one of the family. And yet I left all these beside the road and carried home a heavy watermelon through some of the worst rioting imaginable. I will always wonder at that, at the will I had to get home, to keep walking through hell, and to carry a watermelon. How it is we all survive the unbearable.
This is the image that sticks with me: What made my friend drop her bags, with their familial associations and useful documents, in fatigue and terror, but hold on to a watermelon? "Carry what you need," she had said in Kataragama. In the seven days of the rioting, I watched thousands of people act and react to the events at hand, each in his or her own unique way; and hundreds of these people's responses made a strong impression on me. Each story, each behavior I observed during the riots, was a piece of the puzzle, a call to follow the question. But what was the puzzle, what was the question? Perhaps this watermelon is why I study war.
I doubt she would want me to use her real name. I was speaking with her half a world away, and nearly two decades after the Sri Lankan riots. But she would understand the story of the watermelon: she lives in a warzone where one-third of the entire population have been forced to flee their homes, and one-twelfth of the population have lost their lives to war in the last ten years. She had made time in a very busy day to sit and talk with me about the impact of the war on daily life. As the conversation came to an end, I thanked her for her time and asked her if there was anything I could do for her, to reciprocate her kindness.
Yes, she said, there is. We have tens of thousands of internally displaced people in this area who have lost everything to the war. They do any kind of work to try to make enough to buy food and keep their families alive. This often falls on the women's shoulders: Do you know, in most of the camps for the displaced here, the majority of households are headed by a woman? Women and girls scrape together just enough to get some food or goods to sell to make some money to feed their families. And then you see the police and the military, taking what little these girls and women have. They feel entitled. You see it all the time: a woman will be walking down the street with goods to sell, and the police or the soldiers will just go up and take it. They have the power, she has nothing now. And she may not make it without that bit to sell-how is she to survive? What can you do for me? Tell this story. Write about it. Tell the truth of war and what happens to people like these women who stand on the thin line of survival.
For the people standing on that thin line of survival between living and becoming a casualty of war, the impact of these actions is of existential proportions. They may even be cataclysmic. But for most people in the world, these brushes with life, death, and profiteering are largely invisible. They are invisible because militarily, much of war violates human sensibilities; because logistically, the front lines are difficult to document with neutrality; because economically, fortunes are made and lost in less than ethical ways; because politically, power covers its tracks.
The story doesn't end with the women giving up their goods to the police and military. This is just ground zero of the front-line intersections of war and invisible economies that ultimately extend worldwide. Just as these troops demand payment from poor women, so must they pay up the ladder, compensating their commanding officers. And their commanding officers are able to demand far greater goods in their own sphere of work: at the highest levels of power, they may control national concessions over valuable resources, as well as the companies that work the concessions, transport the goods, and oversee the profits. This might be called corruption if it stopped at the national level, but these systems of profit are international. In the shadows, beyond public scrutiny, commanders may partner with international wildcatters who move consumer items, from weapons to cigarettes, into a warzone while moving valuable resources, from diamonds to timber, out to the cosmopolitan centers of the world in less than legal ways. More visibly, they may partner with international state-sponsored vendors to procure expensive weapons and goods-exports that peacetime countries are eager to sell for their own profits, but which rarely match the actual needs of the purchasing country and its war.
Systems of partnership, alliance, coercion, dependency, and outright violation variously mark these transactions, from the poor woman who gives up her only food to the foot soldier all the way to the vast global flows of weapons or resources for hard currency. It is in these intersections that power in its most fundamental sense is forged. In the midst of vast political systems in which riots and wars scar human landscapes and mold global economies, a woman discards her handbags and clutches a watermelon in trying to get home in a city besieged by mobs. This, in total, is the body of war and the hope for peace.
How do we understand, not abstract text-bound definitions of war's violence, but what it lives like, experiences like, tastes, feels, looks, and moves like? Many of the truths of war disappear in unsung deeds and unrecorded acts. "The war tells us: nothing is what it seems. But the war also says: I am the reality, I am the ground under your feet, the certainty that lies beneath all uncertainties." What place do we give to the profound good that beats in the hearts of so many I meet on the front lines that "conventional wisdom" tells us are populated with Hobbesian brutes? At the broadest level these inquiries merge into the question: "What is war?" Or perhaps more accurately, "Why would humans engage in one of the most profoundly unpleasant activities imaginable-one capable of extinguishing humans themselves?"
I soon found that there are no theories of war or-depending on what you are willing to accept as a "theory"-far too many of them. Ask a scholar for an explanation of war, and he or she will most likely snicker at your naivete in expecting that something so large and poorly defined could even be explained. Ask a nonspecialist, however, and you will get any of a dozen explanations, each proffered with utter confidence: It is because of our innate aggressiveness ... or because of innate male aggressiveness ... or because of imperialism and greed ... or overpopulation and a shortage of resources ... or it is simply a manifestation of unknowable evil ... Our understanding of war, it occurred to me, is about as confused and uninformed as theories of disease were roughly 200 years ago.
These questions have led me along a continually unfolding set of inquiries, across several continents, and through two decades of research. After the 1983 Sri Lankan riots I began to study riot phenomena; as the war in Sri Lanka escalated, I went on to research paramilitary, military, and guerrilla warfare. Each inquiry prompted further questions. What happens to women, female guerrillas, children, and healers treating not only war wounds but also entire societies bleeding from assaults on their core institutions and values? How do civilians live their lives on the front lines? Who are the true brokers of war? Of peace? After conducting research in Sri Lanka for a decade, I began comparative work in Southern Africa in 1988, focusing on Mozambique at the height of its war. When Mozambique moved from one of the most destructive wars of the time to a successfully brokered peace, my research explored the "good," as well as the violence, that exists on the front lines and ultimately makes peace possible. In 1996 I began work in Angola, a country in many ways similar to Mozambique, but itself unable to maintain a peace accord until 2002. Violence is defined both by local realities and histories and by internationally forged norms of militarization: a large and well-developed set of networks stretch across the globe and into the most remote battlefield localities to provide everything required by militaries, from weapons to training manuals, food, medicines, tools, and state-of-the-art computers. If war is powerfully shaped by the intersections of individual acts, national histories, and transnational cultures of militarization and economic gain, so too are the more profound questions that attach to studies of war: What is power? Violence? In/humanity? Resolution?
Excerpted from Shadows of War by Carolyn Nordstrom Copyright © 2004 by Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission.
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PART ONE: INTRODUCTIONS
2. A Conversation in a Bar at the Front
3. Making Things Invisible
PART TWO: WAR
4. Finding the Front Lines
PART THREE: SHADOWS
7. Entering the Shadows
8. A First Exploratory Definition of the Shadows
9. The Cultures of the Shadows: The Meat, Potatoes, Diamonds, and Guns of Daily Life
PART FOUR: PEACE?
10. The Institutionalization of the Shadows: (Habits of War Mar Landscapes of Peace)
11. The Autobiography of a Man Called Peace
12. The Time of Not War Not Peace
14. The Problems with Peace
PART FIVE: DANGEROUS PROFITS
15. Ironies in the Shadows: (Literally) Untold Profits and a Key Source of Development
16. Why Don’t We Study the Shadows?
17. Epilogue: Two Sides of the Same Coin
Postscript: The War of the Month Club—Iraq