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Ecologies of Power: Countermapping the Logistical Landscapes & Military Geographies of the U.S. Department of Defense
Rob Holmes

Pierre Bélanger and Alexander Arroyo
MIT Press, 2016

Architects are not the primary audience of Ecologies of Power.1 This does not mean that the book has no utility for designers who might be interested in the interplay of military operations, logistics, and landscape formation (it certainly does have that sort of utility), but it does mean that such a reader best approach the book with an understanding of what conversations it enters and what it intends to accomplish.

Recent books such as Lateral Office’s Many Norths (Actar, 2017; spatial practices of the Canadian Arctic), Clare Lyster’s Learning from Logistics (Birkhäuser, 2016; spatial products of logistics), and Janette Kim and Erik Carver’s The Underdome Guide to Energy Reform (Princeton Architectural Press, 2015; politics of energy production and consumption) examine geographies that, while adjacent to the territory of architecture, have for various reasons eluded design. These books look to situate those subjects as media for design. Ecologies of Power might, at first glance, appear similarly positioned. Its authors, Pierre Bélanger and Alexander Arroyo, are both deeply embedded in design, specifically landscape architecture. The book follows a significant period where Bélanger and other faculty at Harvard University situated a design studio on military landscapes as a core component of a landscape architecture curriculum (the study site was the Massachusetts Military Reservation). The book is, in part, a spatialized reading of phenomena that are typically perceived in other terms (in this case, American military operations). That spatialized reading is performed not only through text, but through a variety of mappings, diagrams, and visualizations that draw on the representational tools of design. But the reader who attends carefully as Ecologies of Power expresses its intentions will understand that it is not primarily concerned with expanding the territory of design or with drawing lessons for designers.

The title indicates that the book is concerned with military operations as a manifestation of power, particularly state power, signaling an allegiance to Foucauldian theory (made explicit in endnotes) and corresponding analysis in terms of discourse, language, and social construction. The use of “ecologies,” less explicitly delineated within the book, is probably best understood as an instance of the generalization of ecological theory as a form rather than as a direct tie to the content of ecological theories of nature.2 The subtitle “Countermapping the Logistical Landscapes and Military Geographies of the U.S. Department of Defense,” meanwhile, adds method to theory. Countermapping is understood within critical cartography as a set of practices that appropriate, critique, and revise the mapping techniques of the state in order to undermine the machinery of dominant power.3 Deeper within the text, repeated references to writers such as Marshall McLuhan and Harold Innis make clear that the book’s approach owes much to media studies in addition to critical theory, generalized ecology, and critical cartography. Familiarity with these fields, if not strictly necessary for engaging with the book, at least will greatly enhance the reader’s understanding of the significance of the book’s arguments. Correspondingly, a fourth—and perhaps primary—audience should be added to the “decision makers, urbanists, and logisticians” listed in the introduction: theorists, whether from the fields of media studies, critical geography, or philosophy.

Thus, an extension of design agency is not Ecologies of Power’s core aim; rather, it is an investigation of “the spatial semiotics and semantics of power” (11) at play in the extensive logistical operations that undergird the directed actions of the various military branches of the Department of Defense (DOD). The repeated exposition of the sheer scale of these operations is one of the most effective components of the book. Take, for instance, this series of facts concerning fuel use:

“The Department of Defense uses 8.5 billion gallons of fuel annually” (50).
“The Department of Defense is the largest institutional consumer of energy worldwide” (53).
“The Air Force, consumer of the majority of DOD fuel, expends over 85 percent of its annual budget to deliver fuel; of that annual budget, fuel delivered was 6 percent” (61).

The book aims, in response, to shift attention from the 6 percent (the military operations that command media attention) to the 85 percent: the supply chain; the physical infrastructure of bases, roads, ports; the orchestration of provisions.

Its primary instrument for this attentional shift is a series of multimedia essays that track five case studies: logistics islands, improvised explosive devices (IEDs), military food, unmanned aerial systems (UAS), and the centerpoint of American military bureaucracy, Washington, DC. Collectively, the multimedia aspects of this series (mappings, diagrams, captioned photographs, timelines, and other visualizations) serve as a study in how the representational techniques of landscape architecture might extend the conceptual toolkit of critical theory. There are a number of places, though, where this study might have been more instructive if design techniques had been deployed more rigorously or extensively. For instance, the series of “footprints” delineated in the introduction would be more clearly illuminating in relationship to the preceding introductory essay if they were drawn (or overdrawn) in a manner that not only compiled a multitude of examples of each footprint, but also elucidated significant distinctions between and readings of subject matter like “Critical Foreign Dependencies” (Footprint No. 3) or “Facilities & Installations” (Footprint No. 4). Accompanying these visual elements, lengthy expository essays explore the object of each case study, conversely providing examples of how designers might draw on the set of environment-adjacent disciplines the book converses with in order to build more sophisticated and critical readings of the territories they operate—or seek to operate—in.

The case studies open by identifying islands like Diego Garcia and Guam as representative of a transformation of the topology of American military logistics from terrestrial toward maritime infrastructures, a transformation that responds to and facilitates increasing demands for speed and flexibility in the projection of American military power. The authors emphasize the global scope of both these mobility-enhancing infrastructures and the territorial reach they enable.

The next section begins with the IED, particularly as it has been deployed in the US-led Afghan War, contrastingly describing it as an improvisation that frustrates both the finely tuned mobility of the American military and the road construction on which it relies for mobility. Tracing the routes that fertilizer, raw material for those IEDs, takes into Afghanistan becomes an opportunity to explore the symbiosis between construction and explosive deconstruction (fertilizer is often smuggled in with materials for road construction). This struggle between improvisation and infrastructure is then situated within a longer colonial history of such struggles, like the TVA-esque dam building and regionalization of the Helmand-Arghandab Valley Authority (HAVA), which is contrasted with earlier patterns of sociohydrologic management such as the hyperlocal authority of Afghan mirabs (village water masters).

In “MM: From Milk to Minerals,” Bélanger and Arroyo soon return to Afghanistan, where cow’s milk has played a dual role as a component of the military food supply and, through the promotion of cattle as livestock, an instrument of food-based development. Here their argument parallels James C. Scott’s Seeing Like a State (Yale University Press, 1998). The centralized hydrology of the HAVA, the linear mobility of American road construction, and herds of cattle are spatially consolidated and highly legible to centralized administration. As a result, such patterns of development are preferred by military modernizers to indigenous steppe patterns of development, such as those incorporating the mobility of migratory sheep and goat herds. Cow’s milk, displaced from its typical cultural range, is read as a logistical instrument for the projection of American power.

The fourth essay catalogs a variety of “interferences” between the various social actors, technologies, and media at play in a notoriously disastrous February 2010 Predator drone strike in Afghanistan. This illuminates characteristics of the “ecology of remote operating environments” (269), including that the unmanned is in fact social and even embodied, that the predominance of the two-dimensional map within that space flattens and simplifies multidimensional space, and that the conceptualization of environments as systems implies a level of control that does not exist. It continues the book’s emphasis on reading logistical landscapes across a variety of dimensions, simultaneously semiotic (composed of signs and symbols that can be read for meanings), spatial (constituted of matter located in space), social (producing and affected by human relations), and systemic (organized both intentionally and inadvertently into networks of object relations).

The fifth (and briefest) case study marks a return to the direct concerns of spatial planning, dealing with the materialization of the centralization of the American military bureaucracy in Washington, DC, ranging in scale from region—the long-term trajectory of defense urbanization as it has shifted from core to Beltway periphery to exurban highway corridor sprawl—to street, where defense interests materialize in an array of elements deployed to securitize space: “the curb, the Jersey barrier, the bench, the bollard, the trash bin, the gate, the fence, the tree” (373).

In the book’s introduction, Bélanger and Arroyo use a series of mappings to identify five clearly spatial footprints for the DOD, such as DOD facilities and installations within the United States or “Critical Foreign Dependencies” (a DOD term for foreign infrastructure identified as being of national security interest to the United States)4. In the back matter, they conclude the book with a brief essay introducing a “sixth footprint”: a “military residuum” of post-operational landscapes that bear traces from military activities, whether demobilized Forward Operating Bases that mark hieroglyphs on distant sands (Imam Ali Air Base, Nasiriyah, Iraq), submerged waste of weapons development (Farallon Islands Nuclear Waste Dump Site, in the Pacific Ocean 27 miles off the coast of California), or commemorated icons of the Cold War (Minuteman Missile National Historic Site, Jackson County, South Dakota). Their cataloging of nineteen such strategies leaves an opening for spatial planning and design to reengage, as that brief essay, more than any other part of the text, asks questions that designers may be equipped to help answer: How should environmental contamination and attendant risk be dealt with? How should the landscapes devoted to militarization be incorporated (or not incorporated) into broader patterns of civilian urbanization? What place does the “restitution of displaced peoples” (effectively illuminated as an issue of transnational concern earlier in the book) have in such planning processes? Where should “logistical ruins” become “geo-mnemonic devices” (and, unstated, who will manage their meanings and to what ends)?

Bélanger and Arroyo have made an effective case for the extent and import of the landscapes in which these questions operate—and, though it may not have been their primary purpose, the questions Ecologies of Power raises figure a substantive, if largely unexplored, agenda for design.

The authors list architects as a subcategory of audience under the general heading “urbanists”: “decision makers (politicians, commanders, entrepreneurs), urbanists (strategists, architects, planners), and logisticians (tacticians, analysts, engineers, operators)” (15).
The authors refer to an “ecological approach” or “ecologic optic” as “method, measure, and media” in their work (24). For a larger context for generalized ecology, see Erich Hörl and James Edward Burton, eds., General Ecology: The New Ecological Paradigm (New York: Bloomsbury, 2017).
The term countermapping is usually traced to Nancy Lee Peluso, “Whose Woods are These? Counter-Mapping Forest Territories in Kalimantan, Indonesia,” Antipode 4, no. 27 (1995): 383–406. A general account of the topic can be found in Robert Rundstrom, “Counter-Mapping,” in The International Encyclopaedia of Human Geography, ed. Rob Kitchin and Nigel Thrift (London: Elsevier, 2009), 314–18.
While doing this, the authors rightly note that the bounded footprint has the conceptual limitation of obscuring broader fields of influence that extend beyond these clearly delineated perimeters through the operations of logistics.

How to Cite this Article: Holmes, Rob. Review of Ecologies of Power: Countermapping the Logistical Landscapes & Military Geographies of the U.S. Department of Defense, by Pierre Bélanger and Alexander Arroyo. JAE Online. June 5, 2018. http://www.jaeonline.org/articles/reviews-books/ecologies-power-countermapping-logistical-landscapes-military-geographies-us#/.