“War-Effort” is one of the most twisted pieces of wartime language which, though it has been a while since we have heard it used in Europe, has withstood the test of time It means, essentially, that the State can call on its people to make sacrifices and mobilise their resources—their bodies, time, work, and even their lives—in the name of victory and national interest.
This concept is devious because effort is, in and of itself, a dangerous idea, pertaining as it often does to guilt, responsibility, hardship, moral duty and work ethic, all of which are questionable yet deep-seated values in a culture that legitimises inequality and violence. The typical dictionary definition of “effort” frames it as the expending of physical or mental energy in order to overcome difficulties, a perspective that doesn’t exactly inspire us to get up and get to work, does it?
In War Effort, this “physical or mental energy” has little or nothing to do with one’s own will, and everything to do with the coordinated demands of a higher power, offering no alternative but for you to make the effort. Throughout history, the concept of War Effort has often taken the form of forcefully conscripting civilians who are sent to die on the front lines as young soldiers, as Russia and Ukraine are doing now with their own citizens. War Effort was also used to force women into military industries during the 20th century at the expense of their own health, cheered on by hypocritical cries of “We can do it!” only to later find themselves sent back into the kitchen once more to support households recovering from the war. War Effort meant being made to give away your money and empty your pantry for “The Cause” as its battalions passed by, even if this cause was not your own. War Effort meant opening your home, and sometimes even your legs, to provide a resting place for warriors in an endlessly romanticised ideal of selfless service to the homeland. War Effort means having to migrate, to exile yourself, to cross the world with nothing but the clothes on your back, with no guarantee of a warm welcome wherever you might end up. Incidentally, War Effort has almost always been the burden of women, though songs and tales of heroic deeds leave out this detail, mentioning it only to glorify sacrifice and justify the harm done to a valiant and hardworking female citizen. A famous example of this is Iphigenia, the daughter of Agamemnon, whom he was forced to sacrifice in order to mobilise his ships during the Trojan War. Other examples can be found among the countless subordinates of literature and cinema: mothers, widows, grieving lovers. There is, in fact, an entire musical genre—Abschiedslied, farewell songs—which refers to those tunes that for centuries have been sung in wartime, channelling the anguish of waiting and farewells: Bella, ciao.
In this setting, it is easy for War Effort to mingle with uncertainty—an extremely and increasingly lucrative upside for some—given that it feeds into fear, populism, fascism and “unprecedented measures”. I am not only referring to uncertainty in the face of the big questions, such as how long this bloody war will last, what China’s next move will be, or what alternatives there are to the looming energy shortages. I cannot provide answers to these questions, and despite being bombarded daily with information and contradictory statistics I cannot, for the life of me, find a way to do so. I am referring instead to more everyday uncertainty about things like breakfast, the price of the milk we put in our coffee and the butter we put on our toast, the uncertainty that makes our heads spin with anxiety. This is, as I call it, kitchen-sink geopolitics which, among friends and neighbours, is stitched into our lives through platitudes, small talk and shared worries. Monsters can grow out of this uncertainty, and it is here that clinging to truths and predictions may seem the only way to live with unrest and danger, even when these truths may themselves be dangerous, false, or deeply flawed.
Kitchen-sink geopolitics acts as a counterpoint to all this, as it is critical, honest, and understands that the personal is political and the political is international. It draws a line between the butter on your toast and the fall of the Berlin Wall, between rising rents and British Petroleum’s currently tripled profits. It is not only urgently needed, but it is also the only way we can avoid the notion of War Effort being turned into an excuse or explanation for dystopian and uninhabitable futures.
It is rare in geopolitics for someone to admit their mistakes. When all is said and done, it is a field that has, for centuries, been firmly rooted in economic, military, political and patriarchal power and all that comes with it. Traditional imaginings of security, international relations and geopolitics call to mind images of military men huddled over maps, or engravings of nineteenth-century lords dividing up the world with compasses and rulers (not to mention the help of several million slaves). It invokes images of high-level summits where suited men shake hands around a table, or arrange themselves neatly, like school children, for group photos (not long ago this took place here in Madrid in the name of NATO and, to make matters worse, in front of Picasso’s Guernica). These images remind us of all the stuffy analysts who speak with confidence and conviction in oak-panelled offices, surrounded by the stale, dated iconography of globes and chess sets.
As someone who has studied these important men of maps, and did so in the institutions which were set up to perpetuate their memory, I am no stranger to the feeling of being an intruder, and of being an outsider to their debates. I also know the difficulties of creating other ways of talking about “multipolar disputes” which, in layperson’s terms, means talking about the world and its interdependent relationships from perspectives other than those described in the previous paragraph. I was reminded of these difficulties every day by those long-surnamed gentlemen whose portraits hung in the corridors, and all those good boys with good manners who were being groomed to one day divide up the planet. Kitchen-sink geopolitics acts as a counterpoint to all this, as it is critical, honest, and understands that the personal is political and the political is international. It draws a line between the butter on your toast and the fall of the Berlin Wall, between rising rents and British Petroleum’s currently tripled profits. It is not only urgently needed, but it is also the only way we can avoid the notion of War Effort being turned into an excuse or explanation for dystopian and uninhabitable futures.
As previously mentioned, in geopolitics we are not used to owning up to mistakes and their consequences (if we can call them that). This refers just as much to self-serving mistakes as it does to those which result from tactical or strategic clumsiness, such as the now infamous military defeats on Russian soil, especially against “General Winter”. Other more recent examples can be seen in cases of famed weapons of mass destruction failing to materialise, or the guns-blazing invasion of Afghanistan which condemned the country to an ungovernable future. As analysts we also frequently make mistakes which stem from inflamed passions, or a misjudged relationship between our wishes and reality. A fine example of this was committed by yours truly when, after studying the Russo-Ukrainian region for years, all my theory and analysis amounted to little when I predicted a quick and efficient war that would end after a few short skirmishes. It was a spectacular error on my part and, unfortunately, I was proven very wrong.
It is precisely from such a position of vulnerability and accountability, a rarity in geopolitics, that we can provide the few certainties that might allow us to understand and navigate our current scenario a little better. It is a position that grows out of uncertainty, mundanity and more than a touch of fatigue, but which holds within it an optimism and willpower which are, in themselves, no mean feat.
The path dependence of supervillains
Many months have passed since Russia invaded Ukraine (eight years since the conflict began, if we want to be orthodox about it) and we are still lacking a clear narrative of why this is happening. This reduction and simplification of the story, far from being accidental, is the beating heart of war propaganda. It allows the story to be told like a Marvel movie, pitting Putin the supervillain—cold, controlling, capricious, cold-blooded and relentless—against his nemesis Zelenskiy, the unexpected hero forced into his role, broadcasting his side of the war nightly from a smartphone. The victims are reduced to a mass of “women and children”, who serve no purpose beyond providing eyewitness accounts to pad out news reports and acting as the martyrs needed for soldiers to be mobilised into battle. All without anyone ever asking whether there might have been any alternative.
In economics, the idea that a result depends on the complex sequence of events which lead up to it, and not just the current situation, is known as “path dependence”. This self-evident truth allows social sciences to account for the fact that no historical or political event can be explained solely by the here and now, even if unforeseen events can sometimes turn things upside down, and neither the lunacy of a single person, nor the power of leadership, should ever be underestimated.
This is because conflict narration requires cool-headed analysis that opens up space for a range of diverse voices. The gravest consequence of this lack of perspective, context and dissent is the absolute dehumanisation of the Other, who becomes either collateral damage or, even worse, the target for hate.
In the case of this war, the Marvel narrative would not hold up if greater emphasis were put on path dependence, on how economic and power structures operate behind the scenes, on how you cannot understand the film without seeing the whole series. In this way we could understand how the war in Donbass has much more complex origins, whereby collective memory and conflicting identities play a fundamental role, in addition to the collapse of the Soviet empire and Ukraine’s historical role as the hinge between two worlds, or as the gentlemen of geopolitics would put it, a “heartland”.
There is a trail of breadcrumbs that we can follow here: the Maidan Uprising, the Orange Revolution, gas pipelines, the investments of foreign oligarchs, the policies of the IMF, agreements with Moscow and decades of precarity-induced migration to Europe. By picking up these crumbs, we can gain a much clearer and fairer picture of exactly what has happened, and thus we might be surprised to learn that the villain was, not so long ago, an acceptable NATO ally in the war on terror back in 2000 and a confidante of the Spanish crown, to the extent that we were on the verge of selling Repsol to him. We would also do well to learn a little more about what lies behind Zelenskiy, who governs a country using martial law that violates human rights, under which twelve political parties have been outlawed, but who was actually, in his early days, seen as a symbol of peace for the region. This was not even that long ago; it was part of his campaign in 2019.
Such scrutiny can be applied to all wars, and in fact to almost all conflicts. Without it, a singular narrative is imposed, devoid of shades of grey or nuance, without any chance of finding common ground. This is because conflict narration requires cool-headed analysis that opens up space for a range of diverse voices. The gravest consequence of this lack of perspective, context and dissent is the absolute dehumanisation of the Other, who becomes either collateral damage or, even worse, the target for hate.
Old new wars: between hybridisation and privatisation
Let us now go back to the current war, which is often talked about as if it were an earthquake, a volcano or a meteorite; something sudden, natural and unavoidable. We can see this just by reading the insufferable introductions that precede recent institutional declarations, international summits and political interventions, where Covid-19 and the war in Ukraine are baked into the framework of any speech or decision. If we are to answer an alternative, more pacifist call, we can see that war is much more than a simple absence of peace, and unlike a natural disaster or accident it is an inherently human production, and can thus be reversed or avoided.
It is said that the Russo-Ukrainian war is a hybrid war, but what war is not? The theory of hybridised warfare was pioneered by US army Lieutenant Colonel Frank Hoffman at the beginning of the 2000s during the Chechnya conflict and the escalating “War on Terror” in the Middle East. For Hoffman, the key to hybrid wars is that they can be carried out both by states and a by a range of non-state actors via a variety of tactics: guerrilla organisations; paramilitary insurgents or terrorist groups; digital strategies of misinformation and the cultural and symbolic soft power of nation states; even third states which become an arena for proxy conflicts which have little to do with them, as is the case in Ukraine.
This concept, however, has been stretched and warped beyond recognition. Rarely have wars in the last century exclusively involved confrontation between regular armies, and, therefore, their consequences have always been hybridised. There are, in fact, some wars which have never had any significant military involvement: what war is older or more hybridised than class war? In much the same way hybridising wars can be a clean and easy way to not only justify them, but also to justify failings or loopholes in which neither states nor international law can be held accountable for the barbaric acts which are committed.
Therefore, whether we call them hybrid, asymmetrical or “new” wars, the fact of the matter is that, theories aside, there has been an undeniable shift which can be observed over the last three decades. This is because wars—and the industry which surrounds them—are ensnared in an unstoppable process of privatisation because warfare, just like hospitals, building societies and public companies, can be privatised.
Although it is true that mercenaries have existed throughout history—from Egypt, to the Crusades, and the brutal Francoist Guardia Mora (Moorish Guard) who were key to the success of the coup which started the Spanish Civil War—there have never been so many private, mobilised military organisations as there currently are in the world. So called Private Security Companies or Private Military Companies are the most obvious symptom of this, as they provide services of a military nature to states, walking the finest of lines between mercenarism and mere “private security”.
Borrell’s garden at the centre of the world
This escalating, kamikaze warscape can only be understood from a Eurocentric mindset, which Borrell has outlined in terms which, more than once, have used the metaphor of a garden fending off an encroaching jungle to explain the current state of affairs. The EU’s inexplicable stance on Ukraine has thus far been based on uncritical support for NATO and a policy of boomerang sanctions which, under the pretext of harming Putin, have destabilised an entire continent. In addition to this policy of sanctions there is also a “Peace Fund”, which has sent 2.5 billion euros worth of weapons to Kyiv, accompanied by a rhetoric which opposes anything remotely Russian, wiping out any semblance of neighbourliness and leaving millions of people on both sides of the Dnieper river in dire straits. At the same time Frontex, the European border control agency, has expanded operations in the Balkan region mere months after its involvement in pushbacks in the Mediterranean was revealed, rendering European asylum and refugee policy a simple case of cherry picking based on skin colour and passport, and not on the need for international protection. Borrell’s European garden has very tall fences, some of them topped with razor wire, and according to him it requires “gardeners” who are willing to venture out into the jungle in order to defend it.
On the day that Borrell’s metaphorical garden was born, several unvarnished truths came to light. First was the absolute self-centeredness of of the old Europe and its old guard, who ignore the fact that we no longer live in 1950 and that the world is multipolar, complex and interdependent and that Europeans, in the face of China, India and Latin America, are stuck in the past and are losing their power.
The second of these truths was the persistent validity of colonial, white-supremacist, xenophobic thinking in Brussels. Its rhetoric is clumsily masked behind hollow narratives of inclusion and policies of cooperation which, as time goes by, remind us of how little we have changed, and that we still see the world from our watchtower as a case of “civilisation” versus barbarism. Incidentally, this xenophobia has also been applied to Slavic people; for decades Ukraine’s poverty and vulnerability were exploited to provide cheap labour to all of Europe.
Is from this invisible, everyday experience that Colombian women have created peace and reparation processes, from which refugees have set up solidarity and mutual support networks, and from which activists have deployed action-focused, international, militant diplomacy.
The third of our gardener’s truths is the harshest and most unbelievable, and it is rooted in the belief that Europe, purely and simply, embraces war, death and destruction (as well as reconstruction, resulting in a cycle which is undoubtedly lucrative). It consists of Borrell—with an Atlanticist agenda that would have made Aznar in his prime shudder—stating that “war is won on the battlefield”. Not at negotiating tables, not in multilateral discussions or peace agreements, but on the battlefield.
Peace Effort: the antidote to War Effort
The last and most significant of the abovementioned truths is that only a militant, feminist peace movement can lead us forward. More than a mere platitude or political slogan, this critical stance towards the invasion and escalating conflict in Ukraine was in fact first staked out by pacifists and feminists. Both were roundly dismissed, even by the political left itself, as ingenuous, naïve, simplistic or unrealistic. They were given no space in the media, nor legitimacy in international discussions, and no country put their grievances on the agenda.
However, in spite of the heterogeneity of social and political movements, the fact of the matter is that women have always been at the forefront of the fight for peace: the women of 1917 Russia, Sarajevo’s Women in Black, the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, the suffragists who tried to stop the First World War, the hippies who sang against the Vietnam War. In their diversity of backgrounds and positions, these women were vital political actors who held up a mirror to warfaring gentlemen and exposed their shameful flaws. What I am saying here does not stem from sappy essentialism, because pacifism has nothing to do with submissiveness, nor any intrinsic predisposition to being creatures of care and light whose sole purpose is to pacify others. There are warfaring women, terrible women (some of them already alluded to in this text), but in reality, if women have sustained pacifist movements for centuries—defending them by putting their bodies and often their lives on the line—it is because there are other ways of understanding relationships with land, otherness, power and conflict, ways which women have led from the margins. It is from this invisible, everyday experience that Colombian women have created peace and reparation processes, from which refugees have set up solidarity and mutual support networks, and from which activists have deployed action-focused, international, militant diplomacy.
People wax poetic about War Effort, but rarely about Peace Effort; the lengthy postwar recovery periods built on the backs of women, of managing defeat, inflation, the toll taken by violence and broken futures. I would, therefore, like to celebrate the only positive of all these certainties by revindicating the historical legitimacy of those who have imagined better worlds and fought for them, who bear the burden of bloodshed and pain and have proposed alternatives when no one wanted to hear them. Let us celebrate their existence and resistance.
Let us continue on with our kitchen-sink geopolitics, disputing the war and its efforts, healthily and sanely critiquing many of its underlying convictions which have, for decades if not centuries, failed to take us very far. When all is said and done we can remember the myth (or one of its retellings) in which Iphigenia, minutes before being sacrificed to the gods of war, flees and escapes her unjust fate.