IED attacks in Afghanistan went from 797 attacks in 2006 to 15,222 attacks in 2012. In that time, 53,997 IEDs and their human collaborators injured more than 11,416 US soldiers and killed over 1,298 soldiers in Afghanistan. If you include Iraq, IEDs account for almost two-thirds of all US soldiers wounded and killed in both wars. This article investigates why something as low-tech as an improvised bomb is so significant to contemporary warfare. The article contends that, contrary to the effort to “beat” the IED by the US Department of Defense, the IED is not a thing. The IED, I argue, is a condition of possibility present in almost all of contemporary life. IEDs are native inhabitants of a world of global relations and things that hover on the edge between tool and weapon. IEDs are the weaponization of the throbbing refuse, commerce, surplus, violence, rage, instant communication, population density, and accelerating innovation of contemporary global life. IEDs are ambient, integrated, and distributed by methods that make it difficult to detect and combat. Unlike precision weapons, IEDs are neither smart nor dumb. They are, I argue, environmentally aware.
Our time is perhaps the time of an epidemic of things. (Garcia 2014, 1)
Life is nothing more than a Frogger game with IEDs. (Gallagher 2010, 125)
In a chapter titled “In a Little Plastic Bin,” Sergeant and blogger Matt Gallagher tries to capture a fleeting moment of sanity after a day in the Armored Cavalry. Gallagher describes in his weaponized manifesto an attempt to “embrace the suck” in the comforting seclusion of a Porta-Potty that he calls his “sanity box.” Compulsively checking the lock on the door, he writes:
Emotional burnouts. All of us. Life is nothing more than a Frogger game with IEDs…
Yeah. iWar. iWar. Fitting, in that succinct, catchy pop-culture kind of way…
I War. Subject. Verb. Where’s the object? Where still looking for it, some five years later…
I don’t care about you, I don’t care about me, and I certainly don’t give things. Anythings.Everythings. Things … Life makes sense in this little plastic bin. (Gallagher 2010, 125–26)
Gallagher is seeking refuge in his “little plastic bin” after a patrol that ended in a tense standoff in the dark with an overturned crate obscuring a suspicious plastic rectangle and a spool of reflective wire leading out from under it. In the second before radioing in the IED specialists, hoping against hope that he will not be blown apart, Gallagher experiences a gestalt shift. The rabbit is a duck. The suspicious object is not an explosive device; it is a cassette tape. In point of fact, the spooling tape mistaken for a wire is coming from a copy of Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet (ibid., 132). In a moment, Gallagher has gone from staring into the possibility of meaningless death, to feeling the intense embarrassment of having almost called in the cavalry to disarm the greatest hits of an 80s hair band from New Jersey. This is the iWar of the IED. The IED can be anything, and anything can be an IED. The world can explode at any moment. Life only makes sense in a Porta-Potty.
So if an IED is not a cassette tape, what is it? This article makes steps toward defining how to go about asking that question. The unsatisfying answer is that an IED is an assemblage of things, but what those things are is difficult to say. It could be fertilizer, palm oil, a wooden box, homemade chemicals, a forgotten land mine mated with a cell phone, strung-together bits of old copper wire, a nine-volt battery, or a dead goat stuffed with artillery shells rigged to set off a daisy chain of other explosives buried in the road. The problem is that an IED is a real thing that has changed the course of two major wars, but it is not one or any particular thing. An IED exemplifies what Morton (2013, 44) calls “a strange irreductionist situation in which an object is reducible neither to its parts nor to its whole.”
Gallagher was entangled with this very problem. In equal parts, his life and his ego depended on the ability to discern one assemblage—a banana box, wire, and a potential detonation device—from another assemblage, that is, a banana box, a Bon Jovi tape, and trash. The stakes of this philosophical and sensory conundrum were his mortal fate. Yet, in the end, Gallagher recognized that this collection of objects was not an IED. The rabbit was a duck.
To begin exploring the problem of irreduction and the complexity of the IED as a truly ecological weapon, this article attempts to historicize and naturalize via a double articulation. A pincer process or double articulation refers to the fact that change, particularly in war, is non-dialectical. Opposing forces frustrate and mutate one another while setting conditions of possibility for each other. To put it simply, a double articulation will produce differentiation, but nothing like progress. However, it is not chaos. There is a principle that holds things together, at least temporarily. Double articulations are engines of mutation and speciation, which distinguishes them from a teleological or identitarian understanding of a dialectic. Furthermore, a double articulation suggests an emergence of novelty that is quite distinct from the synthetic unity of a dialectical process. As a result, the events that emerge from a double articulation may bear little or no phylogeny to the forces of its creation. In Deleuze and Guattari’s words, a double articulation is a way of describing that “there is never correspondence or conformity between content and expression” (Deleuze and Guattari 1987, 44). What takes place in the process of a double articulation is still a synthesis, but it is what Deleuze and Guattari call a disjunctive synthesis, or “a relational mode that does not have similarity or identity as its (formal or final) cause, but divergence or distance; another name for this relational mode is ‘becoming’” (cited in Viveiros de Castro 2014, 112). Following this mode of analysis, I want to keep in tension the developmental and novel character of the IED as a means for rethinking technological change and causality for technical objects. To put it another way, the IED is a technical object that makes and is made by its environment and history. Along the way, I enlist the help of thinkers who similarly view objects as having a point of view of their own, as well as thinkers who hold that a materialist account of the world is consonant with freedom, creativity, and agency. The tensions between history and nature, and materiality and creativity, are conditions of possibility for describing the strange efficacy of IEDs. In particular, the conceptual apparatus of the article will draw mostly from thinkers who are interlocutors of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. However, my interest is not in philosophy but in how thinkers like Gilbert Simondon, Jane Bennett, William Connolly, Manuel DeLanda, and others place the world and the empirical before the conceptual apparatus said to make sense of it. Each in their own way, these thinkers are radical empiricists, in that objects in the world force us to think. Objects are not merely appearances for which schema and judgment must exist a priori before the world can be made sense of. Things in the world touch us and alter the conditions of possibility for experience and thought. This article attempts to re-stage such an encounter between research and things in the world, and in this case, the IED. What follows is an attempt to describe my encounter with the IED in an attempt to alter the conceptual limits with which I myself, and those I am in dialogue with, come to understand the point of view of a particular species of technical objects that have come to matter in the landscape of human interest. I think the concept of the “technical object” distinguishes the approach of this article from actor-network theory and some approaches to new materialism pursued in security studies. Following Best and Walters’s (2013) description, interest in Latour and Callon was, in part, to eschew the agent/structure debates that bedeviled the field in the 1990s, and to enrich the understanding of materialism underwriting research. I am more interested in the nature of relationality itself as it is personified in the composite of technical objects and, further, what those technical objects show us about the larger ecological character of war and life. Technical objects, following Simondon, are neither the lonely monads of Object-Oriented Ontology, nor objectless and ill-defined theories where everything is an assemblage. Instead, placing the technical object at the center of analysis shows how particular configurations of things produce unique characteristics. While all things may possess a conatus or will to persist, a stone and an IED possess radically different powers when investigating contemporary war. That objects or assemblages matter is insufficient to establish the particularities of how they matter and what differences they make. Therefore, I am attracted to a flat ontology, but not a flat phenomenology. This difference is often lost in the war on anthropocentrism. If we want the insights of new analytic approaches to matter, we have to move on from the demonstration of the fact of non-human efficacy to the difference that different non-human efficacies make, and therefore how different orderings matter in the world we share with many other humans and interested non-humans alike.1 That a particular distribution and relation of things makes a difference is a necessary first step in the positing of other arrangements of things that we argue to be preferable.2 The difference between how things are, and how else they could be, is the fulcrum point of what we humans call politics. I am not arguing in this article that the approach I take is a politics, but instead that it opens up a way of understanding the world that is vital for understanding the limits and possibilities for political change. In short, I think we need a new vocabulary and way of speaking to capture the complex topology that undergirds the political. This article is the very beginning of such an approach.
In the wake of tight formulations of causality, agency, and meaning in favor of process, emergence, and novelty, tried and true genres of writing falter. Grammar, particularly English grammar, struggles to describe a world of with/and because written into our prepositions and conjunctions is a hierarchal matrix of doer and deed, cause and effect, subject and object. Furthermore, scholarly writing, even when critical, falls easily into the logical positivism that underwrites our causal and spatial grammar. Logical positivism presumes that the law of non-contradiction and its birthright—analytic clarity—extends into the world of technical objects. Unfortunately, encounters with the world do not accord to these frameworks for explaining things. If the language of the article is difficult or weird, it is evidence of my struggle to make something knowable that does not easily adhere to our categories of analysis and traditions of scholarly prose. The speculative form and content of the analysis is a pragmatic attempt to enter worlds that do not belong to us and do not follow our rules for discrete description and analysis. I am asking the reader for the generosity to experiment along with me on an adventure into an alien world of technological objects that make themselves known, but are not easily knowable.
The article is divided into four sections. In the first section, I detail how the US Department of Defense has responded to the IED crisis. In the second section, I provide a biography of the IED in order to contextualize how novelty always comes from somewhere, and to give an historical account of the IEDs morphogenesis. In the third section, I place the IED in its environment and map the relational significance of its bits and pieces. I then present an ecological account of the IED as an alternative to causal analysis. Finally, I make a brief case for ecological analysis as an ethical and methodological contribution to security studies and war studies.3 I am not interested in arguing that an ecological approach is a superior approach. Instead, my hope is that ecological thinking can open up sites of research that would otherwise seem inaccessible because of epistemological commitments that are at odds with loose associations or zones of creativity outside human experience.4
I think of this approach as a kind of sociology of things in that, following Bigo and Walker (2007, 5), research should emphasize “the study of practices” and eschew the “superhuman view of scholarship” that results from engaging “disembodied structures.” My less discourse-focused sociology finds inspiration in Tarde’s (2012, 28) insistence “that everything is a society.” Tarde lists among the purview of sociology, animals, dust, stars, humans, cells, ideas, practices, and chemical radicals. Even nations, Tarde says, “are nothing more than entities which have long been taken as true beings” in place of the societies of complex relations that make something like an entity possible (ibid., 7). Similarly, Tarde says that such an approach is necessary to overcome the fantasy that change comes from a “superhuman agent” (ibid., 8). Like Bigo, Walker, and Tarde, I wish to avoid superhumans and vague structures alike.
The US War with IEDs: 2006–2012
Given the tidal wave of ink spilled about UAVs and nuclear weapons, it is surprising that IEDs have garnered such little attention. Even the AK-47, a similarly revolutionary device, has been the star of several books. Small arms more generally are taken quite seriously in Security Studies (Chivers 2011). One can speculate on the paucity of research, but the significance of the IED for the future of warfare is undeniable. In part, the lack of interest may be due to precisely what makes the IED so powerful. The IED is not a thing. The IED is a condition of possibility present in almost all of contemporary life. IEDs are native inhabitants of a world of global relations and things that hover on the edge between tool and weapon. Unlike the AK-47, there is no Mikhail Kalashnikov or great inventor of the IED. There was no significant scientific breakthrough like Enrico Fermi’s sustained nuclear reaction that gave birth to the IED. There were no proper names, no essential identity, or even consistent components. IEDs are the weaponization of the throbbing refuse, commerce, surplus, violence, rage, instant communication, population density, and accelerating innovation of contemporary global life. In this regard, we can learn a great deal about the phase state or particular character of the cluttered, global, and violent distribution of relations that currently distinguish the human species from earlier epochs by studying what makes something like an IED possible and lethal.
In 2006, the US Army began to categorize IEDs by their method of detonation and delivery in an effort to fix the problem of irreductionism. Explosive devices that are part of an assemblage with a motor vehicle are classified as Vehicle Borne IEDS (VBIED). Others are part of human delivery methods, in which someone has joined into a relationship with an explosive device such that they are now a bomb. These are classified as Suicide Vest IEDS (SVIED). Other IEDs are detonated by long wires, so that an operator can time an explosion with an approaching target. These devices are called Control Wire IEDS (CWIED). IEDS also exist in the electromagnetic tributaries that transmit and monitor contemporary life. These range through human-triggered devices that use cellphones, garage door openers, or old TV remotes. These are classified as Radio Controlled IEDs (RCIED).
The last category is referred to as Victim Operated IEDs (VOIED). These are the most common devices found in Afghanistan. VOIEDs are autonomous in that they do not have a human detonator. VOIEDs commonly respond to the pressure of feet or tires; some feel movement, others feel heat. VOIEDs, like RCIEDs, also make use of the electromagnetic spectrum. However, they are not restricted to receiving human orders. Instead they listen and detonate themselves when they hear radio signals, or even jamming devices. Despite the best efforts of identification and taxonomy, the vast majority of IEDs are classified UNK, unknown. This is because their actualization as technical objects often results in the negation of their existence. Forty-four percent of IEDs do not leave enough behind to be categorized. Having examined many of the bits and pieces, it is also possible that the pieces that remain are not distinctive enough to be separable from the debris of cars, goats, humans, trash, buildings, and culverts they incorporate. The IED enacts a zone of indistinguishability between a bomb and its surroundings. A building or an entire alleyway can be part of directing the concussive force of the explosion either by happenstance or by planning. This means that the billions of dollars spent to counter the IED are failing because there is in some sense no one thing to target. There is no technical fix for the crowded and violent trajectory of modernity. Furthermore, these categories do not exhaust the rich machinic fauna of IEDS, as this taxonomy is what was developed by the US military for recordkeeping.
In this article, I draw from a database of 7,526 IED incident reports that were leaked by Private First Class Chelsea Manning in January 2010. After being released by Wikileaks later that year, the Guardian began a project to organize the data in ways that would be accessible and meaningful to the public.5 I make use of the full .XLS spreadsheet made available for public download by the Guardian. While the incident reports vary a great deal, every report contains a tracking number, time and date of filing, description of the event recorded, latitude and longitude, and casualty reports broken down by combatant type or civilian status.
Reports on IEDs in Afghanistan go back as far as 2004; however, the US military did not begin consistently classifying IEDs by the typology described above until January 12, 2006. It is not clear if there was a specific directive, or if it was the spread of tacit knowledge. The coding process, for all of its shortcomings in trying to classify a deluge of heterogeneous garbage and burnt ends, did result in more detailed reports. The effort to identify, often speculatively, the type of IED led to a very different attention to the bits and pieces left behind. As a result, the information about the actual designs and components of the IEDs improved consistently after January 2006.
In February 2006, the DoD Directive 2000.19E formalized the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Task Force, which was originally created in 2003 as a permanent program to be known as the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization (JIEDDO). The program was proposed as a “Manhattan Project” to defeat the Improvised Explosive Device. The mantra of JIEDDO is Attack the Network, Defeat the Device, Train the Force (Higginbotham 2010). Recordkeeping improved under the management of JIEDDO, and there is now a vast amount of data for scholars to sift through. Still, it is not clear that any of this research did much to defeat the IED, despite JIEDDO spending US$23.26 billion in only six years trying to do so. During that period, IED attacks in Afghanistan went from 797 attacks in 2006, to 15,222 attacks in 2012. In that time, 53,997 IEDs and their human collaborators injured more than 11,416 US soldiers and killed over 1,298 soldiers in Afghanistan. If you include Iraq, IEDs account for almost two-thirds of all US soldiers wounded and killed in both wars.
It is unclear how much IEDs cost, but estimates range from US$30 to US$267.6 If there is a human detonator involved, often there is an additional US$15 for the task of setting and detonating the device. However, even at the highest estimate, the financial cost to the insurgency for 53,997 IEDs was approximately only US$14.4 million, as compared to the US$23.26 billion spent to stop them. The JIEDDO spent US$1,613 for every dollar spent by the insurgency. Given that the IED was the most common weapon used in both theaters, to truly understand the financial asymmetry one would have to include the price tag for the tanks, fighter jets, battalions of women and men, and the multi-billion-dollar UAV program in the comparison to really do it justice. In addition to the amount of violence that IEDs can create at such a low cost, they have also been decisive. The United States has not achieved victory against IEDs or their users in Iraq and Afghanistan for the US$23.26 billion spent. Instead, the government has accepted limited withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan with less than victorious standing. The new “Manhattan Project” failed.7
The complex relationship between technical object and environment can help explain the sluggish response of US and NATO forces to detect and counter these weapons. While the US prepares daily for multiple scenarios of nuclear conflict, its preparation for IED weapons has been nil. Ironically, in 1996, the United States opposed Lloyd Axworthy’s attempts to organize support to ratify an anti-landmine treaty because of the defensive advantage the DoD believed landmines represented in multi-front wars against non-state enemies. The US position on landmines shifted one hundred eighty degrees after the Clinton administration. While Clinton did not sign the Treaty to Ban Landmines, he did stop the US production of mines that would have been in violation of it. Later, the Bush administration began production of devices that would be in violation of the treaty, and the Obama administration has also cited military necessity in this regard, arguing that signing the landmine ban would make it impossible to meet “national defense needs” and “security commitments” (Keyes 2009). The use of mines was thought to represent a national security asset that far outweighed the cost to civilian life throughout the global South.
The US military has been blinded by an anthropocentrism incapable of recognizing the machinic character of the landmine, and its ability to evolve in unpredictable ways. The human security position that advocated the treaty was equally misguided in its presumption that something defined as a landmine could be “cleared” or banned via the restriction of production and trade of objects defined as “landmines.” There was a technological essentialism that presupposed landmines to be a particular, discrete, whole object differentiated from an entire ecosystem of other current and surplus objects. It failed to appreciate the fecund zone of indiscernibility between military and non-military things. When evaluated under the rubric of military necessity, the calculations of risk and reward presumed a technological hubris whereby the US would only ever encounter mines as a tactical device for defensive perimeters, and the deployment of mines against the United States was thought to be little more than an inconvenience. High-tech armor, meandering winding magnetometers, satellite surveillance, and the increasing preference for air power in the projection of force abroad underwrote the confidence that landmines were devices to be used by the United States rather than being reassembled from first-world debris to be used against it.
The attraction or singularity of the mine is—more than can be deduced from its disaggregated parts—demonstrated by the heterogeneity of seemingly interchangeable parts that form the whole of any particular IED. IEDs are ambient, integrated, and distributed by methods that make it difficult to detect and combat. Unlike precision weapons, IEDs are neither smart nor dumb. They are environmentally aware in a way that challenges the military typology of dumb, smart, and brilliant weapons. The capability of IEDs is not part of the lineage of precision targeting based on the trillions of dollars spent developing the vast infrastructure for satellite surveillance, laser-guided munitions, and Geographic Information Systems. The degree to which the IED is native to its crowded environment also explains the more effective targeting capability despite the limited sensory options for its awareness. The IED reacts, whereas precision munitions are enacted, that is, targeted and delivered, under the supervision of a human actor. The IED has a relationship to, and is provoked by, the way a target disturbs or changes an environment that the IED and target (at least for a time) share. A precision weapon is guided by a network above or removed from the field of combat. The ability of a precision weapon to be precise requires that it be inured to its surroundings and listen only to its remote command.
Biography of a Bomb
In a general sense, IEDs are not new. There is a nearly continuous use of traps resembling the mine throughout the recorded history of military conflict. IEDs are only the most recent of “victim operated devices,” or booby traps, used in conflict over land. Still, most of the history of mines falls under the category of defensive weapons, the most basic mine being the digging of trenches that were then filled with sharpened and hardened spears. Here, the only potential energy or trigger for the mine was the relationship between gravity (falling) and the ability to puncture the skin because of the reduced friction created by the spear point. Even with the advent of gunpowder and other explosives, combined with pressure triggers and tripwires, mines were primarily used for maintaining defensive perimeters or slowing the progress of an enemy when one’s forces were in retreat.
The idea that such weapons could be decisive in combat is nearly absent from the historical record of military defeats and victories.8 Before 2001, the only other record of a battle being won as a result of the use of a mine is in 52 B.C.E. during Julius Caesar’s conquest of Gaul. Vastly outnumbered by a loose confederation of Gallic tribes, Caesar commanded his troops to dig short and randomly distributed spiked trenches throughout the battlefield and covered them with loose dirt and twigs. The result was chaos. Caesar reversed the telluric advantage of the Gauls by deterritorializing a field of battle where local fighters no longer felt at home on their own soil. While there is more phenotypical similarity between the modern smart mine and the IED, the morphogentic history suggests that the capability of the IED laid dormant for 2,064 years. Thus, the IED has more in common with what Caesar’s troops called the “lila” or lily of the field than the modern land mine developed for segmentation and the building of perimeters (Caesar 1982, 192; Delbruck 1990, 498–99).
To explain how a primarily defensive weapon with an ancient past became dominant in contemporary warfare requires that we break from the developmentalist account of technology. Such accounts start with a simple version of any given device that is then refined or innovated to become more sophisticated. These accounts proceed as if there is a straight line from the chariot to the automobile, with each stage of the device passing from one technological breakthrough to the next. In the case of the IED, very few breakthroughs account for the technical device itself, as even the main categories of IEDs have a seemingly infinite number of variations in components and placement. IEDs in this sense are not merely tools or weapons, they are “technical objects,” as named by Gilbert Simondon. For Simondon (1980, 13), “the technical object is a unit of becoming … just as in the case of phylogenetic sequences, any particular stage of evolution contains within itself dynamic structures and systems which are at the basis of any evolution of forms.” Like the case of the automobile, a car is neither a mechanical chariot, nor a combustion engine with wheels. Instead, in the car is an “internal resonance” with an environment that emerges with it. One cannot separate the explosion in road development and the automobile; each requires the other. For Simondon (1980, 59), every technical object is “at once technical and geographical.” This is what distinguishes a technical object from a tool or utensil. A technical object makes concrete a virtual environment through its own internal consistency that resonates with an exterior environment (Simondon 1980, 66–67). Following Simondon, Felix Guattari inverts Heidegger’s thesis on technological thinking, arguing that it is the machine that demands of us the question of technology—not the other way around (Guattari 1995, 33). Rather than a general question of technology, “for each type of machine, we will propose a question, not about its vital economy—it’s not an animal—but about its singular power to enunciation … [its] specific enunciative consistency” (Guattari 1995, 34).
The problem of enunciative consistency is in some sense apparent in the lilia and IEDs. Both are technical objects insofar as their function exceeds their simplicity as a device because of the relationship or fit with a particular environment. In other words, neither object nor context precedes the other. This is the problem to be addressed. What is an IED if it can be seemingly anything and anywhere? The first cut of an answer is to be found in its “enunciative consistency,” that fit between an assemblage of things in a technical object, and the environment where that assemblage can take hold.9 Therefore, to account for what is better described as the emergence rather than causality or effect of the IED, we have to look for a kind of consistency between the world that emerges with this technical object.
The IED and Its Milieu
The discussion of weapons and their innovation and diffusion generally follows the state and the armies that use them. Always starting with great powers and the most “sophisticated” weapons, studies of military diffusion chart the slow drift of devices to the periphery as the technical knowledge and need or prestige of a weapon interacts with the technological capability and, in some cases, cultural values of a given state-military apparatus. The structural features of an agent, which is generally a state, either inhibit or induce the adoption of a weapon or fighting technique (Goldman and Eliason 2003, 7–9). The accounts of Goldman and others break the technical object into software (content) and hardware (form) and ignore the internal consistency that makes a device “work.” As is the case in particular with the IED, there is nothing singular in its design that would count as a trade secret or invention.
Despite the object emphasis in the IED story, humans should not be left out. It is predominantly humans (although sheep and other non-human animals have also borne the violence of IEDs) for whom the lives of objects leave their trace. Therefore, we cannot throw out the agency and involvement of humans, without which there would be little or no condition of possibility for technical war. Instead, methodologically, a fuller glimpse of the IED requires horizontalizing humans with the assortment of relations and objects that intensify and mutate the environment and relations on which the efficacy of technical objects depends.10 Furthermore, the human body, once immersed in the thick of combat, resembles few of its enlightenment capabilities of reason or reflection, as it is often the sinew between objects and forces, such as in the case of command wire IEDs to the adrenaline and body memory, that animates the so-called suicide vest IEDs.
Thus, while it is necessary in this case to take an “object-oriented” approach to see the world from the “point of view”11 of the IED, we should resist transposing the subject onto the object. It is, at times, highly persuasive and therefore politically effective to anthropomorphize objects, but it is equally valuable in the milieu of war to objectify and then reassemble the operators—goats, mortar shells, wheel barrels—in the complex relay of change and mutation that makes the flow and tumult of war possible. We have to walk a fine line between loosening the grip of anthropocentrism, while still holding on to the human element in the mystery.12 To go too far into the world of the machine risks losing the rhythms and irruptions of war, and would amount to an instrumental and mechanistic account of things.
Therefore, we have to focus on how the milieu of war and its attendant objects are built into the very architecture of cities and roadways, and distributed in the economic flows that the IED inhabits. Economics here should be taken in its broadest sense of oikos—the same root for both economy and ecology. Roads, bridges, smuggling, dense urban zones, topographies of race, affect, sexuality, postcolonial legacies, sacred attachment … then overrun by surplus weapons, cell phones, garbage, and concrete; they all play their part.13 The oikos, once unrestricted, finds that the economy of war extends well beyond factories, natural resources, and labor mobilization and into the very ground beneath our feet. To take just a few examples of the components that form the environment of the IED, fifty million tons of e-waste is generated each year. This is enough to fill a train long enough to encircle the entire planet. The e-waste comes from the 716 million new computers that will go into use this year, up from 183 million five years ago. Each will have an average lifespan of two years, rather than the six-year average in 2005. Around 700 million cell phones will be sold this year, and their average life span is about eighteen months.14
To put all of this in the context of two current conflict zones, Iraq and Afghanistan have ten million landmines each, which is roughly enough landmines to kill one-third of the population in both countries. The top ten most mined countries have an estimated 101 million mines. A global count is impossible to determine, particularly if we include the countless improvised mines built from surplus munitions and then mated with one of the millions of castaway cell phones.15 It is here that the umwelt or lifeworld of war’s technical objects can be found (von Uexkull 2010, 47). The IED emerges within an economy made from the strange resonance between environments of wars past and present, and the refuse of global telecommunication expansion, with each further resonating or finding a particular fit with the rhythms and structures of US military logistics and force structure.
Following this, the IED’s effectiveness does not proceed from the complexity or sophistication of its design. In fact, an IED is little more than a novel fuse and a bomb. However, as I am trying to demonstrate, the IED is not merely the wires taken from any number of sources, or its explosive “package” ranging from original manufacture to the artifact of a forgotten war. Neither is the “device” reducible to its “improvisor,” the artisan who crafted its new arrangement of receptors and detonation feedbacks. It is also not simply the environment of warfare in which it takes hold. The IED and its effect are the strange attraction or “prehension,” as Alfred North Whitehead would say, of all of these things in their forces and arrangement. In Whitehead’s words, “the whole world conspires to produce a new creation. It presents to the creative process its opportunities and its limitations” (Whitehead 1978, 19–20).
The conspiracy of arrangements is also not homogeneous. The “fuses” carry with them different environment or ecological niches. Some are better for roads such as pressure plates, while others such as control wires require ditches or places to hide. Like Darwin’s finches, even within this narrow temporal and geographic corner of warfare, there are varied attributes and different morphogenetic histories for each subspecies of IED. Some perceive light, heat, microwaves, sound waves, radio waves, and each an increasingly precise modulation of the electromagnetic spectrum.16 For detonation, some require the interplay or sequence of many of these modes of communication. All require ways of being in the world, that is, ways of fighting war for which disrupting the flow of goods and services is strategically significant.
“Where Is the Object?” or After Causality Comes Ecology
The varied intensities and insistencies of objects is not historical in the sense of their being developmental; however, there is something like a natural history that has come to pass such that particular technical or machinic objects make statements in more decisive ways. Simondon’s technical object is one that must create and inhabit its environment simultaneously. That is, the object cannot be disassociated from its ecosystem because each had to be virtually implied in the other for the actual object to emerge. This is Whitehead’s conspiracy. For Simondon, the arrangement between technical object and environment keeps open the space of invention without the “new” being ex nihilo. As Simondon (1980, 58–59) puts it, the technical object “is caused by an environment which had merely virtual existence before the invention. The invention happens because a jump is made and is justified by the relationship which is instituted within the environment it creates.” Once a technical object exists, causality becomes a question of intensity rather than an identity difference between cause and effect. Assemblages can change or create effects through processes of intensification or amplification. When novelty or change is incipient, just about to emerge, parts of an assemblage become more vibratory and sing with greater intensity, as is the case of the connection between flows of e-waste and surplus landmines. Once assembled, the novel arrangement of things can produce what Deleuze and Guattari called machinic statements, that is, effects unique to the “refrain” or signature of a particular assemblage (Deleuze and Guattari 1987, 333).
One way to describe the specificity or machinic statement of the IED would be in terms of what John Ashby calls an amplifier:
… a device that, if given a little of something, will emit a lot of it … Such devices work by having available a generous reservoir of what is to be emitted, and then using the input to act as controller to the flow from the reservoir … it works by supplementation. (Ashby 1965, 265)
The reservoir, in the case of the IED, would include material and affective resources. Surplus weapons, postcolonial injustice, e-waste, nationalist identification, or just rage are all drawn into amplification to create the IED and unleash its explosive potentiality. As amplification is not just a linear increase, it can result in qualitative changes. Amplifications of rage can transform discontent into a change in voting preferences; this is what in chemistry is called a phase transition, like the movement from solid to liquid or, more rarely and surprisingly, when matter skips states and jumps from solid to the excited molecules of a gas; from discontent directly to revolt. DeLanda explains that the extrapolation of physical phase properties to human endeavors allows more fluidity and creativity in the non-linear history of human development than the “stages” often presumed by development economists or archeologists. Humanity in its relationship to the environment has “solidified” and “liquefied” at different rates and times: “in other words, human history did not follow a straight line, as if everything pointed toward civilized societies as humanity’s ultimate goal” (DeLanda 2000, 16, 258–59). This is how machinic statements proceed. Amplification or incipient elements are lured into actuality by any number of irritants or perturbations, that is, resonances or loose relations that draw upon the abundant resources at hand, intensifying or amplifying the otherwise imperceptible assemblage.17 An environment becomes the medium or milieu that this amplification reverberates through. An ecosystem and its study—ecology—represents a concept for understanding the profound entanglement of objects that make immanent creativity possible at every level of the system. Thus, we need consistency for a technical object, but we will not be able to conclude that there is something even like a “condition of possibility” that we would want to call causation. In other words, we are trying to describe the IED and its environments, but not its cause.
Instead of looking for the IED’s cause, my metaphysical wager is that technical objects, while not obeying laws of conformity, cluster or are attracted to particular lures or transient forms over periods of time in particular environments. The important point here is that those conditions are transitory—there is no essence. However, there is a “point” to naming something or identifying it, even if the IED lacks the permanency of identity. Such a loose or fuzzy set of identifications does not mean the world is all flux and therefore impenetrable to thought and investigation. Instead, an ecological approach to technical objects such as the IED means we ought not be too disappointed if the concepts we generate have a limited or even fleeting shelf life.
This may seem like a lot of fancy theoretical footwork for such a simple class of technical objects. Yet even JIEDDO’s attempts to settle on a fairly comprehensive list of IEDs obfuscates more than it has aided in the attempt to develop countermeasures. Where technical objects interface with the environment shows us, I think, that simplicity and complexity are not opposites. Landmines, discarded bomblets, unexploded ordinances, victim-operated weapons, victim rage, exclusionary urbanization, e-waste dumping, cheap arms sales, racial formations, and resource extraction all exhibit different temporal flows and variably transversal connections that can become an IED. The conflict or war that lures it into existence can dissipate and then re-emerge days, months, years, decades, or even a century later. Even the devices once assembled can reemerge well beyond the attention span of humans.18
The misfit between time, space, and object returns us to the problem raised in the introduction of irriduction, which is simultaneously a problem of the relationship between part and whole as well as a problem of causality. If identity or essence (part/whole) and causality are not a sufficient category for investigation, then what can we replace them with to begin to understand the IED? Is an IED part of the assemblage of war? Is an IED an assemblage? Is war the environment, or is the political economy preceding war the environment? Certainly the ecology of war and the IED is populated by heterogeneous assemblages made of people, affects, guns, hills, culverts, streets, and mines, and those assemblages are transversally entangled in space/time. The problem is what John Law (2004) calls “a heap.” However, as Law insists, dissatisfaction with the heap belies the very real possibility that our inquiry is messy, precisely because reality is messy (Law 2004, 2–3). Still, how do we account for things as assemblages without losing either their distinctiveness as objects, or their function in particular assemblages?
I am looking for the answer in the entanglement between objects and the temporal rhythms of the IED’s expressive statements, or what Guattari refers to as “enunciative consistency.” Certainly an explosion is part of the IED’s expressive statement. However, other bombs do that too. So the IED’s capacity to explode bears the singularity of an IED because of its ability to wait, to listen, to become part of the road or city. The IED, like Caesar’s lilia, has the ability to produce a fundamental distrust of the familiar. The ground beneath one’s feet is suspect. The interpenetration of these attributes and more is the expressive statement and the consistency of an IED. The explosion is kinetic, thermal, affective, communicative, and implicated by the IED’s ability to lie in wait while the former attributes are still virtual. Furthermore, there is a feedback where the intensifications created by the IED also intensify other “environmental” factors in the production, dissemination, and affective character of each device. Expressive statements replace what would otherwise be called an “effect” in “cause/effect” explanations, but it is more than just an effect. The presumption of cause’s independence from effect is not possible if we want to describe assemblages such as IEDs. The technical object and its milieu loses its consistency or “eventness” once we start trying to isolate or vivisect the components, for instance six inches of copper wire, a discarded cell phone, eighteen ounces of fertilizer, Kabul—for positivistic description. The tension is between the permanence or identity of the object presumed by positivist modes of analysis, the movement or flow of a technical object and its environment, as well as the way these relations become the possibility for the entire assemblage to mutate, change, even evolve.
The emergence of novelty, and the speed of that emergence with IEDs, also bears the relational character of ecology, which blurs cause and effect. Speaking more generally about innovation on the battlefield, Major General J. F. C. Fuller calls the creative dynamism of technical objects the constant tactical factor. According to Fuller, there is never a moment of totalization in which technology equates to dominance on the battlefield. Instead, Fuller (1998, 143) argues, “the sole thing impossible in war is for it to stand still. That directly [when] a weapon approaches or enters the master stage, the Constant Tactical Factor comes into play.” The constant tactical factor, when extended beyond Fuller’s ambiguous anthropocentrism, is like the refrain or temporary singularity of the IED, where forces of intensification accelerate adaptation and innovation. This rhythm of creativity organizes people, matter, technology, cities, spaces, geography and flow toward disruptive innovation. Tinkerers, artisans, and inventors participate in a nomad science that is neck deep in the assembly of things (DeLanda 1991, 19). Reassembly and reorganization rather than ex nihilo invention is the mode of production for the constant tactical factor. The mutations and territorializations that occur in the environment of the technical object are more likely experimental or improvised rather than tested or budgeted for assembly line production. This helps explain why so many advances could take place in Afghanistan, which had been systematically deprived of education and the resources for 21st-century technical research and design, at least since the invasion of the Soviet Union.
In the summer of 2005, a particularly dynamic example of the constant tactical factor erupted in the life of the IED. In response to the paving of roads in Afghanistan, insurgents stopped burying IEDs and started using Explosive Formed Penetrators (EFPs). EFPs use explosive-shaped charges that create molten copper slugs traveling at 26,000 feet per second and can pass easily through even the most sophisticated armor (Atkinson 2007c). Further, these new projectile IEDs could be activated near a road, but be hidden as much as one hundred yards from the target. The millions spent paving and widening roads to make the burial of IEDs and remote detonation more difficult is only effective against pressure-triggered and radio-controlled mines. These IEDs feel heat rather than listening to radio waves or feeling pressure, thus making the US$3 billion directed toward developing jammers spent in vain (Atkinson 2007d).
Soldiers responded by creating decoys, hanging toasters and hairdryers on ten-foot booms in front of vehicles to set off EFPs (Atkinson 2007c). Within weeks, insurgents angled the IEDs so that the slug shot beyond the decoy to strike the vehicle. By autumn, soldiers in communication with the DOD developed heat decoys called the Rhino that could be adjusted and deployed along with jammers. Beginning in 2010, new EFPs were triggered by the jammers. Insurgents in Afghanistan developed a pressure-sensitive wooden box with no metal parts that could deploy ten to twenty EFPs at a time, and was undetectable with any existing scanning or portable X-ray device (Atkinson 2007a). Between 2004 and 2006, the number of IEDs increased tenfold, and the geographic distribution expanded from one or two provinces to the entire theater of operations (Atkinson 2007b). Soldiers poured into Afghanistan in an effort to quell the escalating violence. Between 2007 and 2011, the number of US troops on the ground increased from 26,000 to 100,000. This fighting force was backed up by the JIEDDO’s US$4 billion budget and a staff of more than 2000 experts. In 2012 16,000 IEDs were deployed (Atkinson 2007e).
Fuller’s account of the constant tactical factor assumed that only the artisans of war were the engines of difference and mutation. However, in the case of the IED, it is also the stubborn perdurance of high-tech and manufactured waste dumping that provides the near-limitless flow of materials and parts from place to place. The protocols of production, waste disposal, and consumption habits—which are never entirely human—generate the exteriorization of waste from the centers of cutting-edge commerce to the periphery. The global South is a kind of eddy in the flow of global capital’s need to hemorrhage the objects of planned obsolescence, and to make room for new demand and new products. But these seemingly disposable things that break so easily never break completely. The dominion of human control is limited. The insistence of things exceeds the attempts to ship, bury, burn, and smash them. The bits reassemble in the hands of other artisans, or even simply in the new space/time in which the perdurance of a dormant machine from another time reemerges, exploding on a battlefield in ways unimagined by its inventors or manufacturers.
The Constant Tactical Factor shows a limit to managing, much less mastering, war because the machinic capacity of things exceeds the enframing of humans. Anthropocentric views of technology (either pessimistic or optimistic) fail to capture the dance of distributive agency in the obstinacy of things. Creativity is a grand conspiracy. In the words of one army colonel: “The enemy found a seam. I don’t think they knew it was a seam, but it just happened” (Atkinson 2007e). The contingency and creativity of the technical objects of war, such as the IED, changes what we normally mean by asymmetric warfare. Asymmetry is not just the difference between the capability of combatants; it is the asymmetry of the entire field of battle. Reality is asymmetrical; it has a bias toward mutation and change.
Conflict in Afghanistan via the IED is, then, intensively and extensively asymmetrical. I don’t mean this in the sense that the war is uneven, as is often the understanding of this term, but in the sense that there is a mismatch or incommensurable difference between the resources and tactics of each side that is further complicated by the bias of nature as becoming. So to say that the US military possesses more tanks than the Taliban or Pashtun fighters is true, as neither possesses any armored vehicles. However, the accounting of relative strength would only be relevant if both sides were fighting a tank war. IEDs could be counted and compared, say, to their cousin, the “smart mine.” Yet that would tell us little about the possible outcome of the conflict. The United States could possess twice as many mines as their competitors, and the uncertainty would still persist.
In part, this is because of differential flows and organizations of the opposing forces, or what we might think of as the habitats of competing combatant forces. Hasik (2015) has called the current configuration of US warfighting “supply chain warfare.” The United States relies on major roads that can accommodate large caravans of trucks and vehicles. Without a nearly constant flow of goods and soldiers, the US military would starve.19 Therefore, IEDs consistently do damage because convoys, whether for supply or patrols to ensure the passage of supplies, are highly susceptible to disruption. That vulnerability is not reversible. Understanding this asymmetry requires understanding the assemblages of things that organize the differing lifeworlds spanning the theater of operations.
Methodologically, for security studies, IEDs suggest a need to expand the horizon of actants in war far beyond soldiers and traditional weapons platforms. While it may be impossible to exhaust the census of “things,” or give a causal accounting of all the objects that make up a milieu, the multiplication of objects that take part can provide a foothold for navigating the emergence and recurrence of conflicts. The improvised explosive device is exceptional for this pursuit because its recurrence, mutation, and advance have ravaged the roadways and urban corridors of the present US occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. This is despite the best efforts of the DoD to target the supplies used to construct IEDs, and the initiatives to track down and eliminate the humans that build them. IEDs have accounted for nearly half of all combat deaths and half of all casualties in Iraq, and thirty percent of deaths and fifty percent of casualties in Afghanistan (Guardian 2010). Since the US$30 billion counter-IED effort began in Afghanistan, the number of lethal IEDs has tripled. It should be mentioned that the number of civilians killed by these machines is difficult to measure, but estimates suggest they exceed US combat deaths of all kinds (Afghan Conflict Monitor 2011). The magnitude of the death toll and the geopolitical significance of this carnage suggests that the simplicity and efficacy of the IED undermines the very concept of what is generally meant by technological superiority, or advanced industrial economy.
Conclusion: Why We Should Stop Worrying and Learn to Love Ecology
Nature is a language, Cant You Read!
We live in a flooded age. The diluvian character of our time finds its substance in bits and pieces of technics old and new, feral natures that are ever more hostile, and the flows and relations of each through and between the throngs of human bodies. If the cosmos abhors a vacuum, then this time is a spectacular achievement. The supersaturated state of the world enlivens an ecological approach as both a description and a means of understanding, that is, a way to make sense out of the emergent character of rapid and often violent changes as a state of affairs. Ecological relations are characterized by shifting stabilities, creativity, and variable inter-involvements from top to bottom, cosmos to microorganism (Connolly 2013, 63–65). The ecology of things describes an indefinite set of more and less interpenetrated forcefields. Following Timothy Morton, “the ecological thought permits no distance … all beings are related to each other … in an open system without center or edge” (Morton 2010, 39). Ecology comprises all systems inter-involved even when that relevance fluctuates with changes in the intensity of interinvolvement (Connolly 2010, 27). Therefore, all systems are actual and present in every other system (Connolly 2010, 22). Deleuze, like Foucault and Canguielhm before him, often referred to this ambient category of all actual things in their pluripotential relations as the milieu. A milieu can range from that of a particular songbird to the cosmic milieu of the current epoch (Deleuze and Guattari 1987, 313). Even the milieu that comprises all milieus, the set of all sets if you will, is not a closed system: it is made up of many overlapping and intercalated assemblages, each more or less influenced by the varying intensities of forcefields (Connolly 2010, 14) that bear on their multiplicity, that is, the structure of their “space of possibility” (DeLanda 2011, 10).
In the case of the IED, the battle space emerges recursively as an environment connected to foreign invasion, but not one reducible to the monocausal presence of foreign soldiers. The intensive difference of being under attack can produce many different possible outcomes. In the case of Afghanistan after October 7, 2001, connections between a disconnected or disinterested groups of objects, including the detritus of globalization such as broken garage door openers, old artillery shells, bits of wire, and half-dead batteries, were set into motion to become, in some cases, technical objects capable of listening, feeling, and communicating with the technical objects of US countermeasures. The point of detailing such an ecological history, in the words of DeLanda, is to “specify the structure of spaces of possibilities, spaces which, in turn, explain the regularities exhibited by morphogenetic processes” (DeLanda 2011, 10). The complexity of a past environmental order can teach us something about the nature of order in both its fleeting character and its extra-human capacities for organization and change.
Encountering the IED as a species in a world, we as human actants share rather than control and can, I think, alter the phenomenological limits of how we can understand complexity. The human, and always a particular human, may be the observer and sense-maker of investigation, but granting the IED a “point of view” is valuable for exploring the egregious arrogance of humanism at war in contrast to the efficacy of extraordinarily inhuman actants. Andrew Pickering refers to this methodological tactic as ontological theater (Pickering 2010, 74). As investigators, we try to become attuned to quixotic technical objects that seem to be addressing us. Once attuned, we can observe what Jane Bennett calls the dance of human and inhuman agency (Bennett 2009, 31). An emergent choreography is sensible in the assembly and deployment of the IED. The IED as a technical object, machinic and indebted to an environment, resists the instrumental view of weapons and warfare more broadly as a tool that is ready-to-hand. The significance of the seemingly inert or obsolete bits and pieces of the IED further charts how practices of war convert and condition open-ended bodies and things, recognizably human and otherwise-than-human, into alliances that can all too easily be organized and deployed for violent ends.
To push an ecological approach further into the realm of security and war will require the dilation of causality, efficacy, creation, and destruction until a veritable menagerie of actants (Latour 1988, 91) becomes more legible, and the surprising self-organizing actions of those actants are seen to complicate and even contravene the dominion of the humans that developed and deployed them. Whether that be the supposed docile bodies of Afghani civilians that become an insurgency, the innovative introduction of obsolete weaponry or, more precisely, the emergent assemblage of the two that become an IED, we must attend to multiple types of agency in war ecologies. To borrow again from Pickering, “things are unenframable,” and that is as much a pedagogical lesson against mastery as it is an ontological insight into the nature of things (Pickering 2010, 31). Bennett (2009) calls this pedagogical or performative character of objects “thing power.” The IED as a particular class of thing, a technical object, shows “the curious ability of inanimate things to animate, to act, to produce effects dramatic and subtle” (Bennett 2009, 20). This looser view of what classes of things can make a difference in the world leaves us with a concept of agency that is promiscuous and gregarious, and finds its efficacy where it finds attraction and connection.
Therefore, the ecology of the IED involves not just the objects; it involves connections that resonate through their chancy efficacy. However, this network of connections that underlies the concept of ecology is not simply the recent advent of a vast series of tubes known as the Internet, or the satellites that make global telecommunication possible. Further, the network is much more than the distributed information systems of John Arquilla’s “netwar,” where networks fight networks, or the system of systems total battlefield awareness dreamed of by the American Defense Advanced Research Project Agency. From these presentist and instrumental perspectives, networks are little more than operational means, rather than ontological processes. The instrumental network, following its Cold War roots, is only relevant and desirable because its dispersed and redundant organization impedes targetability and decapitation. However, the humanism of such an interpretation misses the productive and directive capacity of non-human forces in networks better called assemblages. An assemblage is neither a metaphor nor a human-designed architecture, but an actual plurality of relays, resonances, physical interfaces, technical objects, and environments that emerge as a particular and singular assemblage. An assemblage is a real order of consistency. Therefore, to take the ecology of war seriously, that is, to be humbled by its challenge to a humanist will-to-control, is to resist operationalizing its complexity so that thought can remain open to be provoked by the IEDs’ aleatory and often horrifying creativity.