Sunday, November 2, 2008

Derek Gregory at Counterpoints Conference

As one of the organizers of the Counterpoints Conference: Edward Said's Legacy, I had been looking forward with glee to Derek Gregory's keynote address: War, Culture & Imperialism.

Gregory's presentation at the University of Ottawa yesterday afternoon -- attended by 120 people, standing-room only -- was fantastic. It was a chilling overview of military (im)precision and strategy from a geographical perspective, one that is sorely lacking in social theory more generally.

After patiently laying out the two types of war currently being employed by the U.S. military in Iraq, i.e., precision warfare (smart bombs, remote control drones, etc) and 'armed social work' (winning hearts & minds- re-building schools, etc), Gregory proceeded to debunk the myth of the humanitarian war by demonstrating how 'armed social work' actually solidifies the use of precision warfare.

The irony is that this new military humanism is meant to 'people' previously unpeopled military targets, to render empty spaces into human places. Gregory explains how this allows the attention to turn to the space of the encounter between soldiers and civiliians, for example, soldiers handing out candies to children or blankets to mothers, and facilitates our forgetting that behind this image bombs continue to rain down on people a couple of blocks away.

Of course, there was much more to Gregory's presentation, including a brilliant overview of the new military operations manual and a succinct explanation of the difference between 'our' wars (the West- smart, disembodied) and 'their' wars (the Rest- savage, visceral ). Overall, Gregory was well worth the hype.