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What Kind of War Does Neoliberalism Make?

James A. Tyner.  The Business of War: Workers, Warriors, and Hostages in Occupied Iraq.  Burlington: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2006.  viii + 152 pp.  Bibliography, index.  ISBN 978-0-7546-4791-1.

In The Business of War, James A. Tyner provides an engaged and readable synthesis of scholarship and informed polemic produced in response to the Anglo-American invasion and occupation of Iraq.  He situates this synthesis within a broader intellectual framework that draws on Michel Foucault, as well as on the work of geographers and ethnographers concerned with contemporary configurations of neoliberal globalism (e.g., David Harvey, Derek Gregory, Aiwha Ong, etc.).  In line with the method suggested by these sources, Tyner begins by tracing the genealogy of assumptions invoked to naturalize the Bush administration’s Iraq project — notably the sense of manifest destiny that has informed so
much of America’s engagement with the rest of the world over the past
200 years — and by sketching the broader history of corporate involvement
in determining U.S. foreign policy interests (these being the subjects
of chapter 2, “A War of Neoliberalism”).  As Tyner notes, “we should not
lose sight that economic ideologies — including but not limited to
neoliberalism and neoconservatism — have greatly impacted the role and
function of the military” (p. 16).

But this book is ultimately motivated by a more profound sense of
purpose.  Tyner sets out to explore the nexus of neoliberalism and war by
looking at how this intersection has inscribed itself on the bodies of
migrant contract laborers held hostage in Iraq.  In his own words: “My
aim is to examine the political subjugation of hostages within Occupied
Iraq as a means of articulating the de-humanization of neoliberalism and
the business of war” (p. 4).  This is a theme that Tyner appears to have
stumbled across while on the heels of the Filipino migrant laborers who
were the subject of his previous work.  And it is one that is certainly
worth exploring.  Tyner sees the bodies of these hostages as emblematic
of struggles to define the nature of the contemporary global system.

Iraq clearly represents a new phase in “the business of war.”  Not only
have the support functions of state-declared war been privatized to an
extent previously unseen; close examination of the practices of private
contractors in Iraq reveals the darker side of a world that has
gradually been remade over the past three decades to make it amenable to
neoliberal modalities of government.  The role of the neoliberal model in
Iraq’s reconstruction is outlined in the first half of chapter 3, “The
Business of Occupation.”  Tyner then calls attention to the contract
laborers who have come from the slums of East Asia, the Middle East, and
Latin America to work for the private firms providing support services
to the U.S. Army and other agencies involved in the reconstruction and
government of Iraq.  Tyner shows how this flow of migrant labor has been
made possible by new forms of cooperation between state agencies and a
transnational private sector empowered by neoliberal reforms.  He also
shows that these invisible minions play a crucial role in making the
human and financial costs of war acceptable to the U.S. public. 
Meanwhile, for militant groups, these migrants have — in Tyner’s
estimation — come to symbolize the militant neoliberal imperialism of the
Anglo-American project in Iraq.

Unfortunately, Tyner only begins the serious exploration of his central
thesis midway into the fourth and penultimate chapter, “Spaces of
Political Subjugation.”  Here, Tyner brings us to the plight of the
hostages themselves by building on analysis of the Philippine
government’s position in advance of the Iraq war.  Philippine authorities
hoped, according to Tyner, that participation in the “coalition of the
willing” would facilitate employment opportunities for Filipino laborers
in the private-sector-led reconstruction effort.  Tyner illustrates the
consequences of such a policy by exploring the case of Angelo de la
Cruz, a Filipino migrant laborer who was held hostage in Iraq for a
relatively brief period in the summer of 2004.

Tyner writes: “During de la Cruz’s captivity, both the Philippine state,
the Iraqi insurgents, and other participants attempted to inscribe their
own discourses on to the captive body of de la Cruz.  Although
powerlessness [sic] himself, de la Cruz continued to be subjected to
various interpretations and meanings; his body, in effect, continued to
work, albeit for larger political purposes. . . .  From the perspective of
the captors, de la Cruz was not an individual [but represented]
something else entirely . . . the Coalition [and] the abstract concepts of
modernity and capitalism.  This is made clear in the demands made by the
abductors” (p. 122).

But Tyner does not in fact provide any convincing evidence that
resistance to such abstract concepts lay behind the demands of most
hostage-takers in Iraq, and it strikes me as presumptuous to suggest
that most Iraqi militants imagine themselves as foes of modernity or
capitalism per se.  Equally, his subsequent assertion — that “the bodies
of workers and warriors, from the perspective of the abductors, are
re-scripted as the personification of an illegal and unjustified
occupation of their homeland” (p. 123) — seems somehow too easy a
conclusion given the ambitious nature of this book.  In trying to produce
a meditation on the phenomenon of hostage-taking writ large — a
political-philosophical polemic in the tradition of George Orwell and
Slavoj Zizek (two authors whose inspiration Tyner acknowledges) — Tyner
loses touch with local specificities.  For example, he does not note that
the overwhelming majority of foreigners taken hostage in Iraq have been
truck drivers, suggesting that hostage-taking might — for most groups — be
a tactic employed in struggles over the control of trade routes.  Flying
high in search of a profound interpretation, Tyner overlooks the
mundane, if not always obvious, alternative.  And it is perhaps in the
mundane rather than the heroic that we might find and understand the
most powerful (and even universal) motivations of the agents in the
story.

The Business of War clearly bears the strains of being Tyner’s third
book in as many years.  The relatively large number of typographical
errors suggests a lack of careful editing.  Some of the literature that
he reviews does not seem fully integrated into his argument; and Tyner’s
occasional reliance on a single source across significant passages of
text reinforce the impression of a manuscript hurried to publication
before the author had come to a fully digested synthesis.  The force of
Tyner’s central argument is also weakened from the outset by his
somewhat rushed (even slightly pedantic) discussions of neoliberalism,
neoconservatism, globalization, transnationalism, and security.  Given
his promise to deliver “a political geographical polemic against the
atrocities of a modern-day colonial war” (p. 2), Tyner might have found
a more subtle way of integrating this background information into his
account.  Also, just when Tyner seems poised to take his argument in an
interesting direction, he all too often falls back on the words of
others, or on restatements of his main thesis that read somewhat like
sloganeering.  It is precisely because Tyner has an interesting and
important argument to make that one would like to hear more of his own
voice.  Finally, as the critique in the previous paragraph suggests,
Tyner would have done well to consult more of the specialist literature
on Iraq, together with the available empirical studies of the occupation
and the subsequent ongoing violence before meditating on the motivations
of insurgent hostage takers.

Nevertheless, in spite of these critical remarks, the individual
chapters of this book — and particularly chapter 3 — make useful reading
for both students and the informed public.  Tyner’s writing is readable
and engaging.  Most importantly, however, Tyner is to be commended for
calling attention to the large-scale exploitation of migrant labor as a
practice enabled by three decades of worldwide neoliberal “reform,” and
one that ultimately enabled the Bush administration to go to war
thinking that the full political costs might be avoided.  He is
absolutely correct to argue that investigation of this practice will
likely offer insight into the nexus of neoliberalism and war, and to the
darker side of neoliberal globalism more generally.  This reviewer hopes
that Tyner will continue to follow through on the important themes
addressed by The Business of War in his future research.

In conclusion, I cannot help but wonder what this book might have been
had Tyner pursued a different (albeit admittedly longer and more
difficult) route in writing it.  One could have told the story of how a
nineteenth-century ideology of manifest destiny gave rise to
twenty-first-century neoliberal militarism — a project that Tyner shows
is underwritten by the labor of some of the world’s poorest and most
politically disempowered inhabitants — through a deep and sustained
account of Angelo de la Cruz’s personal and family history.  What
historical forces give rise to conditions that compel someone to travel
halfway around the world to work for meager wages in a war zone?  What
arrangements make possible the linkages and pathways that enable such a
journey?  What did such a journey entail?  And what does the imprisonment
and decapitation that awaited some of these migrants upon reaching their
destination say about the kind of war neoliberalism makes?  As Walter Benjamin wrote: “Only when traveling along the road, can you say
something about its force.”1

 

Note

1  Walter Benjamin, “Berlin Childhood around 1900,” in Walter
Benjamin: Selected Writings
(Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of
Harvard University Press, 2002), 352.


Christopher Parker is assistant professor of political and social science at Ghent University in Belgium. 
This review was published by H-Levant on 9 May 2008.



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