From the Series: Speaking Volumes
One night in June 2005, a four-man SEAL team was dropped by helicopter into the mountains of eastern Afghanistan with the order to kill a local commander. Soon afterward, these well-trained, fit men found themselves overwhelmed by the ruggedness of the unfamiliar, forested mountain. Tired and disoriented, they were ambushed by insurgents who knew the terrain and controlled the higher ground. While they were being shot at from above, the four SEALs fled downward, having to navigate extremely steep slopes. As they ran, they fell again and again. In the book Lone Survivor, which was later made into a film, Markus Luttrell—the only American to survive—describes one of his falls:
I took a sideways step, trying to zigzag down the gradient. But gravity made the decision for me, and I fell headlong down the mountain, complete a full forward flip and somehow landing on my back, still going fast, heels flailing for a foothold. . . . Then I hit a tree, and Mikey went past me like a bullet . . . and on I went, catching up to Mikey now, crashing, tumbling over the ground like we were both bouncing through a pinball machine. (Luttrell 2007, 214; italics mine)
In describing his fall, Luttrell captured how he was overpowered by gravity, which he experienced as a force that moved his body against his will and turned hardened combatants into powerless objects. In the film Lone Survivor, the scenes depicting these falls look realistic and gripping. They show men falling down a steep mountain, hitting rocks and trees only to roll over and continue falling, with each collision producing new bruises, fractures, and groans of pain. Wounded by the falls as well as their enemies’ firepower, three of the SEALs died. Luttrell, who was severely injured, only survived because he was rescued by a sympathetic villager in the next valley.
The role of gravity in this account may seem unremarkable, reflecting the obviousness of its ever-present power in affecting everything that exists, lives, and happens on Earth. Yet it is precisely its seeming obviousness, its taken-for-granted invisibility, that obfuscates the implications of thinking gravity materially, politically, and philosophically. This incident from the war in Afghanistan is a reminder that gravity is indispensable to understanding volume in the most immanent sense of the term, that is, as volume in this world. Euclidean and Newtonian conceptions of absolute space tend to present volume as an abstract, disembodied dimension of geometrical space. Yet, through Luttrell’s story, it becomes apparent that the volume of territorial confrontations can only be fully understood in relation to gravity, for the very ideas of falling and of up or down only make sense in relation to bodies affected by the planet’s gravitational field.
Drawing from scholars such as Eyal Weizman and Paul Virilio, Stuart Elden (2013) has helped us politicize and materialize our understandings of volume by identifying the volumetric as central to the deployment of territorial power. Elden notes that volumes and territorial attempts to secure them have complex dimensions that are not reducible to verticality, including angles, inclines, and the transversal. I would add to this crucial observation that these dimensions acquire their materiality only in relation to gravity, for the mountains’ angles in Afghanistan have military implications largely because gravity makes them harder to traverse by U.S. soldiers.
In What is Philosophy?, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari (1994, 85) offer a manifesto for a geophilosophy based on the premise that “thinking takes place in the relationship of territory and the earth.” They go on to write that “the earth is not one element among others but rather brings together all the elements within a single embrace.” This essay seeks to contribute to such a geophilosophy—and to the new materialism of scholars such as Jane Bennett (2010) and Diana Coole and Samantha Frost (2010)—by arguing that gravity brings together all of the Earth’s elements, including political territories, within a single embrace. Gravity is, after all, the primary way in which the Earth affects everything that exists and happens on it. This is no mechanical process determining human action from without. Gravity is always already constitutive of human life, insofar as all life forms have evolved while engaging and drawing from the power of gravity in different ways. Human beings creatively navigate gravity from the moment they learn to walk. Technology has even allowed human actors to neutralize gravity and fly. Yet when exposed to steep gradients, bodies feel gravity in a particularly forceful way. Unused to the mountains of Afghanistan, U.S. soldiers regularly referred to gravity as a negative force that made them fall and that made their exertions upward, carrying heavy loads, particularly exhausting.
Insurgents were also affected by gravity, yet they lessened gravity’s hold by carrying little weight. Furthermore, their knowledge of the terrain allowed them to turn the mountains’ volume into a powerful weapon (see Gordillo 2018). In the incident I have described, after all, the main physical vectors that precipitated the SEALs’ falls were the insurgents shooting at them, forcing them to flee downward. The SEAL team was wiped out, in short, not by gravity but by combatants controlling the higher ground. But the pull of gravity nonetheless enhanced the power of the insurgents by precipitating falls that further wounded the Americans at whom they were firing. In this regard, territorial control of the higher ground is decisive, in part because it allows for the weaponization of gravity.
Bennett, Jane. 2010. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
Coole, Diana, and Samantha Frost, eds. 2010. New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. 1994. What is Philosophy? Translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Burchell. New York: Columbia University Press. Originally published in 1991.
Elden, Stuart. 2013. “Secure the Volume: Vertical Geopolitics and the Depth of Power.” Political Geography 34: 35–51.
Gordillo, Gastón. 2018. “Terrain as Insurgent Weapon: An Affective Geometry of Warfare in the Mountains of Afghanistan.” Political Geography 64: 53–62.
Luttrell, Markus, with Patrick Robinson. 2007. Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team Ten. New York: Black Bay Books.