Introduction: Ecologies of War

From the Series: Ecologies of War

"white mesa burden" by Teresa Montoya, 2021.

The contemporary world is saturated by militarization. Material and spectral forces of war permeate collective lives and ecological relations of humans and nonhumans surviving the ravages of “conventional war” and those living through the quotidian violences of relative peace. This collection, Ecologies of War, extends ethnographic attention beyond “war itself” to include forms of war that are often unrecognized as such—in everyday experiences, material effects, and affective resonances of violence that have penetrated and contaminated the environments and ecologies of places where perpetual wars of US empire, never-ending wars, and peacelessness of political enmity continue.

Although environmental historians have examined battlegrounds and landscapes altered by military activities and technologies (Woodward 2014; Smith 2017), we bring an explicitly anthropological approach to what we view as essential entanglements of wars and ecologies, encompassing scales that extend above and below the sites of conflict. Ecologies of War builds upon existing work related to violence and environmental resources (Peluso and Watts 2001), radioactive fallout of nuclear weapons (Masco 2006), the slow violence of landmines and chemical defoliants (Nixon 2011; Henig 2012; Stoler 2008), the U.S.’s empire of bases (Vine 2015, 2020), the affective ruins of (post)war landscapes (Navaro-Yashin 2012), and everyday militarisms (Kaplan 2020), but centers more explicitly the knotted inextricability of war and ecologies.

This inextricability has a longer history––and requires a critical assessment of the discipline’s past, when war and ecologies literally went hand in hand. We refer here to European anthropology’s roots as a branch of natural history during the emergence of Enlightenment science and the violent appropriation of territories, cultures, and peoples. Moreover, this connection between martial power and universalizing epistemologies became replicated on new terrain in the post-WWII period when “big science” disseminated the ecosystem concept globally during the ascendance of the U.S.-led internationalist order. Today “war” and “ecology” continue to be discursively and materially mobilized to camouflage hegemonic political economic interests—from the naturalization of sovereignty by states that frame militarized spaces as ecological havens (Kim 2022; Guarasci 2015) to corporate and government greenwashing and “neoliberal conservation” (Büscher 2014).

Inherent in Ecologies of War are terms customarily framed as mutually divergent, if not opposed, despite their entwined histories. War can include armed conflict, warfare, militarization, geopolitics, soldiering, and social and material infrastructures of militarism. Yet the ecological and corporeal violences of war are too often glossed over by the fetishistic power of the term (but see Gregory 2016). “Ecology,” for its part, is widely embraced in public and scholarly discourse to model complex entanglements of human and nonhuman processes and life forms. Yet it is often weighed down by organicist baggage of balance and holism, without a consistent focus on power.

This collection asks how the material, affective, and social manifestations of power produce ecologies, which are, in turn, inextricable from the violence, toxicity, affects, and domination of war. Ecologies of war shifts anthropologists’ tendency to focus on the violence of war as brute force to a more nuanced attention to networks of material, social, technological and technocratic relations, including the violence caused by pastoral forms of power designed to caretake in the wake of political brutality or climatic uncertainty.

The essays in this collection offer two overlapping frameworks for approaching ecologies of war –– proliferation and archiving. These refer to two temporal modalities of violence, one which extends and replicates and another which stores and preserves.

Proliferation can include embodied violence that accumulates in racialized and classed bodies—from the proliferation of cancers from toxic fallout, to the persistent sensory assault of military occupation, to the layering of wartime violence with climatic change. In this way, ecologies of war refers to a legacy of imperial subjugation that has for centuries diminished human bodies by controlling their engagement with land, water, and sky. Infectious diseases like COVID-19 and cholera, rather than being addressed by state or humanitarian forces, are instead exacerbated, extending the “totality of violence." When ecologies of war proliferate, they seize modes of representation that control, depict, and conceal. Judith Butler calls this process “frames of war,” a central modality of war-making whereby media is used to situate state violence in ways that signify whose life matters and whose does not (Butler 2009). Beyond these frames, ecologies of war can also produce other relations and choreographies of intimacy—not through a direct or facile healing through “nature,” but through the difficult work of feeling through embedded histories of violence.

If the proliferation of violence is one modality of ecologies of war, another is the material archiving of evidentiary traces of wartime violence. The essays in this collection reveal that landscapes can be witnesses: they can be suspicious, rendered legal victims, or transmutate the remains of human bodies. These processes call for a forensic approach, whether through official investigations, new legal technologies, or oral histories. But these landscapes can also be made “ecological,” symbolically redeploying the war/ecology binary to satisfy human political interests, such as the U.S. state’s production of “ecological wartime” in the aftermath of the BP oil disaster, the Department of Defense’s so-called realistic environments of the Marianas archipelago, or the inadvertent greenwashing of war’s “flyover countries,” in the name of cultural remediation. Landscapes, like the Indigenous lands that become new sacrifice zones in the pursuit of sustainable futures, rural borderlands where agricultural cultivation persists alongside perpetual warfare, as well as oceanscapes of human and piscine exploitation, store multiple histories of violence.

Anthropologists and others have interrogated and provincialized the Anthropocene by naming capitalist networks of power and colonialist hierarchies of life that laid the foundations for the climate crisis (Haraway 2016; Moore 2015; Todd 2015; Yusoff 2018; Hecht 2018). In addition to these interventions, we suggest that any accounting of the Anthropocene also requires a reckoning with the militarization of the planet––the inescapable proliferations of violence and the palimpsestic archives of ecologies of war. Moreover, if “green capitalism” (Rajković 2020) identifies “new divisions borne out of transition to green energy and ecological concern,” “ecologies of war” documents ongoing conflicts and organized forms of violence that are exacerbated by and also intensify the exponential magnitude of the climate crisis.

The image accompanying this series, by Teresa Montoya, is part of a photographic project that documents environmental toxicity on the lands of the Ute Nation in southeastern Utah. In this image we see a detail of a tailings pond at White Mesa Mill near the Ute Mountain Ute Tribal community of White Mesa. The mill is neither owned nor affiliated with the Ute Nation but has long worried residents about radioactive contamination.


Büscher, Bram, Wolfram Dressler, and Robert Fletcher. 2014. Nature Inc.: Environmental Conservation in the Neoliberal Age. Tuscon: University of Arizona Press.

Butler, Judith. 2009. Frames of War: When is Life Grievable? Brooklyn: Verso.

Gregory, Derek. 2016. "The Natures of War." Antipode 48 (1): 3-56.

Guarasci, Bridget. 2015. “The National Park: Reviving Eden in Iraq’s Marshes." Arab Studies Journal 23 (1): 128–53.

Haraway, Donna. 2016. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Hecht, Gabrielle. 2018. “Interscalar Vehicles for an African Anthropocene: On Waste, Temporality, and Violence." Cultural Anthropology 33 (1): 109–41.

Henig, David. 2012. “Iron in the Soil: Living with Military Waste in Bosnia-Herzegovina.” Anthropology Today 28 (1): 21–23.

Kaplan, Caren, Gabi Kirk, and Tess Lea. 2020. “Everyday Militarisms: Hidden in Plain Sight/ Site.” Forum, Society + Space, March 8, 2020.

Kim, Eleana. 2022. Making Peace with Nature: Ecological Encounters Along the Korean DMZ. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Masco, Joseph. 2006. The Nuclear Borderlands: The Manhattan Project in Post-Cold War New Mexico. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Moore, Jason W. 2015. Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital. New York: Verso.

Navaro-Yashin, Yael. 2012. The Make-Believe Space: Affective Geography in a Postwar Polity. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Nixon, Rob. 2011. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Peluso, Nancy Lee, and Michael Watts, eds. 2001. Violent Environments. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Rajković, Ivan. 2020. “Green Capitalism and Its Others.” Theorizing the Contemporary, Fieldsights, March 24, 2020.

Smith, Gar, ed. 2017. The War and Environment Reader. Charlottesville, VA: Just World Books.

Stoler, Ann. 2008. “Imperial Debris: Reflections on Ruins and Ruination.” Cultural Anthropology 23 (2): 191–219.

Todd, Zoe. 2015. “Indigenizing the Anthropocene.” In Art in the Anthropocene: Encounters Among Aesthetics, Politics, Environments and Epistemologies, edited by Heather Davis and Etienne Turpin, 241–54. London: Open Humanities.

Vine, David. 2015. Base Nation: How U.S. Military Bases Abroad Harm America and the World. New York: Metropolitan Books.

Vine, David. 2020. The United States of War: A Global History of America’s Endless Conflicts, from Columbus to the Islamic State. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Woodward, Rachel. 2014. “Military Landscapes: Agendas and Approaches for Future Research.” Progress in Human Geography 38 (1): 40–61.

Yusoff, Kathryn. 2018. A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.