[Paleopsych] TLS: Edward N. Luttwak: The good in barbed wire

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Edward N. Luttwak: The good in barbed wire

    An ecology of modernity
    Reviel Netz
    267pp. | Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press. $24.95;
    distributed in the UK by Eurospan. £17.50. | 0 8195 6719 1

    Barbed wire is important in my life - the cattle ranch I run in the
    Amazon could not exist without it. In Britain as in other advanced
    countries, it is mostly fences of thin unbarbed wire enlivened by a
    low-voltage current that keep cattle from wandering off, but in the
    Bolivian Amazon they have no electrical supply to transform down, and
    in any case the cost, over many perimeter miles, would be prohibitive
    and the upkeep quite impossible. Ours is a wonderful land of lush
    savannahs and virgin forest, but it is just not valuable enough to be
    demarcated by anything more expensive than strands of barbed wire held
    up by wooden posts driven into the ground.
    Invented and patented by Joseph F. Glidden in 1874, an immediate
    success in mass production by 1876, barbed wire, first of iron and
    then steel, did much to transform the American West, before doing the
    same in other prairie lands from Argentina to Australia. Actually,
    cheap fencing transformed the primordial business of cattle-raising
    itself. Solid wooden fences or even stone walls can be economical
    enough for intensive animal husbandry, in which milk and traction as
    well as meat are obtained by constant labour in stable and field to
    feed herbivores without the pastures they would otherwise need. Often
    the animals are tethered or just guarded, without any fences or walls.
    But in large-scale raising on the prairie or savannah, if there are no
    fences then the cattle must be herded, and that requires constant
    vigilance to resist the herbivore instinct of drifting off to feed -
    and also constant motion. As the animals eat up the vegetation where
    they are gathered, the entire herd must be kept moving to find more.
    That is what still happens in the African savannah of the cattle
    herdsmen, and what was done in the American West as in other New World
    prairies, until barbed wire arrived to make ranching possible.
    One material difference between ranging in open country and ranching
    is that less labour is needed, because there is less need for
    vigilance within the fence. Another measurable difference is that
    cattle can do more feeding to put on weight, instead of losing weight
    when driven from place to place. But the increased productivity of
    ranching as opposed to ranging is actually of an entirely different
    order. African herders must be warriors to protect their cattle from
    their like as well as from the waning number of animal predators, but
    chiefly to maintain their reputation for violence which in turn
    assures their claim to the successive pastures they must have through
    the seasons. It was almost the same for the ranging cowboys of the
    American West, and while their own warrior culture was somewhat less
    picturesque than that of the Nuer or Turkana, it too was replete with
    the wasted energies of endemic conflict over land, water and sometimes
    even the cattle itself. Ranchers are not cream puffs either, but they
    can use their energies more productively because in most places -
    including the Bolivian Amazon for all its wild remoteness - their
    fences are property lines secured by the apparatus of the law, which
    itself can function far more easily among property-owning ranchers
    than among warrior nomads and rangers. Skills too are different.
    African herdsmen notoriously love their cattle to perdition but their
    expertise is all in the finding of pasture and water in semi-arid
    lands, as well as in hunting and war, and they are not much good at
    increasing fertility, and hardly try to improve breeds. It was the
    same in the American West, where the inception of today's highly
    elaborate cattle-raising expertise that makes red meat excessively
    cheap had to await the stability of ranching, and the replacement of
    the intrepid ranger by the more productive cowboy.
    Barbed wire is important therefore, and the story of how it was so
    quickly produced by automatic machines on the largest scale,
    efficiently distributed to customers necessarily remote from urban
    centres, marketed globally almost immediately, and finally used to
    change landscapes and societies, is certainly very interesting. But
    for all this, the reader will have to turn to Henry D. and Frances T.
    McCallum's The Wire That Fenced the West rather than the work at hand,
    in spite of its enthusiastic dust-jacket encomia from Noam Chomsky ("a
    deeply disturbing picture of how the modern world evolved"), Paul F.
    Starrs ("beautifully grim") and Lori Gruen, for whom the book is all
    about "structures of power and violence". The reason is that Reviel
    Netz, the author of Barbed Wire: An ecology of modernity, prefers to
    write of other things.
    For Netz, the raising of cattle is not about producing meat and hides
    from lands usually too marginal to yield arable crops, but rather an
    expression of the urge to exercise power: "What is control over
    animals? This has two senses, a human gain, and an animal
    deprivation". To tell the truth, I had never even pondered this grave
    question, let alone imagined how profound the answer could be. While
    that is the acquisitive purpose of barbed wire, for Professor Netz it
    is equally - and perhaps even more - a perversely disinterested
    expression of the urge to inflict pain, "the simple and unchanging
    equation of flesh and iron", another majestic phrase, though I am not
    sure if equation is quite the right word. But if that is our ulterior
    motive, then those of us who rely on barbed- wire fencing for our
    jollies are condemned to be disappointed, because cattle does not keep
    running into it, suffering bloody injury and pain for us to gloat
    over, but instead invisibly learns at the youngest age to avoid the
    barbs by simply staying clear of the fence. Fortunately we still have
    branding, "a major component of the culture of the West" and of the
    South too, because in Bolivia we also brand our cattle. Until Netz
    explained why we do it - to enjoy the pain of "applying the iron until
    - and well after - the flesh of the animal literally burns", I had
    always thought that we brand our cattle because they cannot carry
    notarized title deeds anymore than they can read off-limits signs.
    Incidentally, I have never myself encountered a rancher who
    expensively indulges in the sadistic pleasure of deeply burning the
    flesh of his own hoofed capital, opening the way for deadly infection;
    the branding I know is a quick thrust of the hot iron onto the skin,
    which is not penetrated at all, and no flesh burns.
    We finally learn who is really behind all these perversities, when
    branding is "usefully compared with the Indian correlate":
    Euro-American men, of course, as Professor Netz calls us. "Indians
    marked bison by tail-tying: that is, the tails of killed bison were
    tied to make a claim to their carcass. Crucially, we see that for the
    Indians, the bison became property only after its killing."
    We on the other hand commodify cattle "even while alive". There you
    have it, and Netz smoothly takes us to the inevitable next step:
    "Once again a comparison is called for: we are reminded of the
    practice of branding runaway slaves, as punishment and as a practical
    measure of making sure that slaves - that particular kind of commodity
    - would not revert to their natural free state. In short, in the late
    1860s, as Texans finally desisted from the branding of slaves, they
    applied themselves with ever greater enthusiasm to the branding of
    Texans? Why introduce Texans all of a sudden, instead of cowboys or
    cattlemen? It seems that for Professor Netz in the epoch of Bush II,
    Texans are an even more cruel sub-species of the sadistic race of
    Euro-American men (and it is men, of course). As for the "enthusiasm",
    branding too is hard work, and I for one have yet to find the vaqueros
    who will do it for free, for the pleasure of it.
    By this point in the text some trivial errors occur, readily explained
    by a brilliantly distinguished academic career that has understandably
    precluded much personal experience in handling cattle. Professor Netz
    writes, for example, that "moving cows over long distances is a fairly
    simple task. The mounted humans who controlled the herds - frightening
    them all the way to Chicago . . .". Actually, it is exhausting work to
    lead cattle over any distance at all without causing drastic weight
    loss - even for us in Bolivia when we walk our steer to the market, in
    spite of far more abundant grass and water than Texas or even the
    upper Midwest ever offered, at the rate of less than nine miles a day
    to cover a mere 200 kilometres, instead of several times that distance
    to reach Chicago. Used as we are to seeing our beautiful Nelor cattle
    grazing contentedly in a slow ambling drift across the pastures, it is
    distressing to drive them even at the calmest pace for the shortest
    distances; they are so obviously tense and unhappy, and of course they
    lose weight with each unwanted step. As for "frightening them all the
    way to Chicago", that is sheer nonsense: nothing is left of cattle
    stampeded a few days, let alone all the way to Chicago. Unfortunately,
    his trivial error makes it impossible for Netz to understand the
    difference between ranging and ranching that he thinks he is
    All this and more besides (horses are "surrounded by the tools of
    violence") occurs in the first part of a book that proceeds to examine
    at greater length the cruelty of barbed wire against humans. He starts
    with the battlefield - another realm of experience that Netz cannot
    stoop to comprehend. He writes that barbed wire outranks the machine
    gun in stopping power, evidently not knowing that infantry can walk
    over any amount of barbed wire if it is not over-watched by adequate
    covering fires, and need not waste time cutting through the wires one
    by one. Nowadays well-equipped troops have light-alloy runners for
    this, as other purposes, but in my day, our sergeants trained us to
    cross rolls of barbed wire by simply stepping over the backs of prone
    comrades, who were protected well enough from injury from the barbs by
    the thick wool of their British battle dress - because the flexible
    rolls gave way of course.
    Perhaps because the material is rather directly derived from standard
    sources, no such gross errors emerge in the still larger part of the
    book devoted to the evils of the barbed wire of the prison camps, and
    worse, of Boer War British South Africa, Nazi Germany and the Soviet
    Union (Guantanamo no doubt awaits a second edition). It is reassuring
    if not exactly startling to read that Professor Netz disapproves of
    prison camps, concentration camps and extermination  camps, that he is
    not an enthusiast of either the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany, while
    being properly disapproving of all imperialisms of course. But it does
    seem unfair to make barbed wire the protagonist of these stories as
    opposed to the people who employed barbed wire along with even more
    consequential artefacts such as guns. After all, atrocities as
    extensive as the Warsaw Ghetto with its walled perimeter had no need
    of barbed wire, any more than the various grim fortresses and islands
    in which so many were imprisoned, tortured and killed without being
    fenced in.
    There is no need to go on. Enough of the text has been quoted to
    identify the highly successful procedures employed by Reviel Netz,
    which can easily be imitated - and perhaps should be by as many
    authors as possible, to finally explode the entire genre. First, take
    an artefact, anything at all. Avoid the too obviously deplorable
    machine gun or atom bomb. Take something seemingly innocuous, say
    shoelaces. Explore the inherent if studiously unacknowledged ulterior
    purposes of that "grim" artefact within "the structures of power and
    violence". Shoelaces after all perfectly express the Euro-American
    urge to bind, control, constrain and yes, painfully constrict. Compare
    and contrast the easy comfort of the laceless moccasins of the Indian
    - so often massacred by booted and tightly laced Euro-Americans, as
    one can usefully recall at this point. Refer to the elegantly pointy
    and gracefully upturned silk shoes of the Orient, which have no need
    of laces of course because they so naturally fit the human foot -
    avoiding any trace of Orientalism, of course. It is all right to write
    in a manner unfriendly or even openly contemptuous of entire
    populations as Professor Netz does with his Texans at every turn
    ("ready to kill. . . they fought for Texan slavery against Mexico"),
    but only if the opprobrium is always aimed at you-know-who, and never
    at the pigmented. Clinch the argument by evoking the joys of walking
    on the beach in bare and uncommodified feet, and finally overcome any
    possible doubt by reminding the reader of the central role of
    high-laced boots in sadistic imagery.
    That finally unmasks shoelaces for what they really are - not
    primarily a way of keeping shoes from falling off one's feet, but
    instruments of pain, just like the barbed wire that I have been buying
    all these years not to keep the cattle in, as I imagined, but to
    torture it, as Professor Netz points out. The rest is easy: the
    British could hardly have rounded up Boer wives and children without
    shoelaces to keep their boots on, any more than the very ordinary men
    in various Nazi uniforms could have done such extraordinary things so
    industriously, and not even Stalin could have kept the Gulag going
    with guards in unlaced Indian moccasins, or elegantly pointy,
    gracefully upturned, oriental shoes.

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