Shadows of War by Carolyn Nordstrom


Title: Shadows of War: Violence, Power, and International Profiteering in the Twenty-First Century
Series: N/A
Author: Carolyn Nordstrom
Genre: Non-Fiction
Release Date: 2004
Format Read: Paperback
Pages: 306

“Back of Book” Summary:

In this provocative and compelling examination of the deep politics of war, Carolyn Nordstrom takes us from the immediacy of war-zone survival, through the offices of power brokers, to vast extra-legal networks that fuel war and international profiteering. She captures the human face of the front lines, revealing both the visible and the hidden realities of war in the twenty-first century. Shadows of War is grounded in ethnographic research carried out at the epicenters of political violence on several continents. Its pages are populated not only with the perpetrators and victims of war but also with the scoundrels, silent heroes, and average families who live their lives in the midst of explosive violence. War reconfigures our most basic notions of humanity, Nordstrom demonstrates. This book, of crucial importance at the present moment, shows that war is enmeshed in struggles over the very foundations of the sovereign state, the crafting of economic empires both legal and illegal, and innovative searches for peace.

Nordstrom describes the multi-trillion-dollar international financial networks that support warfare. She traces the entangled routes by which illegal drugs, precious gems, weapons, basic food supplies, and pharmaceuticals are moved by an international cast of businesspeople, profiteers, and black-market operators. Shadows of War demonstrates how the experiences of both the architects of war and of ordinary people are deleted from media accounts and replaced with stories about soldiers, weapons, and territory. For the first time, this book retrieves from the shadows the faces of those whose stories seldom reach the light of international recognition.

My Review:

We’ve all heard of the black market economy and often have negative views of it. Guns. Drugs. Classified military information. The black market is a place where the lowest of the low exist. However, common people purchase goods on the black market every day. The same ‘shadow economy’ sells that the knock-off version of the Louis Vuitton purse you’ve wanted but couldn’t afford, a bootleg DVD of a newly released film, and the marijuana that you don’t think should be illegal are all goods sold ‘underground’ and off the radar of taxation. In the public sphere these are probably not be things we admit to finding acceptable, but many people in their personal lives may have no qualms about purchasing. When posed with the situation of a woman unable to afford the drug company’s price for her life-saving medication most wouldn’t condemn her to death opposed to accepting that black market drugs may not always be negative. We just don’t call this the black market, but it is. And it exists because there is a demand for it.

Shadows of War is an ethnographic study into the world of this shadow economy and its relationship to people in conflict zones. Nordstrom discusses the results of ethnographic work in Angola, Mozambique, and Sri Lanka. The locations are different; the dependence on a shadow economy is the same. Many governments cannot afford the wars they support and often resort to trade in the black market. The same black market that Nordstrom says makes up about 30% of the American economy and pushing up to 80-90% in others. These are radical statements that do not go along with the long-held ‘normal’ discussions amongst economists. It is quite interesting that more people have not studied this phenomenon. Perhaps we don’t want to accept that such a world exists in such large proportions even within “first-world” nations. Many people also do not study conflict in active war zones. In my opinion, Carolyn Nordstrom is an incredibly brave woman and has conducted some of the most interesting research into the globalization and war profiteering.

Many people within war zones have had their entire lives interrupted and often find themselves in situations of life and death where purchasing goods through shadow networks becomes the only way to survive. Trans-national smuggling networks coordinate the transportation of goods and food into war zones, but often at the same time export illicit goods such as cocaine or stolen diamonds. These actions we may deem ‘negative’ are often overlooked for the ‘positive’ humanitarian aspect. Businessmen can weave their way in and out of the shadow economy. Our very own CIA has openly acknowledged they conduct clandestine activities. This is one example of “magicians” who can easily cross the interface from the “legal” approved and the “illegal” black economies and also have the ability to become “invisible” once again.

One of the most significant ideas I’ve gained from Nordstrom’s book is that those involved in the shadow network do not often fit within our value judgments of ‘good’ and ‘bad’, ‘moral’ and ‘immoral’. Nothing in this world is black and white. Everyday people living within war zones deal with hardships that I can only imagine (and Carolyn Nordstrom has been successful at creating this imagery). Therefore, it would not be acceptable of me to place judgments on the buying and selling of goods in circumstances that could mean survival or death of their families and community. Situations in which I may perhaps make the same decisions. To show what life is like in someone else’s shoes is precisely the purpose of ethnography- clearly this has been a successful one.

After completing Carolyn Nordstrom’s book, I feel obliged to say that this is the best book on war and war profiteering I’ve read since becoming an International Peace and Conflict Resolution student. Surviving war can be beautiful in the sense of love, hope and cooperation, but it can also be ugly for its cruelties and the reality of hard decisions that people have to make every day to support their families. In a conflict zone actions often become indecipherable in terms of ‘good’ and ‘bad’. Is the pilot who smuggles out diamonds from your village bad? What about if he is only one bringing much needed food and medicine into your village? Context changes everything. However, what if we elaborate more in this scenario and say the pilot in this story works for an NGO (a non-governmental organization). Nordstrom discusses how she saw this several times. What can you do? Can you even do anything? It is hard enough to convince people to volunteer in war zones. What if this pilot got fired from the NGO and sent home and nobody is willing to replace his position of flying shipments of aid through a war zone? Yet again, that changes things too. I’d be interested to learn what types of policies NGO’s have regarding this type of behavior. I can guess what they would be; however, I think it is implied that often people turn a blind eye to certain behaviors in the name of peacebuilding. Peacebuilding is an industry after all.

Besides my first true introduction to the immensity of the ‘shadow economy,’ the biggest thing I’ve taken from Nordstrom’s book is this game of labeling a country as ‘at war’ or ‘at peace.’ When is a country at peace? After the signing of a treaty? Certainly a piece of paper is meaningless to most people who live in a war zone and define reality as what people do, not what they say they will do on paper. Just as instances of peace arise on the battlefield, instances of war continue through into ‘peace’ time. Nordstrom makes it clear that the distinction of war and peace-times are not clear cut, and often when wars “start up” again it is indicative that the war had never really stopped in the first place.

She used to term ‘organizational scarcity’ to describe this game played that keeps people reliant on informal market goods. It is a great question of how to reestablish networks of formal economy that is affordable and accessible to everyone after a war ends. Many times this is not put into place and people have no choice but to rely on the only networks they know. Informal economies encourage exploitation in many ways and allow individuals to gain incredible amounts of power that they otherwise wouldn’t have. Is this one of the reasons why some countries are in a state of perpetual conflict?

Two AK-47 rifles are displayed for sale among other items in a shop in northern Iraq. Photo: Christoph Bangert for The New York Times

In her chapter “Peace,” Nordstrom discusses her experience with orphaned street children in Angola who lived in the storm drain. When discussing illusions that occur within war, one example is how these street children fit into the group of invisibles- undesired members of society that are encouraged to disappear. Homeless people exist in all cities in the world often fit into this category. We all know they exist, but pretend they don’t. It is very upsetting for sure. The people that need help the most, like orphaned children, often do disappear. Sometimes this means they get integrated into an underground community, and sometimes this means death. There is another group of invisible people and this is the many who do not flee their countries but remain to set up community centers, administer aid and health care, and the NGO workers who leave their homes to work in lower than ideal conditions in the service of others. When was the last time you saw them on the nightly news? “In a final curious irony; in crafting the parables of power that are “just so” and “as if” stories, in silencing the truths of violence, and in deleting indices of the vast profiteering that emerges from war and the suffering it exacts – the stories of hope, human dignity, and peace are deleted from formal accounting as well” (pg. 242).

Nordstrom’s book clearly illustrates that more studies of the global black market must be conducted; it is just too large and influential to be ignored any longer. Black market sales include things like slaves and animals, as well as encourages animal poaching, which are unethical, destructive, and illegal around the world. I am interested in the study of terrorism and what it is, how it is created and why is it spreading. When Nordstrom says that by declaring war on Al Qaeda we have declared war on the shadows she is absolutely correct. The United States has quite obviously had a difficult time fighting this type of enemy. If I had to guess I would say that our intelligence agencies are probably spending much more time learning about the intricacies of the shadow networks in regards to how Al Qaeda operates. If we are not spending time researching these types of trails then we surely will not get far in this “war against terrorism.” Military power means nothing if you cannot shut off the valves of money and weapons into terrorist organizations; deals that are obviously not being conducted in the ‘formal’ economy.

I highly recommend this book.


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