The multispecies experience of wartime: White phosphorus and the toxic time of war

This article was written by Matthew Leep
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Matthew Leep discusses his new article in BISA journal Review of International Studies (RIS), available on FirstView now. The article examines more-than-human experiences with white phosphorus, alerting us to multispecies perspectives on the meaning of ‘wartime’.

As my book on the multispecies experience of the US invasion of Iraq suggests, the affective experience of war crosses species lines in troubling ways. But the harm of the Iraq War, including more-than-human encounters with white phosphorus, reverberated beyond Iraq. While most people are aware of the US military using white phosphorus munitions in Fallujah, many might be unfamiliar with a controversy about white phosphorus that was brewing far away from the devastation in Fallujah. On an estuary located on a military base near Anchorage, Alaska, birds were dying from white phosphorus poisoning. During the Iraq War, the US military held hearings about increasing its use of this estuary, which had been polluted for decades from white phosphorus munition testing. How should these avian experiences figure into accounts of the ‘time’ of war? How might they complicate our understanding of wartime violence?

My recent article in RIS explores these questions. In pursuing answers, I employ an approach I refer to as ‘multispecies empiricism’. By this I mean a methodological focus on the empirics of human and more-than-human experiences of war. This approach unfolds in several steps. It begins with problematising where we locate the experience of war. Rather than finding it within the spatiotemporal and human terms of fighting in international war zones (or war zone-adjacent spaces) during bounded ‘times of war’, we might see it in more shadowy terms - the ongoing and less visible processes that cross conventionally understood boundaries of war’s space and time. Second, while there have been studies on more-than-human aspects and effects of war, multispecies empiricism steers us towards deeper attention to actual wartime debates about the space and time of multispecies violence. Third, the approach explores more-than-human perspectives on the time of war. Taken together, these constituent features are an investment in generating fuller and more anti-anthropocentric accounts of the spatiotemporal experience of war.

Debates about the multispecies time of war

Empirically, the article begins with an analysis of US Department of Defense hearings about US military plans to reopen the Eagle River Flats estuary for year-round weapons testing. While the estuary is an ancestral home for beluga whales, shorebirds, and migratory waterfowl, it is also sovereign military space. Since the 1940s, it has been used for live-fire training exercises and weapons testing, including white phosphorus munitions. Over time, white phosphorus likely killed thousands of birds, who ingested the toxic particles while foraging for aquatic plants. In 1994, military activities were suspended as the estuary became a ‘superfund’ site. Due to the high levels of toxicity, the military stopped testing white phosphorus munitions and eventually limited live-fire exercises to winter months when ice might prevent the disturbance of toxins. But the harm continued. Munitions tested during the early phase of the Cold War and recovered during the Iraq War contained large amounts of white phosphorus.

To help secure a victory in Iraq, the US military contended that the estuary should re-open for training throughout the year. For many military officials, this additional training and weapons testing in the estuary was an attractive solution to the exigencies of war. The US military certainly took remediation seriously and made several important steps to improve the estuary. But officials also argued that the time and timing of war, in terms of the tempo of training and the need for rapidly deployable combat troops in Iraq, meant that the estuary should be open year-round - even during the time of migratory bird activities when white phosphorus could more be easily disturbed and cause harm. This reduction of the estuary to ‘wartime’ conflicted with avian time - including the timing of reproduction activities such as building nests and raising the next generation of birds. The local community, including members of Upper Cook Inlet tribal nations, pushed back with concerns about the risk of white phosphorus harm. These reservations were ongoing, as members of the Chickaloon Village Traditional Council and others had previously sued the Department of Defense for failing to remediate unexploded white phosphorus ordnance.

Analysis of the hearings with local community members (the public, tribal nations, and agency staff) about the military’s plans, which began in 2007, reveal divergent ways to conceptualise the space and time of the Iraq War. Comments made by community members could be characterised by what I call an ‘ecological imagination’ about the time and space of war. In this view, the time of the Iraq War was understood only in relation to the more-than-human lives that have inhabited the seasonally shifting marshes, ponds, tidal swamps, and mudflats of Eagle River Flats for countless generations. In this ecological imagination, the estuary was seen in terms of multispecies flourishing. The lives of birds, in this view, should be lived without risk of additional harm from military efforts in Iraq. While recognising that the military needed adequate time and space to prepare for war, the public, tribal nations, and agency staff often imagined alternative possibilities that would not jeopardise this ancestral home that was so critical to the reproductive time of migratory life.

Military officials were certainly invested in environmental protection; however, their ecological concerns about the estuary were often articulated as burdensome given what they viewed as an exigent time of war. While there were other locations to train that would pose less risk to the future of birds in the estuary, training soldiers elsewhere was portrayed as slowing down the war effort in Iraq. Many military officials’ comments seemed to indicate that while the future of estuarian life was important, some risk was tolerable given the need for military speed and combat readiness in Iraq. The time of the estuary, in other words, was understood less in terms of the ancestral time of birds and more in terms of the future of US military success in Iraq.

Avian perspectives on the time of war

Beyond assessing the conflicting human meanings of the time of war, the article also engages with more-than-human perspectives. In particular, I consider the experiences of northern pintails and tundra swans - two avian communities harmed by white phosphorus poisoning in Eagle River Flats. For both communities, the time of the estuary involves inter-generational processes of bird development. In the estuary, swan pairs teach their cygnets where and how to forage. White phosphorus particles ingested by these birds caused severe issues, such as liver damage, ataxia (impaired balance and coordination), and convulsions. The convulsions could last for hours, and field reports noted that birds likely drowned because of them. Part of what we know about the avian experience with white phosphorus poisoning disconcertingly comes from lab experiments. For instance, government researchers conducted white phosphorus experiments on mute swans from Maryland to understand how white phosphorus would affect the bodies of tundra and trumpeter swans in Eagle River Flats. These experiments represent a different form of violence not typically associated with wartime.

In conceptualising the multispecies experience of war, we might view northern pintails and tundra swans as persons with experiences of security and insecurity. Attention to the avian agency and personhood can, I think, attune us to the experiential moments of the toxic time of war. For instance, we might imagine how they would communicate their toxic experiences to others who knew them as individuals—family members or estuarian acquaintances who recognised them as they struggled to keep their heads above water amid the effects of white phosphorous. Considering such moments, I hope, can disrupt our conventional understanding of the time of war.


My recent article in RIS shows how avian experiences with white phosphorous in Alaska might complicate our understanding of the space and time of war. Shifting away from a view of war that is bound up with the sensory experiences of humans in conventionally recognisable times of war, our focus can be readjusted to consider more-than-human perspectives. As we approach the twentieth anniversary of the US invasion of the Iraq War, such a shift might alert us to multispecies variations of the meaning of ‘wartime’.

Want to know more? You can read Matthew's full article at DOI:https://doi.org/10.1017/S0260210522000158

This particular article is open access, however BISA members receive access to all articles in RIS (and our other journal European Journal of International Security) as a benefit of membership. To gain access log in to your BISA account and scroll down to the 'Membership benefits' section. If you're not yet a member join today.

Top image courtesy of Matthew Leep