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  • Virtual War and Magical Death: Technologies and Imaginaries for Terror and Killing ed. by Neil L. Whitehead and Sverker Finnström
  • Chris Hables Gray (bio)
Virtual War and Magical Death: Technologies and Imaginaries for Terror and Killing. Edited by Neil L. Whitehead and Sverker Finnström. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013. Pp. 304. $24.95.

This is a valuable collection. Wars are retailed as necessary and rational, but on examination, emotional and magical thinking are the more significant causes of mass violence. The editors, the late Neil Whitehead (to whom the book is dedicated) and Sverker Finnström, have brought together a range of anthropologists who study both the latest military operations and the survival of ancient witchcrafts. Postmodernity sees pre-modernity in the mirror and recognizes itself. In particular, these essays tie “virtual” war to magic. The editors conclude, “Sorcery is not just analogous with virtual war, it is continuous with it—it even ‘is’ it” (p. 2).

This claim might startle people who don’t practice, or study, war. But it is an old insight. As the editors point out, Sun Tzu realized “2,500 years ago” that “the art of war” doesn’t just involve “deception of others, but also of ourselves” (p. 24). War is fundamentally a struggle for hearts and minds. This is a strategy easier to articulate than implement, as the United States has shown in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Magic works on hearts and minds, of course, but militaries, finding hearts and minds hard to win, usually default to maiming and killing. After all, these days weapon systems seem to have more purchase in physics and biology than in magical systems. Yet they don’t win wars.

In twelve thoughtful contributions, ranging from interrogations of “The Role of Culture in Wars Waged by Robots” to close readings of violence and traditional magical thinking in Central American and African combat zones, this book delves into how war actually operates psychologically. There is an emphasis on new technologies (drones, information systems for forecasting and targeting, night vision) and how their deployment (by the United States in particular) has been both a spectacular failure and a perfect example of the power of magical thinking over reality-based analysis.

Obviously, the problem is epistemological. Neil Whitehead makes this clear in his powerful “Ethnography, Knowledge, Torture, and Silence.” There is an inevitable cost to how both torture and ethnography seek knowledge and Whitehead measures these out without granting anthropology any pardon from its role in the “epistemologies of conquest” (pp. 30–31). He does hold out hope that in the future anthropology can contribute to ending war, starting with recognizing the irrationality of humans killing humans.

This crucial insight extends much further back to the origins of war. Susan Mansfield’s neglected The Gestalt of War (1982) explains how war was created to satisfy “deep seated psychic needs” (often “infantile,” “anxiety [End Page 1012] -based,” and “paranoid”) and “as a ritual attempt to force nature and the divine … to conform to human will” (p. 19). And the irrationality does not end when war ends. The twisted epistemology of warmaking distorts the search for peace as well, as is detailed in Diane Nelson’s Reckoning: The Ends of War in Guatemala (2009). We won’t be able to solve the nightmare of war until we answer Nelson’s ultimate question, “What makes someone believe?” (p. 323).

This book contributes significant and useful answers to that crucial mystery. Other war scholars might quibble with certain assumptions (for example, that modern war continues today despite the technological limits on total war and decisive battle) and analytics (some “stories” from continental philosophers really are nonsense), but the overall usefulness of this anthropological (in-person ethnography) perspective cannot be denied. Not enough cross-disciplinary scholarship is being practiced today. Anyone seeking to understand war would benefit from this rich volume.

The unified bibliography is a great asset. The images are effective. The writing is always clear and is often gripping (not something one can say about most academic books). It is a fine tribute to Neil Whitehead, whose insights on why we kill each other will be sorely missed.



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pp. 1012-1013
Launched on MUSE
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