This conversation recorded in London on May 18, 2015 with Laleh Khalili for The Funambulist podcast evolves around her on-going research about the geopolitics at work in the capitalist and military ship transportation around the Arabian Peninsula. This interview is structured in a geographical manner, reproducing her February 2015 trip on a container ship between Malta and Jabal Ali (Dubai’s container port).
LÉOPOLD LAMBERT: Before we describe your research trip on a container ship, could you tell us how civilian infrastructure have been always intertwined with the logistics of war?
LALEH KHALILI: At the beginning of the 19th century, Napoleon Bonaparte was one of the first military strategist who decided to use logistical material coming from behind the lines, rather than being requisitioned from whatever place to which the military marched. His strategic decision to, in fact, use railways to bring in materiel, food, medicines, medical and military equipment from behind the lines changed the face of war-fighting. He is often thought of as being an amazing tactician, an amazing strategist, but part of that was also the ways in which he completely transformed the face of operational sites of warfare, which people often don’t talk about, but it was crucial to his military successes.
The subsequent Franco-Prussian wars which went on intermittently and episodically all the way through the 19th century, drew on Napoleon’s logistical experiences, on building these railroads that delivered materials to fighting armies across western Europe. Building railways and of course laying down roads were incredibly labor-intensive processes and required buying from communities that live alongside the roads or railroads, or actually coercion of communities that live alongside it, requisition of vast amount of lands, of huge amount of labor going into laying down rails. So, the rails that we use today have their origins in many of those tracks that were laid down during the Franco-Prussian war. I think that reading that work by van Creveld was really interesting to me, because it seems to me that logistical thinking, which is to develop dual-use forms of infrastructures, which can very easily be converted from civilian use into military use, has been crucial to the policy-making of states.