Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Joshua O. Reno's "Military Waste"

Joshua O. Reno is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Binghamton University. He is the author of Waste Away: Working and Living with a North American Landfill and the coeditor, with Catherine Alexander, of Economies of Recycling: The Global Transformation of Materials, Values, and Social Relations.

Reno applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Military Waste: The Unexpected Consequences of Permanent War Readiness, and reported the following:
If readers open up my new book to page 99, they might find themselves a bit at a loss as to what the book as a whole is about. Anytime you peak into a larger text at a random point, whether novel, treatise, play, or Twitter debate, you will get a distorted picture, at best. That might be even more true of my book, since each chapter is meant to shift the discussion further and further away from what we might expect military waste to be and to be used for.

The book as a whole is about many forms of military waste, each taken on their own terms. That part of my book mostly consists of a brief discussion of how best to view the economic side of deliberately sinking old military ships in order to restore coral reefs in the Florida Keys. Specifically, I argue that once you sink them, ships become worth something in the same way that a house or apartment is. You can lend your home to someone else for money, but it is still there to go back to, it is still yours. That’s the essential part of renting: a person that owns some kind of property can lend it out for money but never lose it. When you sink an old Naval craft, when you make it a wreck, in a weird way you make it last. It will always be there, on “eternal portal” as one veteran and videographer told me. The boat itself breaks down and is overtaken by marine life, people will pay to dive down to look for it, take pictures, and have an experience. This can’t happen if you instead scrap old military ships, that is, break them down into bits and pieces and sell these off. That is still a good way to make money, but you can’t sell the experience of that ship to others every again in the same way.

This is a very specific example for a book about military waste of all kinds, not only ships that are sunk or scrapped, but orbital space debris, old islands turned into wilderness areas, or – in what is perhaps the most unexpected example – young men turned into mass shooters by a culture that celebrates violent, gun-toting masculinity. And yet, that discussion of the difference between rent and commodity actually gets at the book as a whole. There are many ways to think about military waste and people do many things with it. Should something that used to be a home for sailors at war become a commodity, a rented asset, or something else entirely? There is no right answer, but if we keep having a permanent military apparatus, we will continue to be confronted with questions like these.
Learn more about Military Waste at the University of California Press website.

The Page 99 Test: Waste Away.

--Marshal Zeringue