Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Book review (2003): Barbed Wire: A Political History

Barbed Wire: A Political History
by Olivier Razac; translated by Jonathan Kneight(New York: New Press, 2002;132 pp.)

Review by Christopher Capozzola

When barbed wire was first introduced in 1876, no one believed that it would work, so a young promoter named John Gates organized a demonstration at the Military Plaza in San Antonio. Gates invited local cattlemen to test their wildest longhorns against his new fencing material, crafted of nothing more than thin wire and metal barbs. The dubious ranchers released their steers, who stumbled backward in confusion after they ran head first into the fences. When they did so, philosopher Olivier Razac would suggest, they ran up against the dawn of the 20th century.Barbed wire’s simplicity masks its ruthless efficiency. Its purpose is not merely to enclose the property of farmers and ranchers for economic gain. Marking off boundaries is also a political act. After barbed wire, some are inside and some are outside; those outside can be—and have been—dehumanized, reduced like the cattle in San Antonio’s city square.

Razac begins by tracing the emergence of barbed wire in the 19th century American West. In the vast and treeless reaches of the prairie, stone walls and picket fences were hopelessly impractical. After several attempts, inventors developed the barbed wire that we know today. But the wire that farmers used to domesticate the dry western landscape quickly became a tool for the subjugation of Native American tribes. It put an end to what Razac calls “fundamentally Indian values: open space, nomadism, and egalitarianism.” This then “created the conditions for the physical and cultural disappearance of the Indian.” If the reservations were not literally barbed-wire prisons, that was only because barbed wire had already accomplished its task. Razac then turns from the American West to the Western Front, where the entrenched armies of World War I hunkered down along a 600-mile border strewn with barbed wire. As the opposing forces faced off across No Man’s Land, barbed wire helped them turn a strikingly short physical gap into a profound political distance. French and German soldiers despised each other as beasts, a development Razac chalks up to the divisive effect of barbed wire. At the outset of the war, this “artificial bramble” was impassable for attacking forces; only the emergence of the tank—World War I’s most dehumanizing machine—made military breakthrough possible.

This process of dehumanization through boundary-marking reached what Razac considers its logical conclusion in the Nazi concentration camps of World War II. The barbed wire surrounding the camps demarcated human and inhuman, an important step in making genocide not only practically possible but intellectually imaginable. The theoretical implications of barbed wire are not insignificant. Razac shows that barbed wire is not merely an object, but a whole way of seeing the world, “a sublime, even monstrous modern technology run amok.”All this history is true enough, and there is much to justify Razac’s bleak interpretation of the 20th century. But Barbed Wire slights those who have resisted it, either as an object or as a political idea. Barbed wire is easy to construct, but it is also easy to destroy. In the Range Cutting Wars in Texas in 1883, farmers and cowboys who felt their livelihoods threatened by the enclosure of land began surreptitiously cutting the cattlemen’s wires. The radical Greenback Party entered the fray, denouncing barbed wire as a symbol of monopoly, and an all-out war against the rise of corporate agriculture was on. By year’s end, more than half the counties of Texas had reported incidents of wire cutting. Physical and cultural resistance took place on the other side of the fence as well: Razac suggests that “when the Indians could retreat no farther, they died.” But generations of Native Americans have persevered and maintained cultural traditions under hostile conditions. Razac might never be caught dead gambling at Foxwoods, but ever since the 18th century enlightenment, Native Americans have stubbornly refused to succumb to French philosophers’ romantic visions of the “vanishing” Indian.Likewise, in World War I, barbed wire did not always succeed as a tool for the dehumanization of the enemy. Historian Eric Leed has shown that ordinary soldiers in the trenches—who knew what war could do to the citizens of any nation—actively sought to avoid combat whenever possible. He even recounts the tale of a German sergeant who realized in a dream that French soldiers also had wives and children and ordered his men to cease fire. Finally, although it was more rare, there was resistance and escape in the Nazi concentration camps, as Razac relates.

Unfortunately, Razac’s bleak interpretation may prove correct in the long run. The final section of Barbed Wire details the complex new technologies of surveillance and political control that have begun to shape the 21st century. Barbed wire will find little use in the future, argues Razac, in part because it is an outdated technology, but mostly because it has taken on the connotations of “an almost universal symbol of oppression.” (Think of your Amnesty International bumper sticker here.) Video surveillance, electronic identity cards, and gated communities are the future that is already here, but just as the reader is ready to write Razac off as a conspiracy theorist, he brings his historical analysis to bear on the present. Residents of gated communities want the latest security technologies, but they won’t buy properties protected with barbed wire. “So it seems,” writes Razac, “that the violence of power is unacceptable only when we see it in action.” Barbed wire will disappear, but what will endure is the mindset of the political boundary, ever more invisible, but ever more powerful. Fifty years ago, the disbelieving interrogator of a gulag survivor asked “if people moved around in [the gulag] as they pleased, how could it have been a camp?” Razac leaves us to wonder whether we are on the inside or the outside of these new invisible boundaries. How would we know?

State authorities found it nearly impossible to catch the rebels in the Texas fence wars of the 1880s. All it took to cut the wire was a pair of wire clippers, but the shears were a necessary tool found in the pockets of every cowboy who rode the range. The people of the 21st century will have to be like the cowboys of the 19th, and dig deep into our pockets and our imaginations to figure out how the tools that maintain political power can also be used to transform it.