Any serious analysis of war must begin with the body

Any serious analysis of war must begin with the body.’ Discuss.
By Libin Farah

When analysing war, the body as a unit of analysis is undervalued. The focus on the body will not be biological but understood in terms of social relations. Seriousness will be understood as the degree to which current perceptions of war is grounded in reality.

The first section will discuss the significance of injury in war as well as the way in which injury is masked and the implications that has on our understanding of war.

The second section will focus on widening the lens of analysis to look at the role of prostitutes in war and the significance of why these bodies are often removed from our perceptions of war.

The final section builds on this idea as it tackles our common assumptions about who is considered to be a casualty of war.

The concept of slow violence is central to his work as he argues that analysing the impact of war must be extended temporally to include victims of slow violence. Overall, this essay aims to argue that in order to have a serious analysis of war, one that accurately reflects the reality, must begin or at the very least consider the body as a starting point for critical strategy.

International Relations (IR) as a disciple often examines war on a macrocosmic scale. Typically, IR is concerned with how states behave in the international system. In doing so, the impact of war on the human body is not seen as an integral part of war analysis. This zoomed out approach can otherwise be known as abstraction.

Scarry and Sylvester attempt to ground our perception of war by understanding war as an experience rather than theoretical abstraction. Abstraction fails to see that the main purpose of war is “destroying normal patterns of social relations” as well as “out injuring human bodies”.

Therefore injury should not be taken as a cost of war but also the aim of war. However policy makers and academics alike have used multiple methods to mask the injury that is central to war, firstly through a process of abstraction. Typically, abstraction comes in the form of discourse and the language that is used to describe injuring the human body.

The act of injuring is masked by renaming missiles ‘cherrypicker’ ‘Pink Rose’ or ‘night blossoms’. These names suggest life whereas in fact they cause death and destruction. This demonstrates that how things are discussed linguistically can create a false perception of war, one that distances itself from the human body.

Additionally, collateral damage can be understood as another approach to mask the centrality of injury to warfare. Accepting collateral damage as an inevitable outcome of war normalizes the death of non-combatants. Abstraction creates a misleading representation that bodies are an effect or consequence of war rather than an actual focal point in and of itself.

The prime target and vehicle used to carry out war violence is the human body; therefore its centrality in analysing war is pivotal. Discourse and renaming has made injury to the human body no longer recognizable, sinking our perceptions of war further into abstraction and away from the reality of death and injury.

This creates a problem because the idea that war is an embodiment of an emotional/social experience is not present which dehumanizes our understanding of war. A serious analysis of war needs to be discussed using language that accurately depicts injury to the human body as the primary aim of war.

Moreover, policy makers often talk about the ends of war and what will be achieved once the war is won. However, by focusing solely on the ends, the injury that takes place in the process is concealed. The risk that is taken in doing so is not discussing the means in which that end is achieved.

For example, in Vietnam, and ‘all means necessary’ approach was taken to fight the Viet Cong. The use of napalm and Agent Orange to combat the guerrilla forces is an example of how developments in modern technology are specially designed to inflict maximum pain and violence onto the human body.

Mass death and injury on both sides was seen as inevitable however this was a price that the US government was willing to pay. Therefore in the eyes of policy makers soldiers are just disposable bodies that can be replaced. In order to have a serious analysis of war, one that accurately reflects the realities on the ground, the violence inflicted on Vietnamese bodies must be grounded and understood individually as pain is experienced within the human body.

By taking the human body for granted, war analysis becomes deficient because it jeopardizes our understanding of war. The body is constituted as an intersection of an emotional, social, traumatic collective experience, and as the body is the primary agent of war it needs to be taken seriously as a strategic unit of analysis.

Morale becomes entangled with the struggle for ends which conflates injury further. Despite the extensive death and killing, there are brave soldiers that remain. This adds another layer of obscurity as focus is once again put on the ends (survival) without discussing the process of injury that was crucial to their survival.

These methods adopted to mask injury in war ultimately serve the purpose of creating a chasm between the fleshy, bloody realities of war from the policy makers that make decisions that are fatal for many people around the world. The less discussion about injury reduces the accountability that state leaders have in policy making.

And by conflating injury with abstraction, renaming and ends over means they create a blurred representation of the realities of war whereby injury is not seen as integral, rather a by-product, consequence or inevitability of war. Scarry and Sylvester both agree that a serious analysis of war would begin by making injury and the body central which would have the benefit of simultaneously grounding and humanising our perceptions of war.

Enloe questions which bodies are central for analysis. Certain assumptions are made about which actors are relevant in understanding war whilst others are removed from the narrative. By analysing the body it widens the scope to actors off the battlefield.

Enloe argues that by investigating the role of prostitutes, a more serious and genuine depiction of how bodies outside the battlefield significantly impact the reality and our perception of war will be provided. War analysis often investigates the role of the state.

States are examined on how they interact with each other, however little emphasis is given to how the state directly affects the bodies, social patterns and relations of prostitutes. Military prostitution is a collaborative enterprise orchestrated by the host government and foreign governments to ensure that sexual partners are provided for foreign soldiers as part of their rest and recreation.

The function of prostitutes is to mobilise soldiers and to boost morale in order to maximise their fighting capabilities. The US government strategically coordinates their overseas military bases with the sexual availability of local women such as in the Philippians.

This touches on Barakwi’s idea that war has socially generative properties in that it produces and international web of interactions connecting people across the globe. By drawing our attention away from the battlefield, Enloe argues that a serious analysis of war must consider the bodies of non-combatants because they highlight that war is not only about fighting, but has wider social implications on the gendered relationship between prostitutes and soldiers.

Nixon challenges the idea of what it means to be a casualty of war. He contests the understanding that the victims of violence and injury are soldiers on the battlefield. Nixon defines slow violence as “casualties that occur long after major combat has been concluded” indicating that the impact cannot be seen right away.

The risk that is taken by not considering the body as a unit of analysis would be that slow violence is missed altogether. The impact/symptoms of chemical weapons can manifest themselves many years after the conflict ends. So in order to have a serious analysis of war, victims that suffer as a consequence of the delayed impact of violence must also be considered causalities of war.

Nixon raises the concern that if the mainstream view is adopted that soldiers are the only victims of war, our analysis of war would be deficient because it misses out other sites that can be injured. For example, domestic programmes such as psycho social repair and social services are targeted at veterans that suffer post-traumatic stress disorder.

These long term reparative programmes are not aimed at other bodies such as nurses, aid workers, doctors and other bodies that are victims of psychological slow violence. Any serious analysis of war must consider that the body is site of slow violence and that the impact of this violence does not manifest itself immediately as well as understanding that soldiers are not the only victims of war.

Therefore, our understanding of the impact that war has on the human body must expand spatially and temporally. And to not consider the human body as a point of analysis would not connotate slow violence with injury associated to war.

In conclusion, a serious analysis of war must begin with human body because if the body is marginalised this will produce a partial understanding of war. To miss out the body would have the following implications. Firstly, the site of violence and injury is the body.

Therefore to ignore the body would miss the idea that injuring the human body is the aim of war. Scarry hones in the notion that policy makers and academics discuss war using rhetoric that distances our understanding away from the human body.

The methods used to conceal war, such as abstraction, ends over means and morale, are in fact hindering our analysis of war because it provides a partial understanding of war, one that is not rooted in the social/emotional experiences of different bodies.

Sylvester reinforces this as she argues that a serious analysis of war is one that humanises and grounds our perceptions of war. Secondly, a serious analysis of war must broaden the scope temporally to include victims of slow violence. By not considering the body as a unit of analysis slow violence as a long term impact of war would not be identified.

Nixon and Enloe both stress the importance of the examining the body because in doing so the scope of analysis broadens to include bodies that are typically left out of the war narrative such as prostitutes and victims of slow violence other than soldiers.

Therefore, the importance of the body as a strategic unit of analysis should not be underestimated, and to begin with the body in analysing war would guarantee an understanding that reflects the harsh reality of war.


Barkawi, Tarak., Brighton, Shane. 2011, “Powers of War: Fighting, Knowledge, and Critique”, International Political Sociology, 5(2), 126–143,

Enloe, Cynthia. 1993. ‘It takes more than two: the prostitute, the soldier, the state, and the entrepreneur,’ chap. 5 in The Morning After: Sexual Politics at the End of the Cold War, (Berkeley: University of California Press), pp. 142-160.

McSorley, Kevin. 2012. ‘War and the Body,’ chap.1 in McSorley, Kevin (ed.) War and the Body: Militarisation, Practice and Experience (London: Routledge). Available at

Nixon, Rob. 2011. ‘Ecologies of the aftermath: precision warfare and slow violence,’ chap.7 in Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press), pp. 199-232. E-book.

Scarry, Elaine. 1985. ‘Injury and the structure of war’, Representations 10: 1-51.

Scarry, Elaine. 1985. The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 60-75

Sylvester, Christine. 2012. ‘War experiences/war practices/war theory,’ Millennium: Journal of International Studies 40(3): 483-503.

Yves Winter. 2012. ‘Violence and Visibility’, New Political Science 34(2): 195-202

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