By Benjamin Sacks
War changes everything. Societies and cultures, land and the environment, beliefs and approaches. Conflict establishes dangerous versions of ‘Us’ and the ‘Other’ – a timeless and effective means of dehumanising the enemy. Such distinctions are not only made between states or peoples, but between environmental types as well. In the thirty years following the Second World War, the tropics – from the Malayan jungles and Amazonia to East Africa – was ‘othered’ or, as Daniel Clayton (University of St Andrews) described, ‘tropicalised’ by Western powers and their Marxist enemies in counter-insurgency and anti-Communist wars.
American and British battles against Japanese forces in the Pacific and Asian theatres of World War Two introduced most military officials, politicians, and academics to the tropical jungle as a new and distinct battlefield space. As the United States, Britain, France, and Portugal became embroiled in a series of complex, violent conflicts in East Asia and Latin America, the tropical environment became an enigmatic, ‘militant’ world, ‘seductive’, lethal, and a comfortable breeding ground for far-left regimes (pp. 1-2). This mentality steadily matured into the Vietnam War.
Clayton approaches the tropical environment both as a ‘conceptual space’ and as a more traditional topographical/physical space (p. 2). ‘Tropicality’ soon conjured intense images of instability, distrust, and attrition in Western commanders’ minds. 1950s conflicts in Korea, Kenya, Vietnam, Guatemala, and Malaya cemented such fears in Western military teaching. Importantly, Clayton’s analysis reaches beyond common conceptions of tropical space, delineating between Western and indigenous understandings, the confrontation between intellectual and ideological elites, and the establishment of tropical myth – e.g., Ché Guevara’s controversial deification by Marxists after his 1967 capture and execution in Bolivia.
Western views of ‘tropicality’ appear to have been moulded from French surrealist philosophies cultivated in the wartime empire. Tropiques, published by Aimé Césaire in Martinique between 1941-1945, attacked Nazi/Vichy French amalgamations of the tropical Caribbean, French Polynesia, and West Africa into comfortable notions of ‘greater France’ (pp. 3-5). Instead, Césaire and his colleagues argued, the tropics was a dangerously seductive ‘Other’, an exotic, explosively vivid in colours, flora and fauna, sights, and sounds, very unlike Europe or North America. Césaire may not have sought to establish a rote dichotomy, but his project provoked notions of a confusing, contradictory non-Western environment at once fertile for colonial gains and as a centre of anti-colonial dissent. In the post-War world, the latter would take firm hold.
Cuban revolutionaries, in particular, propagandised their Marxist position through deft manipulation of tropical imagery and narrative. In so doing, they crafted a ‘third way’: indigenous constructions of the tropics – its benefits and dangers – that stood at odds with both traditional American and Soviet images of Cuba. In turn, Guevara and the Castros weaved together strains of ‘rugged terrain’ (pp. 5-8), local, hardened peoples and the culture, gender roles, jobs, and even music and art to fashion complex walls seemingly impenetrable to Western (particularly American) intervention. Other tropical revolutionary movements, such as the Viet Cong, closely watched and learned.
Daniel Clayton, 2012, Militant Tropicality: War, Revolution and the Reconfiguration of ‘the Tropics’ c.1940-c.1975, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 38 1-13
James A Tyner, 2004, Territoriality, Social Justice and Gendered Revolutions in the Speeches of Malcolm X, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 29 330-43