Posted on 11 October 2022 in bulletin, colonialism, disability, isrf, isrf fellows, palestine, war

War Machines, Settler Colonialism, And The Production Of Disability

In this contribution to Bulletin 26, Craig Jones argues that large-scale injury and maiming are defining features of war and settler-colonial occupation and focusses on Gaza to explore this relation theoretically.


University of Newcastle

Main image by Pea (via Unsplash).

In this essay I explore the relationship between war, settler-colonialism, and disability in relation to the besieged and occupied territory of the Gaza Strip. Specifically, I want to argue that war and certain forms of what we might call late settler-colonialism are oriented toward the incapacitation of bodies (and not only human bodies),[1] relationships (kin, community, family), and infrastructures. The suggestion, following work in critical disabilities studies, is that we attend to disability not as a category for the labelling of some innate or biological ‘crip’ quality but instead as a process or outcome of what gets articulated as the ‘norm’. But to say that war and settler-colonialism produce disability is to suggest more than the mere social construction of disability; it is also to suggest, or rather evoke, the machinic-like qualities of the vast, terrifying, and world-altering power of war upon bodies and those physical and social infrastructures that make them thrive.

These arguments form a kind of self-critique of my slow realisation that war is about more than death and death-making, and that the geographies of war are not reducible to what I have called ‘spaces of killing’.[2] The arguments are inspired, in the first instance, by the figure of the wounded civilian (rather than the heroic wounded solider that dominates frames of war both contemporaneously and historically), and by the fact that so little space in scholarship, even today, has been devoted to asking who these civilians are and what happens to them after they are injured. They are also indebted to a series of provocations made by Elaine Scarry, Omar Dewachi, Nirmala Erevelles, Patrick Wolfe, and Danya M. Qato and this essay is something of an attempt to put them in very brief conversation together and with Gaza.

In her well-known essay ‘Injury and the Structure of War’, Elaine Scarry stripped war down to its essential bodily characteristics, arguing forcefully that the ‘main purpose and outcome of war is injuring’.[3] There are, of course, other purposes and outcomes of war, but here I read Scarry as offering injury as the key analytic for understanding something fundamental about what war is and, importantly, what war does. The context in which Scarry wrote was full of Cold War euphemism, an era that sharpened warmakers’ refusal to acknowledge that for all its technological prowess and brinkmanship, war is still about breaking things and killing people (and getting others to do the dirty work for you if you can). Scarry’s injunction was first and foremost a refusal to sanitise war, a reminder not to be lulled by language,[4] by speed,[5] and by the mediatisation of war’s awe[6]—because beneath those bombs and under those fragile barricades that some call homes are lives that are constitutively vulnerable to injury.[7] Scarry understood that this was perhaps a painfully obvious point, but her argument was precisely that injury seemed so self-evidently a part of war that warmakers had erased it while publics had forgotten it—a sleight of hand made easier by transferring risk onto racialised populations and away from what Wendy Brown memorably called the ‘injurious state’.[8] Nevertheless, we now understand war to be socially, economically and otherwise generative[9]—as opposed to merely being destructive—so while war certainly is about injury, it is also productive of bodily agency and identities that cannot be reduced to injury,[10] a point we will return to.

There is a literature on war and disability, even if it does not self-identify as such.[11] Broadly, the literature approaches war and disability from one of two disciplines—History and Anthropology—and they have not had a great deal to say to each other. Both remain resolutely focused on the experience of soldiers, which is understandable enough given the primacy of the wounded veteran in national cultural imaginaries and their importance on the battlefields of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Yet, the focus on soldiers occludes not only the civilians I have already mentioned; it also leaves precious little space for irregular fighters and those injured while participating in liberation struggles and wars for independence. This has a particular salience for Gaza and for other places and peoples under regimes of settler colonialism, occupation, and siege and so far work on war and disability has largely reflected rather than challenged ideas around who constitutes a legitimate fighter and therefore who and what counts as a legitimate wound or wounded person. (This is not just a political question; it is also a serious ethical concern, for researching the enemies of the state risks exposing their identities to the state.) Work in medical anthropology has done much to challenge theories of disability among veterans, borrowing ideas from critical disabilities studies around capacities, debilitation and the formation of ‘after-war’ identities and bionic extensions of the more-than-human soldier,[12] but it is the work of Iraqi anthropologists and former medical doctor Omar Dewachi that gets us closer if not to a theory of disability and war beyond the soldier, then at least a geographical account of how such a theory might emerge.

In response to the ongoing wars in Iraq and Syria, and borrowing from work in health-geography, Dewachi coined the term ‘therapeutic geographies’ to describe the regional reorganisation of healthcare under conditions of war.[13] The concept was at once a recognition that war and its consequences cannot be contained by national borders, but also, and more important for our present purposes, that therapeutic geographies cast new light on the scale of the problem of the intimate yet deadly relationship between war and health, and by extension war and disability.[14] Disabilities studies scholar Nirmala Erevelles identifies this in a way that I find immensely useful: ‘War is one of the largest producers of disability in a world still inhospitable to disabled people and their predominantly female caregivers’.[15] There is so much to unpack here, but worth emphasising across Dewachi and Erevelles is the difficult-to-apprehend scale of the problem—one that leaves its mark not only on individuals but crucially also on entire populations. Statistics in war are notoriously contested, and casualty-counts (or what are sometimes called body-counts) often fail to mention the numbers of persons injured, subsuming the place of the injured beneath the dead in our calculus of war, and perhaps even suggesting that as long as one survives, one is going to be okay.

Between the First Intifada in 1987 and March 2017, some 250,000 Palestinians were injured by Israeli forces, including 110,000 in the Gaza Strip,[16] and in 2018–19 further tens of thousands of protestors were injured, and over 8,000 shot with live ammunition while claiming their right of return.[17] These are scales of injury that are difficult to comprehend, let alone to triage, treat, and rehabilitate and yet we know that such mass maiming is not unique to Gaza even while the healthcare system there operates under carefully calculated and especially punishing conditions of duress. Not all injury amounts to disability, and not all disability is permanent, but maiming on the scale that war so often entails constitutes a significant and long-term burden across intersecting scales of life from individual to family, from surgical intervention to public health, and from acute emergencies to enduring regimes of rehabilitation that pay no heed to the Cartesian mind/body dualism. Just as there are patterns and geographies of injury (bullet wounds, explosive blast injuries, burns, legs, torsos, heads, open fields, dense cities, collapsed buildings, targeted vehicles—all correlating with different military tactics and objectives, maiming is anything but incidental), there are therapeutic geographies too. While Dewachi is less attentive to the gendered dimensions of care, he is surely right that in the Middle East (and perhaps elsewhere) ‘wounds constitute the interstitial tissue of the social’,[18] and they do precisely because being wounded and having trauma is the norm rather than the exception.

Gaza and indeed the entire occupied Palestinian territories are subject not only to the force of war machines, but also the ongoing violence of settler colonialism. The late Patrick Wolfe once memorably argued that settler colonialism is a structure rather than an event, and referred to what he called ‘the elimination of the native’.[19] I had previously read Wolfe as claiming that the structure of settler colonialism’s violence was reducible to a strictly necropolitical logic, one that gave too little space for injury in its reading of settler-colonial power. But Wolfe is quite clear: ‘The logic of elimination’, he writes, ‘not only refers to the summary liquidation of Indigenous people, though it includes that.’ In its positive aspect, Wolfe shows that ‘the native repressed continues to structure settler-colonial society’,[20] and I would add that it does so in ways that are both detrimental to and also productive of new injured and injurious subjectivities, including the possibilities of care.

Disability, like war and like settler colonialism, is a structure rather than an event and it requires modes of social scientific inquiry that explain and remediate the conditions that produce and sustain it. In Palestine, then, it is simply impossible to understand what injury and woundedness mean and what human and social capacities have been foreclosed and enabled without understanding the material and ongoing conditions of war and settler colonialism. But it would also be a mistake to think about the wounded and disabled as (only) victims rather than vectors of power and political progress in and beyond Palestine. For as Danya M. Qato has recently argued:

If we are to imagine public health as continuously transforming and evolving with the needs of our people, we need to imagine anew what it would mean for the science of public health in Palestine to challenge epidemiological approaches that focus on calculating rather than restoring health, and on reifying power rather than dismantling it.[21]

It is in this spirit, and along with these forms of decolonial scholarship, where I locate my own work on wounding and disability in Gaza. Aid and foreign humanitarianism drip into the besieged territory of Gaza, and it is no accident that at precisely the most acute periods of need, Israel ratchets up the pain by letting fewer people and goods across the border. This means that a sovereign healthcare infrastructure has been incapacitated, but it has by no means extinguished the improvisational strategies and tactics used by healthcare workers, families, women, and children to ‘get by’ as they navigate enduring violence and wounded life. During periods of mass violence and maiming, and under conditions of ongoing violence, hope emerges in the form of bodies in alliance and defiance, in the creation of new trauma and rehabilitative pathways, trauma stabilisation points that save lives and limbs, the rebuilding of bombed-out hospitals, services provided to the disabled, and the quiet and caring love of a family as it adjusts to the presence of another wound. These ‘geographies of hope’[22] and spaces of care that inexorably follow the wounded are the subject of ongoing work that grew out of my ISRF-funded research, and they provide ample opportunities for social sciences, health sciences and the humanities to think through the dialectics of war-care, wounding, and enduring violence in and beyond Palestine.


[1] See Joseph Pugliese, Biopolitics of the More-Than-Human: Forensic Ecologies of Violence (Durham, NC 2020: Duke University Press).

[2] Craig Jones, The War Lawyers: United States, Israel, and Juridical Warfare (Oxford 2020: Oxford University Press).

[3] Elaine Scarry, ‘Injury and the Structure of War’, Representations 10 (1985): 1–51, 1.

[4] George Orwell, ‘George Orwell: Politics and the English Language’ (1946),

[5] Paul Virilio, Speed and Politics: An Essay on Dromology (New York 1986: Semiotext(e)).

[6] Jean Baudrillard, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, transl. Paul Patton (Sydney 2012: Power Publications).

[7] On the vulnerability of life to violence, see Mikko Joronen and Mitch Rose ‘Vulnerability and Its Politics: Precarity and the Woundedness of Power’, Progress in Human Geography 45, no. 6 (2021): 1402–1418.

[8] Wendy Brown, States of Injury: Power and Freedom in Late Modernity (Princeton, NJ 1995: Princeton University Press).

[9] Tarak Barkawi and Shane Brighton, ‘Powers of War: Fighting, Knowledge, and Critique’, International Political Sociology 5, no. 2 (2011): 126–143.

[10] Tanya Narozhna, ‘The Lived Body, Everyday and Generative Powers of War: Toward an Embodied Ontology of War as Experience’. International Theory 14, no. 2 (2022): 210–232, 213: “[T]he generative force of war is born out of the dialectical relationship between the power of the politics of injury to disrupt individual and collective being-in-the-world and the potential of embodied everyday practices to undo pernicious effects of the politics of war injury, restoring to the lived bodies their sense-making capacities, personhood, and agency.”

[11] E.g. Julie Anderson, War, Disability and Rehabilitation in Britain: ‘Soul of a Nation’, illustrated edition (Manchester 2016: Manchester University Press); Ana Carden-Coyne, The Politics of Wounds: Military Patients and Medical Power in the First World War (Oxford, 2014: Oxford University Press); Emily Mayhew, Wounded: The Long Journey Home From the Great War (London 2014: Vintage); Emily Mayhew, A Heavy Reckoning: War, Medicine and Survival in Afghanistan and Beyond, main edition (London 2017: Wellcome Collection); Richard J. McNally and B. Christopher Frueh, ‘Why Are Iraq and Afghanistan War Veterans Seeking PTSD Disability Compensation at Unprecedented Rates?’, Journal of Anxiety Disorders 27, no. 5 (2013): 520–522.

[12] Kenneth T. MacLeish, Making War at Fort Hood: Life and Uncertainty in a Military Community (Princeton, NJ 2013: Princeton University Press); Jennifer Terry, Attachments to War: Biomedical Logics and Violence in Twenty-First-Century America (Durham, NC 2017: Duke University Press); Zoë H. Wool, After War: The Weight of Life at Walter Reed (Durham, NC 2015: Duke University Press); Zoë H. Wool and Julie Livingston, ‘Collateral Afterworlds: An Introduction’. Social Text 35, no. 1 (130) (2017): 1–15.

[13] Omar Dewachi, Mac Skelton, Vinh-Kim Nguyen, Fouad M Fouad, Ghassan Abu Sitta, Zeina Maasri, and Rita Giacaman, ‘Changing Therapeutic Geographies of the Iraqi and Syrian Wars’. The Lancet 383 (9915) (2014): 449–457; Omar Dewachi, Anthony Rizk, and Neil V. Singh, ‘(Dis)Connectivities in Wartime: The Therapeutic Geographies of Iraqi Healthcare–Seeking in Lebanon’, Global Public Health 13, no 3 (2018): 288–297.

[14] See also Merrill Singer and G. Derrick Hodge (eds.), The War Machine and Global Health (Lanham, MD 2010: AltaMira Press); Craig Jones, ‘War and Health: The Medical Consequences of the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Edited by: Catherine Lutz and Andrea Mazzarino (Book Review)’, Medical Anthropology Quarterly 34, no. 3 (2020): 73–75; Catherine Lutz and Andrea Mazzarino (eds.), War and Health: The Medical Consequences of the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (New York 2019: NYU Press).

[15] Nirmala Erevelles, ‘The Colour of Violence: Reflecting on Gender, Race and Disability in Wartime’, in: K.Q. Hall (ed.), Feminist Disability Studies (Bloomington, IN 2011: Indiana University Press): 117–135, 117.

[16] Middle East Monitor, ‘250,000 Palestinians Injured since First Intifada’, 14 March 2017,

[17] Craig Jones, ‘Gaza and the Great March of Return: Enduring Violence and Spaces of Wounding’, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers (2022, Online First),

[18] Omar Dewachi, ‘When Wounds Travel’, Medicine Anthropology Theory 2, no. 3 (2015): 61, 61.

[19] Patrick Wolfe, ‘Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native’, Journal of Genocide Research 8, no. 4 (2006): 387–409, 387.

[20] Ibid., 390.

[21] Danya M. Qato, ‘Introduction: Public Health and the Promise of Palestine’, Journal of Palestine Studies 49, no. 4 (2020): 8–26, 10.

[22] Mikko Joronen and Mark Griffiths, ‘The Moment to Come: Geographies of Hope in the Hyperprecarious Sites of Occupied Palestine’ Geografiska Annaler: Series B, Human Geography 101, no. 2 (2019): 69–83.


Craig Jones is Senior Lecturer in Political Geography at Newcastle University, and was an ISRF Early Career Fellow 2019-2020.
He is the author of The War Lawyers (2020).

Craig Jones ISRF