A Bear's Biography: Hybrid Warfare and the More-Than-Human Battlespace

By Forsyth, Isla | Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, June 2017 | Go to article overview

A Bear's Biography: Hybrid Warfare and the More-Than-Human Battlespace


Forsyth, Isla, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space


Abstract

This paper makes an intervention highlighting the animal dimension of military geographies as an overlooked yet illuminating aspect of the hybrid nature of warfare. By bringing animal geographies into dialogue with critical military geographies and with a focus on relational ethics, the processes, performance and consequences of the more-than-human nature of the battlespace are examined through a vignette of Wojtek the bear. Wojtek was a mascot, pet and officially enlisted soldier of the Polish Army in the Second World War who travelled the desert plains, helped to fight at the Battle of Monte Cassino, before being demobbed with his fellow Polish comrades in the UK, eventually ending his civilian days in Edinburgh Zoo. Although a well-known figure Wojtek and his biography have predominately been used as a means to explore the Polish soldiers' experience of the Second World War with the result that the bear as an animal is absent. This paper, therefore, puts the bear back into his biography in order to acknowledge the role and lived experience of animals in the military. Further, it suggests that exploring the place of animals in the military requires geographers to articulate the hybrid nature of warfare and also to explore the ethicopolitical relations this produces.

Keywords

More-than-human, animal geography, military geography, relational ethics

Introduction

In the late 1940s at Edinburgh Zoo, once in a while something strange would occur at the bear enclosure. Large mammals always draw the crowds but this specific enclosure, home to a large Syrian brown bear, held a very particular pull for some. Other than children on school trips and families on outings, the bear drew an array of visitors who would variously serenade him with the violin, throw him sweets and cigarettes, others would simply come to see him, to talk and recall. As Whatmore explains the very 'physical fabric of the zoo [is] a showcase for public entertainment and education, designed to keep animals and people in their proper place' (2002: 42). Yet, these relatively rare and seemingly peculiar visitors to the bear enclosure were not there to witness nature or the wild but were in fact visiting an old comrade, Wojtek who like them had been a soldier of the Polish Army in the Second World War (see Figure 1). Wojtek had served alongside these men on the battlefields of the Middle East and Italy and after the war like many of the soldiers from the Polish Corps the bear began to forge a new identity in post-war Britain. In those meetings at the zoo between old comrades, old identities were recalled and performed. There at Edinburgh Zoo in those moments of correspondence between bear and human, the distance between human and nonhuman momentarily enfolded and different, more fluid forms of identities and affinities between human and nonhuman were performed.

In the Second World War, Wojtek became a mascot, pet and officially enlisted soldier of the Polish Army helping to unload ammunition and even apparently capturing a thief. Wojtek has held a place in popular imagination for over 40 decades, his story first published in 1968 has been translated into English and French, serialised in Woman's Weekly and animal magazines such as Monde Animal and Wild about Animals. He became an animation for the children's TV programme Blue Peter, rendered in sculptures from London to Poland, via Edinburgh and Grimsby, memorialised in exhibitions, film and on stage. In these narratives, Wojtek's biography has focused predominately the experiences of the soldiers who were his comrades and keepers. In the film Wojtek, The Bear That Went to War (2011) the opening credits declare: 'Like the men and women he fought with, Corporal Wojtek would win a war but lose his freedom'. This sentiment was echoed in a speech at the opening of the Wojtek exhibition at the Polish Institute and Sikorski Museum, London, in October 2010 when Lady McEwan addressed the absence in contemporary history of the Polish contribution to the Second World War, stating: 'Poland after decades behind the Iron Curtain is free at last. …

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