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Imperialism’s Shell Game


Darryl Li (@dcli) is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Associate Member of the Law School at the University of Chicago.

Israel’s genocidal onslaught on the Gaza Strip has prompted renewed scrutiny of the U.S. military aid that enables it. During the first five months of the current campaign, the Biden administration rushed to replenish Israel’s arsenal, with more than 100 separate arms transfers. And despite recent demands by left-leaning legislators for some restrictions on military aid to Israel – thanks to unprecedented popular mobilization for Palestinian liberation – the United States last week authorized over $10 billion in additional weapons. 

This support is hardly surprising. The United States is the world’s leading arms exporter, and its global power rests in significant part on this fact. National security and human rights lawyers debate how military aid can be conditioned to more judiciously calibrate the violence meted out by recipient states. But the statutory framework is – as described in a useful overview by Josh Paul, the State Department official who resigned in protest at U.S. support for Israel – fundamentally “permissive rather than directive.” The laws tying aid to human rights or humanitarian concerns ultimately vest decision-making power in the executive branch, and at no point in its history has Congress mustered the veto-proof majority effectively required to block any arms transfer. As a result, advocacy efforts tinker around the edges, focusing on mechanisms for transparency and delay.

While every possible form of pressure should be brought to bear on the Biden administration to cut off the flow of arms to Israel, the prevailing law and policy debate tends to obscure some key aspects of how U.S. imperialism actually works. For the United States does not simply ship arms abroad, it is also the world’s leading arms trafficker, wielding enormous power over how weapons made by other countries circulate throughout the world as an immense collection of commodities. The web of legal forms that makes U.S. imperialism possible goes far beyond federal legislation and much of it is not public: it includes memoranda of understanding and executive agreements between states, technical instruments, and contracts between governments and private entities.

This is where a law and political economy approach usefully shows why imperialism should be understood not just as a pejorative for countries projecting power in unsavory ways, but as a tool for understanding the system of relations in which the subjugation of some nations by others is maintained by and for the accumulation of capital across borders. We can illustrate this idea and explore some of its many consequences by following the example of a specific commodity that is in very high demand at the moment: the 155mm artillery shell.

Bomb Back Better

The 155mm, which has been around in one form or another for over a century, is one of the most commonly employed artillery munitions in the U.S. arsenal. There are different variations, but they typically measure just under one meter in length, weigh around 50kg, and can hit targets dozens of kilometers away. Variations of the 155mm can be loaded with many kinds of warheads, from conventional explosives to cluster bomblets to white phosphorus (I first learned to recognize the remnants of 155mm white phosphorus shells while visiting Gaza in January 2009 in the immediate aftermath of the first mass bombardment). But one thing that cannot be changed is the shell’s base diameter – hence the 155mm designation – because that determines the width of the barrel of the artillery weapon firing it.

In addition to being a major supplier of such shells, the U.S. exerts influence over other countries through its ability to set standards for those wishing to benefit from interoperability with U.S.-made weapons systems. In recent decades, NATO has adopted the 155mm as its standard artillery munition, causing many national militaries outside the alliance to use it as well. As a result, quite a few countries manufacture 155mm weapons and ammunition. This U.S.-endorsed standard is so ubiquitous that even Russia, the other leading standard-setter, produces 155mm versions of one of its howitzers in order to compete in the world export market.

Demand for 155mm shells has spiked in recent years. The escalation in Russia’s aggression against Ukraine in 2022 has resulted in a protracted stalemate in which artillery has been a key weapon. At some points in the war, the two sides traded well over 10,000 artillery rounds per day.

In this context, Ukraine eagerly adopted NATO-supplied 155mm guns, deeming them superior to its dilapidated arsenal of Soviet-era weapons that use a different caliber of munitions. But accepting new weapons systems often creates dependency on open-ended commitments for training, resupply, and repair. With Ukraine being at least two years away from being able to manufacture its own 155mm shells, NATO states have scrambled to supply ammunition: the United States alone has provided Ukraine with more than two million rounds, raising concerns that it may be dangerously depleting its own stockpiles.

The shell shortage reflects U.S. priorities over the past quarter-century of unipolar hegemony, namely a focus on making precision-guided missiles more suited for aerial manhunting in places such as Afghanistan and Iraq. Older munitions like the 155mm shell were seen as relics of a bygone era and production lines scaled back, in line with broader neoliberal trends across the economy toward deindustrialization and offshoring. Reconstituting manufacturing capacity is a slow process that cannot be readily accelerated, requiring the construction of highly specialized machine tools, training skilled workers, and doing so while adhering to strict quality and safety standards. The U.S. has managed to double its output of 155mm shells, but this is still far from sufficient to meet Ukraine’s needs.

To bridge the shortfall, the United States has taken to scouring the world for munitions, brokering a series of indirect transfers from countries wary of being seen as taking sides in the conflict. Unsurprisingly, it has turned to client states on some of the most highly militarized borders in the world.

The United States quietly purchased hundreds of thousands of rounds from South Korea – more than the total supplied by all European nations combined – to replenish some of those sent to Ukraine. This arrangement circumvented a South Korean law prohibiting arms exports to war zones (in the meantime, Russia has reportedly acquired artillery rounds compatible with its guns from North Korea). The United States has also sourced 155mm shells from Pakistan in exchange for backing a crucial IMF bailout, part of a longer history of the U.S. leveraging its key role in international financial institutions to influence Pakistan’s government. The deal was made possible by the ouster of the more neutralist Prime Minister Imran Khan, which was tacitly endorsed by the United States. According to the BBC Urdu service, over $360 million worth of 155mm shells were sold to U.S. companies, comprising the lion’s share of the country’s total military exports that year and significantly remedying its balance of payments deficit.

Compared to the political maneuvering needed to skirt South Korean arms transfer laws and undermine Pakistani democracy, a third major source of 155mm shells was comparatively straightforward: for decades, the United States has “prepositioned” large stockpiles of weapons in Israel and, in early 2023, it transferred 300,000 155mm shells from this reserve to Ukraine.

These stockpiles are a legacy of the October 1973 war, when a mass airlift of U.S. weapons helped save Israel from defeat at the hands of Egypt and Syria. Hoping to avoid the repeat of such a scenario, the United States decided to build up an arms cache inside Israel itself that the Zionist regime could rapidly draw upon in an emergency. The arms, estimated at several billion dollars in value, are technically U.S. property and thus do not count as aid unless they are transferred to the control of a foreign nation. Nonetheless, Israel and the United States treat them as a shared resource: Israeli officials presume access to the stockpile in their war planning, and the United States even reportedly sought Israel’s permission before moving the 155mm shells to Ukraine. The stockpiles are shrouded in secrecy, and their location in theater has in the past allowed the Pentagon to transfer some categories of weapons in discrete (and discreet) quantities. A little-noticed provision in last week’s aid package goes further and removes nearly any remaining restrictions, empowering the Pentagon to simply give the arms wholesale to Israel for only nominal compensation.

The United States had not yet replaced the shells taken from the stockpile for Ukraine when Israel began its saturation bombing of the Gaza Strip in October 2023 but launched an emergency resupply airlift soon thereafter (which one Israeli defense researcher insisted “wasn’t a ‘favor’ the Americans did us – it was all anchored in the [stockpile] agreement”). In the first week, unrelenting Israeli air strikes dropped more bomb tonnage on Gaza than expended by the United States in an entire year in Afghanistan. The comparatively low-tech 155mm shell has also played its part; in the first seven weeks alone, Israel fired over 90,000 artillery shells into the Gaza Strip and 10,000 more into Lebanon. The rate of fire at Gaza has at times been comparable to Ukraine’s – except instead of occurring along a 1,000 kilometer front line between two armies, it is being directed into a 41 km-long enclave crammed with more than two million people. And the United States has been fully complicit, providing at least $147.5 million for artillery alone even before the passage of last week’s aid package.

This months long shooting spree has forced Israel to join the global scramble for 155mm shells from wherever they can be sourced, competing directly with Ukraine. Complaints of outdated and substandard munitions have made their way into the Israeli media, including reports of U.S. shells produced during the war in Korea – nearly as old as the state of Israel itself. It is as if Gaza’s refusal to submit to the might of the arsenals of the Western world is forcing Israel to travel back in time for even more firepower.

Gifts of Genocide

Circulating as a commodity, the 155mm shell expresses in concrete form the web of political relationships between an imperialist state and its clients. But as an object donated by the United States to Israel and then turned against Palestinians, it operates more like a perverse form of gift: something that moves between people and in doing so reconfigures social ties, in this case as part of a genocidal project.

Since October 7, 155mm shells have become one of Israel’s most photogenic weapons. This is thanks to widely circulated images of shells with messages handwritten on them. Part of the dark humor that soldiers everywhere enjoy, the practice is hardly unique to Israel. But what is striking is the sheer range of people who partake in this act of enjoyment. While the political economy of imperialism brings the artillery shells to Israel, the shells then help reproduce the social basis for imperialism by occasioning a macabre ritual tying together ordinary citizens and statesmen alike in Israel, as well as Zionist constituencies in the United States.

In 2006, photographs of Israeli school children writing on artillery shells went viral. Leaving personal messages is now standard fare for VIPs such as Israeli president Isaac Herzog (“Counting on you”), and former U.S. vice president Mike Pence (“For Israel. Mike Pence.”), perhaps the most prominent Christian Evangelical Zionist in U.S. politics. A New York-based Zionist activist even paid $180 for such a message in the name of his kosher restaurant enthusiasts Facebook group (“GKR Foodies Stands with Israel”) and urged others to do the same: “the IDF soldiers will be sending a present to Hamas tomorrow. Specifically this 155 mm artillery shell. Yes, you can get writing on a missle [sic]. Jewish ingenuity at its finest– Introducing the MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE CAMPAIGN!”

This weaponization of graffiti physically directs a message at people who will “receive” it only through an explosive act of obliteration. It perfectly sums up the colonial attitude that “the only language the native understands is force,” which we can more accurately restate as: the ultimate language of the colonizer is violence.

And in the manner of violence being meted out, here again the 155mm shell’s particular properties are relevant. Artillery is far less effective against small, dispersed bands of guerrillas than against conventional armies. And ironically, the more Israel relies on older munitions, the greater the chance of an accident that harms Israeli personnel. Moreover, the use of older shells means a higher dud rate, with those that fail to explode on impact providing Palestinians with badly needed explosive materials that can be harvested and repurposed for their own defense. But hand wringing in some quarters of the Israeli establishment over the waste of ammunition and the extensive scope of destruction (one former officer called it “a war of cruel rich people”) misses the point.

Far cheaper than aerial bombardment and less risky than demolition by troops on the ground, artillery is useful as a weapon of ethnic cleansing, terrifying Palestinans into fleeing their homes and deterring them when they try to return. It is also the ideal platform for delivering at scale spectacles of destruction, which Israel gleefully publicizes to satisfy vengeful constituents. Such spectacles are an important aspect of the strategic logic underlying this genocide. Their visibility distracts from even more fatal forms of violence such as politically engineered famine and disease. And their ubiquity over months of news cycles contributes to a numbing of the senses, producing indifference to the more low-tech face-to-face massacres that have been taking place in Gaza’s hospitals.

The spectacles of saturation bombing also provide the thinnest of alibis, a veneer of deniability for the sake of its friends (for Germany in particular, the message is essentially “this isn’t your grandma’s genocide”). For Western audiences accustomed to technologically sanitized killing at arm’s length, the apparent haphazardness of artillery more readily registers as a sign of war, albeit a lopsided one, instead of genocide: a single shell can wipe out an entire family (or, in the case of the strike on Gaza’s largest fertility clinic, thousands of embryos), while many others may fail to kill anyone. Violence at a distance, Israel reasons, exploits international humanitarian law’s rules for killing by always leaving room for doubt as to the innocence of victims, who are presumptively recast as killable “human shields.” It is a testament to the sheer asymmetry of violence that Israel – thanks to U.S. aid – can afford to not only engage in mass slaughter before a global audience without constraint, but to do so in a piecemeal fashion that obscures the murderousness of its intent in clouds of dust.