The Deadly Life of Logistics

Deb Cowen

Logistics is a ‘middle child’ concept: stuck between strategy and tactics it needs more attention. Desperately.

Logistics is a word that most of us use, but few know what it ‘really’ means. Logistics has dramatically reshaped the world of highly complex socio-technical systems, yet ironically, in its popular meaning logistics is the execution after thought. It denotes precisely the residual and uncomplicated tasks that need dooing once the sexy work of strategy is done. It its popular usage, logistics is grunt work, it’s the gapers job, it is driving the truck, moving the box, stocking the shelf. Logistics is just getting shit done. It is precisely that which does not require interrogation.

Many would be surprised by logistics’ other meanings and its long, complicated technoscientific life. In this other life, logistics has become tremendously important. To professional practitioners logistics is simply awesome. Industry experts tell us that logistics is everywhere; it is trans, inter, and post. It cuts edges, crosses boundaries and most certainly works outside the box. Note the spatial metaphors.  Logistics is about (just-in) time, and it is most definitely about (global) space.

But to its analysts and theorists, logistics is not simply important; logistics has gradually become the how that shapes the what. Logistics has come to lead strategy and tactics: it has gone from being the practical after-thought to the calculative practice that defines thought. Jomini asserted the growing importance of logistics in warfare as early as the 1870s, though it was really with the development of the petroleum fueled battlefield that logistics became the driving force of military strategy. DeLanda explains that by WWI, transporting troops, technologies, and the fuel for both to the front gained greater importance; logistics ascended from a residual to commanding role in military strategy.

In a second crucial transformation logistics has gone from military art to business science, even as it also clearly continues to be practiced by the military. The etymology of logistics is often traced to the Greek, ‘logistikos’, meaning ‘skilled in calculating’. The modern life of logistics is very clearly a military life – one of the three arts of Napoleonic warfare along with strategy and tactics, concerned with getting material and men to the front. It was essential for the building of national and colonial power. Yet, today logistics is at the centre of an entangled web of ‘rough trade’, integral to military and civilian practice.

What is likely the most under-investigated revolution of the 20th century, the 1960s ‘revolution in logistics’ reshaped economic calculation and the space economy. This was not a revolution of one country or political system, but rather in the calculation and organization of circulation. The single most important shift in logistics thought and practice in the early postwar period came with the introduction of a systems analysis.  Systems analysis served to re-scale the space of action and redefined logistics as the spatial management of production and distribution rather than a discrete function that followed manufacturing. The revolution in logistics shifted the managerial focus from cost-savings in distribution to profit- maximization across the entire system of circulation.

The revolution in logistics thought was underpinned by revolutionary technologies; the container and the computer were key (and both had important early lives in the military). The revolution in logistics can furthermore be understood as a vital calculative underpinning of globalization, even as it remains a critical technology of military operation. Indeed, logistics has not been purified by its civilian rebirth. In fact, it has become increasingly impossible to disentangle the military and civilian threads in the assemblage of rough trade that is at once involved in the delivery of sneakers and smart bombs.

If ‘post-revolutionary’ logistics has become the how that shapes the what, then in a sense this is a claim on the persistent need to ask whose how? And, for what?