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On Red Mail Items and War

Updated: Apr 16, 2020

Jan Bachmann | 2 August 2018

The 1952 edition: Sweden wants to defend itself, can defend itself and will defend itself

When a big red postal item is delivered to all mailboxes in Sweden, it is usually the annual notification by the pension authority, containing an as precise as possible estimation about the amount of benefit a taxpayer will receive at retirement. These extrapolations are based on the assumption of continuity of payments to the pension scheme and in consequence, the red item always exudes a certain sense of calm. It signals certainty to many, I suppose; to others such a projected linear trajectory may be unimaginable, unachievable or may even sound repulsive.

The red postal item mailed to 4.8 million households in Sweden in the past weeks, the Swedish Civil Contingency’s handbook “If crisis or war comes”, makes us imagine a different certainty. It tells the Swedish public that a threat exists against “our security and our independence”. The main thing to be done about it is to be well equipped for crisis or war: “If you are prepared, you are contributing to improving the ability of the country as a whole to cope with a major strain.” Preparedness must be a good thing. The brochure warns against false information and hostile propaganda, gives advice on how to act in case of terrorist acts and other disasters that may affect society. The book also provides a checklist on home preparedness (candles, water, storable food, battery-driven radio, etc.) and information on communication in crisis.

You have seen this in your mailbox.

To me as a member of “Sweden’s population”, a number of statements stand out as baffling. The first mystery is the emphasis given to war and war preparedness. Most readers, at least outside of Sweden, will be surprised to read that the government of Sweden, in the year 2018 AD, considers the country to be threatened by war. And indeed, the publication of the booklet caused quite a bit of astonishment internationally, amongst other in the New York Times, Der Spiegel, CNN and The Guardian. Given the collective experience of the last 200 years—during which Sweden has been at peace, avoided getting too much embroiled in the Second World War, witnessed the main threatening power collapsing in 1989/1991, and became a late but active part in the European integration process—one seriously wonders who exactly is threatening Sweden in what way today. It’s Russia, I suppose. And indeed, the Russia scare is a sentiment entertained in Swedish politics for 500 years and nurtured by the Swedish press up until today. The Swedish expression ‘rysskräck’ is part of the Swedish Academy’s dictionary, first mentioned as a term in 1907 (see for both historical and contemporary analyses – in Swedish – here , here, and here). The confession made in 1738 by military ranks that Sweden could withstand a Russian attack for a maximum of one week seems as valid and realistic today as it was then (see here).

Second, I stumbled across two sentences in particular: “If Sweden is attacked by another country, we will never give up. All information to the effect that resistance is to cease, is false”. State appeal to a unified “us” within a national(ist) framework has probably been the most common strategy in case a threat against the nation materialized. However, deploying such a formulation, which was originally used in the booklet’s 1943 edition, seems outlandish. Some things have happened since 1943. Some of the gamechangers: the nuclear bomb, the UN, regional security communities, global economic deregulation. Mobilizing the nation around “no surrender”? Really?

Other countries also used to publish advice on war preparedness. Let’s take the famous British “Keep calm and carry on” poster. Confronted with the immediate threat of air raids by Nazi Germany, the British authorities call upon the population to continue its daily routines. The Swedish authorities in 2018 do not share their knowledge, estimate or speculation about when the next war is coming to Sweden but nevertheless summon a whole nation to stockpile.

Unsurprisingly, Sweden is no exception to broader trends in post 9/11 security policies, in which threat and risk analyses have undergone a significant change. Conventionally, risk is calculated by the relation between probability of an event and the severity of its effects. That is the basic calculus of any insurance scheme to extrapolate on future events, and by doing so, estimate the level of risk. However, the experience of surprise attacks on 9/11 have moved the weight to one side: the severity of an event, the impending catastrophe. Probability is replaced by the imagination of what is possible (Amoore 2013). Imagined disaster, as Ben Anderson reminds us, is “incubating in the present” and obliges us to think and act in anticipation of crisis. As we might not be able to prevent the catastrophe, the more important it is to prepare for the “what if” scenario. The poster used by the Civil Contingency Agency is quite in your face: “Someday it will happen. The question is when”. The handbook is a reminder that, eventually, the crisis will have been (Aradau 2010). And the future, that’s for sure, will be radically “different from the here and now” (Anderson 2010

That is why the war handbook cannot be mistaken for the letter from the pension authority after all: The very continuity and hopeful relationship between the present and the future that is so calmingly at the bottom of the pension report is clearly unimaginable for the authors of the war booklet. Moreover, the narrative of the handbook revitalizes the illusion that it is possible to engineer society: reinvigorate everyone’s duty to “contribute to Sweden’s defence”, call on everyone’s comprehension and responsibility and, in turn, promise shelter for the whole population in case of crisis and war. It is almost a bit ironic, then, that Sweden’s official shelters today can only house 7 million people. There is definitely room for improvement here.

Keep calm and carry on?

Amoore, Louise 2013. The politics of possibility. Risk and security beyond probability. Durham/NC: Duke University Press.

Anderson, Ben 2010. Preemption, precaution, preparedness: Anticipatory action and future geographies. Progress in Human Geography 34 (6), pp. 777-798.

Aradau, Claudia 2010. The myth of preparedness. Radical Philosophy 161.


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