Urban Jungle Warfare

An American solider in Sadr City, Iraq, 2008. Photo: Zoriah.

Geoff Manaugh at the ever-fantastic and always impressive BLDGBLOG has a post up about Stephen Graham’s Cities Under Siege: The New Military Urbanism and urban warfare in general.

The city is obviously going to be the defining social construct of the 21st century, but whether that happens in the benevolent, ‘new urbanist’ way that’s all the rage these days seems increasingly unlikely. From Mike Davis’s Planet of Slums:

The cities of the future, rather than being made out of glass and steel as envisioned by earlier generations of urbanists, are instead largely constructed out of crude brick, straw, recycled plastic, cement blocks, and scrap wood. Instead of cities of light soaring toward heaven, much of the twenty-first-century urban world squats in squalor, surrounded by pollution, excrement, and decay.

One is reminded of John Robb’s take on cities and the coming urban warfare, along with his prescription against urban conglomerations. Cities are immensely important nodes in a country’s system, and taking them down is easier, more profitable, and much more effective than as was practiced in the first half of the twentieth century.The will to besiege a city that continued up through the World Wars at Leningrad, Liege, and Namur is no longer there, but that brute force method is no longer needed. And the material rewards – not to mention the political and social effects of urban devastation – are more promising than ever.

As Robb says:

The collapse of a central city prevents any hope of countrywide economic recovery. Further, the chaos the city generates radiates outward through refugee flows. As this occurs, the social conflicts are exported, and other cities begin to fall into chaos like dominos.

The sheer complexity and size of modern mega-cities with populations in the millions defies remedy. Once destabilized, these cities will either continue in chaos until either they depopulate or the exhaust themselves. Of course, further impetus (attacks on systempunkts) towards instability can recharge the mechanism as needed.

Localize and virtualize” is Robb’s new mantra, which means avoiding the enormous aggregations of city-dwellers and maintaining a resilient, self-sufficient community – all the things a city is not.

The city really does represent state power in its own way. It’s a focal point for industry, commerce, national interests, and obvious, large groups of the nation’s citizens. But it also represents something a bit more sinister. Even “small infrastructural gestures, like public lighting, can transform alleyways from zones of impending crime to walkways safe for pedestrian use—and, in the process, expand political control and urban police presence into that terrain.” The city is under siege from itself, from the outside, and from within:

Jersey-barrier blast walls, identity checkpoints, computerized CCTV, biometric surveillance and military styles of access control protect archipelagos of fortified social, economic, political or military centers from an outside deemed unruly, impoverished and dangerous. In the most extreme examples, these encompass green zones, military prisons, ethnic and sectarian neighborhoods and military bases; they are growing around strategic financial districts, embassies, tourist and consumption spaces, airport and port complexes, sports arenas, gated communities and export processing zones.

London is quickly becoming one of the most secretly and insidiously militarized and securitized cities in the world, whether it be the ‘ring of steel‘ surrounding the heart of the City or the ubiquitous CCTV that’s become a staple of British life. But it’s not a problem unique to the United Kingdom. Manaugh describes Graham’s take on this new industry:

In some of the book’s most interesting sections, Graham tracks the growth of urban surveillance and the global “homeland security market.” He points out that major urban events—like G8 conferences, the Olympics, and the World Cup, among many others—offer politically unique opportunities for the installation of advanced tracking, surveillance, and facial-recognition technologies. Deployed in the name of temporary security, however, these technologies are often left in place when the event is over: a kind of permanent crisis, in all but name, takes over the city, with remnant, military-grade surveillance technologies gazing down upon the streets (and embedded in the city’s telecommunications infrastructure). A moment of exception becomes the norm.

But for all these defenses, they only protect against threats from within. The key to defending a city may very well be the sprawling, maze-like nature of the city itself, and the many hidden dangers it contains. It would be more difficult to occupy the urban sprawl of a city like Los Angeles than it would be to take the regular gridded streets of New York.

Disease, partisan uprisings, and wild dogs are just as likely to kill soldiers as enemy forces. “The effects of radio communications and global positioning systems can be radically limited by dense concentrations of architecture, turning what might otherwise be an exotic experience of pedestrian urbanism into a claustrophobic labyrinth inhabited by unseen enemy combatants.” Like Vietnam is perceived, only with a higher chance of tetanus.

A growing, expanding, ceaseless norm. Locked-down cities of the future. Can it be stopped? And is that a bad thing?

One thought on “Urban Jungle Warfare

  1. “It would be more difficult to occupy the urban sprawl of a city like Los Angeles than it would be to take the regular gridded streets of New York.” – I TOTALLY DISAGREE GRAHAMULOUS…

    Unless a military is willing to dispose of a city with strategic bombing (conventional or otherwise), density is what causes problems for any invading or occupying force. We only need look at the immense troubles Brazilian police have navigating favellas to understand how extreme density and grided mazes quickly become logistical hell for any operating force.

    On another tac, I believe dense, grided cities are culturally and biologically training their populaces to be better suited to defending themselves. One only need to look around some of the truly absurd places the youth of new york city have managed to place graffiti, both above and underground, and then be horrified at what could occur if such beings were armed and defending the city with lives depending.

    In Stalingrad, Sarejevo, Baghdad, Fallujah, Rio De Jinero, Sau Paulo, and yes, LA (let’s remember the Crips vs Bloods gang wars resulted in roughly the same number of total deaths in the past 20 years as Israel v Palestine), the densest and often times most gridlike areas have posed huge problems for invading forces.

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