I’ve noted David Kilcullen‘s adventures into geography before, and the entanglement of his vision of counterinsurgency with the humanitarian present – here and here – and over at Gizmodo Geoff Manaugh (of the always interesting and enviably imaginative BLDGBLOG) has an interesting commentary on Kilcullen’s new book, Out of the Mountains: the coming age of the urban guerrilla (Hurst/Oxford University Press USA, 2013. An extended excerpt is available here, if you scroll down, and a presentation on “The city as a system: future conflict and urban resilience” from last year is available here.
Back to Geoff:
Kilcullen’s overall thesis is a compelling one: remote desert battlegrounds and impenetrable mountain tribal areas are not, in fact, where we will encounter the violence of tomorrow. For Kilcullen—indeed, for many military theorists writing today—the war in Afghanistan was not the new normal, but a kind of geographic fluke, an anomaly in the otherwise clear trend for conflicts of an increasingly urban nature.
The very title of Kilcullen’s book—Out of the Mountains—suggests this. War is coming down from the wild edges of the world, driving back toward our lights and buildings from the unstructured void of the desert, and arriving, at full force, in the hearts of our cities, in our markets and streets. There, conflict erupts amongst already weak or non-existent governments, in the shadow of brittle infrastructure, and what Mike Davis calls “the nightmare of endless warfare in the slums of the world” in his blurb for Kilcullen’s work, becomes uncomfortably close to reality.
Strictly speaking, Geoff’s commentary derives from a talk Kilcullen gave at the World Policy Institute, one of a large number of public appearances to promote the book on both sides of the Atlantic; here is a transcript of his talk at Chatham House, and here is his presentation to the New America Foundation last month, introduced by Peter Bergen:
Geoff is not completely convinced by it. Some of the themes will be familiar to most readers – the bleeding of war into crime has been a staple of the ‘new wars’ thesis, for example – and you can hear distant echoes of Saskia Sassen‘s ideas about cities and later modern war. More particularly, Steve Graham‘s brilliant work on the new military urbanism addresses many of the same issues Kilcullen raises – as Kilcullen notes himself – though he does so in a markedly different vocabulary: Geoff and I have crossed swords over this before, but while he describes “feral cities” as ‘one of my favorite phrases of all time’ I think it’s dehumanizing – though I do understand that’s exactly not Geoff’s intention).
Geoff is also (I think rightly) sceptical about the aerial-algorithmic intervention that Kilcullen touted at the WPI:
‘During the Q&A, Kilcullen briefly mentioned the work of Crisis Mappers, who have developed tools for visually analyzing urban form using satellite photos. According to Kilcullen, they are able to do this with an astonishing degree of accuracy, diagnosing what parts of cities seem most prone to failure. Whether this is due to empty lots and abandoned buildings or to infrastructural isolation from the rest of the city, the factors that determine “ferality” in the built environment is a kind of aerial application of the Broken Windows theory.
The implication—conceptually fascinating, but by no means convincing, at least for me—was that we could, in theory, develop a visual algorithm for identifying environments tending toward failure, and thus find a way to intervene before things truly fall apart. Teams of architects with their own dedicated satellites could thus scan the cities of the world from above, algorithmically identifying urban regions prone to collapse, then intervening with a neighborhood redesign.’
Have we learned nothing from almost a decade of remote-surveillance ISR and algorithmic counterinsurgency in which maps and metrics substitute for meaning? And while the attacks in Nairobi confirm the city as a continuing arena of military and paramilitary violence in the twenty-first century, they surely can’t be directly assimilated to a ‘feral city’ thesis (though Kilcullen does his best here)? We’ll see: I’m part way through the book, and will post a more considered response when I’m done.
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Kilcullen could not be more wrong: while cities have and always provide targets for dramatic attacks, conflict rages in many parts of the world other than in cities: Congo, Central African Republic (CAR), Mali, Libya, central India, parts of Myanmar, Colombia, Mexico, US-Mexican border – the list is endless, and yes, Afghanistan and Iraq, with or without the cities, will surely haunt us for years to come: maybe Kilcullen should buy an atlas !