In an early phase of my work on later modern war I explored the so-called ‘cultural turn’ in US counterinsurgency and its invasive mapping of ‘human terrain’, and as part of the attempt to impel (and interpellate) US soldiers into what I called this ‘rush to the intimate’ I considered the role-playing simulations acted out in mock Iraqi villages and towns fabricated for pre-deployment training in the continental United States (see ‘The rush to the Intimate’: DOWNLOADS tab).

In the interim many more detailed studies have appeared, but one of the most imaginative and insightful can be found in Cultural Anthropology (32/1) (February 2017): Nomi Stone‘s Living the laughscream: human technology and effective maneuvers in the Iraq war (open access).

It focuses not on the US soldiers and their reactions but on the Iraqi role-players, many of whom served as US interpreters in Iraq, described by one US officer as ‘the apparatus’ or what Nomi reconceptualizes as ‘human technology’.  Their performances are carefully scripted, and yet:

Amid this artifice, role-players have been hired to enact Middle Eastern villagers authentically—not by their own measures, but rather within prescribed military terms. Role-players are asked to be exemplars of their cultures and those cultures must be synchronic, pruned of their excesses and any relationship to the outside: Iraqis, as it were, in a box. However … the Iraqis who worked for the American military first as interpreters and contractors in the 2003 Iraq War and subsequently as role-players are a somewhat unique subset of the population; indeed, they are often quite far removed from the U.S. military’s imagined characteristics of a prototypical Iraqi. Not only are many of them educated, they are also particularly versed in American culture and critical of Iraqi politics. They typically bear an ambivalent relationship to both countries as they negotiate past accusations, allegiances, and the prospect of assimilation. Many show little trust for outsiders and even less for each other, and because of their dangerous affiliations in wartime, they have learned to chameleon in most circumstances. As they are turned into stereotypes inside an archetypal village, and as they act out wartime precarity so often that their homes and their losses turn into even more estranging archetypes, they laugh.

The machine thus turns out to be made of flesh. Role-players inject new ways of being, in part through laughter, into their performances. Those interjections indicate the limits of a military fantasy that believes human beings can be wholly resourced and turned into technologies.

This is on my mind because this past term, in a series of lectures on performance and performativity – the differences between them and the dots that can join them – I returned to these role-playing exercises to flesh out (literally so) the ideas involved; above all, to emphasise how every performance is different even when the script is nominally the same, and so the contingency of the performative.

And ‘the laughscream’?

The [Iraqi role-player] knows or feels more than the military narrative of their experience can accommodate, exceeding the constricted functions prescribed for a hired cultural tool. Additionally, the laughscream acts as a refusal to be lived by the role and the role-players’ fraught wartime pasts. For those accused of betrayal and marginalized by their compatriots, pursued by Iraqi militias and not always trusted by the U.S. soldiers whom they worked for, that past is painful. As one role-player explained, reflecting on the harshness many Iraqis had endured: “We are turned inside out. At the same time, we can laugh and cry.” Indeed, for Iraqis who worked with the U.S. military, it is presently prohibitively dangerous to return to their former home, particularly amid the ascendance of the Islamic State. Meanwhile, due to their wartime choices, many now negotiate ongoing ambivalence and feel stranded between nations: although they were frequently ejected to the peripheries of their countries for working with the Americans, many strongly identify with Iraq and are ill at ease with full assimilation in America. As they continue to work for the U.S. military, some conceal that work from their families in Iraq, grappling with how they might be perceived. Amid these tensions, the laughscream functions in part as an actor, an agentive vector out.

Laughter rises to confirm that, for the role-players at least, the Iraq of the simulation is not the Iraq of their homeland. As fake guns sound, role-players repeat themselves, becoming increasingly estranged from the original object. Yet, through laughter, the archetypal and mechanical face of country and person give way to Iraqis who live impossibly hybrid and ambivalent lives in the United States to which they have aligned at such great cost. In the parodic redeployment of power as Judith Butler has conceived it, the mechanical performance of death becomes a complexly subversive act that momentarily insinuates life into the playing of a role.

But there is another reason for reading Nomi’s essay: it is so beautifully written.  If, like me, you often feel assailed by the sheer grimness of so much academic prose, provoked into your own laughscream, this is a wonderful demonstration that intellectual agility and analytical depth need not involve the death of style.

Not surprisingly, Nomi is an accomplished poet too: more at her website here.  You can also find an excellent interview about her movements in the borderlands between anthropology and artistic practice here:

My academic work and my poetry are inextricable and cross-pollinating. I was a poet first. My first collection of poems, Stranger’s Notebook (TriQuarterly, 2008) was based on my time in Djerba. I was deeply moved by Carolyn Forché’s call to comprehend the impress of the social on the poetic imagination; this led me to begin conducting ethnographic fieldwork and then to become an anthropologist.

By now, my anthropological engagement is essential to my poetry. As I explained in a poet’s statement some years ago, my philosophy of seeing is “deeply inflected by the anthropologist’s mandate to estrange the familiar and de-estrange the hitherto unknown.” Additionally, my work as an anthropologist sends me both toward moments of conceptual clarity and toward continuous re-complication: as the tidy military diagrams of culture remind us, the world is instead messy and tangled and contingent, as we each engage in the daily work of living and loving and getting by. I want my poems to demand that same complexity, and I only learned how to think it through the wonderful, arduous, and singular training that becoming an anthropologist demanded. What an astonishment to spend seven years shuttling back and forth between reading social theory about war, Empire, technology, migration, and laughter or political histories of America and Iraq and then witnessing the stagings of Empire itself, in its scatterings across the Middle East and the United States, as well as interviewing those whose lives had been demarcated and unmade by those very terms. These forms of seeing and knowing are to me humbling, and both my in-progress ethnographic manuscript and my forthcoming collection of poems, Kill Class, are the beneficiaries of that long academic journey.

Kill Class is due from Tupelo Press later this year; the collection is based on her ethnographic fieldwork across those US military training camps.  You can find her poem War Game, America’ here.

“What to do when the concepts and methods most essential to a field of scholarship are taken and deployed as instruments of war? American anthropology has struggled with this question since the Cold War era, when many fieldworkers were drawn into counterinsurgency campaigns around the globe. In this courageous and compassionate book, Kill Class, Nomi Stone offers a new way of grappling with this most difficult problem. Her stark and unflinching poems give a harrowing sense of cultural understanding made into a vehicle of state violence. At the same time, with tremendous delicacy and grace, they enter into the minds and lives of American soldiers and their Iraqi counterparts, revealing bewilderment where you would have thought to find certitudes, vulnerability where you would expect only hardness, small moments of wonder in the face of horror. The result is a truly arresting ethnography of American military culture, one that allows readers to circle at length through the cloverleaf interchanges where warfare nestles into the most mundane corners of everyday life, only to arrive at an exit where you would have expected least to find it: in an ethics of radical and transformative encounter, a way of coming undone in the company of others through the practice of sympathetic imagination.”  Anand Pandian, Johns Hopkins University

There’s also an earlier interview with her about her fieldwork (and her ideas about later modern war) over at the Wenner-Gren blog here: also well worth reading and savouring.

All this is much on my mind because over Christmas I read Alan Hollinghurst‘s The Sparsholt Affair and luxuriated in its mesmerising prose; as with other authors I admire this isn’t a purely formal (ahem) affair, though he is undoubtedly a master stylist.  Rather, you can roll the words around in your mouth, taste them and so find yourself ineluctably drawn into – rather than distracted from – the pulsing arc of the narrative: in an inversion of the metaphor with which I began, consumed by it.  So too The Swimming-Pool Library and Line of Beauty.  I get the same immersive pleasure from authors like Tom McCarthy (C is still one of my all-time favourite novels), Pat Barker (try Noonday) and Sarah Waters (oh, The Night Watch!).   This isn’t a matter of genre either; Peter May‘s Lewis trilogy is one of the finest works of crime fiction I know, along with almost anything by the ought-to-be legendary John Harvey (also a poet).

I’ve never forgotten a prescient admonition by Pierce Lewis in ‘Beyond description‘ (which appeared in the Annals of what was then the Association of American Geographers in 1985) – a lovely, lovely essay about passion and prose – in which he forestalled a possible objection: ‘we are not trained to be painters or poets, and while that is true, I do not think we should boast about it.’

For the record, I’ve written my share of God-awful prose, especially in the early stages of my career; the fault wasn’t only the dismal Harvard reference system (though it doesn’t help at all: too many names and dates crammed into brackets you have to hurdle over in a madcap race to retain the meaning of the sentence).  The colonial present was a cathartic release, in a way, because – after completing that awful opening chapter – I started to lose my academic voice.  I’m not desperate to get it back, and the two books I’m working on now will, I hope, show how far I’ve come.

But who, I wonder, are your favourite stylists?

Postscript: For my rant about the Harvard reference system, see ‘Gregory, D.’ (DOWNLOADS tab).  And there’s more on the corporeality and contextuality of (my) writing here.

Logistics and violence

Over at The Disorder of Things Charmaine Chua introduces a lively podcast in which she discusses Logistics – violence, empire and resistance with Deb Cowen and Laleh Khalili.

Together, we take a look at the increasing ubiquity and prominence of logistics as a mode for organizing social and spatial life. We discuss how this seemingly banal concern with the movement of goods is actually foundational to contemporary global capitalism and imperialism, reshaping patterns of inequality, undermining labor power, and transforming strategies of governance. We also ask: what might a counter-logistical project look like? What role does logistics play in anti-colonial and anti-capitalist struggles across the globe?

On her own blog, The Gamming, Laleh links to lecture she gave at Georgetown on ‘The Logistics of Counterinsurgency’:

It is a banal cliche of military thinking that the deployment of coercive forces to the battlefields requires a substantial commitment in logistical support for the transport of goods, materiel, and personnel to the war-zone, the maintenance of forces there, and their eventual withdrawal from there. In counterinsurgency warfare, which is predicated on the deployment of large numbers of forces, persuasion or coercion of civilian populations into supporting the counterinsurgent force, and the transformation of the civilian milieu as much as the military space, this logistical function becomes even more crucial. In this talk I will be thinking through the ways in which the making of logistical infrastructures – roads, ports, warehouses, and transport – has been crucial to the wars the US has waged since 2001 in Southwest Asia, and how these infrastructures in turn transform the social, political, and economic lives of the region they leave behind.

It’s a wonderfully wide-ranging survey (Afghanistan, Israel/Palestine, Vietnam, Morocco and more), and it’s also a richly illustrated and immensely thoughtful performance.

In addition, Laleh’s lecture provides a brilliant context for my limited incursions into logistics in Afghanistan (here, here and here), an arena which I am now revisiting to understand both the supply of medical matériel and the evacuation of casualties.

“This ain’t Jamaica”

The Tender SoldierA follow-up to my post on the demise of the US military’s Human Terrain System: an interesting report from Vanessa Gezari in the New York Times.  She’s the author of The Tender Soldier, a first-hand account of the Human Terrain System, and she starts her Times essay by recalling her own experience accompanying a US patrol in Afghanistan in 2010:

Cultural training and deep, nuanced understanding of Afghan politics and history were in short supply in the Army; without them, good intelligence was hard to come by, and effective policy making was nearly impossible. Human Terrain Teams, as Human Terrain System units were known, were supposed to include people with social-science backgrounds, language skills and an understanding of Afghan or Iraqi culture, as well as veterans and reservists who would help bind the civilians to their assigned military units.

On that winter day in Zormat, however, just how far the Human Terrain System had fallen short of expectations was clear. Neither of the social scientists on the patrol that morning had spent time in Afghanistan before being deployed there. While one was reasonably qualified, the other was a pleasant 43-year-old woman who grew up in Indiana and Tennessee, and whose highest academic credential was an advanced degree in organizational management she received online. She had confided to me that she didn’t feel comfortable carrying a gun she was still learning how to use. Before arriving in Afghanistan, she had traveled outside the United States only once, to Jamaica — “and this ain’t Jamaica,” she told me…

The shortcomings I saw in Zormat were hardly the extent of the Human Terrain System’s problems. The project suffered from an array of staffing and management issues, coupled with internal disagreements over whether it was meant to gather intelligence, hand out protein bars and peppermints, advise commanders on tribal conflicts or all three — a lack of clear purpose that eventually proved crippling. It outraged anthropologists, who argued that gathering information about indigenous people while embedded in a military unit in active combat posed an intractable ethical conflict. Once the subject of dozens of glowing news stories, the program had fallen so far off reporters’ radar by last fall that the Army was able to quietly pull the plug without a whisper in the mainstream media.

DEITCHMAN jpegShe suggests that the military could – and should – have learned from its previous attempts to enlist social scientists in Vietnam, Central America and elsewhere, and points to Seymour Deitchman‘s  The Best-Laid Schemes: A tale of social science research and bureaucracy (1976), which is available as an open access download from the US Marine Corps University Press here.

Deitchman worked for the Pentagon as a counterinsurgency advisor (among many other roles), and his account was a highly personal, take-no-prisoners affair.

Part of the problem, he insisted, was the language of the social sciences:

DEITCHMAN p. 138 jpeg

There’s much more in a similar vein, and not surprisingly, Deitchman’s conclusion about the military effectiveness of social science was a jaundiced one.

The community of social science is likely to urge and has urged that increased government support of research on the great social problems of the day. With due recognition for the government’s need to collect data to help it plan and evaluate the social programs it is expected to undertake, I have reached the conclusion, nevertheless, that the opposite of the social scientists’ recommendation is in order. The research is needed, without question. Some of it, especially in the evaluation area, is necessary and feasible for government to sponsor. Beyond this, its support should be subject to the economic and political laws of the intellectual marketplace. And the government should do less, not more, to influence the workings of that marketplace. It should support less, not more, research into the workings of society.

You couldn’t make it up (or perhaps they did).   But this isn’t Vanessa’s view.  ‘The need for cultural understanding isn’t going away,’ she insists:

The rise of drones and sociocultural modeling, which uses data to simulate and sometimes predict human responses to conflict and crisis, have given some in the defense establishment the idea that we can do all our fighting safely, from a distance. But we’ve had this idea before, in the decades following Vietnam, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan should have reminded us of its falsity.

Oikological warfare

OWENS Counterinsurgency

A new book from the ever-innnovative Patricia Owens, Economy of Force: counterinsurgency and the historical rise of the Social (Cambridge University Press, 2015).

There’s an excellent interview with Patricia at e-IR here, which includes her own summary of the book:

The book retrieves the older, but surprisingly neglected, language of household governance, oikonomia, to show how the techniques and domestic ideologies of household administration are highly portable and play a remarkably central role in international and imperial relations. In contrast to the ahistorical and anachronistic adoption of social language across IR, I think there is an important story to be told of when, where, and why the social realm first emerged as the domain through which human life could be intervened in and transformed. Economy of Force tells this story in terms of modern transformations in and violent crises of household forms of rule. In two late-colonial British emergencies in Malaya (1948-1960) and Kenya (1952-1960), US counterinsurgency in Vietnam (1954-1975), and US-led campaigns in Afghanistan (2001-2014) and Iraq (2003-2011), so-called ‘armed social work’ policies were the continuation of oikonomia – not politics – by other means. Though never wholly succeeding, counterinsurgents drew on and innovated different forms of household governance to create units of rule in which local populations were domesticated. Military strategists conceived population control as sociological warfare because the social realm itself and distinctly social forms of thought are modern forms of oikonomikos, the art and science of household rule.

The argument has big implications for international theory, as well as the history and theory of counterinsurgency. Rather than objective theories of modern society and their interrelations, various forms of liberalism, political realism, social constructivism, and Marxism need to be situated within the history of the rise and violent transformation of the social realm. They are fragments of competing paradigms of social regulation. Ironically, the dominance of distinctly social forms of thought has obscured the household ontology of the modern social realm. Each of the major traditions is explicitly based on, or implicitly accepts, the erroneous notion that modern capitalism destroyed large-scale forms of household rule. So the book not only offers a new history and theory of counterinsurgency. It offers a new history of the rise of the social realm and political history and theory of household governance.

Research for the book was supported by a yearlong fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University. There’ll be a symposium on Economy of Force at Disorder of Things later in 2015.

Here’s the Contents list:

1. Introduction: oikonomia in the use of force
2. The really real? A history of ‘social’ and ‘society’
3. Out of the confines of the household?
4. The colonial limits of society
5. ‘More than concentration camps’: the battle for hearths in two late-colonial emergencies
6. Society itself is at war: new model pacification in Vietnam
7. Oikonomia by other means: counterinsurgency in Afghanistan and Iraq
8. Conclusion: ‘it’s the oikos, stupid’.

Among the many pre-publication plaudits, here’s Didier Fassin‘s:

“Through a combination of historical perspective on the colonial world and contemporary inquiry into the imperial enterprise, Economy of Force invites us to rethink the laws of warfare and politics of counterinsurgency by paying attention to the pacification of local populations understood as a form of domestication. It thus unveils the genealogy of the blurred line between military and humanitarian interventions.”

You can get a taste of Patricia’s argument (particularly if you shrink from CUP’s extortionate pricing, even for the e-edition) in her ‘Human security and the rise of the social’, Review of International Studies 38 (2012) 547-567 and ‘From Bismarck to Petraeus:the question of the social and the social question in counterinsurgency’, European journal of international relations 19 (1) (2013) 139-161.

I’ve just heard from Patricia, who tells me that CUP will publish Economy of Force next year in paperback (which ought to make it much more accessible); she’s also made available the proofs of the Introduction on her page here.

(In)human Terrain


It’s been an age since I looked at the US military’s attempt to ‘weaponise culture’ in its counterinsurgency programs (see ‘The rush to the intimate’: DOWNLOADS tab), but Roberto Gonzalez has kept his eyes on the ground – or the ‘human terrain’ (I’ve borrowed the image above from Anthropologists for Justice and Peace here).

In a special report for Counterpunch a month ago, Roberto noted the demise of the Human Terrain System:

The most expensive social science program in history – the US Army’s Human Terrain System (HTS)–has quietly come to an end. During its eight years of existence, the controversial program cost tax payers more than $725 million…

HTS supporters frequently claimed that the program would increase cultural understanding between US forces and Iraqis and Afghans–and therefore reduce American and civilian casualties. The program’s leaders insisted that embedded social scientists were delivering sociocultural knowledge to commanders, but the reality was more complex. HTS personnel conducted a range of activities including data collection, intelligence gathering, and psychological operations. In at least one case, an HTS employee supported interrogations in Afghanistan.

The program also served a more insidious function: It became a propaganda tool for convincing the American public–especially those with liberal tendencies–that the US-led occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan were benevolent missions in which smart, fresh-faced young college graduates were playing a role. It appeared to demonstrate how US forces were engaged in a kinder, gentler form of occupation. Department of Defense photos portrayed HTS personnel sitting on rugs while drinking tea with Afghan elders, or distributing sweets to euphoric Iraqi children. Here was a war that Americans could feel good about fighting.

The program had its critics, inside as well as outside the military, and US Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) eventually confirmed that HTS had been terminated on 30 September 2014.  In his report, Roberto traces the rise and fall of HTS, and attributes its demise to US troop withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan, the fall from grace of the ‘new’ counterinsurgency’s champion David Petraeus, the incompetence of many of the HTS teams, and – crucially – to the precipitate shift from ‘cultural’ to geospatial intelligence.

The last, impelled by the desire to substitute air strikes for ‘boots on the ground’ and to rely on computational methods rather than human intelligence, is the key: as Oliver Belcher put it in his PhD thesis on The afterlives of counterinsurgency, “It’s algorithms, not anthropology, that are the real social science scandal in late-modern war.”

I’ve been exploring this shift in my ‘Dirty Dancing’ essay – in relation to the American production of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan as a space of execution, a code/space in which data surveillance and computational methods are activated to assert an extra-territorial claim over bodies-in-spaces – but it’s become clear to me that this continues to rely on (and in some respects even extends) the weaponisation of culture.  It’s an appropriate metaphor: after all, weapons are inherently dangerous, they can be misdirected, they do misfire and they can cause grievous harm far beyond their intended target.

In a follow-up post on ‘Re-making the Human Terrain’, Roberto says as much:

GONZALEZThe gaps in military knowledge that HTS claimed to fill still remain. The desire to weaponize culture is as old as dreams of counterinsurgency, and such dreams do not die easily.

It would be premature for those concerned about the militarization of culture to breathe a sigh of relief. The needs of empire—especially an empire in denial—are far too great to ignore cultural concerns. HTS’s sudden death can obscure the fact that elements of the program continue to survive, though in distinct and sometimes unrecognizable forms. The basic idea behind HTS—to equip the military with cultural expertise for battlefield operations—has not been eradicated. If anything, the concept has firmly taken root.

He traces its off-shoots through the development of a Global Cultural Knowledge Network – which I can’t help seeing as the cultural version of the Bombing Encyclopedia of the World – and the role of private corporations in providing ‘human terrain analysts’ to support US special operations (see also Max Forte here on what I think of as the Military-Academic-Industrial-Media complex: MAIM).  Interestingly, Whitney Kassel – who is adamant that ‘shuttering HTS will almost certainly be a mistake’ – notes that ‘the National Defense University conducted a detailed study of HTS [summarised in JFQ] in late 2013 and recommended that the function be moved and permanently housed at U.S. Army Special Operations Command … which has the lead for irregular warfare and other Army functions that make the most frequent use of sociocultural knowledge.’

Roberto also provides a more detailed analysis of the US military’s investment in socio-cultural modelling and (this is truly vital) predictive forecasting in two linked essays on ‘Seeing into hearts and minds’: Part 1 is ‘The Pentagon’s quest for a social radar’, Anthropology Today 31 (3) (June 2015) 8-13 and Part 2 is ‘‘Big data’, algorithms, and computational counterinsurgency, Anthropology Today 31 (4) (August 2015) 13-18.

Social Radar JPEG

The second part is most directly relevant to what I’ve been working on because it describes the conceptual development of so-called ‘Social Radar’ (see image above: ‘sensor systems for the 21st century‘; see also here) and the morphing of the NSA’s Real Time Regional Gateway for Iraq – which integrated data surveillance from multiple sources and domains with visual feeds from drones – into Nexus 7 in Afghanistan.

Similar fusion systems have surely been working across the border, and in his Unmanned: drones, data, and the illusion of perfect warfare (2015) William Arkin provides a fascinating glimpse into other genealogies that have produced what he calls ‘the Data Machine’:

ARKIN UnmannedToday, the Data Machine doesn’t care where it is fighting. It doesn’t matter whether targets are hiding in Hindu Kush caves or in villages of the Fertile Crescent. Nor does Predator care, or Reaper, or Global Hawk, or any other of our other aptly and awkwardly named all-seeing eyes. In fact, they don’t care about anything: they are machines. But the men and women … behind the entire Machine also don’t care, for every place is reduced to geographic coordinates that flash across a screen in seconds. Nations, armies, and even people are reduced to links and networks.

Loitering drones and geolocating weapons just need the data. Everyone needs the global information grid and the Internet—or, more precisely, an internet. Actual battlefield geography and culture have become immaterial. The node and the network sentry become the determinant and the provocateur of action—all the way to the edge of the world, anywhere.

Insurgent thoughts

fm3-24When the US Army and Marine Corps issued their revised Field Manual 3-24 on Counterinsurgency in December 2006 there was an extraordinary public fanfare: a round of high-profile media appearances by some of its architects (you can watch John Nagl with Jon Stewart here) and, even though you could download the Manual for free – there were two million downloads in the first two months – the University of Chicago Press rushed out a paperback edition that hit the best-seller lists.  This was all to advertise counterinsurgency as what David Petraeus called ‘the graduate level of war’ and to inaugurate what I called, in ‘The rush to the intimate’ (DOWNLOADS tab), the US military’s ‘cultural turn’.  And as the media campaign made clear, it was also about the production of a public that would rally behind the new strategy to be put to work in Iraq.  The message was that the military had put the horrors of Abu Ghraib behind it – which were in any case artfully blamed on ‘rotten apples’ rather than the political-military manufacturers of the barrel that contained them – and was now marching beneath the banner of a kinder, gentler and above all smarter war (see my summary slide below).

COIN doctrine 2006

The new doctrine, first field-tested in Iraq and then applied to operations in Afghanistan, was not without its critics, both inside and outside the military.  Insiders complained that this was all smoke and mirrors – or more accurately, perhaps, too many mirrors and not enough smoke – because it was a distraction from the ‘real’ (the implication was, I think, ‘manly’) business of war-fighting, while outsiders objected to its weaponisation of culture and to the biopolitical project that it sought to advance.

FM 3-24 2014The debate grumbled on, and many insiders insisted that COIN was dead and buried, interred in the killing fields of Afghanistan.  But a revised version of the doctrine has now been issued.  It was trailed by the Joint Publication 3-24 on Counterinsurgency last December (issued by the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force and – interestingly – the Coastguard Service), which you can download here (for an early review, see Robert Lamb and Brooke Shawn‘s ‘Is revised COIN manual backed by political will? here).  But the new Field Manual has been comprehensively re-written and even re-titled: Insurgencies and countering insurgencies, which you can download here.

I’m going to work my way through it in the next week or so – I can hardly complete The everywhere war without doing so – and I’ll post a commentary in due course, but it’s worth setting out its structure now:


1: Understanding the strategic context

2: Understanding an operational environment

3: Culture


4: Insurgency prerequisites and fundamentals

5: Insurgency threat characteristics


6: Mission command and control

7: Planning for counterinsurgencies

8: Intelligence

9: Direct approaches to counter an insurgency

10: Indirect methods for countering insurgencies

11: Working with host-nation forces

12: Assessments

13: Legal considerations

I’m still interested in how the revision treats ‘culture’, of course, but I’m also keenly interested in the discussion of ‘intrastate war’ and insurgency, the direct incorporation of air power (which was relegated to an appendix in the previous edition), the attention paid to intelligence in it multiple guises, the role of biometrics (biopolitics again!) – and in that remarkable last chapter.  One of the central diagnostics of later modern war, in my view at any rate, is its reflexivity.  You can see that in the discussions of assessment and reassessment in the new FM 3-24 (Ch 12 in particular), but attention to metrics and ‘lessons learned’ is hardly novel even if the means of monitoring have changed.  What I have in (closer) mind is a preoccupation with the public reception of military operations and military violence – which involves a distinctive emphasis on its intellectual provenance (‘the graduate level of war’ again),  on media strategies (‘strategic communications’), and on the provision of a legal armature that works to inform and legitimate its operations (hence that last chapter).

I’m sure the new manual will be the subject of intense discussion over at the always provocative and thoroughly indispensable Small Wars Journal (see, for example, Bing West‘s opening salvo here and David Maxwell‘s more measured critique here), and elsewhere too, but I doubt that it will attract the public fanfare FM 3-24 received in 2006-7.  We’ll see.

Urban guerrillas

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.

KILCULLEN Out of the mountains

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.