Mumford and sons

Megacities and the US ArmyPublic intelligence has made available a new report prepared by the US Army Strategic Studies Group’s ‘Megacities Concept Team’ after a year’s study called Megacities and the United States Army: preparing for a complex and uncertain future (June 2014).

The authors begin by conceding that ‘Megacities are a unique environment that the U.S. Army does not fully understand’, but since the announcement is made under a banner quote from Robert Kaplan‘s The revenge of geography don’t get your hopes up:

‘Crowded megacities, beset by poor living conditions, periodic rises in the price of commodities, water shortages and unresponsive municipal services, will be petri dishes for the spread of both democracy and radicalism, even as regimes will be increasingly empowered by missiles and modern outwardly focused militaries.’

They start by insisting on the critical importance of megacities for ‘global connectedness and order’ and the ‘global economy’ but warn that megacities are also threat platforms:

‘Large migratory populations reduce the transnational signature normally associated with terrorists, criminal, and espionage activities. Operating from megacities allow hostile actors relative freedom of maneuver as they blend in with the local population.’

You might think this would come as no surprise to a military that is scarcely a stranger to urban warfare, but the authors insist that the unprecedented scale of the problem has created a ‘gap’ in the US Army’s doctrine:

‘The Army’s largest and most recent example of urban operations is small in comparison to the challenges ahead. In Baghdad, the Army fought for almost a decade in an urban environment with a population of 6.5 million people. By 2030, there will be 37 cities across the world that are 200-400% larger than Baghdad.’

What they don’t ask is whether contemporary military doctrine – including the so-called ‘surge’ and the urban counterinsurgency models spun by Petraeus and his COIN artists – were even adequate in Baghdad.  What they claim instead is that megacities make it impossible for occupying armies to ‘isolate [physically or virtually] and shape the urban environment’, and so they call for a transformation in military urbanism that treats cities as interconnected complex systems.  Really.  Hence:

‘Regardless of the fragility or resilience of the city, their stable functioning is dependent on systems of finite capacity. When these systems, formal or informal, real or virtual experience demand which surpasses their capacity, the load on the city’s systems erode its support mechanisms, increasing their fragility. These systems are then more vulnerable to triggers which can push the city past its tipping point and render it incapable of meeting the needs of its population.’

outofthemountains_300dpiMuch of this reads like a weak summary of David Kilcullen‘s thesis in Out of the mountains: the coming age of the urban guerrilla (and he at least does consider how well military doctrine fared in Baghdad). But rather than directly consider Kilcullen’s arguments – on which see my posts here and here – the report instead offers a series of one-page case-studies to illustrate a typology ranging from ‘cities that are highly integrated … with hierarchical governance and security systems, to cities that are loosely integrated with alternatively governed spaces and security systems.’

The case-studies include Bangkok, Rio, SãoPaulo, Lagos and Dhaka – but they begin, disconcertingly but perhaps not surprisingly given recent debates about the militarisation of policing in the United States, with New York.

Finally, the conclusion restates the introduction: megacities are important (‘unavoidable’) and the US Army doesn’t understand them.  Evidently not.

There are at least two issues to consider here.  First, the report says that part of its mandate is to present the Chief of Staff of the Army (Ray Odierno) with ‘independent, innovative and unconstrained ideas’: but there is spectacularly little sign of that in these pages.  I’m not surprised that the authors don’t consider (say) Steve Graham‘s Cities under siege: the new military urbanism (though they would undoubtedly learn a lot from it), but to pass over Kilcullen’s work with a single, glancing footnote reference is surely astonishing.  One of the proudest boasts of the architects of the revised counterinsurgency doctrine was its (their) intellectual credentials – ‘the graduate level of war’ – and yet this report fails to engage in any serious and sustained way with a stream of work in urban anthropology, urban geography, urban history,urban sociology and urban studies that has significantly re-shaped our understanding of contemporary urbanism.

Second – and here the critical point might be reversed – I am puzzled at how little attention is paid to military and paramilitary violence by many scholars of ‘planetary urbanism’.  In part, it’s high time to re-visit the genealogy of the ‘new military urbanism’ and to reflect on previous ‘military urbanisms’: the intimate, predatory relationship between cities and military violence is hardly novel, but its changing modalities need careful analysis.  But it’s also high time to think through the ways in which planetary urbanism cannot be reduced to the machinations of the global economy.  I admire Neil Brenner‘s ‘Theses on urbanisation’ [Public culture 25 (1) (2013)] enormously, and agree absolutely that ‘the concept of urbanisation requires systematic reinvention’ (p. 101).  But his arguments, together with the vivid images that illuminate his text, are silent about later modern war.  And yet his theses about ‘concentration and extension’ – not exactly a reinvention – invite a mapping (one among many, to be sure) onto the terrain of military and paramilitary violence.  He concludes:

‘It is the uneven extension of this process of capitalist creative destruction onto the scale of the entire planet, rather than the formation of a worldwide network of global cities or a single, world-encompassing megalopolis, that underpins the contemporary problematique of planetary urbanisation.’

Exactly so; but ‘creative destruction’ is more than a metaphor and its processes frequently involve new (even ‘creative’) modes of war-making.

Similarly, I’ve also learned much from Neil Brenner and Christian Schmid, ‘The urban age in question‘ [International journal of urban and regional research 38 (3) (2014)], but here too war is conspicuous by its absence.  I don’t think it’s entirely coincidental that so many major inquiries into the urban condition – ones that figure in their intellectual pantheon – should have been undertaken in the aftermath of the Second World War and its systematic assault on cities and their populations.

1101380418_400So let me end with an extract from a conversation I had with Stuart Elden [ACME 10 (2) (2011)] that will also explain the title of this post:

‘In The Culture of Cities, published just one year before the Second World War broke out, [Lewis] Mumford included ‘A brief outline of hell’ in which he turned the Angelus towards the future to confront the terrible prospect of total war. Raging against what he called the ‘war-ceremonies’ staged in the ‘imperial metropolis’ (‘from Washington to Tokyo, from Berlin to Rome’: where was London, I wonder? Moscow?), Mumford fastened on the anticipatory dread of air war. The city was no longer the place where (so he claimed) security triumphed over predation, and he saw in advance of war not peace but another version of war. Thus the rehearsals for defence (the gas-masks, the shelters, the drills) were ‘the materialization of a skillfully evoked nightmare’ in which fear consumed the ideal of a civilized, cultivated life before the first bombs fell. The ‘war-metropolis’, he concluded, was a ‘non-city’.

After the war, Mumford revisited the necropolis, what he described as ‘the ruins and graveyards’ of the urban, and concluded that his original sketch could not be incorporated into his revised account, The City in History, simply ‘because all its anticipations were abundantly verified.’ He gazed out over the charnel-house of war from the air — Warsaw and Rotterdam, London and Tokyo, Hamburg and Hiroshima — and noted that ‘[b]esides the millions of people — six million Jews alone — killed by the Germans in their suburban extermination camps, by starvation and cremation, whole cities were turned into extermination camps by the demoralized strategists of democracy.’

I’m not saying that we can accept Mumford without qualification, still less extrapolate his claims into our own present, but I do think his principled arc, at once historical and geographical, is immensely important. In now confronting what Stephen Graham calls ‘the new military urbanism’ we need to recover its genealogy — to interrogate the claims to novelty registered by both its proponents and its critics — as a way of illuminating the historical geography of our own present.’

And in recovering that genealogy we might also illuminate its geography: both are strikingly absent from Megacities and the US Army.

Mapping Aleppo – and more

Mapping Aleppo

I’ve posted about mapping the war in Syria and its spillover effects before (see here and here), but most of these projects cover a wide area with varying degrees of reliability.  Now News from Laleh Khalili of a report from David Kilcullen‘s Caerus Associates (with the American Security Project) on the civil war in Aleppo, “Mapping the conflict in Aleppo, Syria”, which provides a much more fine-grained view of what is happening on the ground.  You can download the report here or view the interactive version via First Mile Geo here, and you can read an account of the project from Wired‘s Greg Miller here.

Caerus has also joined with the Pentagon’s Center for Complex Operations to produce a special supplement of PRISM (vol.  4, 2014) on the Syrian conflict, which includes an essay by Kilcullen and Nathaniel Rosenblatt on ‘The Rise of Syria’s Urban Poor: Why the War for Syria’s Future Will Be Fought Over the Country’s New Urban Villages’; the whole issue is available on open access here.

These interventions are important and interesting for several reasons.

First, the report is based on exacting local fieldwork.  Acknowledging that local people in conflict zones develop vitally important stocks of local knowledge as a means of survival, the report also accepts that this ‘information-rich environment remains analytically poor.’  For that reason, the field teams ‘provided training and cloud-based tools to help local actors collect locally understood knowledge about their conflict for rigorous analysis.’

From September 16, 2013 to January 6, 2014, we collected four types of information: a monthly survey of perceptions among 560 residents in Aleppo’s 56 neighborhoods, biweekly location and status data for bakeries (a key indicator of humanitarian conditions due to the centrality of bread in the Syrian diet), biweekly location and status data on security checkpoints (a key indicator of security, territorial control and public safety conditions), and a monthly neighborhood-level assessment filled out by our enumerators. These four data streams not only allowed the research team to detect and visualize shifts in the environment in near-real time, but also provided an extremely rich source of insights on the geo-social dynamics at play. All field research was conducted in Arabic.

First Mile Geo notes that it will make the data available to organisations ‘for responsible use’: see Open Data here.

KILCULLEN Out of the mountainsSecond, Kilcullen’s analytical argument (he is described as ‘Principal Investigator’ for the Mapping project) is, naturally enough, fully conformable with the thesis he develops at length in his latest book, Out of the mountains: the coming age of the urban guerrilla (2013); the report reveals the grisly details of contemporary siege warfare and urbicide – central themes in the book, where Kilcullen notes the work of  Steve Graham and Eyal Weizman – and gestures towards a future ‘feral city’ (how I hate that phrase) broken into multiple fiefdoms where gangs and militias exact violence and provide rudimentary services to the residents:

‘The inability of opposition groups to aid residents of neighborhoods they control suggests Aleppo – and Syria as a whole – will become a mosaic of small, intersecting fiefdoms, each providing assistance to its respective neighborhood without regard to macro-level concerns for national governance and reconciliation. Growing warlordism may be particularly acute in Aleppo, where economic rent-seeking opportunities will attract armed gangs who will attempt to seize control of its neighborhoods. These “conflict entrepreneurs” will have little incentive to end a conflict from which they derive power, prestige, and profit. Even in the event of peace, Aleppo’s strategic location will help these actors establish roots for illicit networks that may endure well beyond the present conflict. Moreover, as a non-capital city, Aleppo will not benefit from national government attention. Instead, Aleppo’s future may resemble that of similarly conflict-plagued second cities in the Middle East, such as Mosul in Iraq or Benghazi in Libya. These cities are plagued by warlordism and dominated by illicit economies. They have quickly become safe havens enabling terrorist networks to plan, recruit, and launch attacks.’ 

I’ve posted about Out of the Mountains here, when I promised an extended commentary: Laleh and I will be working on a joint examination of Kilcullen’s larger thesis in the near future, so watch this space. We already have Mike Davis‘s thumbnail view:

‘Although an enemy of the state, I must concede that this is a brilliant book by the most unfettered and analytically acute mind in the military intelligentsia. Kilcullen unflinchingly confronts the nightmare of endless warfare in the slums of the world.’

Here, incidentally, it’s revealing to read Kilcullen’s theses alongside Neil Brenner‘s ‘Theses on urbanisation’, Public culture 25:1 (2013) 85-114, which makes a series of suggestive proposals – but from which war is strikingly absent.  So Kilcullen’s thesis certainly demands serious scrutiny, particularly by those who think that the future of war is somehow encapsulated in the drone.  In my previous note, I joined Geoff Manaugh in being sceptical about the ‘aerial-algorithmic’ interventions that attracted Kilcullen in a series of talks based around the book, but ‘Mapping the conflict in Aleppo’ reveals a much more substantial interest in ‘the facts on the ground’, local actors and local knowledge.  (And here a good counter-text would be the brilliant work of AbdouMaliq Simone; see also his blog, Villes-Noires, here).  So, as I say, watch this space.

First Mile Geo ALEPPO

But there’s a third reason this matters.  I’ve been reading and thinking about Jeremy Crampton, Sue Roberts and Ate Poorhuis‘s ‘The new political economy of geographical intelligence’ – a fine essay in the Annals of the Association of American Geographers 104: 1 (2014) 196-214 – and I’ll be returning to this in the next day or two.  They emphasise the importance of satellite imagery in the production of US geospatial intelligence, whereas I’ve been developing a different (though related) argument about  the importance of satellite communications for the ‘everywhere war’.  In both cases, there is an intimate relation between ‘milsat’ and ‘comsat’, the military and commercial sectors, which will come as no surprise to those who’ve been plotting the extending contours of the military-industrial complex.

Those contours have snared all sorts of other institutions, of course, which is why James Der Derian talks about MIME-NET (the military-industrial-media-entertainment network) and I’ve talked about MAIM-NET (the military-academic-industrial-media network).  The role of universities in the development of military capabilities and military knowledge (and ultimately the production of military violence) is no less surprising, of course, and in fact there’s a session on ‘Geography and the military’ organised by Eric Sheppard at the AAG conference in Tampa (an appropriate location for several reasons) to debate these issues.  But it should now be clear that the production of these geographical knowledges is not confined to the military and civilian intelligence agencies, the academy and large corporations but also includes a host of much smaller private contractors devoted to ‘geographical intelligence’.  They come in different shapes and sizes, and with different agendas.  Caerus, for example, describes itself as a ‘strategy and design firm’ that helps clients ‘understand and thrive in complex, conflict-afflicted, and disaster-affected environments’.  But there are many others, and it’s important not to lose sight of their role in what the US military would call ‘shaping the battlespace’…