Cities and War

This week the Guardian launched a new series on Cities and War:

War is urbanising. No longer fought on beaches or battlefields, conflict has come to the doors of millions living in densely populated areas, killing thousands of civilians, destroying historic centres and devastating infrastructure for generations to come.

Last year, the world watched the Middle East as Mosul, Raqqa, Sana’a and Aleppo were razed to the ground. Across Europe, brutal attacks stunned urban populations in Paris, London and Berlin, while gang warfare tore apart the fabric of cities in central and south America.

In 2018, Guardian Cities will explore the reality of war in cities today – not merely how it is fought, but how citizens struggle to adapt, and to rebuild stronger than ever.

The series opened on Monday with a photographic gallery illustrating ‘a century of cities at war’; some of the images will be familiar, but many will not.  When I was working on ‘Modern War and Dead Cities‘ (which you can download under the TEACHING tab), for example, I thought I had seen most of the dramatic images of the Blitz, but I had missed this one:

It’s an arresting portfolio, and inevitably selective: there is a good discussion below the line on what other cities should have made the cut.

The first written contribution is an extended essay from Jason Burke, ‘Cities and terror: an indivisible and brutal relationship‘, which adds a welcome historical depth and geographical range to a discussion that all too readily contracts around recent attacks on cities in Europe and North America, and suggests an intimate link between cities and terrorism:

[I]t was around the time of the Paddington station attack [by Fenians in 1883]  that the strategy of using violence to sway public opinion though fear became widespread among actors such as the anarchists, leftists and nationalists looking to bring about dramatic social and political change.

This strategy depended on two developments which mark the modern age: democracy and communications. Without the media, developing apace through the 19th century as literacy rates soared and cheap news publications began to achieve mass circulations, impact would be small. Without democracy, there was no point in trying to frighten a population and thus influence policymakers. Absolutist rulers, like subsequent dictators, could simply ignore the pressure from the terrified masses. Of course, a third great development of this period was conditions in the modern city itself.

Could the terrorism which is so terribly familiar to us today have evolved without the development of the metropolis as we now know it? This seems almost impossible to imagine. Even the terror of the French revolution – Le Terreur – which gives us the modern term terrorism, was most obvious in the centre of Paris where the guillotine sliced heads from a relatively small number of aristocrats in order to strike fear into a much larger number of people.

The history of terrorism is thus the history of our cities. The history of our cities, at least over the last 150 years or so, is in part the history of terrorism. This is a deadly, inextricable link that is unlikely to be broken anytime soon.

Today Saskia Sassen issued her ‘Welcome to a new kind of war: the rise of endless urban conflict‘.  She begins with an observation that is scarcely novel:

The traditional security paradigm in our western-style democracies fails to accommodate a key feature of today’s wars: when our major powers go to war, the enemies they now encounter are irregular combatants. Not troops, organised into armies; but “freedom” fighters, guerrillas, terrorists. Some are as easily grouped by common purpose as they are disbanded. Others engage in wars with no end in sight.

What such irregular combatants tend to share is that they urbanise war. Cities are the space where they have a fighting chance, and where they can leave a mark likely to be picked up by the global media. This is to the disadvantage of cities – but also to the typical military apparatus of today’s major powers.

The main difference between today’s conflicts and the first and second world wars is the sharp misalignment between the war space of traditional militaries compared to that of irregular combatants.

Irregular combatants are at their most effective in cities. They cannot easily shoot down planes, nor fight tanks in open fields. Instead, they draw the enemy into cities, and undermine the key advantage of today’s major powers, whose mechanised weapons are of little use in dense and narrow urban spaces.

Advanced militaries know this very well, of course, and urban warfare is now a central medium in military training.  Saskia continues:

We have gone from wars commanded by hegemonic powers that sought control over sea, air, and land, to wars fought in cities – either inside the war zone, or enacted in cities far away. The space for action can involve “the war”, or simply specific local issues; each attack has its own grievances and aims, seeking global projection or not. Localised actions by local armed groups, mostly acting independently from other such groups, let alone from actors in the war zone – this fragmented isolation has become a new kind of multi-sited war.

This is, in part, what I tried to capture in my early essay on ‘The everywhere war’, and I’m now busily re-thinking it for my new book.  More on this in due course, but it’s worth noting that the Trump maladministration’s National Defense Strategy, while recognising the continuing importance of counter-terrorism and counterinsurgency, has returned the Pentagon’s sights to wars between major powers – notably China and Russia (see also here)– though it concedes that these may well be fought (indeed, are being fought) in part through unconventional means in digital domains.  In short, I think later modern war is much more complex than Saskia acknowledges; it has many modalities (which is why I become endlessly frustrated at the critical preoccupation with drones to the exclusion of other vectors of military and paramilitary violence), and these co-exist with – or give a new inflection to – older modalities of violence (I’m thinking of the siege warfare waged by Israel against Gaza or Syria against its own people).

The two contributions I’ve singled out are both broad-brush essays, but Ghaith Abdul-Ahad has contributed a two-part essay on Mosul under Islamic State that is truly brilliant: Part I describes how IS ran the city (‘The Bureaucracy of Evil‘) and Part II how the people of Mosul resisted the reign of terror (‘The Fall‘).

Mosul fell to IS in July 2014, and here is part of Ghaith’s report, where he tells the story of Wassan, a newly graduated doctor:

Like many other diwans (ministries) that Isis established in Mosul, as part of their broader effort to turn an insurgency into a fully functioning administrative state, the Diwan al-Siha (ministry of health) operated a two-tier system.There was one set of rules for “brothers” – those who gave allegiance to Isis – and another for the awam, or commoners.

“We had two systems in the hospitals,” Wassan said. “IS members and their families were given the best treatment and complete access to medicine, while the normal people, the awam, were forced to buy their own medicine from the black market.

“We started hating our work. As a doctor, I am supposed to treat all people equally, but they would force us to treat their own patients only. I felt disgusted with myself.”

(Those who openly resisted faced death, but as IS came under increasing military pressure at least one doctor was spared by a judge when he refused to treat a jihadist before a civilian: “They had so few doctors, they couldn’t afford to punish me. They needed me in the hospital.”)

Wassan’s radical solution was to develop her own, secret hospital:

“Before the start of military operations, medicines begun to run out,” she said. “So I started collecting whatever I could get my hands on at home. I built a network with pharmacists I could trust. I started collecting equipment from doctors and medics, until I had a full surgery kit at home. I could even perform operations with full anaesthesia.”

Word of mouth spread about her secret hospital.

“Some people started coming from the other side of Mosul, and whatever medicine I had was running out,” she said. “I knew there was plenty of medicine in our hospital, but the storage rooms were controlled by Isis.

“Eventually, I began to use the pretext of treating one of their patients to siphon medicine from their own storage. If their patient needed one dose, I would take five. After a while they must have realised, because they stopped allowing doctors to go into the storage.”

The punishment for theft is losing a hand. Running a free hospital from her home would have been sedition, punishable by death…

When Wassan’s hospital was appropriated by Isis fighters [this was a common IS tactic – see the image below and the Human Rights Watch report here; the hospital was later virtually destroyed by US air strikes] her secret house-hospital proved essential. More than a dozen births were performed on her dining table; she kicked both brothers out of their rooms to convert them into operating theatres; her mother, an elderly nurse, became her assistant.

As the siege of Mosul by the Iraqi Army ground on, some of the sick and injured managed to run (or stumble) the gauntlet to find medical aid in rudimentary field hospitals beyond the faltering grip of IS, while others managed to make it to major trauma centres like West Irbil.

But for many in Mosul Wassan’s secret hospital was a lifeline (for a parallel story about another woman doctor running a secret clinic under the noses of IS, see here).

Yet there is a vicious sting in the tail:

For Wassan, the ending of Isis rule in Mosul is bittersweet. After many attempts to reach Baghdad to write her board exams for medical school, she was told her work in the hospital for the past three years did not count as “active service”, and she was disqualified.

“The ministry said they won’t give me security clearance because I had worked under Isis administration,” she said.

This, too, is one of the modalities of later modern war – the weaponisation of health care, through selectively withdrawing it from some sections of the population while privileging the access and quality for others.  ‘Health care,’ writes Omar Dewachi, ‘has become not only a target but also a tactic of war.’  (If you want to know more about the faltering provision of healthcare and the fractured social fabric of life in post-IS Mosul, I recommend an interactive report from Michael Bachelard and Kate Geraghty under the bleak but accurate title ‘The war has just started‘). 

The weaponisation of health care has happened before, of course, and it takes many forms. In 2006, at the height of sectarian violence in occupied Baghdad, Muqtada al-Sadr’s Shi’a militia controlled the Health Ministry and manipulated the delivery of healthcare in order to marginalise and even exclude the Sunni population.  As Amit Paley reported:

 ‘In a city with few real refuges from sectarian violence – not government offices, not military bases, not even mosques – one place always emerged as a safe haven: hospitals…

‘In Baghdad these days, not even the hospitals are safe. In growing numbers, sick and wounded Sunnis have been abducted from public hospitals operated by Iraq’s Shiite-run Health Ministry and later killed, according to patients, families of victims, doctors and government officials.

‘As a result, more and more Iraqis are avoiding hospitals, making it even harder to preserve life in a city where death is seemingly everywhere. Gunshot victims are now being treated by nurses in makeshift emergency rooms set up in homes. Women giving birth are smuggled out of Baghdad and into clinics in safer provinces.’

He described hospitals as ‘Iraq’s new killing fields’, but in Syria the weaponisation of health care has been radicalised and explicitly authorized by the state.

You may think I’ve strayed too far from where I started this post; but I’ve barely moved.  For towards the end of her essay Saskia wonders why military and paramilitary violence in cities in so shocking – why it attracts so much more public attention than the millions murdered in the killing fields of the Congo.  And she suggests that the answer may lie in its visceral defilement of one of humanity’s greatest potential achievements:

Is it because the city is something we’ve made together, a collective construction across time and space? Is it because at the heart of the city are commerce and the civic, not war?

Lewis Mumford had some interesting things to say about that.  I commented on this in ACME several years ago, and while I’d want to flesh out those skeletal remarks considerably now, they do intersect with Saskia’s poignant question about the war on the civic:

In The Culture of Cities, published just one year before the Second World War broke out, 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.

It’s about more than aerial violence – though that is one of the signature modalities of modern war – and we surely need to register the heterogeneity and hybridity of contemporary conflicts.  But we also need to recognise that they are often not only wars in cities but also wars on cities.

Seeing machines

 

graham-drone-cover

The Transnational Institute has published a glossy version of a chapter from Steve Graham‘s Vertical – called Drone: Robot Imperium, you can download it here (open access).  Not sure about either of the terms in the subtitle, but it’s a good read and richly illustrated.

Steve includes a discussion of the use of drones to patrol the US-Mexico border, and Josh Begley has published a suggestive account of the role of drones but also other ‘seeing machines’ in visualizing the border.

One way the border is performed — particularly the southern border of the United States — can be understood through the lens of data collection. In the border region, along the Rio Grande and westward through the desert Southwest, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) deploys radar blimps, drones, fixed-wing aircraft, helicopters, seismic sensors, ground radar, face recognition software, license-plate readers, and high-definition infrared video cameras. Increasingly, they all feed data back into something called “The Big Pipe.”

Josh downloaded 20,000 satellite images of the border, stitched them together, and then worked with Laura Poitras and her team at Field of Vision to produce a short film – Best of Luck with the Wall – that traverses the entire length of the border (1, 954 miles) in six minutes:

The southern border is a space that has been almost entirely reduced to metaphor. It is not even a geography. Part of my intention with this film is to insist on that geography.

By focusing on the physical landscape, I hope viewers might gain a sense of the enormity of it all, and perhaps imagine what it would mean to be a political subject of that terrain.

begley-fatal-migrations-1

If you too wonder about that last sentence and its latent bio-physicality – and there is of course a rich stream of work on the bodies that seek to cross that border – then you might visit another of Josh’s projects, Fatal Migrations, 2011-2016 (see above and below).

begley-fatal-migrations-2

There’s an interview with Josh that, among other things, links these projects with his previous work.

I have a couple of projects that are smartphone centered. One of them is about mapping the geography of places around the world where the CIA carries out drone strikes—mostly in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. Another was about looking at the geography of incarceration in the United States—there are more than 5,000 prisons—and trying to map all of them and see them through satellites. I currently have an app that is looking at the geography of police violence in the United States. Most of these apps are about creating a relationship between data and the body, where you can receive a notification every time something unsettling happens. What does that mean for the rest of your day? How do you live with that data—data about people? In some cases the work grows out of these questions, but in other cases the work really is about landscape….

There’s just so much you can never know from looking at satellite imagery. By definition it flattens and distorts things. A lot of folks who fly drones, for instance, think they know a space just from looking at it from above. I firmly reject that idea. The bird’s eye view is never what it means to be on the ground somewhere, or what it means to have meaningful relationships with people on the ground. I feel like I can understand the landscape from 30,000 feet, but it is not the same as spending time in a space.

Anjali Nath has also provided a new commentary on one of Josh’s earlier projects, Metadata, that he cites in that interview – ‘Touched from below: on drones, screens and navigation’, Visual Anthropology 29 (3) (2016) 315-30.

It’s part of a special issue on ‘Visual Revolutions in the Middle East’, and as I explore the visual interventions I’ve included in this post I find myself once again thinking of a vital remark by Edward Said:

we-are-also-looking-at-our-observers-001

That’s part of the message behind the #NotaBugSplat image on the cover of Steve’s essay: but what might Said’s remark mean more generally today, faced with the proliferation of these seeing machines?

 

Vertical

Vertical_Cover-90b43d704855b7adb88eb5048b187a67

Steve Graham has kindly sent me the page proofs of his new book, Vertical: the city from satellites to tunnels, due from Verso and Penguin/Random House in October/November (it’s already available as an e-book from Amazon).  The subtitle varies depending on where you look – the proofs have both ‘from satellites to tunnels’ and ‘from satellites to bunkers’, and you can find both in the ads – but whatever version they settle on it’s clear that this is yet another tour (sic) de force.

From the penthouse to the sewers—the political geography of the vertical city

Vertical is a brilliant re-imagining of the world we live in. Today we live in a world that can no longer be read as a two-dimensional map. In Vertical Stephen Graham rewrites the city at every level, calling for a a new understanding of our surroundings that takes into account above and below: why Dubai has been built to be seen from GoogleEarth; how the superrich in Sao Paulo live their penthouse lives far from the street; why London billionaires build vast subterranean basements rather than move house. Vertical will make you look at the city anew: from the viewfinders of drones, satellites, from the top of skyscrapers, at street-level and from underground bunkers: this is a new politics of space and geography.

It’s composed of an introduction (‘Going vertical’) and 15 essays:

Part One: Above

1 Satellite: Enigmatic presence

2 Bomber: Death from above

3 Drone: Robot imperium

4 Helicopter: Direct arrival

5 Favela: Tenuous city

6 Elevator/Lift: Going up

7 Skyscraper: Vanity and violence

8 Housing: Luxified skies

9 Skywalk/Skytrain/Skydeck: Multilevel cities

10 Air: Lethal domes

Part Two: Below

11 Ground: Making geology

12 Basement/cellar: Urban undergrounds

13 Sewer: Sociology and shit

14 Bunker/tunnel: Subsurface sanctuaries

15 Mine: Extractive imperialism on the deep frontier

 

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.

Another brick in the wall

When I was writing the Israel/Palestine chapters in The Colonial Present the vast, wretched landscape of occupation and repression was numbingly new to me (though it shouldn’t have been). I found little help from mainstream geography, with some honourable exceptions, and I vividly remember my first visit to the West Bank with Steve Graham, Eyal Weizman and others.  You would think I would have been prepared: I’d certainly read everything I could lay my hands on.

Wall

But nothing prepares you for the enormity of the occupation, its monstrous violence and everyday humiliations, and the sight of the wall snaking across the landscape – what Ariella Azoulay and Adi Ophir call ‘the Monster’s Tail’ – remains one of the most appalling impositions I have ever seen.  Neither was I ready for the iron-clad violence of the Qalandiyya checkpoint, whose enclosures, grills and bars that would not have been out of place in an abbatoir could barely contain the brooding militarised violence of those who constructed it: but of course they weren’t supposed to.

1379713379-palestinians-wait-at-qalandia-checkpoint_2738542

Since then, much of this has become all too familiar – which is part of the problem – but there are now many more geographers doing vitally important work on occupied Palestine.  Visualizing Palestine has recently added this new infographic about the wall to its excellent portfolio:

VP Where Law stands on the Wall

The focus adds yet another dimension to contemporary discussions about international law and what Michael Smith calls ‘geo-legalities’.  I’m keenly interested in those arguments, but today I’m led down this path by a new essay –part prose, part photography – composed by China Miéville for the Palestinian Literature Festival and performed by him at Nablus.

MIEVILLE Beyond equal rightsMiéville is best known as a novelist (and one with an intriguing geographical sensibility at that), but he’s no stranger to international law either: his Between Equal Rights: a Marxist theory of international law (2006) has been widely acclaimed. Yet this morning I’m seized by his photo-literary apprehension of the familiar unreality of the landscape of occupation:

Yes, we know the holy land is now a land of holes, and lines, a freakshow of topography gone utterly and hideously mad, that the war against Palestinians is also a war against everyday life, against human space, a war waged with all expected hardware, with violent weaponized absurdism, with tons and tons of concrete and girders.  This is truism, and/but true.

His experience of crossing the line reminds me of my own, though he captures its Kafka-esque horror far more vividly:

And in its wedge of shadow the long stupid zigzag of the checkpoint between Bethlehem and Jerusalem is indicated with a sign, there on the Bethlehem side. Entrance, it says, white on green, and points to the cattle run. Inside are all the ranks of places to wait, the revolving grinder doors, green lights that may or may not mean a thing, the conveyor belts and metal detectors and soldiers and more doors, more metal striae, more gates.

Finally, for those who emerge on the city side, who come out in the sun and go on, there is a sign they, you, we have seen before. White on green, pointing back the way just come.

Entrance, it says. Just like its counterpart on the other side of a line of division, a non-place.

No exit is marked.

The arrows both point in. Straight towards each other. The logic of the worst dream. They beckon. They are for those who will always be outside, and they point the way to go. Enter to discover you’ve gone the only way, exactly the wrong way.

Entrance: a serious injunction. A demand. Their pointing is the pull of a black hole. Their directions meet at a horizon. Was it ever a gateway between? A checkpoint become its own end.

This is the plan. The arrows point force at each other like the walls of a trash compactor. Obey them and people will slowly approach each other and edge closer and closer from each side and meet at last, head on like women and men walking into their own reflections, but mashed instead into each other, crushed into a mass.

Entrance, entrance. These directions are peremptory, their signwriters voracious, insisting on obedience everywhere, impatient for the whole of Palestine to take its turn, the turn demanded, until every woman and man and child is waiting on one side or the other in long long lines, snaking across their land like the wall, shuffling into Israel’s eternal and undivided capital, CheckPointVille, at which all compasses point, towards which winds go, and there at the end of the metal run the huge, docile, cow-like crowds will in this fond, politicidal, necrocidal, psyche-cidal fantasy, meet and keep taking tiny steps forward held up by the narrowness of the walls until they press into each others’ substance and their skins breach and their bones mix and they fall into gravity one with the next. Palestine as plasma. Amorphous. Amoebal. Condensed. Women and men at point zero. Shrunken by weight, eaten and not digested. An infinite mass, in an infinitely small space.

If you can bear to read more about this ‘non-place’, as Mieville calls it, try Helga Tawil-Souri, ‘Qalandia checkpoint as space and nonplace’, Space and culture 14 (1) (2011) 4-26; Irus Braverman, ‘Civilized borders: a study of Israel’s new crossing administration’, Antipode 43 (2) (2011) 264-95; Hagar Kotef and Merav Amir, ‘Between imaginary lines: violence and its justifications at the military checkpoints in occupied Palestine’, Theory, culture and society 28 (1) (2011) 55-50; and Merav Amir, ‘The making of a void sovereignty: political implications of the military checkpoints in the West Bank’. Environment and Planning D: Society & Space 31 (2013) 227-44.

qalandia_b

These are all behind paywalls, and if you can’t pass through those walls – and even if you can – I also recommend an open access essay by Helga Tawil-Souri, ‘Qalandia: an autopsy’, Jerusalem Quarterly 45 (2011) available here.  It’s a brilliant essay, and apart from what it has to tell us about the checkpoint (or ‘terminal’, as the Israelis prefer), like Miéville’s it also has much to teach us about the power of prose and the material politics of representation:

 Qalandia is dead because this time I find it impossible to photograph. I am paralyzed. Where do I stand? What do I document? Why am I even bothering? What am I supposed to do with a string of images? How will I put them back together to tell a story when there is no story to be told anymore? Photographing it, filming it, trying to write about it, only contradicts its very nature: a time-space of interruption, of suspension.  The checkpoint disjoints, tears the limbs off of my body; to want to tell its ‘story’ is a form of re-con-joining. I cannot. It has taken that right away from us.

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.

The programmable city

Code/SpaceNews from Rob Kitchin of a treasure trove of postdocs and PhD positions at the National University of Ireland – Maynooth as part of his prestigious Advanced Grant from the European Research Council:

I’ve been awarded an ERC Advanced Investigator award for a project entitled ‘The Programmable City’. The project will run over 5 years and be staffed by myself, 4 postdocs and 4 PhD students. The project is essentially an empirical extension of the Code/Space book (MIT Press, 2011), focusing on the intersection of smart urbanism, ubiquitous computing and big data from a software studies/critical geography perspective, comparing Dublin and Boston and other locales.

We have just advertised two 5 year postdocs and the four 4 year doctoral positions… The posts are not restricted in discipline and I’d really like to put together an interesting interdisciplinary team…  The remaining two 4 year postdocs will be advertised later in the year.

Prospective candidates can find out more via these links:

Postdoctoral Researchers:

Closing date for applications 22nd March 2013
Further details available here.

Funded PhDs:
Closing date for applications 12th April 2013
Further details available here.

You can find out much more about Rob’s vision – and the visual analytics – of the programmable city via his curated cornucopia at Scoop here.

Programmable City

The continuing explosion of interest in cyberwarfare – most recently tracing the genealogy of the US/Israeli Stuxnet/Olympic Games attack on Iran’s nuclear programme back to 2005, and digitally fingering a specialist unit of the Chinese Army based in Shanghai as a major source of cyberattacks on US commercial organisations and government agencies – makes this project all the more interesting: a sort of “Re-programmable city”, I suppose.  I’ve been tracking these developments as part of the revision of my journal essay “The everywhere war” for the book version, which will have a separate chapter devoted to them.  Much of this was anticipated by Steve Graham in his discussion of “Switching cities of off” – incorporated into the brilliant Cities under Siege: the new military urbanism (Verso, 2010) – and Code/Space is a rich source for thinking about the wider ramifications.  I don’t know whether there is room for any of this in Rob’s grand project, but I hope there is.