Urbanizing war – Militarizing cities. The city as strategic site

As the events of September 11th demonstrated so starkly, warfare, strategic violence and urbanism are intimately interrelated. To readers of Paul Virilio, this will come as no surprise; military considerations have a much greater presence in 20th-century debates about urbanism in the West than is generally believed. For example, a key factor shaping Le Corbusier’s 1930s plans for the modern city was the use of high buildings to minimize the vulnerability of urban spaces to emerging techniques of aerial bombardment and gas attack (which is ironic, given that skyscrapers are now considered, post-September 11th, to be extremely vulnerable). Similarly, post-war urban renewal and responses to the 1960s race riots in the US were closely informed by military think-tanks, considerations and techniques.

Whilst cities have always been closely interwoven with military technologies, concerns and strategies, it is now clear that the intensification of global urbanization, resource shortages, inequalities and population pressures are further deepening the role of urban terrain as the strategic site of military, social and representational struggles. As we see from Stalingrad and Dresden to Grozny, Beirut, Sarajevo, Kabul and Ramallah, ‘Urbicide’ – the erasure or denial of the city – is a sign of contemporary military ‘success’. Four interrelated struggles over the city as strategic site can be identified.

The urbanization of war

The first concerns the urbanization of war itself. There is intensifying military interest in the role of cities as the key sites in which military and geopolitical conflicts are being fought. More urban research is done in US military institutions than in many of its top universities. Cold War military doctrine stressed the imperative of bypassing cities, based on the nightmarish spectre of Stalingrad-like house-to-house combat with hellish casualty rates. But recent assessments of post-Cold War conflicts in Chechnya, Somalia, the Balkans, Palestine and elsewhere highlight the inevitable urbanization of warfare. They do so in a context of intensifying global urbanization, the growth of urban terrorism, the implosion of many nation states and the efforts of the US and its allies to maintain and strengthen global political, economic and military hegemony.

Military strategies are thus being reorganized world wide to address the messy, costly and uncertain realities of urban and infrastructural warfare. Urban terrain increases risk and fatalities. It reduces technological disparities between hi-tech and lo-tech fighters. And it makes the occupation of territory very difficult. In response, a complete re-think of military operations is under way. US and NATO forces are thus taking a renewed interest in Military Operation in Urban Terrain (MOUT) with significant investment in urban warfare technologies, simulations and military exercises in existing cities.

In the US a range of replica cities are being built to support MOUT training exercises(sometimes lasting weeks at a time), complete with realistic sewer systems and massive computer simulations. Theme park designers are being enlisted to give these sites are realistic urban feel. Weapons, communications, simulations and tactics are being devised based on the lessons learned from the highly problematic operations in Mogadishu, Sarajevo and Grozny. Amongst a vast range of innovations is a miniature dragonfly-like flying vehicle equipped with sensors and weapons being developed by the US for room-to-room combat.

In Israel and Palestine, meanwhile, the rapid demographic and urban growth of Arab populations, which eclipses the small growth rates of the Jews, is seen by both sides as the primary strategic weapon of the Palestinians. The Israeli Defence Forces are having to address the fact that the region is becoming heavily urbanized. There is talk of the ‘building as a weapon’ because self-built, unplanned Palestinian settlements are essentially uncontrollable using the tactics of previous Arab-Israeli wars. Long-term occupation of large-scale, labyrinthine cities becomes very difficult without massive armies and a willingness to accept heavy casualties (as at the Jenin refugee camp on April 9th 2002).

The IDF’s current tactics in blitzkreig-like assaults on the cities of the occupied territories are a reflection of the urbanization of the struggle. As we saw with the horrific demolition of large parts of Jenin by the IDF, and the mass, civilian, casualties, these are essentially ‘Urbicide’ operations. As well as the assassination of alleged fighters, the terrorization of civilians and the destruction of fighters’ networks, every effort is being made to undermine the modernity and connectivity of the urban fabric that houses the Palestinian people. Water tanks are deliberately riddled with bullets. Electronic communications are jammed. Roads are dug up. Water mains are smashed. Electricity transformers are destroyed. Media transmitters are bulldozed. Hospitals are bombed. The strategy, in effect, is to deny Palestinians as a whole the right to an urban modernity. At the same time, the demographic and urban coherence and contiguity of the Palestinian people is being systematically ruptured by the implantation of modern, barricaded Jewish settlements. These are laced together by infrastructure systems – water, roads, highways, telecommunications and electricity – which connect them to one another and to the main Israeli territory, but bypass, or drive wedges between, surrounding Palestinian neighbourhoods. The manifestation of geopolitical conflict as a clash of urbanist styles has rarely been so stark.

With twenty-four hour systems of electrically powered computer networks providing the key conduits of contemporary cities, military strategists are complementing MOUT techniques with a widening set of infrastructural and cyberwar tactics. Now that electrical and IT hardware and software must operate continually to sustain the ‘always-on’ economy, ‘cyberwar’ strategies stress systematic sabotage of an enemy’s societal infrastructure networks as a useful complement to physical weapons of mass destruction.

In Kosovo, to complement the air operations, the United States deployed a new type of bomb that rains down graphite crystals that comprehensively disable electrical power and distribution stations. It was, the US military argued, a new method of disabling an enemy without the public relations embarrassments of ‘collateral damage’ that often follow carpet bombing and the use of so-called ‘precision guided’ munitions (which still have a habit of killing civilians even when they hit their targets). Israel has also used such weapons in Iraq and Lebanon. In an adaptation of the tactics of medieval siege warfare to the modern networked metropolis, freezing the elderly in their homes, disabling critical heath care systems and destroying running water are the new weapons of choice in media-conscious ‘cyber warfare’.

Terrorism meets the networked city

The second struggle concerns the adaptation of urban terrorism to the networked city as the central terrain of contemporary life. Increasingly, conflict is not a matter of state versus state but involves a growing number of disparate groups – anti-modernizers, ethnic or religious groups fighting for self-determination, anti-globalization activists and private armies backing drug lords, local fiefdoms or multinational corporations.

These struggles take the form of bloody, internecine urban warfare as well as cyber-terror attacks aimed at undermining the functioning of global and corporate information systems. In Israel suicide bombers attempt to deny Israelis the freedom of the street or restaurant while Hamas fighters try to obtain shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles with which to threaten Israel’s air connectivity.

But it is the attacks of September 11th that best demonstrate the adaptation of urban terror to the new urban technological age. These attacks were a macabre yet subtle exploitation of the multiple and interconnected mobilities, continuously telescoping between the local and global, that sustain global urban capitalism: mobilities of people and machines; mobilities of images and media; mobilities of electronic finance and capital. Even the old-fashioned postal network was exploited by the anthrax attackers who rode the wave of hysteria following September 11th.

The September 11th attacks forcibly redirected and perverted the fragile and subtle mobilities and technologies that underpin and sustain global urban capitalism. The strikes therefore mocked the political fantasies of the Bush administration that suggested – and in fact still do – that major urban catastrophes could be kept at bay by Defensive Missile Shields laid out along Cold War, geostrategic lines. Instead of ‘rogue states’ aping the superpowers and acquiring intercontinental nuclear, biological or chemical weapons, the equivalent of a nuclear impact was produced by the simple expedient of a few ‘stone age’ knives.

The attacks also exploited the intensely concentrating logic of global city development. The iconic power of the skyscraper – a symbol of urban ‘progress’ and modernization for a century – was instantly reversed. From icon of power, progress and the dynamism of urban America it has been transmuted into a symbol of fragility which builds deep vulnerability into the cityscape. And yet skyscraper construction continues apace and many new proposals are still emerging.

The militarization of urban civil societies

The third struggle concerns the militarization of civil societies themselves. It is clear that the civil fabric of cities is being saturated with techniques and technologies only recently developed in the military domain. This process is far from new. But the time-lag between military and civil applications of technologies is decreasing; the divide separating these two domains is rapidly blurring. This is driven by the spiralling incidence and fear of crime, a growing social polarization, the proliferation of major civil unrest in cities (Los Angeles 1992…) and a colonization of civil markets by post-cold war Defence companies. It is also accelerating due to a shift from welfarist and rehabilitative to carceral and punitive models of crime control and to the political responses to threats of urban terrorism.

As a result, as writers like Mike Davis have demonstrated, cities are now sites for the application of a whole host of military control systems that were unthinkable even a decade ago. GPS and mobile phone systems track the time–space trails of everything from cars to electronically-tagged offenders. Mass ownership of mobile phones provides an international personal tracking system by stealth. Automatic speed cameras trigger the mailing of fines through licence-plate recognition. Gated communities require bar-code swipes for entry. Regular travellers can avail themselves of hand-scan biometrics to bypass immigration controls (whilst ‘illegal’ immigrants face increasing scrutiny in their attempts to cross boundaries). Strategic urban sites such as global financial centres and airport cities are now surrounded by ‘smart’ CCTV systems which automatically scan traffic for stolen cars. And the tens of millions of analogue Closed Circuit TV systems on city streets are rapidly being digitized and computerized to enable them to scan automatically for ‘unusual’ events and the scanned-in faces of those deemed to be dangerous by the state, the police or local security officers.

Increasingly, this city-saturating culture of control is also penetrating the body. With DNA databases and the completion of the human genome project there are clear signs that a ‘new biology of control’ is emerging in which the worth of individuals becomes closely linked to technical assessments of their biological, genetic or reproductive fitness or of their predisposition to aggression or deviance, by essentially eugenically-constituted science and practice. But individual profiling is only one element within a burgeoning field of personal surveillance and control. Biometric signatures, linked to large-scale personal databases, are already widely embedded in computer systems which are attempts to automatically control physical access and movement through spaces and infrastructure networks. Iris-scanning Automatic Teller Machines (ATMs) have been in operation in Japan since 1997. Retina scanning is used in gaols in Cook County, Illinois to monitor prisoner movements. The states of Connecticut and Pennsylvania use digital finger scanning to reduce welfare fraud. Frequent travellers between Canada and Montana submit to automated voice recognition for the sake of speedier throughput. Hand geometry scans are made of immigrants entering San Francisco to combat illegal immigration. And Israel uses hand-print biometrics to regulate the flow of workers to and from the Gaza Strip.

These techniques supplement the proliferating armoury of defensive urban design and the ‘hardening’ of targets that have become such a dominant trend in recent urbanism. With the development of military-style command centres and forces for ‘homeland security’ post-September 11th, such techniques are rapidly diffusing and becoming more coordinated, especially in the United States. The gap between internationally-oriented military equipment, personnel and organizations and domestically-oriented civil law enforcement is collapsing. US forces now routinely deploy combat air patrols and unmanned aerial vehicles above the strategic urban sites of the home, as well as the foreign, nation – practices that had stopped with the end of the Cold War.

The planning and design of Western cities is, once again, being scrutinized from the point of view of military vulnerability. In the US the debate over urban sprawl is now a battle over the supposed vulnerabilities of central cities and mass, centralized, technological systems versus those of decentralized urban configurations with ‘broken-up’ and decentralized power, water and communications grids (with inbuilt ‘resilience’ when attacked). City-wide CCTV systems monitored by quasi-military organizations are being installed in cities like Washington DC. Our fundamentally open and mobile urban societies must somehow confront and deal with the threats of air attack, cyberspace infiltration, infrastructural sabotage, deliberate poisoning or weapons of mass destruction.

Postmodern urban siege warfare : anti-globalization and urban conflict

The final struggle concerns the city as a contested terrain of globalization. In the past decade we have seen a proliferation of set-piece urban siege-battles in Seattle, Washington, Prague, London, Genoa, Ottawa, Philadelphia, Windsor, Melbourne, Cologne, Nice, Goteborg and Barcelona to coincide with major meetings of the G8, WTO, IMF, NAFTA and the EU. Whilst cities must compete for the roving accolades of World Cups, Olympics or City of Culture designations, so the roving urban war over the nature of globalization also incorporates a growing catalogue of the world’s major urban cores.

The city is both the prime site for the economic and political coordination of globalization and one of the key terrains (along with cyberspace) where a wide variety of groups opposed to the neo-liberal orthodoxies of dominant globalization trends can hone their resistance and bring it to bear. Cities are where multiple diasporas come together in one place. They house the social movements, NGOs and independent media organizations that challenge and subvert dominant processes of contemporary economic, social and cultural change.

During these set-piece siege-like battles, handfuls of global leaders are handfuls of global leaders in city-core citadels are defended against the massed ranks of resistance by armies of security personnel and new, postmodern city-wall structures replete with hi-tech surveillance and communications systems. These are sites of total, temporary, militarization. Complex siege warfare tactics are employed. Access points to sewers are soldered shut. Every representational device is employed by both sides in the global PR and media war before, during and after the summit. And spirals of violence erupt as iconic but mundane spaces of the globalized city – the hamburger joint, the bank, the Nike store – are ritually destroyed. Such battles are attempts to force western media to expose the complex social and geographical divisions of labour of contemporary capitalism and the often hidden violence that sustains and maintains them. With increasingly extreme state violence against the protests, such set-piece battles inevitably claimed their first life in Genoa with the death of the activist Carlo Giuliani. In response to such global PR damage, global governance institutions are now retreating from ‘open’ cities to more easily-defended cities such as those in the Emirate states.

Stephen Graham (s.d.n.graham@ncl.ac.uk ; www.ncl.apl.ac.uk/cut) is Professor of Urban Technology at Newcastle University’s School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape. His most recent book, with Simon Marvin, is Splintering Urbanism : Networked Infrastructures, Technological Mobilities, and the Urban Condition (Routledge, 2001).


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