Were one event to encapsulate the moral gravity and historic meaning of the United States’ military intervention in Iraq, that event would for a number of reasons be the 2004 siege of Fallujah. First, it was a “classic” case of urban siege warfare, in which a military armed force surrounded and bombarded a supposed insurgent territory. Second, it showed the true nature of U.S. military intervention. No talk about “hearts and minds”; only encirclement, “uprooting,” and enormous massacre of a largely unarmed civilian population. Third, Fallujah became not only an example and symbol of American barbarism for any observer not laboring under the ideological blinders of U.S. patriotism, it also represented, from the U.S. military perspective, a strategic failure (though, needless to say, not moral). Its legacy from the latter perspective has been an important shift in U.S. military strategy. In this shift, the “city” and the “urban human condition” have emerged as central problems of theory and strategy.
Various journalists have cited credible evidence of the American use of illegal chemical weapons at Fallujah. According to the BBC and Countercurrents, the U.S. military used white phosphorous — which burns on contact with the skin until it runs out of oxygen — and depleted uranium during their siege. The Guardian’s George Monbiot, reporting in the aftermath of the siege, reminds readers not to “forget that the use of chemical weapons was a war crime within a war crime within a war crime. Both the invasion of Iraq and the assault on Falluja were illegal acts of aggression. Before attacking the city, the marines stopped men ‘of fighting age’ from leaving. Many women and children stayed: the Guardian’s correspondent estimated that between 30,000 and 50,000 civilians were left. The marines treated Falluja as if its only inhabitants were fighters. They levelled thousands of buildings, illegally denied access to the Iraqi Red Crescent and, according to the UN’s special rapporteur, used ‘hunger and deprivation of water as a weapon of war against the civilian population.’ ”
Patrick Cockburn reported in The Independent that the impact of the siege might be worse compared with the atomic bomb attack on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan at the end of World War II. He cites evidence from a survey of 4,800 Fallujans conducted by Dr. Chris Busby of the University of Ulster, which found that “dramatic increases in infant mortality, cancer and leukaemia … exceed those reported by survivors of the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.” Cockburn continues: “Infant mortality in the city is more than four times higher than in neighbouring Jordan and eight times higher than in Kuwait.” Moreover, the survey discovered “a 38-fold increase in leukaemia, a ten-fold increase in female breast cancer and significant increases in lymphoma and brain tumours in adults. At Hiroshima survivors showed a 17-fold increase in leukaemia, but in Fallujah Dr Busby says what is striking is not only the greater prevalence of cancer but the speed with which it was affecting people.” Busby said that “to produce an effect like this, some very major mutagenic exposure must have occurred in 2004 when the attacks happened.” Busby suggested that some form of uranium was used in the attack: “My guess is that they used a new weapon against buildings to break through walls and kill those inside.”
While Cockburn and others have rightly highlighted the ways that events such as Fallujah expose the fundamental immorality of the U.S. imperial project, in this essay I want to focus on the questions that it raises for the study of urbanism and of empire, and of urbanism as an object of imperial knowledge and intervention. As we know from the works of Edward Said, geographer Derek Gregory, anthropologists James Ferguson, Akhil Gupta, Arjun Appadurai, and others, imperial claims about “knowing the native” imply an imaginative mapping of the native as situated in a relationship of spatial break from the imperial position. The space of the native becomes objectified as static, fixed in time. This is what Gregory, for example, has called an “object ontology” in which space is reduced to static objects either to be built up, torn down or reengineered in a top down manner, ideally by experts operating through virtual media and at a remove from the complexities of the situation on the ground. What I am suggesting is that there is more than a family resemblance between the seemingly benign, antiseptic imagery of Corbusian urban modernism with its fetish of the architect — or planner — expert, with the bloody and destructive project of U.S. urbicide, the “killing of the city” and its inhabitants. This will not surprise anyone who knows about the entwinement of modernization discourse with projects such as concentration camps (aka “strategic hamlets”), the napalming of villages and countryside, and President Richard Nixon’s readiness to use nuclear weapons during the Vietnam War, all discussed nearly a half-century ago by Noam Chomsky in American Power and the New Mandarins, his study of the more-than-eager complicity of American liberal academics with the Vietnam War effort. The only difference between counterinsurgency in Iraq in 2004 and in Vietnam in the late 1960s was a shift from the rural to the urban context of intervention.
There are certainly haunting parallels between Fallujah and other historical examples, including the Pequot War of the 1630s, the free-fire zones of Vietnam, the Israeli Gaza campaigns of the 2000s, “Defensive Shield,” “Caste Lead,” “Protective Edge.” But what is also interesting is how in the recent years of a more explicitly urban turn in U.S. military thinking, we see a more complicated problematization of the urban from a counterinsurgency perspective. No longer do we see the city as a static object, a “target.” It becomes almost an actor in itself, an “organism” with its own “metabolism,” David Kilcullen, an influential urban counterinsurgency theorist, writes in his recent and influential book, Out of the Mountains: The Coming of the Urban Guerilla. We might say that the United States went to Fallujah only to learn the lessons of the “Chicago School” of urban sociology.
The years after the Fallujah siege saw the rise of, or more accurately, the revival of, Vietnam-era counterinsurgency doctrine, COIN, the “hearts and minds” project. This can be explained by both the strategically counterproductive effects of Fallujah, intensifying an already fearsome insurgency, as well as a dawning awareness by U.S. military theorists of larger trends in the field of imperial intervention. These are summarized in remarkably overlapping studies by Mike Davis, a Marxist critic of U.S.-led neoliberalism and militarism, and Kilcullen, who is also an adviser to the American military counterinsurgency project and something of an academic star in that world. Their studies try to answer the question: What is the larger context of this shift?
Davis writes in his study published in Social Text that by 2030, approximately 60% of the world’s population — 5 billion people — will live in cities. Of these, 2 billion to 3 billion will be informal workers, most living in slums or shantytowns. They will be highly informalized and particularly vulnerable to “emergent diseases and subject to a menu of megadisasters following in the wake of global warming and the exhaustion of urban water supplies.” At the time of the siege of Fallujah, more people worldwide already inhabited cities than rural villages. Moreover, while the population of rural areas had by then stagnated, the growth of cities was already exploding by 60 million people annually. By around 2025, Davis notes, urban areas in less-developed nations will account for 90% of world population growth. This will be an urban population “almost completely delinked — or ‘disincorporated’ from industrial growth and the supply of formal jobs … a mass of humanity structurally and biologically redundant to global accumulation and the corporate matrix,” he writes. Kilcullen adds to this picture in Out of the Mountains, showing that the global population is undergoing what he calls “megatrends” of climate change, urbanization, “littoralization” — movement from the interior regions (“the mountains”) to the coasts, as well as information interconnection. All of these, Kilcullen says, make the kinds of intervention exemplified by Fallujah counterproductive and obsolete. The world’s imperialists and capitalists need a smarter intervention, he argues, one that accounts for the fact that the city is “a living organism,” not a static object.
Kilcullen’s work reflects, as mentioned, a broader trend, what might be called the “urbanization” of American military theory over the past five to 10 years. Along with quasi-anthropological notions of culture — analyzed and critiqued by the excellent work of anthropologists such as Rochelle Davis, Catherine Lutz and David Price — the city and urban life, particularly in the global south, became a focus of strategic thinking in the U.S. military during this time. By the late 1990s, following the U.S. military debacle in a highly urbanized and littoralized Somalia, along with the NATO intervention in the former Yugoslavia, the Army War College’s journal began suggesting that “the future of warfare lies in the streets, sewers, high-rise buildings, and sprawl of houses that form the broken cities of the world,” Stephen Graham writes in New Left Review in 2007. More recently, websites such as GlobalSecurity.org and academic journals such as Small Wars have been grappling with Kilcullen’s “megatrends.” (Kilcullen dedicated his 2010 book, Counterinsurgency, to the editors of Small Wars, writing: “They gave the counterguerilla underground a home, at a time when misguided leaders banned even the word ‘insurgency,’ though busily losing one.”) Globalsecurity.org — which describes itself as “the leading source of background information and developing news stories in the fields of defense, space, intelligence, WMD, and homeland security” — notes, ominously, that approximately 75% of the world’s population will soon live in urban areas. Echoing Davis, an article on the website points out that the increasing population and accelerating growth of cities pose urgent problems for future U.S. military missions. “Urban areas are expected to be the future battlefield and combat in urban areas cannot be avoided.” The article says the term “Military Operations on Urban Terrain” refers to all military actions “planned and conducted on a terrain complex where man-made construction affects the tactical options available to the commander.” Patrick Marques of Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, wrote in a 2003 graduate thesis that these urban terrains are disproportionately cities of the global south — the Middle East, Latin America and South Asia in particular. The author adds that urbanized terrain poses delicate issues of human rights, which previous rural terrains did not, ignoring the entire human-rights-violating history of U.S. and English anti-insurgent campaigns dating back to the 17th century. On the other hand, Marques and Globalsecurity.org contend, urbanized terrains also present commanders with advantages that may not have been available in the “classical” rural theaters, such as the ability to cultivate local (or local in appearance) operatives and have them blend in with urban populations.
What should be noted at this juncture about this literature is its naturalization of urban growth and of the inevitability of war — “Urban areas are expected to be the future battlefield and combat in urban areas cannot be avoided,” the article in Globalsecurity.org notes. Insofar as it naturalizes what are in fact social and political processes, this literature is revealing of the ideology of the U.S. empire. The assumption that war is inevitable, anthropologist Catherine Lutz argues in The Bases of Empire, is one of the basic “mythic structures” of the U.S. empire. Writing about the more than 900 military facilities established by the U.S. in dozens of countries across the world, Lutz shows how the project of encircling the globe is buttressed by a set of powerful beliefs largely impervious to contradictory evidence. Along with what Hugh Gusterson in Cultural Anthropology has called “nuclear orientalism”— which sees only the U.S. and Europe as trustworthy enough to develop nuclear weapons — and the racism underpinning much of the militarized foreign policy, Lutz points to the influential notion in U.S. culture that “war is often necessary and ultimately inevitable. It is widely believed that humans are naturally violent and that war can be a glorious and good venture.”
This is an important critique, and as is clear from what I’ve been arguing, the Saidian tradition, the demystification of orientalist cultural and geographic representations, is a central part of any attempt to grapple with the U.S. empire. However, my aim in the larger project of which this paper is a brief outline is to go beyond the critique of orientalism while retaining its critical thrust. In my view, the rise of the urban as a problem in U.S. military theory in recent years is not sufficiently grasped by pointing out the role of orientalism and racism in empire. One reason, maybe the most important, is that the critique of orientalism rests on representational assumptions about the workings of power. To oversimplify, it says that for power to subjugate the so-called native, it must produce images and discourses of the native as the imperialist’s Other. What we see in urban counterinsurgency is more complicated. A large part of the literature and representations produced by the counterinsurgency project does indeed lend itself to anti-orientalist critique. But works such as those of Kilcullen, considered by many to be at the cutting edge of the field, are distinguished by their almost complete indifference to questions about what the “native” is like, what the contours of her culture are and so on. Kilcullen’s is a much more behaviorist approach to power. Chomsky identified this among U.S. modernization theorists in the 1960s, and Kilcullen (who doesn’t seem to have read Chomsky) simply and without irony reproduces this. As Kilcullen’s counterinsurgent colleague John Nagl put it: “Be polite, be professional, be prepared to kill.” Winning hearts and minds is not the priority, therefore producing knowledge about the native’s culture is not a priority. Ensuring that you as the counterinsurgent constitute the field of power such that your target population has no choice but to go through you is the main objective. Not hegemonic power, but disciplinary power — that is the point for Kilcullen et al. The coming age of the urban counterinsurgent, he suggests in Out of the Mountains, is an age of disciplinary power, and while the critique of orientalism will still help us understand much about the workings of empire in the coming years, we will need to complement this critique with different analytical tools for understanding power in the increasingly urbanized and littoralized world that is emerging.