multimedia-frontend Portlet

3 June 2009

Theme Park Archipelago: Architectural simulacra and urban warfare

Conference lectured at the Symposium "Architectures of fear. Terrorism and the Future of Urbanism in the West" CCCB 17-18 May 2007

Western military strategy was long premised on the avoidance of urban combat, with air strikes the preferred method of subduing large conurbations.1 Cities were seen as targets, not battlefields. But today, the cityscapes of the global South have emerged as paradigmatic conflict zones. Since the end of the Cold War, America’s militarized thrust into the Middle East and Central Eurasia has focused Pentagon planners’ attention on the burgeoning Arab and Third World cities that are now deemed de facto sites of current and future warfare for US forces. While the “revolution in military affairs” emphasized overhead dominance, the losing battle for the streets of Iraq has sharpened the Pentagon’s focus on battles within the micro-geographies of slums, favelas, industrial districts and casbahs, as well as on globe-spanning stealth and surveillance technologies.2
For defence strategists, the October 1993 defeat of elite Army Rangers by armed teenage boys on the streets of Mogadishu was seen as a wake-up call. The civilian resisters inflicted 60% casualties on the American troops. But, as Mike Davis has pointed out, the US military was initially slow to incorporate scenarios of Third World urban warfare into its training programmes. In 1996 the Army War College’s journal was warning 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”.3 In 1999, a contributor to the Marine Corps Gazette argued urgently that most military training sites were out of phase with “the urban sprawl that dominates critical areas of the world today ... We know we will fight mostly in urban areas. Yet, we conduct the vast majority of our training in rural areas – the hills of Camp Pendleton, the deserts of Twentynine Palms, the woods of Camp Lejeune, the jungles of Okinawa.”4 A RAND Report on the provision of military training sites, commissioned by the US Congress in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq, concurred:

US armed forces have thus far been unable to adequately reproduce the challenges their soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen meet in the towns and cities of Iraq and Afghanistan ... More than a decade after the demise of the Warsaw Pact, the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union, too many urban training sites, simulations and case studies still remind us of the Cold War rather than Mogadishu, Iraqi towns and cities, or Afghan villages.5
A hidden archipelago of mini-cities is now being constructed across the US sunbelt, presenting a jarring contrast to the surrounding strip-mall suburbia; other Third World cityscapes are rising out of the deserts of Kuwait and Israel, the downs of Southern England, the plains of Germany and the islands of Singapore. Some are replete with lines of drying washing, continuous loop tapes playing calls to prayer, wandering donkeys, Arabic graffiti, ersatz minarets and mosques; on occasion, civilian “populations” are bused in to wander about and role-play in Arab dress. Others have “slum” or “favela” districts, with built-in olfactory machines that can simulate the smells of death and decay. These are the new training fields for the US and UK forces that will be dispatched to Baghdad, Ramadi, Fallujah, Najaf or Karbala – for warfare, like the rest of the world, is rapidly being urbanized. Unmarked on maps, and largely unnoticed by urban-design, architecture and planning communities, these sites constitute a kind of shadow global-city system. They are capsules of space designed to mimic the strategic environment of the “feral city”, as one US military theorist has called it – now seen as a critical arena for future wars.6

Dress rehearsals

The construction of simulation military targets is not new. During World War II, streets of exact-replica Berlin tenements were created at the Dugway Proving Grounds in Utah, designed by the exiled German architect Eric Mendelsohn. Alongside them stood a cluster of Japanese wood and rice-paper houses created by Antonin Raymond, an American architect who had worked in Japan and who scoured the US for authentic types of Russian spruce for their construction.7 These buildings were used by the US Chemical Warfare Corps to fine-tune the incendiary bombs that would raze Japanese and German cities. To ensure accuracy, the tenements were filled with authentic German furniture, and the buildings hosed to mimic the temperate climate of Berlin. Even during the Cold War, a sense of spectacle ensured that atomic and thermonuclear bombs were exploded near simulated suburban homes, complete with white picket-fences, and families of mannequins placed around the table having mock meals.8
The city replicas of the 21st century involve a different relationship to political violence, however. Rather than rehearsals for urban annihilation through total war, their purpose is to prepare ground troops for military occupation and counter-insurgency warfare. An early example of this new approach was the $14 million mock-Arab city constructed at Israel’s Tze’elim base in the Negev desert. The site, known as “Chicago”, was explicitly built to generalize the lessons of Israeli incursions into Palestinian cities and refugee camps. The “town” is split into four quarters, with apartment buildings, a marketplace, shops, a mosque and a refugee camp. It is wired up with the latest surveillance equipment to monitor the trainee Israeli soldiers as they practise blasting their way into Palestinian homes. Grotesquely, a range of mechanical cut-out caricatures of bearded Arab men, constructed by the prop department at the Israeli National Theatre, are programmed to pop up in windows and at street corners during live-fire exercises. Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, two Israeli photographers who succeeded in making a detailed study of the site, have reflected that:

It is difficult to pinpoint what it is about the place that is so disturbing. Perhaps it’s the combination of the vicariousness and the violence. It’s as if the soldiers have entered the enemy’s private domain while he’s sleeping or out for lunch . . . It’s a menacing intrusion into the intimate.9
It was here, the photographers report, that American Special Forces were introduced to “Arab realities” in the run-up to the first Gulf War. Full-dress rehearsals at the site have included an attempted assassination of Saddam Hussein and the battle for Fallujah.
“Middle-Eastern cities” have sprouted at military bases in the US over the last few years, although in the assessment of the 2006 RAND Report these remain inadequate; casualty rates in urban combat for untrained soldiers are around 25-30%. To address future “Military Operations on Urban Terrain” training needs, the RAND team recommendations include the construction of four new “cities”, with more than 300 structures each.10 By 2010, the Pentagon plans to have over 60 MOUT training zones around the world. While some will be little more than air-portable sets of containers, others will be extensive sites that mimic whole city districts, with “airports” or surrounding “countryside”.
One of the most important new urban-warfare training facilities is Zussman Village at Fort Knox, Kentucky. Here a new 30-acre, $13 million “city” is able to accommodate hundreds of role-playing “insurgents”, who wear keffiyehs and are armed with AK-47s and RPGs, as well as 1,500 US military personnel, along with their tanks, personnel carriers and helicopters. It is equipped with radio and TV stations that can broadcast in Hebrew, Arabic or Russian. Zussman Village includes mock junkyards, mosques, cemeteries, petrol stations, sewers, electrical substations, train tracks and bridges. A “Third World slum” is currently under construction by the railroad. To simulate a war-torn environment, the site is deliberately smothered in mud, and the unmaintained sewer system is filled with live possums and rats, as well as rubber snakes bought from local toy shops. The synthetic odours of rotting bodies, raw sewage and contaminated water can be produced on demand.11 A speciality is the use of vapourized propane that can be converted into aerial fireballs, simulating the exploding cars and burning buildings troops will encounter in Iraq. As explained by the Kentucky engineering firm that provided the technology:

Most of our military operations are conducted at night. When an explosion occurs and a soldier is wearing night-vision goggles, his vision goes blank. He needs to learn how to react to this type of situation and resist the urge to have his concentration lapse. It’s human nature to take that second to stare at a fire or explosion, but in combat, soldiers need to react quickly . . . Urban warfare has a much higher rate of casualties than in the open battlefield. The action and the violence are much closer and much faster.12

The largest US urban-warfare complex of all, however, is emerging at the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, Louisiana. Eighteen mock-Iraqi villages are being constructed in this 100,000-acre site, detailed down to kebab stands, and even “mass graves” created by burying rotting bones from local butchers’ shops. Included in the exercises – carried out by 44,000 Iraq-bound soldiers between 2003 and 2005 alone – are 1,200 role-playing extras, dressed in Arab gear, who impersonate Iraqi tribesmen, police and civilians. Two hundred of these are Arab-Americans, mostly originating from Iraq itself. Screenwriters are on hand to write “character sheets” for each participant, based on whether they are programmed to be “friendly”, “neutral” or “hostile” towards the US forces.
In a mirror-image reversal of the more familiar global marketing contests in which cities parade their gentrification, cultural planning and boosterism, here the marks of success are decay and an architecture of collapse. Col. James Cashwell, a US squadron commander, reported after an exercise in an urban-warfare training city at George Air Force base in California that “the advantage of the base is that it is ugly, torn up, all the windows are broken [and trees] have fallen down in the street. It’s perfect for the replication of a war-torn city.”13 Evaluating existing MOUT sites for the features deemed most challenging in undertaking military operations within large, global-South cities, the RAND researchers awarded the highest points to those with “clutter, debris, filth”, “slums, shanty towns, walled compounds”, “subterranean complexes” and simulated “government, hospital, prison, asylum structures”, such as the Marines’ Twentynine Palms facility in California.14 An officer at the US Baumholder Base in Germany reported that soldiers repeatedly asked for donkeys, goats and other animals in the MOUT training site to help simulate life in Iraqi cities.15 Some locations integrate multi-sensory systems for projecting special effects; Fort Wainwright, Alaska can provide the smell of diesel fumes, burning rubber, even burning flesh.16
The RAND Report also explored the possibility of appropriating entire “ghost towns” within the continental USA that have been deindustrialized and largely abandoned. Attention has focused on the former copper-mining town of Playas in Southwest New Mexico, which has already been used as a “generic American suburb under simulated attack” to instruct anti-terrorist squads for the Department of Homeland Security.17 The RAND team suggests that Playas could be improved as a training site if “the architecture of the abandoned town were modified to include walled compounds of the type that US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan must at times isolate and clear”. However, live-fire exercises would probably not be possible, “since the owners . . . would consider the structural repair costs prohibitive”.18 Despite being portrayed as a “ghost town”, a few remaining residents cling on in Playas, making their living mainly as extras in urban-war and terrorist exercises. A network of “low-population” towns in North Dakota is also being considered for such a role, and the RAND Report recommends further investigation into the use of abandoned factories, offices, strip malls, schools, hospitals and entertainment complexes.
Another proposal is to use densely populated metropolitan areas for MOUT training, modelled on the Urban Warrior and Project Metropolis exercises that took place between 1999 and 2000. In these, Marines “invaded” Little Rock, Chicago, Oakland and Charleston, staging major amphibious and airborne landings (also designed to generate recruitment interest) before acting out the disablement of electricity, communications, transport and water infrastructure in abandoned hospitals and sewer networks. Such exercises will remain necessary, RAND argues, because “no purpose-built urban training site and no simulation for many years to come will be able to present the heterogeneity and complexity of a modern megalopolis”. Nevertheless, this remains the aim. The Report’s most ambitious suggestion is for the construction of a 20 x 20 km “mega-MOUT” complex, incorporating a complete 900-building town, at the Twentynine Palms Marine base in the California desert.19 Costing $330 million by 2011, such a complex would allow an entire brigade to simulate taking a large Iraqi town, including port and industrial facilities, with unprecedented levels of realism. For the first time, air power could be integrated with ground forces, and live artillery fire would be possible.

Virtual Baghdad

Electronic simulation technologies blend seamlessly into these physical constructions. In the “Urban Terrain Module” at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, a one-house space decorated in “Middle-Eastern” style is embedded within a media studio, which can project digitally generated “virtual humans” with suitably swarthy “Arab” features onto special screens inside the house. The project’s designers argue that the simulations at Fort Sill, built with the help of Hollywood professionals, are so convincing that the borders between the virtualized and physical elements are increasingly indistinguishable to US soldiers training there. In the near future they hope the environments will be modified to project digital mapping data from Iraq or other urban war zones, so that troops could rehearse “on the actual terrain that they would occupy someday – maybe in a future theatre of war”.20
Beyond these “hybrid” or “mixed reality” simulations lies a universe of purely computerized ones. In these, electronic mapping and satellite-image technologies of cities that US troops are about to attack or occupy are used to provide digital renditions that can be experienced “immersively”. In 2004, the Computer Science Corporation combined satellite and laser-scanned imagery with digital pictures from the ground to “build” much of Iraq, including all the major cities, into a “virtualized reality” model, accurate to within 1 metre. This apparently allows trainees to “drive” from Kuwait to Turkey via real-time models during war games. Entirely lacking in even virtual people, these simulations render Iraq as pure digital battlespace. The virtual models have such an impact on troops that CSC has to warn: “If you put a door on the side of the building, the soldier is trained for that. If he gets to the real environment and the door is on the wrong side of the building, he can get killed.”21
Much larger urban simulations are used for the war-gaming activities by which US defence planners map out future combat scenarios. For one of these, an 8-square-mile swathe of Jakarta that includes 1.6 million buildings has been digitized and “geo-specifically” simulated in three dimensions. It includes over 100,000 “vehicles” and “civilians”, with their daily rhythms mapped in virtualized real time: roads are relatively empty at night, but clogged with vehicles during rush hours; “traffic and civilian presence increases around mosques at the appropriate times for daily prayers”. Known as “Urban Resolve”, the simulation has used some of the US military’s most sophisticated super-computers to project American forces into a full-scale war in the Indonesian capital in 2015. The same technology is now being adapted to provide a virtualized rendition of Baghdad.22 One aim is to keep these computer simulations of urban battlefields constantly updated, using combat patrols to report back on the latest destruction wrought by artillery or aerial bombardment.

Army of gamers

The “military–industrial–entertainment–media complex” has played a central role in naturalizing the idea that American and allied forces should be pitched in battle against the inhabitants of Arab and Third World cities.23 The two most popular video game franchises in 2005 were Ful Spectrum Warrior and America’s Army, developed respectively by the US Marines and the Army. Both games centre overwhelmingly on the task of occupying stylized Arab cities. Their immersive simulations work powerfully to equate these environments with “terrorism” and to stress that they need “pacification” or “cleansing” by military means.
These video games also demonstrate the extent of the American entertainment industry’s commitment to “a culture of permanent war”.24 Unsurprisingly, when the city’s inhabitants appear in these games they are portrayed, almost without exception, as the shadowy, racialized representation of “the terrorist” – figures to be annihilated in a blurred combination of military training and entertainment. In America’s Army, the fictional country of “Zekistan” features stylized Islamic architecture; buildings are either dark and menacing, or else in flames. Here again, the only role for Arab cities is as a terrain for urban war. Complex and self-reinforcing connections between war and entertainment in the digital age deepen the long-established role of films and toys as outlets for militaristic propaganda. An estimated 90% of the 75,000 men and women who join the US Army each year are “casual” video-gamers; 30% consider themselves “hardcore”. Such is the familiarity of most military recruits with Playstation controls that the US Marines have even mimicked these in the consoles for their new remote-control urban-surveillance vehicle, Dragon Runner, currently being used on Iraq’s streets.25
The extent to which US military managers have preferred to inhabit virtualized Arab cities, rather than confront their social realities, is reflected in the treatment of the increasing numbers of US Iraq war veterans suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies, a major player in the crossover between war and entertainment, has adapted Full Spectrum Warrior’s immersive simulations of Arab cities as the basis for treating traumatized soldiers. Patients are forced to go through recreations of the events that have distressed them most: being inside mined or bombed vehicles or helicopters, sitting out mortar attacks on their compounds, or coming under attack while patrolling Iraqi streets. This allows the war-zone experience to be replayed in what is called “Virtual Iraq Exposure Therapy”, due to be extended to treatment centres across the United States. The video-game features of the “therapy” are deemed by its designers to “resonate well with the current generation of war fighters”, although one Navy psychologist stressed that it was important to make sure that the simulations were “not too realistic”, since that might “create more trauma”.26

Alien homelands

The complex constellation of urban-warfare simulations discussed here work most powerfully as a collective. Their various physical, electronic and hybrid manifestations operate, as do all simulations, by collapsing the real with the artificed, to the extent that any simple boundary between the two disappears.27 One effect, as we have seen, is to naturalize Arab and global-South cities as little but physical battlespace, populated, when peopled at all, by dehumanized and racialized “terrorists” that must – necessity is one of the rules of the game – be erased by Western, or Israeli, military intervention. At the same time, the militaristic gloss and relentless sanitization serve to produce an ideological reinforcement and subliminal legitimation of US foreignpolicy imperatives.
A further dissolution of boundaries takes place in the piloting of the armed Predator drones that are increasingly used in the US and Israeli surveillance and assassination strikes, from Lebanon and the Occupied Territories to Afghanistan and Pakistan. The American “pilots” of these machines are actually located in an anonymous trailer complex at Nellis Air Base, on the edge of Las Vegas. They fly combat sorties without ever leaving their desks. “At the end of the work day”, their commanding officer explained, “you walk back into the rest of life in America”.28
In fact, the urban war-zone images produced by the simulacral collective speak just as much to the fragmenting landscapes and racialized politics of America’s cities. In addition to a simulated “Middle East”, US defence planners’ programmes continue to factor in mock-ups of American city districts, in which law-enforcement and National Guard personnel undertake operations against civil unrest, terrorist attack and natural disaster. US military simulacra still focus on Los Angeles as well as on Baghdad, planning major operations to re-take American cities from uprisings or social protests.29 The Los Angeles riots of 1992 appear on military urban-warfare Powerpoints about “lessons learned” just as often as Grozny or Mogadishu. Responding to the devastation of New Orleans, one US Army officer talked openly about the need to launch urban-combat operations to “take back” the city from “insurgents” who were purportedly breeding anarchy and violence there, in an echo of the language used about Fallujah or Baghdad.30 Attitudes of military and law enforcement personnel towards crises in American cities seem strongly influenced by “urban operations” in the Middle East.
Urban-war simulations help to demonstrate the shifts in US military doctrine in much more explicit form. Pentagon theorists no longer concentrate so exclusively on a planetary battlespace, over which the networked power of US air and space platforms rules supreme: instead, they have turned their attention to the spaces of the global South. In addition, as Eyal Weizman has emphasized, both Israeli and Western military planners now stress the need not just to occupy, but physically to reorganize the space of colonized cities, so that high-tech weapons and surveillance systems can work to their best advantage. Weizman calls this “design by destruction”. As he puts it: “contemporary urban warfare plays itself out within a constructed, real or imaginary architecture, and through the destruction, construction, reorganization and subversion of space”.31
Thus, as in Iraq, neighbourhoods can be wrapped in razor wire, circled by biometric checkpoints and turned into de facto ghettos or camps – looking much like Palestinian villages. Areas deemed to be too dense and complex to be penetrated by the gaze of drones, satellites and aerial targeting can be physically bulldozed, as was Jenin in 2002. The infrastructural systems that sustain the life of cities can be destroyed – as in the urbicidal assaults on Iraq in 1991 and Lebanon in 2006 – or manipulated, to coerce resistant populations and political leaderships into surrender through the forced immiseration of enduring urban life without sewage systems or electricity; Gaza is, of course, the most notorious instance. Once again, Israel provides the most influential paradigms for the new trends in Western urban warfare.
Intimately tied to the entertainment industries, this mimetic collective labours to produce the digital streets and immersive cityscapes of the Arab world as America’s “other”. The key to these increasingly detailed environments is, of course, the radical denial of the social and cultural worlds, and lived urbanism, of these cities. The inculcation of racialized aggression works rather to obliterate understanding of the real places, and bodies, destroyed by military assault. It is widely recognized that the crude behaviour of the invading Anglo-American forces – search-and-destroy raids, arbitrary arrests, opening fire on demonstrations – was an important factor in stimulating the resistance in Iraq.32
As the occupation of Iraq enters its fifth year, American forces still control only a small fraction of Baghdad. At the start of 2007, Patrick Cockburn reported, US troops with accompanying Iraqi units “tried to fight their way into Haifa Street, less than a mile from the Green Zone”. They had been attempting to capture exactly the same terrain in March 2005. In March 2007 Ban Ki-Moon’s press conference announcing that the security situation in Baghdad had improved sufficiently for the UN to expand its presence was punctuated by a rocket attack on the heart of the Green Zone. “Securing the city is a near impossibility”, Cockburn argues. “Sunni insurgents and Shia militiamen are too well-entrenched and, moreover, generally have more legitimacy in the eyes of Iraqis than government forces”.33 The US soldiers still attempting to take Haifa Street four years after the invasion should recall Sunzi’s advice: “Know the enemy”. But if they did, of course, they would not be there.

1. This essay was previously published in: New Left Review, vol. 44, March-April 2007.

2. Davis, Mike, «The urbanization of Empire: Megacities and the laws of chaos», In: Social Text, vol. 22, no. 4, 2004, p. 9-15.

3. Peters, Maj. Ralph, «Our Soldiers, Their Cities», In: Parameters, Spring 1996; cited In: Davis, Mike, Planet of Slums, London: Verso, 2006, p. 203.

4. Hammes, Col. Thomas, «Time to get serious about urban warfare training», In: Marine Corps Gazette, April 1999.

5. Glenn, Russell et al., «Preparing for the Proven Inevitable: An Urban Operations Training Strategy for America», In: RAND National Defense Research Institute, Santa Monica 2006, pp. XV, 263.

6. Norton, Richard, «Feral Cities», In: Naval War Colege Review, vol. 56, no. 4, 2004.

7. Davis, Mike, Dead Cities And Other Tales, New York: The New Press, 2002, p. 65-84.

8. Mcenaney, Laura, Civil Defense Begins at Home, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000.

9. Broomberg, Adam and Chanarin, Oliver, Chicago, Gbttingen: Steidl, 2007.

10. With the aim of being accessible to soldiers’ home districts, these will be located at the existing Fort Polk base in Louisiana, at Fort Hood in Texas, in the Kentucky/North Carolina/Georgia region and the American

11. Tiron, Roxana, «Army training site brings to life the horrors of war», In: National Defense Magazine, July 2001.

12. Available at: <> under “Turnkey Projects”.

13. Wilson, J. R., «Army expands home-based MOUT training», In: Military Training Technology, March 2003.

14. Rand, «Preparing for the Proven Inevitable», p. 243.

15. Cited in Boyd, Terry, «Training site replicates Iraqi village», In: Stars and Stripes, 26 July 2006.

16. Associated Press, «Urban combat training center will be Army’s largest», In: Citizen Review Online, December 2002.

17. See Rowell, Steve, «Playas, New Mexico: A Modern Ghost-town Braces for the Future», In: The Lay of the Land: Center for Land Use Interpretation Newsletter, vol. 28, spring 2005.

18. Rand, «Preparing for the Proven Inevitable», p. 63.

19. Idem, p. 83, 152.

20. Loredo, Heidi, «Hollywood magic prepares Marines for combat», In: Marines.Com, July 2004.

21. Quoted in Donnelly, Harrison, «Geospatial data bolsters virtual training», In: Military Geospatial Technology, vol. 4, no. 4, 2006.

22. See Wielhouwer, Peter, «Preparing for future joint urban operations: The role of simulation and the Urban Resolve experiment», In: Small Wars, July 2005.

23. Der Derian, James, Virtuous War: Mapping the Military-Industrial-Media-Entertainment Network, Boulder (CO): Westview Press, 2001.

24. Deck, Andy, «No Quarter: Demilitarizing the playground», In: Artcontext website, 2004.

25. Shachtman, Noah, «Why War Is Really Just a Game», In: Wired, 24 May 2002.

26. See Rogers, Rick, «Military to try virtual combat stress remedy», In: SignOnSanDiego.Com.

27. Baudrillard, Jean, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, Bloomington 1991.

28. Quoted in Newman, Richard, «The joystick war», In: US News, 19 May 2003.

29. Military simulacra also feature more directly in the fortunes of US cities. Their generation now involves important swathes of the US economy, especially in high-tech metropolitan areas. Local economies such as Orlando, Florida or the beltway in Virginia are now dominated by simulation corporations that blend military, research and entertainment dimensions. In Orlando alone there are around 100 military--simulator firms which generate some 17,000 jobs, and are starting to rival Disney as a local economic force.

30. Chenelly, Joseph, «Troops begin combat operations in New Orleans», In: Army Times, 2 September 2005.

31. Misselwitz, Phil and Weizman, Eyal, «Military operations as urban planning», In: Franke, Anselm (ed.), Territories, Berlin 2003, p. 272-75.

32. See Cockburn, Patrick, «The Abyss in Iraq», In: New Left Review, no. 36, November-December 2005.

33. Cockburn, Patrick, «Nowhere to Hide», In: London Review of Books, 22 February 2007.

You could also find interesting