By Mike Davis
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 285

The Pentagon as Global Slumlord

This article is over 17 years, 8 months old
US military planners are discovering that slums are the new centres of resistance.
Issue 285

The young American Marine is exultant. ‘It’s a sniper’s dream,’ he tells a Los Angeles Times reporter on the outskirts of Fallujah. ‘You can go anywhere and there are so many ways to fire at the enemy without him knowing where you are.

‘Sometimes a guy will go down, and I’ll let him scream a bit to destroy the morale of his buddies. Then I’ll use a second shot.

‘To take a bad guy out’, he explains, is an incomparable ‘adrenaline rush’. He brags of having ’24 confirmed kills’ in the initial phase of the brutal US onslaught against the rebel city of 300,000 people.

Faced with intransigent popular resistance that recalls the heroic Vietcong defence of Hue in 1968, the Marines have again unleashed indiscriminate terror. According to independent journalists and local medical workers, they have slaughtered at least 200 women and children in the first two weeks of fighting. The battle of Fallujah, together with parallel conflicts unfolding in Shia towns and Baghdad slums, are high-stakes tests, not just of US policy in Iraq, but of Washington’s ability to dominate what Pentagon planners consider the ‘key battlespace of the future’: the Third World city.

The Mogadishu debacle of 1993, when neighbourhood militias inflicted 60 percent casualties on elite army rangers, forced US strategists to rethink what is known in Pentagonese as ‘Mout: Militarised Operations on Urbanised Terrain’. Ultimately a National Defence Panel review in December 1997 castigated the army as unprepared for protracted combat in the impassable maze-like streets of poor cities. As a result, the four armed services launched crash programmes to master streetfighting under realistic Third World conditions. ‘The future of warfare’, the journal of the Army War College declared, ‘lies in the streets, sewers, high-rise buildings, and sprawl of houses that form the broken cities of the world.’

Israeli advisers were quietly brought in to teach Marines, Rangers and Navy Seals the state of the art tactics – especially the sophisticated coordination of sniper and demolition teams with heavy armour and overwhelming airpower – so ruthlessly used by Israeli defence forces in Gaza and the West Bank. Artificial cityscapes were built to simulate combat conditions in the densely populated neighbourhoods of cities like Baghdad or Port-au-Prince. The Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory also staged realistic wargames (‘Urban Warrior’) in Oakland and Chicago, while the army’s special operations command ‘invaded’ Pittsburgh.

Today many of the Marines inside Fallujah are graduates of these Urban Warrior exercises as well as mock combat at ‘Yodaville’ (the urban training facility at Yuma, Arizona) while the army units encircling Sadr City and Najaf are alumni of the new $34 million Mout simulator at Fort Polk, Louisiana. This tactical ‘Israelisation’ of US combat doctrine has been accompanied by a ‘Sharonisation’ of the Pentagon’s worldview. Military theorists envision the evolving capacity of high-tech warfare to contain, if not destroy, chronic ‘terrorist’ insurgencies rooted in the desperation of growing megaslums.

To help develop a geopolitical framework for urban warfighting, military planners turned in the 1990s to the Rand corporation, Dr Strangelove’s old alma mater. Rand, a nonprofit think-tank established by the air force in 1948, was notorious for wargaming nuclear armageddon in the 1950s and helping plan the Vietnam War in the 1960s. These days Rand does cities – big time. Its researchers ponder urban crime statistics, inner city public health, and the privatisation of public education. They also run the army’s Arroyo Center, which has published a small library of recent studies on the context and mechanics of urban warfare.

One of the most important Rand projects, initiated in the early 1990s, has been a major study of ‘how demographic changes will affect future conflict’. The bottom line, Rand finds, is that the urbanisation of world poverty has produced ‘the urbanisation of insurgency’ (the title, in fact, of their report). ‘Insurgents are following their followers into the cities,’ Rand warns, ‘setting up “liberated zones” in urban shantytowns… Neither US doctrine, nor training, nor equipment is designed for urban counterinsurgency.’ As a result, the slum has become the weakest link in the American Empire.

The Rand researchers reflect on the example of El Salvador, where the local military, despite massive US support, was unable to stop FMLN guerrillas from opening an urban front. Indeed, ‘Had the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front rebels effectively operated within the cities earlier in the insurgency, it is questionable how much the United States could have done to help maintain even the stalemate between the government and the insurgents.’

More recently, a leading air force theorist has made similar points in the Aerospace Power Journal. ‘Rapid urbanisation in developing countries’, writes Captain Troy Thomas, ‘results in a battlespace environment that is decreasingly knowable since it is increasingly unplanned.’ Thomas contrasts modern ‘hierarchical’ urban cores, whose centralised infrastructures are easily crippled by either air strikes (Belgrade) or terrorist attacks (Manhattan), with the sprawling slum peripheries of the Third World, organised by ‘informal, decentralised subsystems’, where ‘no blueprints exist, and points of leverage in the system are not readily discernable’.

Using the ‘sea of urban squalor’ that surrounds Karachi as an example, Thomas portrays the staggering challenge of ‘asymmetric combat’ within ‘non-nodal, non-hierarchical’ urban terrains against ‘clan-based’ militias propelled by ‘desperation and anger’. He cites the sprawling slums of Lagos and Kinshasa as other potential nightmare battlefields.

However, Captain Thomas (whose article is provocatively entitled ‘Slumlords: Aerospace Power in Urban Fights’), like Rand, is brazenly confident that the Pentagon’s massive new investments in Mout technology and training will surmount all the fractal complexities of slum warfare. One of the Rand cookbooks (Aerospace Operations in Urban Environments) even provides a helpful table to calculate the acceptable threshold of ‘collateral damage’ (aka dead babies) under different operational and political constraints.

The occupation of Iraq, of course, has been portrayed by Bush ideologues as a ‘laboratory for democracy’ in the Middle East. To Mout geeks, on the other hand, it is a laboratory of different kind, where Marine snipers and air force pilots test out new killing techniques in an emergent world war against the urban poor.

Sign up for our daily email update ‘Breakfast in Red’

Latest News

Make a donation to Socialist Worker

Help fund the resistance