In the 21st century, the search for national security has become a source of urban insecurity.
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.
We have seen this across Iraq since 2003, when the US and its allies led their second war in Iraq. Along with Vietnam, this conflict was one of the first major examples in our current epoch of these asymmetric wars, and a good case for examining how irregular combatants can derail a massive conventional army. While the attack on Iraq’s regular army was a quick war, almost an easy war, fought and won largely from the air over six weeks of absolutely superior air bombardment that destroyed the Iraqi army, the ground war is still not quite over all these years later.
Nor do contemporary urban wars even prioritise direct combat. Rather, they produce forced urbanisation and de-urbanisation. In many cases, such as Kosovo, displaced people swell urban populations. In other cases, such as Baghdad, ethnic cleansing expels people – in that case the “voluntary” departures of Sunnis, Christians and other religious groups, all of whom had long co-existed in Iraq’s large cities.
Indeed, warring forces now often avoid battle. Their main strategy is to gain control over territory, through the expulsion of “the other” – often defined in terms of ethnicity, religion, tribal membership or political affiliation. Their main tactic is the terror of conspicuous atrocities, such as in South Sudan, home to a brutal and bloody war with no end in sight fought between two strongmen (and former collaborators), or the Congo, where irregular armies fighting for control of mining wealth have killed millions.
The western military is learning. The US now has training camps featuring imitation “Arab” urban districts, and has picked up the Israeli practice of entering a dense neighbourhood not via the street, but by crossing through homes – a parallel pathway to the street, running from one interior room to another by carving holes in contiguous walls, and dealing with the inhabitants as they come across them.
They have learned, above all, that the city itself has become an obstacle. And while it is true that they can simply bomb a city to pieces – as we’ve seen with the bombing of Aleppo and other cities by Syria’s government and its allies – we have not recently seen the total destruction of the Hiroshima nuclear attack or the fire-bombing of Dresden.
Why? What is it that makes the city a problematic, uneasy target for our major military powers?
Consider why the 6 million people, including United Nations “blue helmets”, killed in rural Congo over the past decade by irregular and regular armies is rarely mentioned in the global media, while 13 killed in London is front-page news.
Global media certainly have an easier time reporting on major cities than on villages and fields. But even when those “remote” deaths are invoked, the shock and the engagement is not as strong as it is with terrorist attacks in cities. This engagement with the urban goes beyond attacks on people: when a major historic building or work of art is destroyed, it can generate huge responses of horror, pain, sadness, sense of loss – but 6 million killed in Congo? Nothing.
This is both shocking and revealing. 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 – even if many cities started as fortresses?
Certainly, the global resonance of tragic events in cities explains why small bands of angry, hurt youth or loners consider even minor terror attacks in their cities: the attention of global media, particularly if those attacks happen in cities that are not part of the narrowly defined “war zone”.
The new urban map of war is expansive: it goes far beyond that war zone. The attacks in Madrid, London, Casablanca, New York, Bali, Mumbai, Lahore, Jakarta, Nice, Munich, Paris, Barcelona, Manchester, Brussels – and on and on – are all part of this map, whether or not their countries are involved in the active theatre of war.
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.
In the old wars, there was the option of calling for an armistice. In today’s wars, there are no dominant powers who can decide to end it. Today’s urban wars, above all, are wars with no end in sight.
Saskia Sassen is a professor at Columbia University and the author of Expulsions
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