Western military strategy was long premised on the avoidance of urban combat, with air strikes the preferred method of subduing large conurbations. 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.footnote1

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 per cent 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’.footnote2 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.’footnote3 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.footnote4

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.footnote5

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.footnote6 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.footnote7

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.footnote8