“Enemy at the Gates”: A War on the Cities

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On December 9, 2016, the United States Army War College published a 163 page monograph entitled, “Military Contingencies in Megacities and Sub-Megacities,” written by Dr. Phil Williams and Werner Selle.

Early in their analysis, the authors assert “that the United States will find itself at some point in the not-too-distant future engaged in military contingencies in large cities.” They go on to say that military occupations of major metropolitan areas pose problems that are “as challenging as they are inescapable.” The authors assert that we will see historically unprecedented levels of human suffering, death and destruction in the near future. Urban warfare will become the new battle-scenario which:

… ensures that the battlefield will be densely populated. Civilians will no longer be mere bystanders able to be circumvented or avoided, but an integral component of the battlefield. (p.93)

Their analysis predicts both massive military and civilian casualties.

Such cautions notwithstanding, an inhibition cannot be allowed to become a prohibition. If there is a highly compelling strategic rationale for action, the United States might not have the luxury of avoiding the dangers of an urban contingency. (p. 125)

The New Berlins and Stalingrads

The examples chosen to depict the problems of urban invasion and occupation are the battles of Berlin and Stalingrad during World War II.

[B]oth of these battles ultimately resulted in the utter destruction of the dense urban areas. A more modern scenario, which although unlikely is by no means inconceivable, could involve a battle in Seoul, in the Republic of Korea. In some ways, such a scenario exemplifies the potential for a contemporary Battle of Stalingrad. (p. 111)

Seoul is an interesting choice for comparison. First, it is densely populated with about 23 million human beings. Second, the vastly increased lethality of modern military weaponry would surely kill many more than the 700,000 people who died in Berlin and the three million who died stopping the Nazis at Stalingrad. The monograph addresses this issue not by worrying about collateral damage but by proposing even more destructive weapons for the U.S. occupying forces in Korea.

The more US military forces are educated, trained, and equipped for a dense urban conflict, the more likely the numerical advantage of North Korea would not prove nearly as decisive as Pyongyang might anticipate. (p. 112)

Fragile and Feral Cities

The research goes on to explain that these military incursions are most probably appropriate for “poor” cities. They make a distinction between “smart” cities which are more developed and “fragile” and “feral” cities housing greater numbers of impoverished residents. The monograph makes it clear that the total destruction of the poorest neighborhoods is vital to the military goal of “pacification.”

Given the trends in urbanization, especially in the global south and the concomitant problems of instability and fragility, it is more likely that the US Army will find itself in a fragile or feral megacity than in a smart city. (p. 123)

So, the recommended military strategy is to target the poor, working class communities and destroy the “slums.” Ghettos and slums present a major impediment to this military strategy of invasion and occupation:

Megacities and dense urban areas also contain numerous slums or “sheet metal forests,” which are very different from “concrete canyons” [i.e., commercial centers] …These areas can provide significant concealment to the adversaries and even become strong operational bases. Apart from moving the population out and bulldozing the slum, there is very little that can be done. (p. 119)

The suggested military strategy is to seek out and destroy young, poor, working class men. They advise that large poor populations contain:

… a surplus of unemployed males with little to do but join gangs or engage in crime as a source of income. Joining extremist or terrorist organizations might also appear attractive as a way out. At the very least, in the event of some kind of conflict, these young men would provide a pool of potential recruits for those opposing the United States. In short, slums would be an inordinately difficult battlefield. (p. 95)

The authors do propose one alternative to annihilating the poor. They suggest that it may be possible to seek out “forces of alternative governance,” specifically “criminal entities.” In other words, to continue the U.S. government’s long and well-established alliance with organized crime (see, State Organized Crime and U.S. Imperialism; Ronald Reagan and the Mob; and, Globalization and the Illicit Traffic in Arms.)

A tacit or explicit agreement with the forces of alternative governance might make it possible to prevent adversaries from utilizing these “sheet metal forests.” Of course, there would have to be something in return, even if only an implicit understanding that US military forces would not interfere with the illicit business of the criminal organizations. (p. 120)

Both of these proposed “military” tactics lay waste the traditional U.S. claim that military intervention is intended both for humanitarian reasons and the creation of democracy. Killing impoverished and defenseless populations, razing the slums and turning over entire populations to organized crime is neither humanitarian or democratic.

“Fragile” Cities at Home and Abroad

While much of this monograph centers on the inevitable resistance to an invasion by the United States, it also discusses “civil unrest” as a major problem that may soon “plague the governance of such cities and play significant roles in the military operations conducted within them.”

But they also raise the possibility of using their strategy for massive military suppression and occupation domestically. The case of Hurricane Katrina is cited as a possible point of intervention when a natural disaster creates certain conditions:

… precipitating the collapse of a fragile city into a feral one. One only has to look at the experience of New Orleans under the impact of Katrina to see how a city can rapidly degenerate into anomie and anarchy, with the normal rules and norms of urban life abruptly jettisoned. (p. 26)

The discussion of instability resulting from natural disasters takes an even more ominous turn when the concept of the “urban dilemma” is addressed. The urban dilemma refers to risk resulting from insecurities felt by the urban poor. Cities such as Amsterdam, London, New York, Paris and Tokyo are cited as potential trouble spots. It is interesting to note that the discussion of the “urban dilemma” is elaborated upon by a reference to “class conflict.” It is argued that class conflict would be a serious complication the military would face in a post-combat period when the military enters occupation and pacification periods. In dealing with the urban dilemma and class conflict the monograph argues that the restoration of order would be the highest priority.

But restoring order and creating a stable occupation is complicated by the problem of transparency:

The other problem when dealing with cyberspace in relation to megacity contingencies is that adversaries can exploit the almost automatic transparency that it creates – both to show US forces in bad light and their own actions very positively. (p. 83)

To deal with this problem any military action would have to prioritize shutting down the internet, cell phone service and military control of all local media:

Part of IPB [intelligence preparation for the urban battlefield] prior to any action in a megacity or sub-megacity must be to identify the services providers for both telecommunications and the Internet. It is also important to identify online opinion-makers who could have a major impact in any controversy over US military intervention. (p. 83)

The monograph points out that “here in the United States, the release of videos showing killings by police has led to significant protests and political movements.” So, it would not be enough to simply close down the internet and telecommunications, but the seizure and control of the city’s infrastructure would also be required in order to control the occupied population:

There are certain areas you will always need to understand when entering an urban area—with the purpose of then controlling it and the population. These are the building layout and composition, transportation, electrical, sewage and water, and natural gas systems and the locations/status of key subcomponents—bridges, gas stations, power stations, high tension power lines, neighborhood substations/transformers, underground sewage canals, water purification plants, gas lines and their depth under roads… (p. 58)

As an example, the authors use the exemplar of actions by the Israeli Defense Forces during the 2002 attack on the West Bank city of Nablus:

[The IDF] used none of the city’s streets, roads, alleys or courtyards, or any of the external doors, internal stairwells and windows, but moved horizontally through walls and vertically through holes blasted in ceilings and floors. This form of movement, described by the military as “infestation,” seeks to redefine inside as outside, and domestic interiors as thoroughfares. The IDF’s strategy of ‘walking through walls’ involves a conception of the city as not just the site but also the very medium of warfare—a flexible, almost liquid medium that is forever contingent and in flux. (p. 54)

Mass Surveillance

Central to the invasion, occupation and “pacification” of a city is a massive intelligence operation prior to military action. The report lays out detailed plans for a “real-time” social map” of all metropolitan inhabitants. That includes tracking their movements, mapping their social networks, identifying their friends and relatives and classifying their political leanings. The report notes that people who use smart phones are in actuality “mobile sensors” whose phones contain tweets, photos, messages and other valuable intelligence items:

This transforms human beings into potential sensors that not only have the ability to process and interpret what they feel and think but also to geographically localize the information (sometimes involuntarily) and spread it globally through the Internet, thus drawing people-generated landscapes. (p. 80)

In addition, human intelligence (informers and agents) will also be vital:

Human intelligence assets will be able to offer far greater insight on adversaries because of their ability to capture emotions and relationships—things that will long remain outside the purview of even the most sophisticated drones. (p. 10)

What this means is the U.S. military will conduct an advanced and total espionage operation directed at every citizen of the cities it intends to pacify. Human assets (informants and government agents), drones, cell phones and “real-time sensors” will be activated to produce a social map of an entire populace.

In other words, the US military will spy on the entire population of the cities it plans on invading, using drones and cell phones as real-time “sensors” to monitor entire populations. The military proposes to infiltrate political groups and “isolate” political activists as a means to suppress any potential opposition.

The “Battle of the Story”

Essential to military plans to occupy and pacify major cities is controlling not just information, but how that information is presented. The military must win what it refers to as “the battle of the story”:

Presenting compelling narratives can enhance legitimacy and authority in the eyes of many stakeholders (such as the urban population). Understanding the utility and power of digital media, therefore, allows for enormous reach and breadth that can indirectly alter the battlefield. The user-friendliness of mass media and mobile technology allows adversaries to manipulate and garner favorable public opinion and recruit support. For these reasons and more, civilian and military leaders cannot afford to ignore the requirement for compelling narratives. (p. 116)

The monograph makes a major issue how important controlling the narrative would be in cases where the military must invade and occupy American cities:

In the final analysis, the battle of narratives and the contradictions of security are likely to be at the forefront, especially as the most likely contingencies will be humanitarian or stabilization operations. Moreover, such operations could even take place within the continental United States, as demonstrated by the Los Angeles riots and the responses to Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy. Presenting a positive image of the military to the American public is indispensable for continued support. (p. 117)

Worldwide Urban War

This plan for military contingencies in megacities and sub-megacities is a blueprint for U.S. invasions, occupations and pacifications of cities with millions and millions of occupants. In fact, the authors portray this as an “inescapable” reality. The monograph analyzes the National Guard’s occupation of Ferguson, Missouri during protests following the police killing of Michael Brown in 2014; the occupation of parts of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina in 2005; and foreign city military interventions in like Kabul, Mosul, Fallujah and Baghdad.

The list of potential targets contained in the report is staggering. It includes five U.S. cities, including Los Angeles, Baltimore, San Francisco, New Orleans and New York. It also lists 38 probable urban battle zones outside of U.S. border.

This document is a plan designed to prepare the U.S. military to attack cities at home and abroad and to literally wipe out social opposition to those attacks. The number of deaths and injuries resulting from such plans would be staggering. The number of refugees created would be enormous. The high probability of continuing and unending crises in late capitalism have necessitated this draconian blueprint. The importance of imperialism as a temporary band-aid to deal with these crises could not be made clearer.  The danger is even more compelling when we consider the number of extremist, war-mongering right-wingers who dominate among Donald Trump’s diplomatic and defense advisers.  The need for a powerful, organized social opposition to capitalism and imperialism could not be more urgent than it is in 2017.


Note: Enemy at the Gates is a 2001 French film written and directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud depicting the winter 1942 Battle of Stalingrad.


Gary Potter, PhD
Professor, School of Justice Studies
Eastern Kentucky University

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