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On Military Operations and Urban Planning: Part One

“I spoke to an Israeli reserve soldier shortly after the battle of Jenin. I was interested in the relationship between planning – not physical planning, but the attempt to foresee scenarios and act accordingly – and urban warfare. What he said was not surprising in its essence, but in its intensity. He spoke of his perception of total chaos, where all the plans and preparations became irrelevant, the battle completely unexpected, dense, full of contradictions, with characters changing their role from woman to man, from civilian to combatant, from friend to foe. Chance played a more important role than the ability to calculate and predict. It has become impossible to draw up scenarios, plan next steps, or draw up single-track plans to follow through. This really shows that, as far as the military is concerned, urban warfare is the ultimate post-modern warfare: the belief in a logically structured, single-tracked and pre-planned approach is lost in the complexity and ambiguity of the urban reality”

(from an interview with Israeli architect Eyal Weizman, 'Military Operations as Urban Planning')

In April I went to a symposium in New York entitled ‘Should the Future be Designed? Alternative Approaches to Activism, Politics and Professional Practice in the Design Disciplines’ . M. Christine Boyer, a Princeton academic, explored some parallels between military and urban planning desires to control the city. Ultimately she argued that the military had developed far more sophisticated tools for understanding the dynamics of urban contexts than the planning profession.

A brief search on the internet reveals that ‘Urban Operations’ (or MOUT - Military Operations on Urbanized Terrain) is indeed a topic of urgency in military strategy research (it also happens to be the name of an earnest new design firm in Los Angeles, whose work promises “to critique culture either through suggestive methods or more direct strategies”, for example the “design of furniture whose proportions revolved around collections of consumerist technologies”).

So what are these tools the military are developing for dealing with the fact that “the Clausewitzian definition of warfare as a symmetrical engagement between state armies in the open field are over?” Some concrete examples I found on the web range from the constructive to the virtual and include:

- DARC (Direct Action Resource Center) provides one to one mockups for war games in middle America. Their 6,100-square-foot "main shoot house" is made to simulate an apartment or office building and "is flexible enough that a group could have a full training week and never see the same floor plan". On the other side of the facility is "Little Mogadishu" - an urban assault course with low concrete buildings laid out like a village in a third world country.

While army training has decreased there recently because troops are all engaged in real battle, civilian demand has gone up (since September 11) - including clients from wealthy European and Mexican families that face a high kidnap risk and corporate team-building events. In 2002, DARC also branched out into new territory: the extreme vacation - a three-day, $3,500 package for "stockbroker, lawyer, doctor, dentist types", who "regretted not going into the military".

- Sophisticated computer software such as URWARS which provides simulations that help prepare users for urban warfare. URWARS "takes into consideration the behavior of friendly, hostile and neutral forces" (called agent-based modelling and using behavioural codes), as well as "static spatial information such as the location of buildings, major highways, residential roads, sewers, subterranean entries, subways tunnels and waterways", using commercially available geographic information systems.


- New strategies of attack (“methods for adapting to the chaos and unpredictability of the city”) which use biological references such as ‘swarming’ - "a convergent attack on a target from multiple axes, either preplanned or opportunistic, rather than the old-school military column", as well as ‘worming’ where soldiers move through walls by cutting routes through buildings....“realising that about 70-80 percent of the military casualties occurred outside buildings, Israeli infantry started tunnelling their way through the urban fabric, like worms in apples…mainly through the second floor because the entire ground floor was booby trapped”, “the existing urban syntax of streets or internal stairs was replaced with another circulation system”.

Israeli architect Eyal Weizman explores the relationship between military strategists and architectural profession in a book called A Civilian Occupation: The Politics of Israeli Architecture. In an interview he reminds the reader that “cities were always exposed to war and organised according to the logic of defense. Each period’s urban form related to the available technologies of destruction”. His work charts some of the more recent interactions between military and planning professions. Gratuitous cut and paste follows:

"Militaries around the world have become acutely aware of their failure to develop suitable doctrines and technologies. The existing military arsenal of weapons is better suited for ‘classical’ armoured warfare on the great Russian plains than to urban combat…."


"Military academies across the world show great interest in urban studies, in gaining more understanding of the ways cities work. Simon Marvin, Professor of Planning at the British University of Salford, has shown how armies set up many new urban research programs and allocate huge budgets for the study of cities."


"Suddenly, architects and planners are in high demand as a valuable source of knowledge”

“The military tends to deal with the problem of taking over a city in a way similar to the way a planner deals with issues of development. Both look for ways to control an area by manipulating its infrastructure, reshaping and replacing the built fabric, or attempting to manage the local population’s various cultural sensitivities"

Urban Terrain

The collaboration does not only happen in the planning offices: "The large bulldozers employed by the Israeli army in the West Bank and Gaza to destroy homes were the most effective strategic urban weapon. Each one of these mammoths is manned by a crew of three, including an engineering officer – usually a civil engineer or an architect on reserve duty. The reason is that they best know how to topple a building, to which side the debris must fall, etc"

Weizman also constructs a possible role for the architect in opposition to the development of military tactics:

"This new military ‘science’ and these methods must be looked at and studied very carefully. NGOs and humanitarian organisations must understand that war crimes have clear spatial dimensions and that there is therefore a role for the professionals of space – architects and planners – in their analysis. For example: until recently, the destruction of urban warfare was reported and analysed as a purely statistical issue, relating to numbers of destroyed homes, the extent of economic damage, etc. Current human rights research has tended to divert attention away from space and urban form. But besides a quantification of destruction, we can see a much more serious phenomenon in which the urbicide of Jenin was an attempt to subjugate a population on the basis of denying it the advantages of urban life....Architects and planners have the responsibility to use their ability to help make people understand the repercussions involved in formal aspects of warfare – and the crimes of an attack on urbanity"


"In a sense, we should no longer speak of war in the city, but of war of the city, by the city. The city has become no longer the locus, but the apparatus of warfare."
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11:39 AM

wow, very precise! a worming operation through the fabric of urban theory!
Lets think about the seminar we told you on "war and cities"...    

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