City Limits: Military Urbanism from Baghdad to Brooklyn

Aug 2013

Issue V

Artist: Ayesha Malik | "Across from James the tailor"

Artist: Ayesha Malik | “Across from James the tailor”

In recent years, plenty of media coverage and scholarly analyses of urban wars in the Global South have been produced in the West. Karachi gets a handful of Foreign Policy articles each year; Aleppo has become the new Grozny, and battles over Baghdad or Mogadishu have made it to the cinema a number of times already. In these representations and in popular culture in general, urban war is perceived as bloody, happening there, in other countries far away, and with little relation to the increased attention to homeland security here. When violent attacks do rock a western city—New York, London, Madrid, and recently Boston—the popular narrative portrays these events as an intrusion from outside into the homeland.

But borders don’t simply exist along the geographies of nation-states. They are internal to the city itself. For example, immigration has long undone the concept of foreign and domestic, between outside and inside. Migrants bring the colonial frontier—whether from the vantage point of the US, that is Mexico or Afghanistan—into the heartland. Understood as an intrusion, even an invasion, military theorists have gone so far as to call immigration a form of warfare.

This is the new militaristic urban outlook that Stephen Graham tracks in his book, Cities Under Siege: The New Military Urbanism (Verso Books, 2010). Graham, a professor of Cities and Societies at Newcastle University, unpacks how the new military urbanism has permeated how the state imagines urban space: a site of warfare where borders must be constantly shored up against migrants, indigents and criminals. With the constant involvement in one or another war abroad—from bombardments of cities to long term occupations—has come a sense of insecurity at home. So, states have resorted to importing their war strategies back to the homeland.

This militaristic conception of urban space recasts the sprawling cosmopolitan neighborhoods of western cities in “the same Orientalist terms as the mega-cities of the Global South, as places radical external to the vulnerable nation—territories every bit as foreign as Baghdad or Gaza” (p. xviii).

The borders are internal.

And, by dissecting urban sites anew in military terms, this urbanism expels parts of the homeland and legitimately a ground for war, whether that takes the form of police brutality, segregation or the drug war. This segregation of space has antecedents in apartheid South Africa or Sunni-Shia Bagdad. These, says Graham, are the colonial predecessors to gated housing in Europe and the US. Other examples include fast-lanes on motorway toll plazas where the rich and privileged can pass through controls quickly or the US practice of checking passengers already at the foreign airport of departure.

The borders are ubiquitous.


The theoretical spine of Graham’s work is the concept of the “boomerang effect” developed by the French philosopher, Michel Foucault. The latter explained the effect as the importation of models of discipline and control that had been used in the colonies back to the homeland such that, “the West could practice something resembling colonization, or an internal colonialism, on itself.”[1]

The initial motivation to write the book came during an urban studies conference in Israel when Graham visited a lab of the new urban militarism par excellence: occupied Gaza Strip. Post-withdrawal Gaza Strip, Graham writes, is“a kind of laboratory for new techniques of urban control, pacification and counterinsurgency warfare—without occupation—by the Israeli military” (p. 240). The results from this laboratory are of great value to the US. It was Israel that taught the US the practice of “switching off cities,” that is, to deprive an urban area of its basic life-sustaining infrastructure—used to great effect in Baghdad. Deaths occurred from diseases long after the bombs were dropped with little coverage in the myopic cycle of daily news.

The aim of the book is to draw together two, usually distinct conversations: security studies on the one hand, and the more critically engaged fields of urban studies, geography, architecture, anthropology and cultural studies. With examples drawn from popular media, he reaches profound conclusions. For example, he argues that the antipathy for cities is found on both sides of the radical spectrum: terrorists’ have targeted New York skyscrapers, the prime symbol of urbanism. On the other side, Tom DeLay planned to host the 2005 Republican Convention on a Cruise Ship to stay away from urban New York. “Perhaps surprisingly, US Christian fundamentalists and neoconservatives hold a view of the United States’ core cities that is remarkably similar to that held by al-Qaeda,” writes Graham. The “deep rooted anti-urbanism at the heart of US political and technological culture has turned into all-out urban demonization” (p. 42).

This demonization of cities has greased the wheels of a new kind of warfare that is largely of a technological nature, encompassing surveillance techniques, mini-drones, and armoured cars. Graham shows how states have re-appropriated war-technology at many levels, making it a part of urban life in western cities. Technology that is tested in wars abroad—the Humvee in Iraq, the drone in Yemen and Pakistan and border fences in Palestine—find their way into the western urban life at increasing speed.

Graham dissects probably the most popular topic in recent years, the use of drones and other “robowar dreams.” Rather than discussing the oft-debated questions of efficiency or lethality, Graham focuses on how the increased use of these instruments and trust in them changes the perception of ground realities. No satellite or drone image presents an unambiguous picture of the earth, the so-called ground truth. Such imagery often only opens paths of interpretation. Scholar Laura Kurgan has shown that presenting the drone’s eye view as just “facts speaking for themselves” is simply propaganda.[2]  Historian Manan Ahmed has noted that while there are great claims made on behalf of satellite cameras and drones, “yet, who can decipher all that data?” Often it is in the interest of those in charge not to decipher but to confine a multidimensional city and its population to a simple map, because it is easier to justify strikes on a dot on the map than on a crowded bazaar. How places are rendered is critical. In fact, Graham argues that Israeli and US bombing of Arab Others has been fuelled by what he calls “the most powerful urban warfare weapon of all: the imaginative rendering of geography and enmity in support of violence and militarization” (p. 234). Such militaristic models make urban citizenship and urban life invisible.

Perhaps, the most striking aspect of Cities under Siege is how it anticipated what has happened in large cities around the world since its publication in 2010. From a clampdown on immigration in Europe to the use of US manufactured tear gas against the Tahrir Square demonstrations in 2011, events have exemplified Graham’s range of concepts around military urbanism. One can think of Occupy Wall Street and ensuing clashes on US university campuses, as an instance of the boomerang coming home. Similarly, the highly militarized and social-mediatized search of Dzokhar Tsarnaev in Boston can be read through Graham’s explication of ubiquitous borders. Meanwhile, one mustn’t forget, that the old school urban battles have been ongoing in places like Benghazi—now with the use of drones.


This is the inevitable question: How then to confront the new military urbanism? Is it even possible? Yes, but only if we can see. For Graham, the popular imaginary is part of the problem: weapons are imagined to be “clean” and precise to the point that they cause damage only to the ‘bad guys’; one never sees the real, human inhabitants of targeted cities, and migrants exist only as numbers.

To undo that, we must begin by uncovering the actual geography of the unseen. “Once the hidden is unhidden, it can be confronted and potentially reversed” (p. 351). Such subversive acts of uncovering are what he calls “countergeographies.” Graham provides a number of images and online sources that include maps and wilful distortion of propaganda materials towards progressive ends. Examples of “countergeographies” have also increased in number since the book was published. Some of these examples are all too often just seen as controversial artwork. As numerous recent examples show, it can be helpful in countering the enforced one-dimensional framing of faraway areas. Even more immediate, it could prevent our very own cities from being turned into simplified caricatures—the prerequisite of increased militarization and securitization that in the long run makes the lives of urban dwellers dreadful and even sometimes, fatal.

Jakob Steiner is a Grad Student of Environmental Engineering at ETH in Switzerland. He has lived and worked in different ‘post-colonial’ environments, from Australia to Pakistan. He holds a degree in Classical Music from his home country Austria and if patience permits plans to carry his Tabla skills to some higher level in future. He blogs at


[1] Michel Foucault, “Society Must Be Defended”: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-1976; Reprint: Picador, 2003

[2] Laura Kurgan, Close up at a distance – Mapping, Technology and Politics; Zone Books 2013

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4 Responses to City Limits: Military Urbanism from Baghdad to Brooklyn

  1. Issue V: Space | Tanqeed on Aug 2013 at 12:40 PM

    […] locked the poor people out.”* To enforce this segregation between the elite and the poor, the militarization of space has since gone on steroids. Gated communities have proliferated, along with extensive […]

  2. Lahore’s Elite Logic | Tanqeed on Sep 2013 at 10:20 PM

    […] Stephen Graham, an urban studies scholar, recently argued that governments around the world have begun to use techniques of war to administer urban space and to regulate their local populations. […]

  3. […] in this great Guardian piece). The business of building up such separations is lucrative, a book I recently reviewed for Tanqeed deals with this […]

  4. […] City Limits: Military Urbanism from Baghdad to Brooklyn […]

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