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Dark urban fantasies

Stephen Graham's Cities Under Siege: the new military urbanism (Verso), reviewed by Matthew Carr

September 27, 2010
2 min read

One of the recurring features of the ‘war on terror’ has been a tendency to imagine the world’s geographical and physical spaces in ways that recall classical distinctions between the civilised centre and the barbarian periphery. However these distinctions are imagined, they invariably provide a justification for endless military interventions and the imposition of quasi-imperial discipline on the world’s ‘wild places’.

It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that some of the most original critics of 21st-century imperialism have been geographers by profession. Derek Gregory, David Harvey and Stephen Graham have all written important and essential books on contemporary geopolitics for a non-academic audience.

A specialist in urban geography at Newcastle University, Graham has a specific concern with the modern city and the way cities are represented in the military imagination. In the US military in particular, a stream of strategy papers,

thinktanks, war games and simulations have depicted the

city as a zone of disorder and a potential obstacle to US military power.

This ‘new military urbanism’ is partly influenced by the real battles in Fallujah and Baghdad, and by Israeli campaigns in Gaza, the West Bank and Lebanon. But the Pentagon’s vision of the city is made up of many different components, from Christian fundamentalism, cyberpunk fantasies of urban breakdown and a right-wing aversion to the cosmopolitanism of the modern city to a generalised ‘othering’ of the Arab world, where the military sees itself fighting most of its urban battles in the immediate future.

All these tendencies are dissected by Graham in sharp, lucid and elegant prose. Whether analysing the dystopian implications of military robotics, deconstructing orientalist fantasies in the mock ‘Arab’ cities constructed by the US and Israeli armies, or analysing the phenomenon of ‘ubiquitous borders’, Graham is consistently insightful and compelling. He has produced an indispensable analysis of the dark fantasies that the military imagination is seeking to realise in the coming century.


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