Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts When Worlds *Don’t* Collide

When Worlds *Don’t* Collide

Working at a think tank I spend a good portion of my days (and many evenings and weekends) reading, listening, talking, or writing about foreign and defense policy issues. In my free time, among other activities, I pay a lot of attention to the Philadelphia Phillies and enjoy good, and sometimes not so good, film and television. In the main I subscribe to George Costanza’s “Worlds Theory”* and don’t like to mix up entertainment with my professional life. Sometimes, however, these “worlds” are impossible to separate—for instance when films like Black Hawk Down, The Hurt Locker, or Zero Dark Thirty come out. Other times people use elements of pop culture to explore the goings on in world affairs by analogy. When done poorly these sorts of analyses can be terrible, but when done well they can be quite useful. Two such useful pieces were recently published.

Erin Simpson over at discusses the lessons of urban revolutions in a post about Les Misérables. She notes as a student of political violence that she was “…more interested in the structural integrity of the barricades and the poor substitution of tenors for tactics” and that “…it provides a blueprint for understanding the relationship between cities and violence.”

While she notes that the student uprising was crushed, the physical terrain of Paris was favorable to “armed insurgents.” Eventually, however, the government learned its lessons. As Simpson points out:

The French authorities eventually learned their lesson. Following the collapse of the Second Republic in 1851, Napoleon III established the Second Empire. Among his most significant reforms during this period was commissioning Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann to redesign Paris, transforming it into the city we know today. Though aesthetic considerations drove demand for green spaces and new building facades, the desire to exert better control over rioting Parisians played a significant role. One of the central design elements of Haussmann’s Paris is wide boulevards — specifically, the width of a cavalry squadron in extended line.

This is where urban planning intersects with military plans. In addition to its boulevards, Paris’s famous circles are spaced to allow for interlocking fields of (cannon) fire. Haussmann isolated the most rebellious neighborhoods from the 1848 July Days by filling in a canal. He also placed Paris’s grand railway stations so that they would be rapidly accessibly by government troops, and designed urban blocks so that corner buildings were set back from the intersections — making them next to impossible to barricade, while simultaneously bringing light and air into city streets. After 1968, most of the city’s cobblestone roads were also paved over to prevent the pavers from being used as projectiles in future protests.

Although she concedes that it had long been conventional wisdom in counterinsurgency circles that urban revolts where very difficult and were typically detected and put down due to factors such as the “[c]oncentration of state security forces in built-up areas and the isolation of urban populations from potential sources of support …[make] it difficult to organize, recruit, and operate in cities”, this received wisdom is now changing. Experiences in places such as Baghdad, Fallujah, and Ramadi show the potentialities of urban insurgencies. As she states

It may now be possible to organize and train virtually, allowing networks and capabilities to grow without attracting the attention of modern-day Javerts. Rapidly growing urban spaces like Karachi and Lagos combine weak governance, informal settlements, and choking population density, which offer sanctuary to proto-insurgents. Add to this the ready availability of modern telecommunications, global finance networks, and regional and international transport, and these mega-cities present a perfect storm of means, motive, and opportunity for modern insurgents.

This is similar to an observation that Frank G. Hoffman pointed out in the summer 2007 issue of Parameters when he argued that

…rural insurgencies have not vanished, but the complex terrain of the world’s amorphous urban centers is fast becoming the insurgent and terrorist’s jungle of the twenty-first century….

Today, distance is exchanged for density. Urbanization presents an environment with populations and infrastructure so dense that law enforcement, intelligence, and conventional military assets may not be as effective. Dense urban centers provide the urban guerrilla or terrorist with many of the same advantages as the classical setting, as well as the added dimension of lucrative targets. Where political systems are brittle, the combination of population growth and urbanization fosters instability and ever-increasing challenges to political control and public security. Modern insurgents exploit these environmental factors to their advantage.

Simpson concludes by stating that while modern day urban counterinsurgents may be aided by tools such as “[i]nnovations in aerial surveillance, big data, and network mapping…” they will not necessarily cope with the underlying grievances that lead to such uprisings. With this in mind one might easily see a future where cities and mega-cities will take two idealized forms: (1) cities where urban planning is carefully done and advanced industrial or information capabilities permeate society and have, in effect an unblinking eye**; or (2) cities where sprawl and unplanned housing makes establishing control very difficult outside of small business districts or walled luxury housing compounds.

Switching gears, over at Kings of War Ryan Evans of the Center for National Policy wrote an interesting post entitled “Hell on Wheels as State or Nation-Building.”*** For those who haven’t seen it, Hell on Wheels is about the construction of the United States’ first continental railroad as it moves west.  Drawing on Frederick Jackson Turner, Charles Tilly, and Khald Fahmy he explains how the show deals with the issues of the time to discuss the re-building of the American nation after the Civil War.  As he puts it the show is

…a microcosm of the state building process.  The show portrays entrepreneurs (of violence, industry, and commerce) and ‘big men’ trying to knit together a new collective – laborers, foremen, merchants, and prostitutes – toward a common commercial and industrial goal – the building of a railroad.  These actors are constantly challenged by managing the divided interests and agendas within this collective defined by race, religion, and politics.  These multiple, fluid solidarities are constantly erupting into conflict. The Irish laborers despise the newly liberated black former slaves.  Contempt is mutual between the Yankees and the Confederates who only recently laid down their arms and turned west.  Non-immigrant Americans look down on the Irish ‘papists’ – who make up most of the labor force.  Everyone fears and hates the Cheyenne Indians, who lurk in the plains waiting to strike – the enemies of ‘progress’ and ‘modernization.’

The biggest big man is Colm Meany’s Thomas Durant (a real person).  He is the businessman driving the tracks across the plains – his national project – leveraging the resources of outside powerbrokers – investors, a U.S. Senator, and banks – paying and intimidating laborers, and, above all, looking after himself.  Building the railroad is his war.  Durant induces, persuades, divides-and-conquers, and coerces. He performs these four activities, which, according to Tilly, all fall under the umbrella of organized violence: war making (fighting external rivals), state making (fighting internal rivals), protection (fighting the enemies of his clients), and extraction (‘acquiring the means of carrying out the first three activities’).

He notes that questions relating to the legitimacy or illegitimacy of such violence and political control are hotly debated and have been throughout history. Obviously, as we know now, the methods used in Hell on Wheels worked, no matter how unseemly they may seem to our 21st century sensibilities. Of course, expanding the focus to 21st century Afghanistan and such sensibilities might explain the problems of state-building there today.

I’ll keep my eyes open for other analyses like these and report them in this space from time to time. Perhaps I can even get Roger Carstens to do an analysis of SOF employment lessons learned from The Dark Knight Rises….


*“Worlds Theory” is explained in the Seinfeld episode “The Pool Guy” which first aired in November 1995. Worlds Theory posits that people need to keep certain portions of their lives compartmentalized. In George’s case this meant keeping his relationships with his friends (“Independent George”, his sanctuary) and his girlfriend Susan (“Relationship George”) separate or else his worlds would collide and blow up.

** See for instance a program such as Luther where CCTV pieces together things in near real time in London or how Dubai authorities pieced together the members of an alleged Mossad hit squad after the assassination of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh.

*** Evans provides another plausible explanation for mixing up entertainment with work: “When I first discovered Hell on Wheels, a TV show on AMC, I spent large part of a couple days watching the entire first season. In an effort to tie this into what I do and stave off my guilt over binging on TV when I should have been working, here we go: Hell on Wheels as nation-building.”