Friday, January 16, 2009

Deconstructing Gaza (and other lessons in covert geography)

Last weekend, NYT had an interesting article about next generation urban warfare tactics being utilized by the combatants in their ongoing conflict in the "feral city." From Sunday's "A Gaza War Full of Traps and Trickery," a description of a real-world conflict that sounds like it has borrowed heavily from the interactive virtual dungeon master pages of video games:

Hamas, with training from Iran and Hezbollah, has used the last two years to turn Gaza into a deadly maze of tunnels, booby traps and sophisticated roadside bombs. Weapons are hidden in mosques, schoolyards and civilian houses, and the leadership’s war room is a bunker beneath Gaza’s largest hospital, Israeli intelligence officials say.

Unwilling to take Israel’s bait and come into the open, Hamas militants are fighting in civilian clothes; even the police have been ordered to take off their uniforms. The militants emerge from tunnels to shoot automatic weapons or antitank missiles, then disappear back inside, hoping to lure the Israeli soldiers with their fire.

In one apartment building in Zeitoun, in northern Gaza, Hamas set an inventive, deadly trap. According to an Israeli journalist embedded with Israeli troops, the militants placed a mannequin in a hallway off the building’s main entrance. They hoped to draw fire from Israeli soldiers who might, through the blur of night vision goggles and split-second decisions, mistake the figure for a fighter. The mannequin was rigged to explode and bring down the building...

To avoid booby traps, the Israelis say, they enter buildings by breaking through side walls, rather than going in the front. Once inside, they move from room to room, battering holes in interior walls to avoid exposure to snipers and suicide bombers dressed as civilians, with explosive belts hidden beneath winter coats.

What the Times neglects to mention is that these new Israeli tactics were in large part derived from application of the urban spatial theories of the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze and Lacanian psychoanalyst Felix Guattari. As recounted by Adam Elkus at Rethinking Security, to hack the urban warfare challenges of a densely populated, continuously improvised, structurally complex three-dimensional urban labyrinth defended by non-state combatants, the Israel Defense Forces under Shimon Naveh developed a very 21st century military arm: the Operational Theory Research Institute, dedicated to applying poststructuralist theory to the domination of Palestine. How to turn the city into a weapon against its inhabitants? Break down your tactics to the squadron level, use helicopters as weapons platforms in a three-dimensional wargame, turn tunnels into "sources of fractal maneuver," and train your troops to walk through walls, as reported by Eyal Weizman a couple of years ago in a piece that was distributed on Nettime, and later incorporated into the amazing book Hollow Land cited below:

The attack conducted by units of the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) on the city of Nablus in April 2002 was described by its commander, Brigadier-General Aviv Kokhavi, as 'inverse geometry', which he explained as 'the reorganization of the urban syntax by means of a series of micro-tactical actions'. During the battle soldiers moved within the city across hundreds of metres of 'overground tunnels' carved out through a dense and contiguous urban structure. Although several thousand soldiers and Palestinian guerrillas were manoeuvring simultaneously in the city, they were so 'saturated' into the urban fabric that very few would have been visible from the air. Furthermore, they 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.

Contemporary military theorists are now busy re-conceptualizing the urban domain. At stake are the underlying concepts, assumptions and principles that determine military strategies and tactics. The vast intellectual field that geographer Stephen Graham has called an international 'shadow world' of military urban research institutes and training centres that have been established to rethink military operations in cities could be understood as somewhat similar to the international matrix of élite architectural academies. However, according to urban theorist Simon Marvin, the military-architectural 'shadow world' is currently generating more intense and well-funded urban research programmes than all these university programmes put together, and is certainly aware of the avant-garde urban research conducted in architectural institutions, especially as regards Third World and African cities. There is a considerable overlap among the theoretical texts considered essential by military academies and architectural schools. Indeed, the reading lists of contemporary military institutions include works from around 1968 (with a special emphasis on the writings of Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari and Guy Debord), as well as more contemporary writings on urbanism, psychology, cybernetics, post-colonial and post-Structuralist theory. If, as some writers claim, the space for criticality has withered away in late 20th-century capitalist culture, it seems now to have found a place to flourish in the military.

I conducted an interview with Kokhavi, commander of the Paratrooper Brigade, who at 42 is considered one of the most promising young officers of the IDF (and was the commander of the operation for the evacuation of settlements in the Gaza Strip). Like many career officers, he had taken time out from the military to earn a university degree; although he originally intended to study architecture, he ended up with a degree in philosophy from the Hebrew University. When he explained to me the principle that guided the battle in Nablus, what was interesting for me was not so much the description of the action itself as the way he conceived its articulation. He said: 'this space that you look at, this room that you look at, is nothing but your interpretation of it. The question is how do you interpret the alley? We interpreted the alley as a place forbidden to walk through and the door as a place forbidden to pass through, and the window as a place forbidden to look through, because a weapon awaits us in the alley, and a booby trap awaits us behind the doors. This is because the enemy interprets space in a traditional, classical manner, and I do not want to obey this interpretation and fall into his traps. I want to surprise him! This is the essence of war. I need to win. This is why that we opted for the methodology of moving through walls...Like a worm that eats its way forward, emerging at points and then disappearing. I said to my troops, "Friends! If until now you were used to move along roads and sidewalks, forget it! From now on we all walk through walls!"' Kokhavi's intention in the battle was to enter the city in order to kill members of the Palestinian resistance and then get out. The horrific frankness of these objectives, as recounted to me by Shimon Naveh, Kokhavi's instructor, is part of a general Israeli policy that seeks to disrupt Palestinian resistance on political as well as military levels through targeted assassinations from both air and ground.

If you still believe, as the IDF would like you to, that moving through walls is a relatively gentle form of warfare, the following description of the sequence of events might change your mind. To begin with, soldiers assemble behind the wall and then, using explosives, drills or hammers, they break a hole large enough to pass through. Stun grenades are then sometimes thrown, or a few random shots fired into what is usually a private living-room occupied by unsuspecting civilians. When the soldiers have passed through the wall, the occupants are locked inside one of the rooms, where they are made to remain — sometimes for several days — until the operation is concluded, often without water, toilet, food or medicine.

Smoothing space, they call it. Eliminating boundaries to their freedom of operation. A kind of tactical situationism, dérives by special operators viewing the world through the green luminescence of a night vision scope. Task Force DeBord: magic soldiers, applying lush abstractions as post-structuralist siege engines, conjured from the Cartesian ether and somehow threaded into the fabric of architectural reality. Theory that kills.

The grand tactical detournement in which a dense urban settlement of structures with common walls containing a labyrinth of rooms and halls and tunnels is turned into a video game playscape is partly enabled by visualization tools, like the handheld Camero device, which combines thermal imaging with ultra-wideband radar to generate a kind of terminator ultrasound that allows soldiers to see human bodies as fuzzy ghosts in a digital frame that has melted away all the walls and furniture and things. From the manufacturer's website:

Xaver™ 800

The Xaver 800 provides 'Through-Wall Vision' to change the dynamics of your urban operation. With the Xaver 800 you can rapidly and reliably observe one or more people in a room and continuously monitor their activities while positioned outside the room's walls.

The Xaver 800 was developed in close co-operation with leading individuals and agencies from the Military, Law Enforcement and Fire & Rescue communities. Whether protecting the lives of operatives entering unknown or potentially hostile situations, or playing a vital role in rescue operations, Xaver puts you in control of the situation and allows you to 'Step into the known'

Weizman documents the immense influence of OTRI's theories on the U.S. armed forces, who have tried to implement them in urban warfare in Iraq. While it's easy to imagine forward thinkers among the Army and Marine brass riffing on the John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt theories of "swarm intelligence" and netwar incubated at RAND in the 1990s, theories that were foundational components of OTRI's work, it's hard to imagine some buzzcut Brigadier name-dropping Deleuze. (Though the Pentagon and the French crits sometimes seem to share similar syntactical roots.)

But perhaps the Americans don't need theory to rethink urban space as being as malleable as a digital rendering of that space, because they already experience their personal and tactical reality through a televisual prism — the Narnian wardrobe into cyberspace that we carry in our heads. The smart bomb webcam view of "The Gulf War Did Not Occur" has evolved into the green gamespace of night vision goggles and the real-life flight simulator screenshots beamed from the avionics pod of the Predator drone to a trailer in Florida. And the grunts have all been weaned on HALO and Grand Theft Auto, pre-programmed first-person shooters with better point and shoot kill rates and combat reflexes than any marksmanship course could ever teach.

We know that tactical mapping is being reinvented along these lines. Austin's Zebra Imaging, a Wired magazine poster child founded by three Media Lab wonder boys during the boom, found the most reliable application of its next generation holography technologies after 9/11, when DARPA and others realized it was the ideal mapping medium for urban netwar. Zebra takes the same kind of information used by a street view on Google Maps to generate digital holograms that can be reproduced on a hardy two-dimensional film and viewed in the field with a single-source LED. In time, no doubt, available information about enemy soldiers, bombs and booby traps will be embedded in the three dimensional images. And given that Zebra's technology already supports animated holography, how long before live imaging technologies like Camero are integrated into real-time holographic displays of the urban environment complete with fuzzy ghost soldiers moving through the lethal simulacrum like combat fetuses on the screen of an ultrasound?

The escape route for the next Black Hawk Down will be identified by a squadron huddled in the darkness holding a single flashlight over a three-dimensional near-real-time replication of the environs unrolled out onto the seat of a Humvee, a video game cheat code that cracks the key to the city. The current tactical holos are even rendered in translucent green, the perfect palette to reinvent the consensus reality through which soldiers move as the liquid data structures Neo discovers at the climax of The Matrix.

In the future, squadron-level combat will include critical new specializations. The combat video game designer, the ghost-busting operator of the live imaging technologies, and the tactical architect. I can't wait for those action figures.

For an amazing in-depth exploration of these topics, see Eyal Weizman's Hollow Land: Israel's Architecture of Occupation (Verso 2007). In particular, Chapter 7 on "Urban Warfare: Walking Through Walls."


Jotaf said...

You left a "minor detail" out, when mentioning the holograms :)

They're not like computer screens, they're more like printed paper.

You can't interactively change them in real time, which means there's no animation either. They can print one static hologram for you, on a sheet of plastic or whatever, and that's it. The animations they talk about are done by rapidly changing between different holograms -- needless to say that only goes so far (10 frames maximum?). And you wouldn't see anything like a real-time display of your enemies of course.

Christopher Brown said...

Thanks, Jotaf. I tried to explain the holograms are on a two-dimensional film that can be rolled up, but they may not have been as clear as it could. I also think you are right about the limitations of the current "animations" -- the ones I have seen are no more than a few "frames" -- but I am advised that the integration of avatars into current mobile mapping/imaging technologies already exists (at least as to "friendlies" carrying some kind of networked id), and that the next generation (or maybe the one after that) three-dimensional imaging tech hopes to incorporate some level of such functionality. In any event, hopefully my point about the evolution of the sensory experience of the world as mediated by "screens" of various sorts comes through somewhat, and makes some degree of sense...