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Stephen Graham, Cities under Siege: The New Military Urbanism, Verso Books, New York, 2011, 432 pages, $26.95, ISBN 9781844677627.


Cities Under Siege is a fascinating and depressing overview of the ongoing militarization of urban space and the reorientation of the military toward urban warfare. Graham discusses the so-called boomerang effects by which security practices circulate between remote foreign peripheries and the northern homelands and between legitimate armies and their illegitimate enemies. Graham’s empirical focus is on the US, UK, and Israel during the past decade. He details the development of high tech military responses to the perceived urbanization of insurgency.  These methods are marked by a return to geographically focused and highly place-specific surveillance and targeting systems. Urban infrastructure is used not only by terrorists but by legitimate militaries to wage war.  Differences between the domestic and the foreign are eroded. The high-security borders that used to be found mainly at the boundaries between nation states are now reproduced at all scales within domestic space. Supermax prisons inside the US mirror the CIA’s black sites overseas. Privatized enclaves and camp-like exposures proliferate in cities and suburbs, sealed off against the barbarians just beyond the gate.

The book traces the combined militarization of the police and “police-ization” of the military. Urban security reaches out into the sites of foreign and imperial policy. Thus the NYPD has created a network of overseas offices, while the US Army is increasingly deployed domestically, as in the Pentagon’s establishment of the Northern Command. Military surveillance helicopters are advertised as being useful “from Baghdad to Baton Rouge” (Graham, page 26). Mass citizen political mobilizations and “mega-sports and entertainment events” produce “martial law conditions” (page 125). Outside the northern homeland, an archipelago of simulated American suburbs stretches across the globe and houses US soldiers. Mirroring these overseas bases, the US army has built dozens of warfare training cities across the homeland (pages 184-185), many of them carefully designed to resemble actual cities in the Middle East. The Baladia facility (nicknamed “Chicago”), paid for by US military aid and used by US Marines, is an “artificial but highly realistic Arab town built by the Israeli Defense Force for urban combat training” (Broomberg and Chanarin, 2006: n.p.n.) in the Ne’gev desert. An entire chapter of Cities under Siege discusses the development of autonomous “killer robots”, which have already been deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq by the US and in the Occupied Territories. What is emerging is a “Robot Imperium”.

Graham’s book powerfully evokes right wing revulsion against cities.  In the pages of the repellent City Journal, published by the right-wing Manhattan Institute, Detroit and other poor US cities are described as “feral” (Malanga, 2009). Plans for locking down the residents of these feral cities are based on military assaults on overseas cities. The conservative concept of the “failed state” is paralleled by the idea of failed cities. Immigration is described as an act of war; urban gangs are framed as insurgents.

The book also deals with the rise of pervasive “militainment” (Dyer-Witherford and de Peuter, 2009).  Here again, boomerang effects are everywhere. Fox News rooms are designed to look like military command centers. Militarized video games are played on consoles like those used to guide Predator drones. The US Army’s official “America’s Army” video game has been downloaded more than 38 million times and has been played by more than 40% of those who join the Army (Graham, pages 205-206). A militarized libertarianism pervades the culture of SUV’s, to which Graham devotes an entire chapter.

Following the lead of the mid-20th century Manchester School, which brought the insights of colonial urban anthropology to the study of British cities, Graham connects the study of geopolitics, imperialism, and modern warfare to urban sociology.  But Max Gluckman could never have foreseen an urban ethnography conducted “from the eye of a Predator at 25,000 feet” (Mike Davis, in a blurb for Cities under Siege). Graham’s analysis suggests that a Gluckman-style “extended case method” (Gluckman, 1961) would nowadays need to encompass a global context of geopolitical circuits of security technology and ideology. Cities under Siege serves as corrective to the relentless localism of much current urban ethnography.

The book is not without flaws. One criticism concerns the claim to historical novelty of military urbanism. Although Graham refers to urban and colonial wars throughout the modern era, he argues that they were a relatively marginal arena until recently. But historians have pointed to centuries of imperial and military blowback from overseas imperialism.  Graham himself mentions the Algerian colonial origins of Haussmann’s famous redesign of Paris. One also thinks of sociologist Patrick Geddes exporting his program of conservative urban surgery, which he had pioneered in Dublin, to cities in colonial India (Geddes, 1918). In the second half of his classic study Imperialism (1902), John A. Hobson argued that colonialism was destroying democracy and militarizing daily life in the British metropole. Nazism, which Arendt saw as being prefigured by overseas colonialism, led to a militarization of European urban space, informed by a bellicose interdisciplinary field of “space science” (Raumwissenschaft). The French Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité became hyper-militarized during their deployment in Algiers in the 1950s, and returned to France to deploy their military-like weaponry and tactics against protesters in the streets of Paris. National Guardsmen were deployed in American cities during the 1960s. In short, the recent changes charted in Cities under Siege might better be described as the escalation of a long-term trend rather than a qualitative historical shift.

Second, Graham’s inflationary use of the vocabulary of colonialism sometimes obscures more than it illuminates. The word colony was traditionally connected to settlement in new territories. At the end of the 19th century the word colonialism was coined to refer to a new approach in which Europeans claimed full sovereignty over outlying territories while forgoing settlement and sending only a handful of occupiers. The dominant form of empire in the second half of the 20th century was a non-colonial one in which the US dominated weaker polities while avoiding the appearance of directly annexing and ruling them. Of course, the distinction between colonial and non-colonial imperial forms is a continuum, not a dichotomy, and individual great powers engage in a mix of both strategies (Steinmetz 2005).  But a polemical overextension of the language of colonialism may prevent us from seeing colonial practices where they actually exist.

My third criticism relates to the depiction of the urban as the privileged site and source of system jamming. Urban specialists often seem to essentialize and romanticize their object of analysis. This argument seems to ignore the ways in which counter-hegemonic movements are also able to emerge and find support in landscapes that seem flat and featureless to outsiders. Colonized Africans and Asians gained tactical advantages in deserts and jungles; perhaps anti-systemic movements will one day gain a foothold in the bland American suburbs. As Graham himself suggests, the emerging surveillance technologies that can see through walls and recognize faces in crowds will erode the material advantages that earlier insurgents found in urban settings.

Finally, I think the author has underestimated the importance of his achievement for the critical movements he clearly supports. Graham correctly rejects descriptions of his own analysis as fatalist. He rejects all forms of technological determinism, insisting that the military origins of technologies like GPS do not mean they cannot be used as expressions of identity or sources of resistance. Geopolitical borders remain permeable. Technophile dreams of omniscient surveillance remain unrealizable fantasies. Society is not dominated by a single panopticon but by an “omnopticon”.  Entities like the US military are never unified actors but are always fragmented and heterogeneous. Positivistic models of human behavior inevitably fail, given the willfulness of human subjects and the rainforest-like profusion of social and natural causal mechanisms operating in contingent and unpredictable ways (Collier, 2005).

The book’s concluding chapter presents a variety of artistic and satirical “countergeographies” that try to disrupt the militarized messages that flood global culture.  Cities Under Siege actually points to much more than artistic activism as anti-systemic. By acknowledging the complexity and overdetermination of urban space and by describing the current social battlespace in detail, this book represents the kind of social science that can help counter-counter-insurgents identify their enemies and locate the system’s weaknesses. Cities Under Siege should be available in all of the Occupy Movement’s libraries.



Broomberg A and O Chanarin (2006) Chicago. Göttingen, SteidlMACK.

Collier A (2005) Critical Realism. In: G Steinmetz (ed) The Politics of Method in the Human Sciences: Positivism and its Epistemological Others. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, pp 327-345.

Dyer-Witheford N and G de Peuter (2009) Games of Empire: Global Capitalism and Video Games. Minneapolis, University of Minneapolis Press.

Geddes P (1918) Town Planning Towards City Development. A Report to the Durbar of Indore.  2 vols. Indore, Holkar state printing press.

Gluckman M (1961) Ethnographic Data in British Social Anthropology. Sociological Review 9(1): 5-17.

Hobson JA (1902) Imperialism, A Study. New York: J. Pott & Company.

Malanga S (2009) Feral Detroit. City Journal 19(4)

Steinmetz G (2005) Return to Empire: The New U.S. Imperialism in Theoretical and Historical Perspective. Sociological Theory 23(4): 339-367.

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George Steinmetz is Charles Tilly Collegiate Professor of Sociology at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He is the author of The Devil’s Handwriting: Precoloniality and the German Colonial State in Qingdao, Samoa, and Southwest Africa (University of Chicago Press, 2007) and Regulating the Social: The Welfare State and Local Politics in Imperial Germany (Princeton University Press, 1993).