War Urbanism

By Michael Reagan
Dec 10, 2010

This entry was originally prepared for the Now Urbanism seminar at the University of Washington. nowurbanism.org

A couple tangential comments caught my attention at this month’s session of Now Urbanism. The first was the title of Doug Massey’s talk “America’s War on Immigrants” – an important topic on its own – but also significant as the first time the issue of war has come up in the urbanism lectures. The other was Todd Presner’s comments at the faculty luncheon yesterday, that technology, in his example the railroad, has both beneficial and utopian possibilities as well as the potential to be used in the service of war, jingoism, and genocide. For me these sparked questions about the relationships of cities and war, and the histories of war encapsulated in urban centers and urban histories. Whether Guernica, Dresden, or Hiroshima, the west’s worst crimes are often symbolized in the cities, and populations, that we’ve erased. In these instances cities become representative of the best and worst of western civilization – the vibrancy and complexity of human culture and social relationships in urban spaces are highlighted by their complete obliteration.

In our era of permanent war, we are not without parallels. “The 21st Century Guernica” is the Iraqi city of Falllujah, home to millennia of beautiful cultural and religious tradition, obliterated by the US military in 2004. According to estimates by journalist Dahr Jamail 75 percent of the city was destroyed in “Operation Phantom Fury.” Thousands were killed and hundreds of thousands driven from the city, as the US deliberately targeted the city’s civilian infrastructure, including hospitals, colleges, kindergartens and mosques. In the case of hospitals, the US seized the city’s main hospitals and clinics, confiscated ambulances, and in one instance, completely razed one civilian facility. These crimes were openly and proudly reported, the US coolly explaining that hospitals had been used to report the grisly effects of America’s assault – the children and women murdered and maimed by our weapons.

But the crimes in the “city of mosques” were not limited to the seizure of civilian hospitals. The US also used chemical weapons, with severe health effects for the civilian population that continue to this day. The first reports of chemical weapons used were about white phosphorus munitions dumped on insurgents, if you believe pentagon spokespersons, or women and children in first hand accounts from marines and city doctors. According to Jeff Englehart, a marine who served in Fallujah and has since become of a critic of the war, “I heard the order to pay attention because they were going to use white phosphorus on Fallujah. In military jargon it’s known as Willy Pete … Phosphorus burns bodies, in fact it melts the flesh all the way down to the bone … I saw the burned bodies of women and children.” City doctors also reported melted flesh on the bodies of insurgents.

The legacy of chemical weapon use on the city of Fallujah continues, and was not limited to white phosphorus. Just last summer a study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that rates of infant mortality, cancer and leukaemia in Fallujah since 2004 were far higher than those reported in Hiroshima following that city’s obliteration by US atomic weapons. According to one researcher “to produce an effect like this, some very major mutagenic exposure must have occurred in 2004 when the attacks happened.” While the exact cause of the cancers is unknown, it’s likely a combination of toxins used in the assault. One possible source is the Pentagon’s use of depleted uranium, a radioactive metal used in munitions and heavy armor, an estimated 2.4 million pounds of which was used on the city.

The legacy of Fallujah, and similar ongoing assaults by US forces in places like Marja and Kandahar in Afghanistan, as well as the 20th century’s history of wars on urban centers raise serious questions about how we think about cities in relation to violence and society. City design and city planning often don’t consider the effects of war and violence on our urban spaces. Given the history of western civilization perhaps it’s something we should think about. More importantly, perhaps we should also be talking about how to end these ongoing crimes against our cities, populations and cultural heritage.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the entire War Times project

Michael Reagan is an organizer with the Seattle Solidarity Network andstudent at the University of Washington where he studies the history ofAmerican capitalism.

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