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  • National Soldiers and the War on Cities
  • Deborah Cowen1 (bio)

In an inconspicuous footnote towards the end of his Prison Notebooks, Antonio Gramsci presents us with a startling observation. Writing in a very different time and place, he suggests that a political-geographic rift had emerged between urbanism and cosmopolitanism on the one hand, and ruralism and nationalism on the other. Gramsci offers the intriguing thought that, “these conflicting attitudes can in a sense be seen as two sides of the coin of fascist imperialism.”2 While ‘fascist’ may not be an apt term to describe contemporary imperialism, the rest of the equation seems strangely fitting3. I characterize this observation as ‘startling’ in part because it speaks to a formidable challenge of politics and geography in our own time, but also because it remains an overlooked footnote. This paper takes Gramsci’s observation seriously. In fact, my analysis is crafted in the shadows of this footnote, and in its interstices with another. The second note - not a literal footnote like the first - is instead a social ‘fact’ that has largely been treated as a footnote, a point of marginal importance. This second footnote tells us that the militaries of advanced capitalist nations with voluntary forces are made up overwhelmingly of rural soldiers, and that rural areas have become the heartland of militarism and ‘authentic’ patriotism. I will suggest that this second footnote is extraordinarily important in that it is a constitutive element of contemporary forms of organized violence. Far from a banal detail of ‘location’, urban/rural geographies of militarism and military service are a key to the historical geographies of citizenship that constitute our violent present.

Armed conflict, war, and terrorism are today increasingly urban affairs. From Fallujah to Baghdad, to New York and London, organized human violence explicitly targets cities. A brave new urban geography is said to define armed conflict in much of the world, and reshapes militarized policing and surveillance domestically. State and non-state responses to this global city violence are also practiced at the urban scale, with national border control, surveillance and counter-terrorist initiatives, and military training exercises, increasingly working through urban space. There has been a marked and now well-documented urban revolution in military affairs that is not limited to the current war in Iraq, but is certainly a stark feature of violence there4. Indeed, the revolutionaries in military affairs champion urban warfare and imagineer light and flexible fighting forces. But even with the demise of the Revolution in Military Affairs leadership, specifically Donald Rumsfeld’s departure in late 2006, the growing skepticism surrounding a future of winning network-centric wars, and a broad consensus that US efforts in Iraq and the ideas guiding them have failed, urban warfare is still considered almost ‘inevitable’ - a result of the forward march of global urbanization as much as of ideologies of military reorganization. George W. Bush’s plan for a 21,500-member troop surge in Baghdad, and the installment of Lt. General David Petreaus, a leader of (failed) urban warfare in Mosul, as top commander in Iraq may face stark criticism from many corners, but the conviction that warfare itself has radically changed from a clash of national armies in non-urban theatres to a future of irregular warfare in city streets lives on.

And yet, there is another geography to contemporary war - a rural geography that has received far less attention in critical scholarship. While both warfare and the global population are increasingly urban, the majority of soldiers who fight these wars from the national militaries of leading states of the ‘coalition of the willing’ are rural recruits. Military personnel are drawn overwhelmingly from rural areas, which are understood to have both the economic motivations for mass enlistment coupled with small-town culture of patriotic nationalism.

In this paper I mobilize the paradox of these inverted geographies of violence as a ‘diagnostic event’. Anthropologist Sally Falk Moore deployed the concept of a “diagnostic event” to describe moments when established explanations and collective mythologies can no longer function smoothly5. Diagnostic events are those “moments of powerful contradiction that lay bare cultural logics, identify the diverse stakeholders in social...

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