The Emergence of Feral and Criminal Cities: U.S. Military Implications in a Time of Austerity

May 24, 2016

Much has been written in recent years about the triumph of neoliberalism, the end of history, the win–win economics of globalism and other optimistic proclamations concerning the world’s collective political future. While the modern democratic state has prospered and replicated itself across much of the globe since 1900, it is increasingly feeling various forms of pressure on its social and political form of organization. With this in mind, due diligence dictates that we should balance such unbridled optimism about contemporary and emerging democratic states with some healthy pessimism.

A recent example of such exuberance can be found in “Mexico Makes It,” an article that appeared in the March/April 2013 issue of Foreign Affairs:  

[M]odern Mexico is a middle-class country. The World Bank estimates that some 95 percent of Mexico’s population is in the middle or upper class. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) also puts most of Mexico’s population on the upper rungs, estimating that 50 percent of Mexicans are middle class and another 35 percent are upper class. . . .

Today, Mexico has a vibrant and fiercely independent press, led by publications such as El Universal, Reforma and La Jornada. With the proliferation of social media and with information now publicly available through Mexico’s freedom of information law, passed in 2002, Mexican civil-society organizations and individual voters can criticize and shame corrupt bureaucrats and politicians. 

While the rise of Mexico with its globalized economy and democratic reforms is counterbalanced with some mention of corruption and cartel violence plaguing that state, on the whole the essay reads more like a governmental press release. To add insult to injury concerning the glossing of Mexican cartel and gang violence and the loss of political control of regions (i.e., areas of impunity), the new Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto has now instituted a blackout of press coverage on such negative forms of reporting. It was bad enough when the criminal insurgents in Mexico were terrifying the free press (including bloggers) in order to shut down their reportage of beheadings, dismemberments and other cartel atrocities. This new governmental censorship policy will serve only to further break the trust of the Mexican people, who were expecting so much more with democratization.

Half a world away and a decade earlier, President George W. Bush—in May 2003 in a nationally televised speech from the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Abraham 2 Lincoln—proclaimed that “major combat operations in Iraq have ended.” This exultation also signified an overly optimistic political vision of the future. In hindsight, such operations against a third-tier conventionally armed state were the easy part of the conflict; what came next was an entirely different matter. Instead, we witnessed rampant terrorism and insurgency, constant suicide bombings, improvised explosive device (IED) ambushes and urban combat against foreign fighters so high on narcotics they forgot to drop after being mortally wounded. For our trouble, about $1.7 trillion of the current U.S. national debt of $16.7 trillion can be attributed to direct Iraqi war costs, with the eventual costs projected in the $4–6 trillion range after debt interest is factored into the equation. U.S. campaigns in Afghanistan, in turn, brought their own additional national expenditure burdens.

On the grand strategic level, the commonality between the situations in contemporary Mexico and Iraq is startling. We are also seeing the same process now taking place in Libya, Egypt and Syria. While Afghanistan does not fall within the same initial autocratic regime parameters, the back end of the conflict also follows a similar path. Essentially, what we are witnessing is the demise of autocratic regimes initiated via either external or internal political change. This change may be initially peaceful—as in a Mexico that is attempting to liberalize and democratize; however, it is typically violent in nature and requires direct invasion, as in Iraq, and varying levels of rebellion and conflict, as seen in the Arab Spring countries of Libya, Egypt and Syria.

Once the former autocratic regimes have been mortally weakened (if not fully excised) in these states, two basic futures for such states exist. The first is that of the promise of democratic process, universal suffrage, equality of the sexes, freedom of religion, a free and independent press and the many other benefits of 21st century Western civilization. This is the upside of the globalization of laissez-faire economics—the birth of new democratic and liberal states. The other future is that of the promise of varying degrees of neo-barbarism, privatized violence and atrocity, illicit economic activities and state partition by nonstate forces belonging to a bewildering array of gangs, criminal organizations, terrorist and insurgent groups, private militias and other forms of violent nonstate actors (VNSAs). The breakup and political partition of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s was definitely a harbinger of things to come concerning the future trajectories upon which the peoples of former autocratic states would someday find themselves.

The U.S. Army has experienced the specter of dark globalization firsthand with its operations of the last decade in Iraq and Afghanistan, first while rendering these states “safe for U.S. interests” and then trying to support the establishment of the institutions of democratic states as part of the nation-building process. Prior to those more recent campaigns, the stabilization of states to mitigate the effects of human suffering generated by state failure, or even attempts to stave it off, have been undertaken. Typically, the context provided for such military operations—which can be defined by a multitude of terms such as operations-other-than-war, counterinsurgency, peacekeeping and peace enforcement, and stability and support—is viewed at the level of the state. We consistently look at these issues from the levels of “state failure,” “nation-building” and “regime change.”

Rather than from a statist perspective, we should consider that states are increasingly comprised of their major urban centers, as this is where the populace is migrating. Major cities, and in numerous instances the slums accompanying them, are where the political center of gravity is now shifting. This urbanization process is found in states with democratic and autocratic systems alike. For instance, in 1950, a total of 86 cities each had a population over one million. This figure is expected to rise to well past 400 such cities by the mid-2000s, with one 3 target projection of 550 cities by 2015. These large cities and even larger megacities—some presently with urban footprints in the low twenty millions—not only represent concentrations of humanity but also concentrations of scientific, economic and political power. At the same time, however, they represent potential gravity wells of instability—predominantly in the Global South—with their billions of urban poor who represent the unwashed masses, destitute slum-dwelling sub-renters and squatters. 

Increasingly, where cities go, so do states; that is, if cities and their populations are vibrant and healthy, so will be the gestalt represented by the state. On the other hand, failed cities— or, even worse, ones that have become criminalized—portend a very different state trajectory. States manifesting such cities, rather than simply falling into chaos, make for very different and unexpected nation- (and city-) building challenges. With this in mind, this monograph will provide an overview and analysis of contemporary feral and criminal research. It will then highlight the present plight of the United States, derived from the lack of political consensus and the new age of economic austerity that our nation is facing. These will mean that our ability to mitigate and respond to feral and criminal city emergence will be increasingly degraded. The U.S. military implications and a conclusion are then provided which suggest that how we use our national military force, especially “boots on the ground,” and what we can realistically achieve in our foreign campaigns needs to be both revaluated and scaled back.