On Political Books

November/ December 2013 Guerrillas in the Midst

Why our next war will be fought in cities.

By Shawn Brimley

In an appendix to the book titled “On War in the Urban, Networked Littoral” (a play on Carl von Clausewitz’s 1832 classic, On War), Kilcullen outlines in disturbing detail how military forces engaging in these environments will face challenges on land, along the coastal waterways, in the air, and in cyberspace. Operating in these spaces is something most people in the U.S. military would rather ignore in favor of more classic conventional engagements, but Kilcullen suggests that military leaders adopt a more mobile, improvisational, expeditionary mentality, concluding, “It’s time to drag ourselves—body and mind—out of the mountains.”

Acknowledging that much of his book covers ground that is “complex and confronting,” Kilcullen persuasively argues that these trends do offer opportunities for partnerships and progressive problem-solving approaches. If we can find ways to apply local expertise with outside knowledge drawn from urban planning, geo-social information systems, big data analysis, and industrial systems design, Kilcullen argues that it is possible to “co-design for resilience”—to examine these crowded coastal cities as systems, and to find ways to push them “in a positive, more resilient direction.”

Out of the Mountains will appeal to a broad range of readers—social scientists, security experts and military officers, urban planners and technologists, and a general readership interested in how today’s global trends will shape tomorrow’s world. Readers who enjoy the work of Robert Kaplan or even Paul Theroux—the engaging mix of adventure writing with sophisticated social and political analysis—will find Kilcullen quite appealing.

Out of the Mountains is a challenging read, to be sure, as Kilcullen adventurously weaves personal narrative and scholarly reflection in a globe-hopping and chaotic journey. But for a book that comes close to the author’s aim of developing something akin to a “unified field theory” of how conflict will evolve, the journey is well worth undertaking.

Buy this book from Amazon and support Washington Monthly: Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla

Shawn Brimley is vice president of the Center for a New American Security. From 2009 to 2013 he worked as director for strategic planning on the White House National Security Council staff and as special adviser to the undersecretary of defense for policy at the Pentagon.

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