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Irregular Learning for Irregular Warfare: Radical Urban Planning and its Applications

Updated: Feb 12, 2022

About the cover photo: Young Austinites photographed in front of the “Tank Farm” industrial site they lived next to for years. Community groups like People Organized for the Defense of Earth and her Resources (PODER) waged years-long campaigns against the pollution, eventually causing the shutdown of the Tank Farm and remittance for damages caused by companies like Exxon in 1993. PODER and other Austin groups documented the campaign for historical records: (Photo: Joe Vitone)

By Danny Moriarty

As special operations forces (SOF), the Department of Defense (DOD), and the entire US Government (USG) continue to shift focus to irregular warfare as one of the primary means to deter Chinese and Russian aggression, it has become clear that such strategies will require intimate involvement with the human environment. This human-focused deterrence has been shown to take many forms, from support-to-resistance campaigns currently seen in the Baltics to the capability to conduct unconventional warfare and disrupt competitors’ objectives across the spectrum of conflict.[i][ii]

Of course, for SOF or any DOD entity to perform in such environments, special attention must be paid to understand the human dynamics that drive conflict or prevent it; these experts must have the cultural awareness of local conditions as well as the intuition of how such local contexts fit within a larger framework.[iii] Within the framework of irregular warfare, this will require knowledge and engagement with civilian populations that serve a vital role in the deterrence of or resistance against military aggression. Much has already been written on the role of such civil resistance and its role in unconventional or irregular warfare; the Resistance Operating Concept (ROC) explicitly discusses the importance of building resilient civil society networks and dedicates an entire appendix on nonviolent resistance.[iv][v]

But if irregular warfare experts are to truly understand the nuances of resistance and develop innovative approaches to these types of challenges, then we must broaden our sources of information to include those that some may see as unconventional. Radical planning, born from the field of urban planning, serves as an example of a field of study with notable overlap with network development and engagement aspects of IW.

Planning theory, until the mid-to-late twentieth century, was primarily focused on the forward march of urban development and the growth of cities as centers of capital. Prominent scholars discussed competing schools of thought of how best to dictate the growth and expansion of urban centers, often ignoring the plights of many communities living in those cities. In some cases, scholars and practitioners even used planning as a means to subdue minority populations, such as the widely used practice of “redlining.”[vi] However, a shift came about when Marxist scholars began applying a critical lens on planning and its impacts on the different urban populations that urban governance affected. Notably, French sociologist Henri Lefebvre in 1968 coined the term the “right to the city,” advocating for the rights of marginalized groups to be included in decision-making processes, as well as describing the production of social spaces and power relations that dictated urban governance.[vii] John Friedmann’s 1987 Planning in the Public Domain also served as a powerful spark to critical scholars.[viii] Scholars like Friedmann, Lefebvre, and others broke from tradition and pointed to the importance of marginalized groups organizing and developing a robust network of civil society groups in order to stage effective resistance against state forces that, in their view, exercised destructive control over the urban environment. Many also drew inspiration from Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci. Gramsci (1891-1937), advocated for a societal resistance against capitalism, proposed several theories of political warfare that hinged on the positioning of civil society organizations like media, religious, educational, and other institutions.[ix] Radical planning soon developed as a distinct school of thought, focusing on the social, political, and economic factors that drove social cohesion in urban communities struggling for recognition.

Of course, alongside this intellectual evolution of radical planning theory has been a similar evolution of its practice in a diverse array of cities and conflicts. Such examples have been seen in highly publicized conflicts like the civil resistance following Myanmar’s coup and the coalition of civil society groups that brought an end to military dictatorship in Sudan in 2019 and now seek to prevent another coup.[x][xi] But beyond these examples, radical planning is practiced daily in cities within the United States. A wide array of community groups confront issues of economic, environmental, and racial injustice, organizing people and resources in ways that challenge local governments.[xii][xiii] One does not need to go far to find examples of how community organizing goes beyond preconceived notions.

As a tool for irregular warfare practitioners, such planning theories can provide alternative lenses to develop effective resistance campaigns or to counter those developed by adversaries. While existing doctrine and publications like the ROC or those by United States Army Special Operations Command (USASOC)’s Assessing Revolutionary and Insurgent Strategies (ARIS) project dedicate attention to the psychological reasons behind resistance and the factors that affect its organization, it is mostly through the lens of how such organizing or networks of groups impact the “main effort” of an armed resistance/guerrilla/insurgent movement.[xiv] In these approaches, the public component of the traditional Underground/Guerilla/Auxiliary/Public Component model of resistance is often sidelined or minimized, when in fact it has been shown to be more effective than armed resistance campaigns.[xv] As a result, practitioners of irregular warfare like Civil Affairs soldiers must be able to think creatively of how to execute their assigned task of Civil Network Development and Engagement; in environments where social cohesion is low or has been degraded, fostering strong communities is a prerequisite for mobilization.

Opening one’s aperture to include authors and practitioners outside those traditionally seen as in the realm of unconventional warfare can inspire innovative approaches to current and future challenges. For example, in discussing a local union campaign Friedmann illustrates how “the ‘fight back' struggle against plant closings raised people’s consciousness; built a sense of human solidarity in the teeth of profit; tested certain proposed solutions…and build new collaborative networks within civil society.” Similar to writings on social movement theory and its applications to resistance, devoting time to understanding the deeper motivations behind why communities organize and what creates this raised consciousness would enable more effective irregular warfare efforts.[xvi] Within the context of practical applications, radical planning also provides a useful framework for developing shadow governance mechanisms, vital to any effective resistance campaign in IW or UW settings.[xvii]

Beyond more traditional applications like unconventional warfare, radical planning also stands as a potential tool in the US campaign to out-compete its adversaries for influence. While not going so far as to advocate for regime change in proxy conflicts, developing effectively organized and motivated communities can create new dilemmas for adversaries and disrupt zones of economic or political influence.[xviii][xix]

Learning and training on these methods also allow for diverse experiences. As mentioned, many cities across the United States are home to a vibrant community of organizations practicing planning and organizing for counter-hegemonic goals. Engaging with these groups not only provides irregular warfare practitioners with valuable insights but also creates opportunities to bridge civil-military gaps in some of the country's biggest urban centers. Academia, of course, also provides many opportunities for collaboration; urban planning departments across the country dedicate research and resources to understanding many of these problems.[xx] Often, such departments conduct classes with regular field trips to engage with community planners and organizations waging campaigns against gentrification, environmental degradation, and further marginalization of minority groups. These trips not only provide first-hand experience with how theories are turned into practice in the context of resistance, but also helped establish new connections with subject matter experts from diverse backgrounds.

While on a field trip to East Austin, students met with community organizers who waged successful campaigns to stop industrial pollution and altered city government decision- making. (Photo: author)

As SOF and other irregular warfare experts contend with the future of war, we must continue to look for new and innovative ways to strengthen our abilities to analyze conflict and develop effective strategies to secure victory. The lessons learned from the litany of these social movements can offer insights into the motivation, organization, and mobilization of vulnerable populations across a variety of urban settings. Taking a page from radical urban planners should be considered not just for its long scholarship on societal conflict but also the many lived experiences of those organizing and participating in everyday resistance.

About the Author CPT Danny Moriarty is a Civil Affairs officer currently attending graduate school at the University of Texas at Austin, researching civil resistance within the Geography & the Environment Department. He previously served in the 83d Civil Affairs Battalion as a Team Leader and Human Network Analysis Chief and has completed deployments to Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf.

[i] Crombe, Katie, Steve Ferenzi, and Robert Jones. “Integrating Deterrence across the Gray — Making It More than Words.” Military Times, December 9, 2021. [ii] Flanagan, Stephen, Jan Osburg, Anika Binnendijk, Marta Kepe, and Andrew Radin. Deterring Russian Aggression in the Baltic States Through Resilience and Resistance. RAND Corporation, 2019. [iii] David, Arnel, Sean Acosta, and Nicholas Krohley. “Getting Competition Wrong: The US Military’s Looming Failure.” Modern War Institute, December 3, 2021. [iv] Irwin, Will and Joint Special Operations University (U.S.). How Civil Resistance Works (and Why It Matters to SOF), 2019. [v] Fiala, Otto C, United States, and Special Operations Command Europe. Resistance Operating Concept, 2019. [vi] Jan, Tracy. “Analysis | Redlining Was Banned 50 Years Ago. It’s Still Hurting Minorities Today.” Washington Post, March 28, 2018. [vii] Lamarca, Melissa. “The Right to the City: Reflections on Theory and Practice,” November 11, 2009. [viii] Foreground. “10 Points of Note about the Late Dr John Friedmann.” Foreground, June 14, 2017. [ix] Thomas, Bradley. “Meet the Godfather of Cultural Marxism | Bradley Thomas,” March 31, 2019. [x] Ratcliffe, Rebecca. “‘No Standing down, No Giving up’: Myanmar’s Resistance Mobilises.” The Guardian, December 6, 2021, sec. World news. [xi] Al Jazeera. “Can Sudan’s Military Coup Survive Popular Resistance?,” November 5, 2021. [xii] TED. What If the Poor Were Part of City Planning? | Smruti Jukur Johari, 2020. [xiii] PODER. “Struggles and Victories.” PODER Austin. Accessed December 22, 2021. [xiv] USASOC. “ARIS Studies.” Accessed December 22, 2021. [xv] Stephan, Maria, and Erica Chenoweth. “Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict.” International Security 33, no. 1 (2008): 7–44 [xvi] Lee, Doowan. “Resistance Dynamics and Social Movement Theory.” PRISM | National Defense University, December 7, 2016. [xvii]Dawdy, Michael. “Governance as a Weapon: Advising the Shadow Government in Unconventional Warfare | Small Wars Journal,” July 20, 2016, 14. [xviii] Mazarr, Michael. “Risky Business: Why America Should Stay Out of the Regime Change Business.” Modern War Institute, December 8, 2021. [xix] Martorano, Bruno, Francesco Iacoella, Laura Metzger, and Marco Sanfilippo. “Areas in Africa with More Chinese-Backed Projects Were More Likely to Experience Protests.” The Conversation. Accessed December 22, 2021. [xx] “Community and Regional Planning | Texas Architecture | UTSOA.” Accessed December 22, 2021.

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Arthur Davido
Arthur Davido
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