Failure

Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin are a photographic team based in London. Their recent work Mr Mkhize's Portrait was published to great acclaim and exhibited at the Photographers' Gallery. Their latest show Fig. is at the John Hansard Gallery in Southampton.

Chicago is published by steidlMACK.

www.steidlville.com

Ghost town

Text by Eyal Weizman

Given the international outcry that followed the April 2002 obliteration of the centre of the Jenin refugee camp, the Israeli military realized that it had to push its engineering corps to improve its "art of destruction". As a part of these efforts the military began to upgrade a small mock-up town it called Chicago (in homage to that other bullet-ridden city). Located in the Tze'elim base in the Negev desert, it was to become the world's largest mock-up oriental city erected since the filming of Ben-Hur.

The core of Chicago was built in the early 1980s as a small training site simulating a Lebanese village, at a time when Israeli forces were occupying Lebanon. It was extended into a larger urban environment to accommodate the training of special forces in their operation to assassinate Saddam Hussein in Tikrit. The operation was aborted after several Israeli soldiers were killed in an accident. What had been a small Lebanese village was transformed into a section of an Iraqi town. During the second Palestinian Intifada, Chicago was further expanded to offer a blueprint for different types of Palestinian urban environment. It now includes an area called the Kasbah, a section simulating a refugee camp, a downtown neighbourhood with broad streets, a section resembling a rural village, a dense market area with narrow alleys and urban outskirts. For special training sessions, and to make the site look realistic and alive, the military employs a stage-set designer normally employed in a well-known Tel Aviv theatre to provide and organize the relevant props and effects.

In similar mock-up sites, simulations have been designed by funfair, theme-park and film-set specialists. Action film directors are brought in to help military planners think up possible scenarios for complex urban fights. Soldiers, actors, civilians – and sometimes prisoners – simulate urban crowds. Special effects and "cold-fire" systems, recordings of urban life, the sounds of planes, tanks and gunfire, and the revolting combination of smells from cooking, decomposing bodies, sewage and stagnant water are released throughout this and other mock-up cities, to give military forces a taste of the urban mayhem of refugee camps and urban slums.

What is trained at these sites is "smart destruction" – or, as Brigadier-General Aviv Kokhavi described it in sophisticated almost architectural terms, "inverse geometry". During battle, soldiers move within the city through long "overground tunnels" carved out of a dense and contiguous urban structure. They merge into the urban fabric so that very few would be visible from the air. They use none of the city's streets, roads, alleys or courtyards, or any of the external doors, internal stairwells or windows, but move horizontally through walls and vertically through ceilings and floors. This form of movement, described by the military as "infestation", seeks to redefine inside as outside and domestic interiors as thoroughfares. The strategy of "walking through walls" involves a conception of the city as not just the site but also the very medium of warfare – a flexible, almost liquid medium that is forever contingent and in flux.

Walking through walls entails a sequence of events. To begin with, soldiers assemble behind the wall, and then, using explosives or a hammer, they break a hole large enough to pass through. Stun grenades are sometimes thrown through the hole, or a few random shots are fired into what is usually a living room of a private house occupied by unsuspecting civilians. When the soldiers have passed through the wall, the occupants are locked inside one of the rooms where they are made to remain, sometimes for several days, often without water, toilet facilities, food or medicine, until the operation is concluded. Civilians in Palestine, as in Iraq, have experienced the unexpected penetration of war into the private domain of the home as the most profound form of trauma and humiliation.

Wars are both physical conflicts and conceptual imaginary systems whose categories are reproducible. The ghost town of Chicago represents Middle Eastern cities but trains soldiers to turn actual cities into ghost towns.

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