Assignment Baghdad

[Image: Screen-grab from a YouTube compilation of Desert Storm missile strikes].

In the summer of 2016, I heard an incredible story from a retired Defense Intelligence Agency analyst. It combined architectural history, international espionage, an alleged graduate research seminar in Washington D.C., and the first Gulf War. I was hooked.

According to this story, a graduate class at a school somewhere in D.C. had set out to collect as much architectural information as it could about Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. This meant, at one point, even flying to Europe on a group field trip to visit engineering firms that had done work for Saddam Hussein.

Given the atmosphere at the time, the students most likely thought that their class was an act of protest, a kind of anti-war gesture, meant to help record, document, and even preserve Iraqi architecture before it was destroyed by the U.S. invasion.

Ironically, though, unbeknownst to those students—possibly even to their professor—the seminar’s research was being used to help target U.S. smart bombs. Or, as I phrase this in a new article for The Daily Beast, “there was a reason U.S. forces could put a missile through a window in Baghdad: they knew exactly where the window was. Architecture students in Washington D.C. had unwittingly helped them target it.”

[Image: YouTube].

But then things got complicated.

When I called my source back a few weeks later to follow up, it felt like a scene from a spy film: he said he didn’t remember telling me this (!) before joking that he was getting old and maybe saying things he shouldn’t have. This obviously only made me more determined to find out more.

I called every major school in Washington D.C. I FOIA’d the CIA. I started down a series of rabbit holes that led me from true stories of Gulf War espionage, involving U.S. attempts to collect blueprints for Saddam’s bunkers from engineering firms all over Europe, to a conversation with the head of targeting for the entire U.S. Air Force during Operation Desert Storm.

Along the way, I also kept finding more and more examples of architects and espionage, from Baron Robert Baden-Powell’s incredible use of butterfly sketches to hide floor plans of enemy forts to a 16th-century Italian garden designer who was, most likely, a spy.

[Image: Robert Baden-Powell’s clever use of entomological sketches to hide enemy floorplans, from his essay “My Adventures as a Spy.” See also Mark David Kaufman’s interesting essay about Baden-Powell for the Public Domain Review].

Even Michelangelo gets involved, as his designs for urban fortifications outside Florence, Italy, were secretly modeled in cork and snuck out of the city by an architect named Niccolò di Raffaello dei Pericoli—or Tribolo—in order to help plan a more effective siege (an anecdote I have written about here before).

In any case, I was sitting on this story for the past two years, waiting for my FOIA request to come back from the CIA and trying to set up interviews with people who might have known, first-hand, what I was asking about. The resulting article, my attempt to track down whether such a class took place, is finally up over at The Daily Beast. If any of the above sounds interesting, please click through to check it out.

Finally, of course, if this rings any bells with you—if you took a class like this and, in retrospect, now have doubts about its real purpose—please be in touch.

Voids and Vacuums

[Image: Google Maps view of Mosul Dam (bottom center) and the huge reservoir it creates].

Dexter Filkins—author of, among other things, The Forever War—has a long new piece in the first 2017 issue of The New Yorker about the impending collapse of Iraq’s Mosul Dam.

The scale of the potential disaster is mind-boggling.

If the dam ruptured, it would likely cause a catastrophe of Biblical proportions, loosing a wave as high as a hundred feet that would roll down the Tigris, swallowing everything in its path for more than a hundred miles. Large parts of Mosul would be submerged in less than three hours. Along the riverbanks, towns and cities containing the heart of Iraq’s population would be flooded; in four days, a wave as high as sixteen feet would crash into Baghdad, a city of six million people. “If there is a breach in the dam, there will be no warning,” Alwash said. “It’s a nuclear bomb with an unpredictable fuse.”

Indeed, “hundreds of thousands of people could be killed,” according to a UN report cited by Filkins.

What’s interesting from a technical perspective is why the dam is so likely to collapse. It’s a question of foundations. The dam was built, Filkins writes, on rock “interspersed with gypsum—which dissolves in contact with water. Dams built on this kind of rock are subject to a phenomenon called karstification, in which the foundation becomes shot through with voids and vacuums.”

Filling those voids with grout is now a constant job, requiring dam engineers to pump huge amounts of cementitious slurry down into the porous rock in order to replace the dissolved gypsum.

[Image: Mosul Dam spillway; photo by U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Brendan Stephens].

At one point, Filkins goes inside the dam where “engineers are engaged in what amounts to an endless struggle against nature. Using antiquated pumps as large as truck engines, they drive enormous quantities of liquid cement into the earth. Since the dam opened, in 1984, engineers working in the gallery have pumped close to a hundred thousand tons of grout—an average of ten tons a day—into the voids below.”

Finding and caulking these voids, Filkins writes, is “deeply inexact.” They are deep underground and remain unseen; they have to be inferred. The resulting process is both absurd and never-ending.

The engineers operating [the grout pumps] can’t see the voids they are filling and have no way of discerning their size or shape. A given void might be as big as a closet, or a car, or a house. It could be a single spacious cavity, requiring mounds of grout, or it could be an octopus-like tangle, with winding sub-caverns, or a hairline fracture. “We feel our way through,” [deputy director Hussein al-Jabouri] said, standing by the pump. Generally, smaller cavities require thinner grout, so Jabouri started with a milky solution and increased its thickness as the void took more. Finally, after several hours, he stopped; his intuition, aided by the pressure gauges, told him that the cavity was full. “It’s a crapshoot,” [civil engineer Azzam Alwash] told me. “There’s no X-ray vision. You stop grouting when you can’t put any more grout in a hole. It doesn’t mean the hole is gone.”

It’s hard not to think of a scene in Georges Perec’s novel Life: A User’s Manual, a scene I have written about before. There, a character named Emilio Grifalconi picks up an old, used table only to find that the support column at its center is “completely worm-eaten.” Slowly, painstakingly, operating by intuition, he fills the worm-eaten passages with a permanent adhesive, “injecting them with an almost liquid mixture of lead, alum and asbestos fiber.”

The table collapses anyway, alas, giving Grifalconi an idea: “dissolving what was left of the original wood” in order to “disclose the fabulous arborescence within, this exact record of the worms’ life inside the wooden mass: a static, mineral accumulation of all the movements that had constituted their blind existence, their undeviating single-mindedness, their obstinate itineraries; the faithful materialization of all they had eaten and digested as they forced from their dense surroundings the invisible elements needed for their survival, the explicit, visible, immeasurably disturbing image of the endless progressions that had reduced the hardest of woods to an impalpable network of crumbling galleries.”

Whether or not such a rhizomatic tangle of grout-filled chambers, linked “voids and vacuums” like subterranean grapes, could ever be uncovered and explored beneath the future ruins of a safely dismantled Mosul Dam is something I will leave for engineers.

[Image: Mosul Dam water release; photo by U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Brendan Stephens].

However, Filkins points out one possible solution that would sidestep all of this: this option, he writes, “which has lately gained currency, is to erect a ‘permanent’ seal of the existing dam wall—a mile-long concrete curtain dropped eight hundred feet into the earth.”

This would not be the only huge subterranean wall to be proposed recently: think of the “giant ice wall” under construction beneath the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan: “Japan is about to switch on a huge refrigeration system that will create a 1.5-km-long, underground frozen ‘wall,’ in hopes of containing the radioactive water that’s spilling out of the Fukushima nuclear power plant, which went into meltdown following the earthquake and tsunami of March 2011.”

Read more over at The New Yorker.

The Dam Industry’s Chernobyl

There’s an alarming new piece up at The New Yorker looking at two potential dam failures, in Iraq and Zambia, and the extraordinary effects these disasters would have. The collapse of Iraq’s Mosul Dam, for example, which the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers calls “the most dangerous dam in the world,” “could drown as many as five hundred thousand people downstream and leave a million homeless.” The collapse of Zambia’s Kariba Dam, meanwhile, and the resulting megaflood would be “the dam industry’s Chernobyl”: “three million people live in the flood’s path; most would die or lose their crops or possessions. About forty per cent of the electricity-generating capacity of twelve southern African nations would be eliminated.” (Spotted via @waltonwater)

In the Box: A Tour Through the Simulated Battlefields of the U.S. National Training Center

[Image: Photo courtesy of Venue].

(This post originally published on Venue).

Fort Irwin is a U.S. army base nearly the size of Rhode Island, located in the Mojave Desert about an hour’s drive northeast of Barstow, California. There you will find the National Training Center, or NTC, at which all U.S. troops, from all services, spend a twenty-one day rotation before they deploy overseas.

[Image: Photo courtesy of Venue].

Sprawling and often infernally hot in the summer months, the base offers free tours, open to the public, twice a month. Venue—BLDGBLOG’s ongoing collaboration with Edible Geography’s Nicola Twilley, supported by the Nevada Museum of Art‘s Center for Art + Environment—made the trip, cameras in hand and notebooks at the ready, to learn more about the simulated battlefields in which imaginary conflicts loop, day after day, without end.

[Images: Photos courtesy of Venue].

Coincidentally, as we explored the Painted Rocks located just outside the gate while waiting for the tour to start, an old acquaintance from Los Angeles—architect and geographer Rick Miller—pulled up in his Prius, also early for the same tour.

[Image: Photo courtesy of Venue].

We laughed, said hello, and caught up about a class Rick had been teaching at UCLA about the military defense of L.A. during World War II, through to the present. An artificial battlefield, beyond even the furthest fringes of Los Angeles, Fort Irwin thus seemed like an appropriate place to meet.

[Image: Photo courtesy of Venue].

We were soon joined by a small group of other visitors—consisting, for the most part, of family members of soldiers deployed on the base, as well as two architecture students from Montréal—before a large white tour bus rolled up across the gravel.

Renita, a former combat videographer who now handles public affairs at Fort Irwin, took our names, IDs, and signatures for reasons of liability (we would be seeing live explosions and simulated gunfire, and there was always the risk that someone might get hurt).

[Image: Photo courtesy of Venue].

The day began with a glimpse into the economics and culture of how a nation prepares its soldiers for war; an orientation, of sorts, before we headed out to visit one of fifteen artificial cities scattered throughout the base.

[Image: Photo courtesy of Venue].

In the plush lecture hall used for “After Action Reviews”—and thus, Renita apologized, air-conditioned to a morgue-like chill in order to keep soldiers awake as their adrenalin levels crash—we received a briefing from the base’s commander, Brigadier General Terry Ferrell.

With pride, Ferrell noted that Fort Irwin is the only place where the U.S. military can train using all of the systems it will later use in theater. The base’s 1,000 square miles of desert is large enough to allow what Ferrell called “great maneuverability”; its airspace is restricted; and its truly remote location ensures an uncluttered electromagnetic spectrum, meaning that troops can practice both collection and jamming. These latter techniques even include interfering with GPS, providing they warn the Federal Aviation Administration in advance.

Oddly, it’s worth noting that Fort Irwin also houses the electromagnetically sensitive Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex, part of NASA’s global Deep Space Network. As science writer Oliver Morton explains in a paper called “Moonshine and Glue: A Thirteen-Unit Guide to the Extreme Edge of Astrophysics” (PDF), “when digitized battalions slug it out with all the tools of modern warfare, radio, radar, and electronic warfare emissions fly as freely around Fort Irwin as bullets in a battle. For people listening to signals from distant spacecraft on pre-arranged frequency bands, this noise is not too much of a problem.” However, he adds, for other, far more sensitive experiments, “radio interference from the military next door is its biggest headache.”

[Image: Photo courtesy of Venue].

Unusually for the American West, where mineral rights are often transferred separately, the military also owns the ground beneath Fort Irwin, which means that they have carved out an extensive network of tunnels and caves from which to flush pretend insurgents.

This 120-person strong insurgent troop is drawn from the base’s own Blackhorse Regiment, a division of the U.S. Army that exists solely to provide opposition. Whatever the war, the 11th Armored is always the pretend enemy. According to Ferrell, their current role as Afghan rebels is widely envied: they receive specialized training (for example, in building IEDs) and are held to “reduced grooming standards,” while their mission is simply to “stay alive and wreak havoc.”

If they die during a NTC simulation, they have to shave and go back on detail on the base, Ferrell added, so the incentive to evade their American opponents is strong.

[Image: Photo courtesy of Venue].

In addition to the in-house enemy regiment, there is an entire 2,200-person logistics corps dedicated to rotating units in and out of Fort Irwin and equipping them for training. Every ordnance the United States military has, with the exception of biological and chemical weapons, is used during NTC simulations, Ferrell told us. What’s more, in the interests of realism (and expense be damned), troops train using their own equipment, which means that bringing in, for example, the 10th Mountain Division (on rotation during our visit), also means transporting their tanks and helicopters from their home base at Fort Drum, New York, to California, and back again.

Units are deployed to Fort Irwin for twenty-one days, fourteen of which are spent in what Fort Irwin refers to as “The Box” (as in “sandbox”). This is the vast desert training area that includes fifteen simulated towns and the previously mentioned tunnel and caves, as well as expansive gunnery ranges and tank battle arenas.

Following our briefing, we headed out to the largest mock village in the complex, the Afghan town of Ertebat Shar, originally known, during its Iraqi incarnation, as Medina Wasl. Before we re-boarded the bus, Renita issued a stern warning: “‘Afghanistan’ is not modernized with plumbing. There are Porta-Johns, but I wanted to let you know the situation before we roll out there.”

[Images: Photos courtesy of Venue].

A twenty-minute drive later, through relatively featureless desert, our visit to “Afghanistan” began with a casual walk down the main street, where we were greeted by actors trying to sell us plastic loaves of bread and piles of fake meat. Fort Irwin employs more than 350 civilian role-players, many of whom are of Middle Eastern origin, although Ferrell explained that they are still trying to recruit more Afghans, in order “to provide the texture of the culture.”

The atmosphere is strangely good-natured, which was at least partially amplified by a feeling of mild embarrassment, as the rules of engagement, so to speak, are not immediately clear; you, the visitor, are obviously aware of the fact that these people are paid actors, but it feels distinctly odd to slip into character yourself and pretend that you might want to buy some bread.

[Images: Photos courtesy of Venue].

In fact, it’s impossible not to wonder how peculiar it must be for a refugee, or even a second-generation immigrant, from Iraq or Afghanistan, to pretend to be a baker in a simulated “native” village on a military base in the California desert, only to see tourists in shorts and sunglasses walking through, smiling uncomfortably and taking photos with their phones before strolling away without saying anything.

[Image: Photo courtesy of Venue].

Even more peculiarly, as we reached the end of the street, the market—and all the actors in it—vanished behind us, dispersing back into the fake city, as if only called into being by our presence.

[Image: Photo courtesy of Venue].

By now, with the opening act over, we were stopped in front of the town’s “Lyndon Marcus International Hotel” to take stock of our surroundings. In his earlier briefing, Ferrell had described the simulated villages’ close attention to detail—apparently, the footprint for the village came from actual satellite imagery of Baghdad, in order to accurately recreate street widths, and the step sizes inside buildings are Iraqi, rather than U.S., standard.

Dimensions notwithstanding, however, this is a city of cargo containers, their Orientalized facades slapped up and plastered on like make-up. Seen from above, the wooden frames of the illusion become visible and it becomes more and more clear that you are on a film set, an immersive theater of war.

[Images: Photos courtesy of Venue].

This kind of test village has a long history in U.S. war planning. As journalist Tom Vanderbilt writes in his book Survival City, “In March 1943, with bombing attacks on cities being intensified by all sides, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began construction at Dugway [Utah] on a series of ‘enemy villages,’ detailed reproductions of the typical housing found in the industrial districts of cities in Germany and Japan.”

The point of the villages at Dugway, however, was not to train soldiers in urban warfare—with, for instance, simulated street battles or house-to-house clearances —but simply to test the burn capacity of the structures themselves. What sorts of explosives should the U.S. use? How much damage would result? The attention to architectural detail was simply a subset of this larger, more violent inquiry. As Vanderbilt explains, bombs at Dugway “were tested as to their effectiveness against architecture: How well the bombs penetrated the roofs of buildings (without penetrating too far), where they lodged in the building, and the intensity of the resulting fire.”

During the Cold War, combat moved away from urban settings, and Fort Irwin’s desert sandbox became the stage for massive set-piece tank battles against the “Soviet” Blackhorse Cavalry. But, in 1993, following the embarrassment of the Black Hawk Down incident in Mogadishu, Fort Irwin hosted its first urban warfare, or MOUT (Military Operations on Urbanized Terrain) exercise. This response was part of a growing realization shared amongst the armed forces, national security experts, and military contractors that future wars would again take the city as their battlefield.

[Image: Photo courtesy of Venue].

As Russell W. Glenn of the RAND Corporation puts it bluntly in his report Combat in Hell: A Consideration of Constrained Urban Warfare, “Armed forces are ever more likely to fight in cities as the world becomes increasingly urbanized.”

Massed, professional, and essentially symmetrical armies no longer confront one another on the broad forests and plains of central Europe, the new tactical thinking goes; instead, undeclared combatants living beside—sometimes even with—families in stacked apartment blocks or tight-knit courtyards send out the occasional missile, bullet, or improvised explosive device from a logistically confusing tangle of streets, and “war” becomes the spatial process of determining how to respond.

At Fort Irwin, mock villages began to pop up in the desert. They started out as “sheds bought from Shed World,” Ferrell told us, before being replaced by shipping containers, which, in turn, have been enhanced with stone siding, mosque domes, awnings, and street signs, and, in some cases, even with internal staircases and furniture, too. Indeed, Ertebat Shar/Medina Wasl began its simulated existence in 2007, with just thirteen buildings, but has since expanded to include more than two hundred structures.

The point of these architectural reproductions is no longer, as in the World War II test villages of Dugway, to find better or more efficient methods of architectural destruction; instead, these ersatz buildings and villages are used to equip troops to better navigate the complexity of urban structures—both physical, and, perhaps most importantly, socio-cultural.

In other words, at the most basic level, soldiers will use Fort Irwin’s facsimile villages to practice clearing structures and navigating unmapped, roofed alleyways through cities without clear satellite communications links. However, at least in the training activities accessible to public visitors, the architecture is primarily a stage set for the theater of human relations: a backdrop for meeting and befriending locals (again, paid actors), controlling crowds (actors), rescuing casualties (Fort Irwin’s roster of eight amputees are its most highly paid actors, we learned, in recompense for being literally dragged around during simulated combat operations), and, ultimately, locating and eliminating the bad guys (the Blackhorse regiment).

[Image: Photo courtesy of Venue].

In the series of set-piece training exercises that take place within the village, the action is coordinated from above by a ring of walkie-talkie connected scenographers, including an extensive internal media presence, who film all of the simulations for later replay in combat analysis. The sense of being on an elaborate, extremely detailed film set is here made explicit. In fact, visitors are openly encouraged to participate in this mediation of the events: we were repeatedly urged to take as many photographs as possible and to share the resulting images on Facebook, Twitter, and more.

[Images: Photos courtesy of Venue].

Appropriately equipped with ear plugs and eye protection, we filed upstairs to a veranda overlooking one of the village’s main throughways, where we joined the “Observer Coaches” and film crew, taking our positions for the afternoon’s scripted exercise.

[Image: Photo courtesy of Venue].

Loud explosions, smoke, and fairly grisly combat scenes ensued—and thus, despite their simulated nature, involving Hollywood-style prosthetics and fake blood, please be warned that many of the forthcoming photos could still be quite upsetting for some viewers.

[Images: Photos courtesy of Venue].

The afternoon’s action began quietly enough, with an American soldier on patrol waving off a man trying to sell him a melon. Suddenly, a truck bomb detonated, smoke filled the air, and an injured woman began to wail, while a soldier slumped against a wall, applying a tourniquet to his own severed arm.

[Images: Photos courtesy of Venue].

In the subsequent chaos, it was hard to tell who was doing what, and why: gun trucks began rolling down the streets, dodging a live goat and letting off round after round as insurgents fired RPGs (mounted on invisible fishing line that blended in with the electrical wires above our heads) from upstairs windows; blood-covered casualties were loaded into an ambulance while soldiers went door-to-door with their weapons drawn; and, in the episode’s climax, a suicide bomber blew himself up directly beneath us, showering our tour group with ashes.

[Images: Photos courtesy of Venue].

Twenty minutes later, it was all over. The smoke died down; the actors reassembled, uninjured, to discuss what just occurred; and the sound of blank rounds being fired off behind the buildings at the end of the exercise echoed through the streets.

[Image: Photo courtesy of Venue].

Incredibly, blank rounds assigned to a particular exercise must be used during that exercise and cannot be saved for another day; if you are curious as to where your tax dollars might be going, picture paid actors shooting entire magazines full of blank rounds out of machine guns behind simulated Middle Eastern buildings in the Mojave desert. Every single blank must be accounted for, leading to the peculiar sight of a village’s worth of insurgents stooped, gathering used blank casings into their prop kettles, bread baskets, and plastic bags.

[Images: Photos courtesy of Venue].

Finally, we descended back down onto the street, dazed, ears ringing, and a little shocked by all the explosions and gunfire. Stepping carefully around pools of fake blood and chunks of plastic viscera, we made our way back to the lobby of the International Hotel for cups of water and a debrief with soldiers involved in planning and implementing the simulation.

[Image: Photo courtesy of Venue].

Our hosts there were an interesting mix of earnest young boys who looked like they had successful careers in politics ahead of them, standing beside older men, almost stereotypically hard-faced, who could probably scare an AK-47 into misfiring just by staring at it, and a few female soldiers.

Somewhat subdued at this point, our group sat on sofas that had seen better days and passed around an extraordinary collection of injury cards handed out to fallen soldiers and civilians. These detail the specific rules given for role-playing a suite of symptoms and behavior—a kind of design fiction of military injury.

[Images: Photos courtesy of Venue].

A few of us tried on the MILES (Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement System) harnesses that soldiers wear to sense hits from fired blanks, and then an enemy soldier demonstrated an exploding door sill.

[Images: Photos courtesy of Venue].

While the film crew and Observer Coaches prepared for their “After Action Review,” our guides seemed talkative but unwilling to discuss how well or badly the afternoon’s session had gone. We asked, instead, about the future of Fort Irwin’s villages, as the U.S. withdraws from Afghanistan. The vision is to expand the range of urban conditions into what Ferrell termed a “Decisive Action Training Environment,” in which U.S. military will continue to encounter “the world’s worst actors” [sic]—”guerrillas, criminals, and insurgents”—amidst the furniture of city life.

As he escorted us back down the market street to our bus, one soldier off-handedly remarked that he’d heard the village might be redesigned soon as a Spanish-speaking environment—before hastily and somewhat nervously adding that he didn’t know for sure, and, anyway, it probably wasn’t true.

[Image: Photo courtesy of Venue].

The “town” is visible on Google Maps, if you’re curious, and it is easy to reach from Barstow. Tours of “The Box” are run twice a month and fill up quickly; learn more at the Fort Irwin website, including safety tips and age restrictions.

• • •

For more Venue content, exploring human interactions with the built, natural, and virtual environments through 16 months of travel around the continental United States, check out the Venue website in full.

Warsound

[Image: U.S. helicopter over Baghdad, via (scroll down)].

I’ve mentioned The Forever War by Dexter Filkins before, but I was struck again the other day by a passage in which Filkins catalogs the mechanically unprecedented sounds of the American siege of Falluja, a collection of noises so alien and overpowering that he describes it as “an entire ecosystem” with its own hidden predators and prey.

Filkins writes that “rocket-propelled grenades whizzed out of the darkness, striking the M-1s and exploding but doing no harm. Whoosh-bang, like a fireworks show. Whoosh-bang.” He quickly adds, however, that “the real weirdness was circling above.”

The night sky echoed with pops and pings, the invisible sounds of frantic action. Most were being made by the AC-130 gunships, whose propellers were putting out a reassuring hum. But over the droning came stranger sounds: the plane’s Gatling gun let out long, deep burps at volumes that were symphonic. Its 105mm cannon made a popping sound, the same as you would hear from a machine that served tennis balls. A pop! followed by a boom! Pop-boom. And then there was the insect buzz of the ScanEagle, the pilotless airplane that hovered above us and beamed images back to base. It was as if we were witnessing the violent struggles of an entire ecosystem, a clash of airborne nocturnal beasts we could not see.

Of course, the unnatural acoustic ecology of humans at war is surely something you could find throughout history, from the fibrous zing of crossbow strings and the thunderous lurch of the catapult to endlessly irritating scrapings of metal on metal as swords and shields collide. What ancient Roman warfare actually sounded like is something for the acoustic archaeologists.

But, while an acoustic history of war has yet to be written—though some have treated sound itself as war—it would be a fascinating study to pursue.

Sonic Warfare

The opening scene of The Forever War by Dexter Filkins presents us with the sight of U.S. soldiers preparing for their invasion of Falluja. Filkins is there to witness the attack; amidst the growl of tanks and Humvees, and “by the light of airstrikes and rockets,” he writes, there is suddenly something sonically unexpected.


[Image: “An Advanced Individual Training Soldier in the Psychological Operations Specialist Course attaches a loud speaker on top of a High Mobility Multi-Wheeled Vehicle, or HUMVEE, at Forward Operating Base Freedom, Camp MacKall, N.C.” Courtesy of the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School].

“And then, as if from the depths,” Filkins writes, “came a new sound: violent, menacing and dire.”

I looked back over my shoulder to where we had come from, into the vacant field at Falluja’s northern edge. A group of marines were standing at the foot of a gigantic loudspeaker, the kind used at rock concerts.

It was AC/DC, the Australian heavy metal band, pouring out its unbridled sounds. I recognized the song immediately: “Hells Bells,” the band’s celebration of satanic power, had come to us on the battlefield.

While by no means advocating the use of sonic warfare as a tool in U.S. military adventures or police operations, I nonetheless instantly thought of this scene—of armed soldiers holding aloft rock-blaring boom boxes, like some John Milius-directed remake of Say Anything—when I read, in a very different context, that bark beetles can be driven out of the pine forests they currently infest if you play digitally-altered sounds of their own chewing back at them through loud speakers. The high-volume sound of themselves drives them away.

A research assistant suggested using sounds to aggravate the beetles, much as police sometimes blare music in hostage situations. The researchers tried Queen and Guns N’ Roses and played snippets of radio talker Rush Limbaugh backward. None produced the desired results.

Then, the beetles were exposed to digitally altered recordings of their own calls, the sounds they make to attract or repel other beetles. The response was immediate. The beetles stopped mating or burrowing. Some fled, helter-skelter. Some violently attacked each other.

Most important, they stopped chewing away at the pine tree, suggesting that the scientists may have discovered a sort of sonic bullet that could help slow the beetles’ destructive march.

Again, I do not mean to imply that infestation metaphors are the most appropriate to use when discussing Operation Phantom Fury, or that military action in that city was analogous to clearing a forest of bark beetles; but the audio possibilities here, and the specifics of the set-up, seem amazing.


[Image: A ponderosa pine forest; within those trunks might be beetles].

More about the actual experiment, run at Northern Arizona University’s Forestry Lab:

They collected tree trunks infested with bark beetles… Working in the lab, [research assistant Reagan McGuire] piped in the music through tiny speakers, the sort you might find in a singing greeting card. He watched the reaction of the beetles using a microscope. The rock music didn’t seem to annoy the bugs, nor did Rush in reverse.

McGuire and [Northern Arizona University forest entomologist Richard Hofstetter] decided to try something different. They recorded the sounds of the beetles and played them back, manipulating them to test the response.

Suddenly, every little thing they did seemed to provoke the beetles.

“We could use a particular aggression call that would make the beetles move away from the sound as if they were avoiding another beetle,” Hofstetter said.

When they made the beetle sounds louder and stronger than a typical male mating call, he said, the female beetle rejected the male and moved toward the electronic sound.

These audio simulations, in other words, had demonstrable physical effects on another species; their own warped sonic portrait drove them crazy.

So could you reprogram your Marsona 1288A (“create a personalized sound environment“) with the digitally-altered ambient sounds of termites and thus clear your house of insectile pests? The USDA, after all, has published a paper—download the PDF—explaining how a “portable, low-frequency acoustic system was used to detect termite infestations in urban trees.” Indeed, “termite sounds could be detected easily underneath infested trees, despite the presence of high urban background noise.” So why not reverse this—drive them out of the city using weird MP3s specially produced for boom cars?

Perhaps we should petition Clear Channel or Sirius XM to premiere a new, insect-only broadcast hour, killing ants and roaches in every city where it’s played (or perhaps just driving them all out, streaming from the floorboards, in a moment of utter horror).

I’m reminded here of the famous example of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles, with its “dog whistle—which humans can’t hear—buried on the album’s second side.” Only, in our case, it would be a different kind of beetle-whistle, and one with anti-infestational effects.

(Bark beetle story found via @treestrategist).

The Fall

Photographer Richard Mosse, interviewed here on BLDGBLOG earlier this year, has a show opening up tonight in New York City: The Fall.

[Image: Richard Mosse, “Grand Voyager Sunni Triangle” (2009), courtesy of the Jack Shainman Gallery].

For the past year, Mosse has been traveling the world on a Leonore Annenberg Fellowship, documenting distant sites of aviation wreckage, war ruins, and more. From Iraqi battlefields and ruined palaces to bullet-riddled trucks and disaster-preparation test-landscapes, his new exhibition, The Fall, “is a photographic survey of our historic unconscious,” the gallery explains.

Mosse travelled to intensely remote locations, from the Patagonian Andes to the Yukon Territories, and worked as an embed with the US military to produce work for this exhibition. The Fall is a rescue mission to try to locate our blasted sense of landscape and archeology, and reclaim the primeval waste for our imagination. Produced to an epic scale, each of the photographs in The Fall is a history painting for our times.

The exhibition will be up until December 23, 2009, at the Jack Shainman Gallery, and is highly recommended; here’s a map of how to get there.

[Image: Richard Mosse, “C-47 Alberta” (2009), courtesy of the Jack Shainman Gallery].

Saddam’s Palaces: An Interview with Richard Mosse

[Image: Ruined swimming pool at Uday’s Palace, Jebel Makhoul, Iraq (2009); photo by Richard Mosse].

Photographer Richard Mosse first appeared on BLDGBLOG last year with his unforgettable visual tour through the air disaster simulations of the international transportation industry.

He and I have since kept in touch—so, when Mosse returned from a trip to Iraq this spring, he emailed again with an unexpectedly intense new body of work. These extraordinary images—published here for the first time—show the imperial palaces of Saddam Hussein converted into temporary housing for the U.S military.

Vast, self-indulgent halls of columned marble and extravagant chandeliers, surrounded by pools, walls, moats, and, beyond that, empty desert, suddenly look more like college dormitories. Weight sets, flags, partition walls, sofas, basketball hoops, and even posters of bikini’d women have been imported to fill Saddam’s spatial residuum. The effect is oddly decorative, as if someone has simply moved in for a long weekend, unpacking an assortment of mundane possessions.

The effect is like an ironic form of camouflage, making the perilously foreign seem all the more familiar and habitable—a kind of military twist on postmodern interior design.

Of course, then you notice, in the corner of the image, a stray pair of combat boots or an abandoned barbecue or a machine gun leaned up against a marble wall partially shattered by recent bomb damage—amidst the dust of collapsed ceilings and ruined tiles—and this architecture, and the people who now go to sleep there every night, suddenly takes on a whole new, tragic narrative.

Fascinated by the dozens and dozens of incredible photos Mosse emailed—only a fraction of which appear here—I asked him to describe the experience of being a photographer in Iraq.
The ensuing dialogue appears below.


• • •

BLDGBLOG: What was the basic story behind your visit to Iraq? Was it self-funded or sponsored by a gallery?

Richard Mosse: The trip was backed by a Leonore Annenberg Fellowship in the Performing and Visual Arts, which I received after graduating from Yale last summer with an MFA in photography. The Fellowship provides enough to fund two full years of traveling to make new photographs, and I applied to shoot in a range of places, including Iraq. My proposal was to make work around the idea of the accidental monument. I’m interested in the idea that history is something in a constant state of being written and rewritten—and the way that we write history is often plain to see in how we affect the world around us, in the inscriptions we make on our landscape, and in what stays and what goes.

[Image: Saddam’s heads, taken from the roof of the Republican Guard Palace, now located at Al-Salam Palace, Forward Operating Base Prosperity, Baghdad, Iraq (2009); photo by Richard Mosse].

I suppose it’s an idea that captured me while traveling through Kosovo in 2004. I saw a building by the side of the road there that lay mined and shattered in a field of flowers. It was almost entirely collapsed—except for a church cupola which lay at a pendulous angle, though otherwise perfectly intact on a pile of rubble. It was a marvelously pictorial vision of the Kosovo Albanian desire to rewrite the history books. In other words, what I saw before me was not an act of mere vandalism, but a decisive act by the Kosovo Albanian community to disavow the fact of Serb Orthodox church heritage in the region. The removal of religious architecture is a terrible crime, and it constitutes an act of ethnic cleansing (remember Kristallnacht); yet I couldn’t help but interpret this as an attempt to create a brave new Kosovo Albanian world.

I began to see architecture as something that can reveal the ways in which we alter the past in order to construct a new future, as a site in which past, present, and future come together to be reformed. And it’s not the only one: language—our words and the way we use them—are another fine barometer of these things.

But architecture is something I felt I could research and portray using the dumb eye of my camera.

[Image: JDAM bomb damage within Saddam’s Palace interior, Jebel Makhoul, Iraq (2009); photo by Richard Mosse].

BLDGBLOG: Beyond the most obvious reasons—for instance, there’s a war going on—why did you go to Iraq? Was there something in particular that you were hoping to see? 

Mosse: I had heard plenty about Saddam’s palaces. They were the focus of the International Atomic Energy Association’s tedious investigations in the years preceding the invasion, and the news was always full of delegations being turned away from this or that palace. Why were we so keen to get inside Saddam’s palaces? Because he built so many—81 in total. Surely, we thought, he must be hiding something in those palace complexes. Surely he must be building subterranean particle accelerators. And, in the end, our curiosity got the better of us.

[Image: U.S.-built partition and air-conditioning units within Al-Salam Palace, Forward Operating Base Prosperity, Baghdad, Iraq (2009); photo by Richard Mosse].

In fact, Saddam was building palaces in every city as an expression of his authority. Palace architecture in Iraq served as a constant reminder of Saddam’s immanence. A palace in your city simply fed the sense that Saddam was not just nearby—he was everywhere. Saddam was omnipresent.

I once heard a Westerner tell me that, prior to the invasion, Iraqis driving near one of Saddam’s palaces would actually avert their eyes—they would refuse to look toward the palace. It was almost as if they were prisoners in a great outdoor version of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon. Curiously, the sentry towers along the perimeter walls of Al-Salam Palace in Baghdad face only outward; they’re screened from looking inward at the palace itself. People say it’s so the guards could not witness Saddam’s eldest son Uday’s relations with underage girls, but I rather like to think that it created a sense of the unseen authoritarian staring blankly outwards. It was like those ominous black turrets that the British army constructed over the hills of Belfast, packed with listening devices and telescopic cameras.

[Image: Outdoor gym, Al-Faw Palace, Camp Victory, Baghdad, Iraq (2009); photo by Richard Mosse].

But the idea of Iraqis averting their eyes from Saddam’s palace architecture also reminds me of something from W.G. Sebald’s book On the Natural History of Destruction.

BLDGBLOG: That’s an incredible book – I still can’t forget his descriptions of tornadoes of fire whirling through bombed cities and melting asphalt.

Mosse: Sebald recounts how the German population, after the end of WWII, would ride the trains, staring into their laps or at the ceiling—anywhere but out the window at the terrible wreckage of their cities. It was as if they were somehow disavowing the war by willing it away, by refusing to perceive it.

It’s interesting, then, that, in both instances—in both Iraq and in post-war Germany—it’s the tourist, or the outsider, who observes this blindness. I suppose that’s why I like to make photographs in foreign places: only the tourist notices the really dumb things that everyone else takes for granted.

[Image: U.S. military telephone kiosks built within Birthday Palace interior, Tikrit, Iraq (2009); photo by Richard Mosse].

BLDGBLOG: The way these structures have been colonized is often amusing and sometimes shocking—the telephones, desks, and instant dormitories that turn an imperial palace into what looks like a suburban office or hospital waiting room. Can you describe some of the spatial details of these soldiers’ lives that most struck you? 

Mosse: It was extraordinary how some of the palace interiors had been transformed to accommodate the soldiers. Troops scurried beneath vaulted ceilings and glittering faux-crystal chandeliers. Lofty marble columns towered over rat runs between hastily constructed chipboard cubicles. Obama’s face beamed out of televisions overlooking the freezers and microwaves of provisional canteen spaces.

Many of the palaces have already been handed back to the Iraqis—but where Americans troops do remain, they live in very cramped conditions, pissing into a hole in the ground and waiting days just to shower. Life is hard on the front line, and it seems more than a little surreal to be ticking off the days in a dictator’s pleasure dome.

[Images: American dormitories built within Saddam’s Birthday Palace, Tikrit, Iraq (2009); photos by Richard Mosse].

The most interesting thing about the whole endeavor for me was the very fact that the U.S. had chosen to occupy Saddam’s palaces in the first place. If you’re trying to convince a population that you have liberated them from a terrible dictator, why would you then sit in his throne? A savvier place to station the garrison would have been a place free from associations with Saddam, and the terror and injustices that the occupying forces were convinced they’d done away with. Instead, they made the mistake of repeating history.

This is why I’ve titled this body of work Breach. “Breach” is a military maneuver in which the walls of a fortification (or palace) are broken through. But breach also carries the sense of replacement—as in, stepping into the breach. The U.S. stepped into the breach that it had created, replacing the very thing that it sought to destroy.

There are other kinds of breach—such as a breach of faith, a breach of confidence, or the breach of a whale rising above water for air. All of these senses were important to me while working on these photographs.

[Image: Provisional office wall partitions within Al-Faw Palace, Camp Victory, Baghdad, Iraq (2009); photo by Richard Mosse].

BLDGBLOG: In several of these photos, the soldiers are literally lifting tiles up from the floor as if the buildings had been left unfinished, or they’re peering through cracks in the palace walls. From what you could see, were Saddam’s palaces badly constructed or were they just heavily damaged during the war?

Mosse: Tiles simply fell from Al-Faw Palace because the cement used there had been poorly salinated. If that can happen to tiles, think what’s happening when the entire palace has been built on similarly salinated foundations! It’s just a matter of time before Al-Faw collapses in on itself.

You can already see arches cracking and walls beginning to sag.

[Image: Fallen tiles and chandeliers, Al Faw Palace, Camp Victory, Baghdad, Iraq (2009); photo by Richard Mosse].

But I’m reluctant to include images of U.S. soldiers pointing out problems with Saddam’s architecture, because it’s fairly evident that those could be a form of propaganda—and it’s easy to forget that many of these palaces were built during times of terrible sanctions imposed by the West. It might not seem very clear why Saddam was busy building palaces in a time of sanctions, but remember how the WPA was set-up during the Great Depression? I don’t want to risk being called an apologist for Saddam, but there are many ways to read a story.

[Image: “Thank you for your service” banner, Al-Faw Palace interior, Camp Victory, Iraq (2009); photo by Richard Mosse].

That said, the palace is a fabulous monument to rushed construction, poor materials, and gaudy pomp. Saddam had apparently insisted that the palace be finished within two years, so many shortcuts were taken during construction. For example, the stairway banisters were made of crystallized gypsum—rather than carved marble—and where pieces didn’t quite fit together, they were just sanded down rather than replaced. Marble that was used in the palace (such as in the great spacious bathrooms) was imported from Italy, in spite of the trade embargo. And the plaster cast frescoes in the ceilings were imported from Morocco.

[Image: Stairway, Al-Faw Palace, Camp Victory, Baghdad, Iraq (2009); photo by Richard Mosse].

Al-Faw Palace later became the U.S, Army’s Command HQ, located at the heart of Camp Victory, near Baghdad International Airport. The palace is now teeming with generals, including General Odierno, the commander of coalition forces in Iraq. It’s a great, tiered wedding-cake structure, built around an inner hall with possibly the biggest and ugliest chandelier ever made. In fact, the chandelier is not made of crystal, but from a lattice of glass and plastic.

[Image: Chandelier, Al-Faw Palace, Camp Victory, Baghdad, Iraq (2009); photo by Richard Mosse].

The palace itself is then surrounded by a lake, which seems a bit like a moat—and it would be tempting to take a swim there, but the moat has been turned into a standing pool for Camp Victory’s sewage. In the summer, the place must be rather unpleasant: rank in all senses of the word, both military and sanitary. These artificial lakes surrounding the palace are also populated by the infamous “Saddam Bass.” It’s said that Saddam would feed the bodies of his political opponents to these monsters. In fact, they’re not bass at all, but a breed of asp fish. U.S. troops stationed at Camp Victory love to fish on these lakes, and a 105-pound specimen was recently caught.

[Image: Tigris Salmon caught at Camp Victory Base, measuring 5 feet 10.5 inches and weighing 105 lbs. Image courtesy of the U.S. Army].

BLDGBLOG: How was your own presence received by those soldiers? Did you present yourself as a photojournalist or as an art photographer?

Mosse: The difference between art and journalism is, for me, of paramount importance—but twenty minutes in Iraq, and the dialectic recedes. I got a vague sense that Americans working there feel a little forgotten—unappreciated by people at home—so they’re very grateful for a camera, any camera, coming through. Even a big 8″x10″ bellows camera with an Irishman in a cape. There were a lot of rather obvious photographs that I chose not to make, and occasionally someone got offended by this.

[Image: A game of basketball, Birthday Palace, Tikrit, Iraq (2009); photo by Richard Mosse].

BLDGBLOG: What was the soldiers’ opinion of these buildings? Did they ever just wander around and explore them, for instance, or was that a safety violation?

Mosse: I got the feeling that soldiers who occupied one of Saddam’s palaces were pretty interested in its original function. They seemed a lot more together, and happier with their job, compared with the troops I met on the massive, sprawling, purpose-built military bases in the Iraqi desert. Constant reminders of hierarchy and protocol were everywhere on the bigger bases—but on the more cramped and less comfortable palace bases, soldiers of different ranks seemed much closer and more capable of shooting the shit with each other, to borrow an American turn of phrase.

Though a far tougher environment, there seemed to be real job satisfaction—a sense that they were taking part in a piece of history.

[Image: Detail of U.S. soldier’s living quarters, Birthday Palace interior, Tikrit, Iraq (2009); photo by Richard Mosse].

BLDGBLOG: Architect Jeffrey Inaba once joked, in an interview with BLDGBLOG, that Saddam’s palaces look a bit like McMansions in the suburbs of New Jersey. He quipped that “the architecture of state power and the architecture of first world residences don’t seem that far apart. Saddam’s palaces, while they’re really supposed to be about state power, look not so different from houses in New Jersey.” They’re not intimidating, in other words; they’re just tacky. They’re kitsch. Now that you’ve actually been inside these palaces, though, what do you think of that comparison? 

Mosse: Well, I’ve never been inside a New Jersey McMansion, so I can’t pass judgment. However, “McMansion” is a term borrowed by us in Ireland, where I’m from. Ireland was hard-hit by English penal laws, from the 17th century onward. One of those laws was the Window Tax. This cruel levy was imposed as a kind of luxury tax, to take money from anyone who had it; the result was that Irish vernacular architecture became windowless. The Irish made good mileage on the half-door, for instance, a kind of door that can be closed halfway down to keep the cattle out but still let the light in.

Aside from this innovation, and from subtleties in the method of thatching, Irish architecture never fully recovered—to the point that, even today, almost everyone in my country chooses their house from a book called Plan-a-Home, which you can buy for 15 euros. And if you have extra cash to throw in, you can flick to the back of the book and choose one of the more spectacular McMansions. Those are truly Saddam-esque.

[Image: Birthday Palace, Tikrit, Iraq (2009); photo by Richard Mosse].

BLDGBLOG: Finally, the “Green Zone,” as well as many of these palaces, are notoriously insular, cut-off behind security walls from the rest of Iraq. Did you actually feel like you were in Iraq at all—or in some strange architectural world, of walls and dormitories, surrounded by homesick Americans? 

Mosse: Not all of Saddam’s palaces are as isolated from reality as those situated in the green zone (or international zone, as it’s now called). One I visited near Tikrit—Saddam’s Birthday Palace—was even right at the heart of the city. Saddam was said to visit the palace each year on his birthday.

Wherever you go on the base, you’re eminently shootable—a fantastic sniper target—and can hear the coming and going of Iraqis in the surrounding neighborhoods. It’s a remarkable experience to go up to the roof with the pigeons at dusk and watch the changing light. You get a palpable impression of the great tragedy of the Iraq war, and you can see for yourself the fencing between neighborhoods, the rubbish strewn everywhere, the emptiness of the place, and you can hear the packs of dogs baying about. But you can also hear occasional shots fired in the distance, and you get the distinct feeling that you’re being watched.

I spent a very slow month in Iraq trying to reach as many of these palaces as possible. I only managed to visit six out of eighty-one palaces. It is impossibly slow going over there, working within the war machine. These palaces are currently being handed back to the Iraqis, and many of them will be repurposed, sold to private developers or demolished. If I could get the interest of a publisher, for instance, I would return to Iraq to complete the project before Saddam’s heritage, and the traces of U.S. occupation, are entirely removed.


• • •

Thanks again to Richard Mosse for the incredible opportunity to talk to him about this trip, and for allowing BLDGBLOG to publish these images for the first time.

Be sure to see the rest of Mosse’s work on his website. Hopefully the entirety of Breach will be coming soon to a book or gallery near you.

Infrastructure is patriotic

[Image: Photo by Allen Brisson-Smith for The New York Times].

After yesterday’s bridge collapse in Minneapolis – a bridge my sister and her family drove across everyday – the decaying state of American infrastructure is becoming all the more apparent.
Last month it was an exploding steam pipe in Manhattan; a few years ago it was the levees of southern Louisiana; and anyone who drives a car in the U.S. has probably noticed that the roads here are not particularly well-kept. The sheer number of potholes in the city of Philadelphia, for instance, was enough to convince me, only half-jokingly, that if the city was not going to spend any money fixing the streets, then they should at least help underwrite repair bills for all the broken axles, blown suspensions, and sometimes major fender benders caused by the city’s rather obvious display of custodial irresponsibility.

[Image: Photo by Jeff Wheeler/The Star Tribune/AP; via The Guardian].

In any case, The New York Times opines today that these system-wide failures “are an indication that this country is not investing enough in keeping its vital infrastructure in good repair.”

Transportation officials know many of the nation’s 600,000 bridges are in need of repair or replacement. About one in eight has been deemed “structurally deficient,” a term that typically means a component of the bridge’s structure has been rated poor or worse, but does not necessarily warn of imminent collapse.
Most deficient bridges, which included the span of Interstate 35W over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, remain open to traffic.

Worse, 13.6 percent of U.S. bridges – i.e. more than 81,000 bridges – are “functionally obsolete.”

[Image: Photo by Heather Munro/The Star Tribune/AP; via The Guardian].

Ironically, only six days ago the Federal Highway Administration announced a $5.3 million grant program meant to stimulate and reward innovative research in bridge repair and design.
“Nearly $5.3 million in grants will be awarded to bridge projects in 25 states to help develop new technologies to speed bridge construction and make them safer,” we read on the FHA website.
None of those grants will be going to Minnesota.

[Images: Photos courtesy of The New York Times].

It’s interesting to point out, then, that the Federal Highway Administration’s annual budget appears to be hovering around $35-40 billion a year – and, while I’m on the subject, annual government subsidies for Amtrak come in at slightly more than $1 billion. That’s $1 billion every year to help commuter train lines run.
To use but one financial reference point, the U.S. government is spending $12 billion per month in Iraq – billions and billions of dollars of which have literally been lost.
Infrastructure is patriotic.
There is no reason to question the political loyalties of those who would advocate spending taxpayer dollars on national infrastructure – from highway bridges and railway lines to steam pipes, levees, electrical lines, and subway tunnels – instead of on military adventures abroad.
Four months of foreign war would be enough to double the annual budget for the Federal Highway Administration – if that’s what one would choose to spend the money on – taking care of quite a few of those 81,000+ bridges which are still open to traffic and yet “functionally obsolete.”
Perhaps the best way to be “pro-American” these days is to lobby for modern, safe, and trustworthy infrastructure – and the economic efficiencies to which that domestic investment would lead.
At the risk of promoting a kind of isolationist infrastructural nationalism, I’d say that urban design and engineering is a sadly under-appreciated – yet incredibly exciting – way to serve your country.