Future Megacity Operations-Lessons from Sadr City

By Bowers, Christopher O. | Military Review, May-June 2015 | Go to article overview

Future Megacity Operations-Lessons from Sadr City


Bowers, Christopher O., Military Review


The cities of the future, rather than being made of glass and steel ... are instead largely constructed out of crude brick, straw, recycled plastic, cement blocks and scrap wood. Instead of cities of light soaring toward heaven, much of the twenty-first century urban world squats in squalor, surrounded by pollution, excrement, and decay.

--Mike Davis, Planet of Slums

We are in the age of the slum. Studies of

future cities and megacities bristle with statistics, growth trend lines, and comparative analogies, prophesizing: The future of the human race is the city; the future of the city is the megacity, and the reality of the megacity is the slum.

A megacity is a metropolitan area with a total population in excess of 10 million. The recent growth patterns of megacities worldwide is only outpaced by the growth of their slums, which account for the bulk of recent urban population growth. (1) An ominous report prepared by Swedish-based multinational corporation Ericsson, titled Networked Society: the Next Age of Megacities, forecasts recurring growth patterns among megacities: high growth due to migration and birth rates, large informal settlements and young populations, basic infrastructure and public service needs, corruption and lack of transparency, and a lack of empowerment for poor populations. (2)

By 2040, several megacities are projected to have more inhabitants than Australia's current national population of over 23.7 million. (3) By 2050, 70 percent of the world's population will live in cities, with as much as 85 to 90 percent of urban population growth occurring in slums. (4) This is important to military planners because future conflict will occur--as it does today--where people live. In the future, they increasingly live in cities and megacities.

The U.S. military has never conducted combat operations in a true modern megacity, with the arguable exceptions of security missions after 9-11 in New York City and during the Los Angeles riots in the 1990s. However, the military has confronted many of the same challenges of a megacity's scope and scale--its vast networks and connections; its population of densely packed, impoverished millions; and the twin ends of improving conditions while battling a determined enemy for control. This was the U.S. military experience in the Baghdad slum district of Sadr City.

Sadr City

Although not part of a true megacity, Sadr City replicates, on a smaller scale, many of the challenges associated with true megacities worldwide. The tribulations of successive U.S. Army battalions and brigades operating among Sadr City's 2.4 million people may offer a condensed case study of what awaits divisions and corps operating in future megacities of 20-30 million inhabitants.

One of the largest slums on earth, what is commonly called Sadr City, is the al-Thawra ("revolution") District of Baghdad. (5) With an estimated population of 2.4 million, Sadr City's 26 square kilometers has more inhabitants than Philadelphia or Dallas. (6)

The growing gap between barricaded elites and slums has fed the growth of what Richard Norton has called "feral cities" (7) Governments typically abdicate control of huge slums, knowing that the security and services void will be filled by criminal gangs, ethnic or sectarian militias, or extremist groups. Urban slums worldwide are disproportionately populated by the ethnically or socially repressed--Shiites and Kurds, in Sadr City's case. (8)

In Planet of Slums, Mike Davis lays out life in Third World slums. It reads like a checklist of conditions in Sadr City: knee-deep lakes of raw sewage visible in satellite imagery, hills of rotting garbage, under-employed males hustling for informal income in a labor-glutted economy or losing themselves in escapist vices, and endemic infant mortality rates and birth defects. Potable water is rare to nonexistent, and communicable diseases such as typhus and dysentery coexist with rural pestilences like hookworms. …

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