Books – recent titles reviewed

Why terrorists outdo state armies in the efficient pursuit of their ruthless goals

Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla

David Kilcullen, Hurst, London, 2013, 288pp, ISBN 978-1849043243 

In September 2013, Somalia’s al-Shabaab militant group carried out a successful attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi. It was an impeccable piece of modern, urban terrorism: transnational, protracted, highly visible, complex and extremely bloody. The mall was locked down for three days and 72 people were killed by only four perpetrators, all of whom are thought to have escaped. 

What was novel was not so much the attack itself – after all, it was firearm-based terrorism in Sarajevo that precipitated World War I – but the environment, and this is the focus of David Kilcullen’s excellent Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla. 

Kilcullen is a former Australian military officer, best known for his writings on counter-insurgency. Out of the Mountains is a wide-ranging, thought-provoking book that draws on and synthesises concepts and arguments from geography, ecology, political science, sociology and military strategy. Unsurprisingly for a book of this scope, not all of Kilcullen’s big ideas quite work. But what emerges is a framework that can help us understand how global development and human conflict will co-evolve in the coming decades. 

The core of Kilcullen’s arguments is that the world is seeing four ‘megatrends’: population growth, urbanisation, littoralisation (a tendency for things to cluster on coastlines) and networked connectivity. Virtually all the world’s population growth will occur in coastal cities in low-income, unstable countries that are nevertheless highly embedded in global networks. The world’s cities will absorb more people than were born in recorded history until 1960, and all but two of the world’s ten largest cities are on a coastline or coastal delta. 

Past conflicts were dominated by remote, rural areas: “mountains, forests, jungles, villages and farms”. Think of the past 12 years of war in Afghanistan. Future conflict, on the whole, will be in crowded, urban areas. The Mumbai terrorist attacks of November 2008, which Kilcullen explores at length, fit into this framework – the attackers, from Lashkare Taiba, represented a non-state group (albeit one backed by Islamabad). They came by sea, exploited the poor maritime controls of the sprawling coastal city and took advantage of technology (including Twitter and satellite television reports) to receive real-time instructions from Pakistan based handlers. 

As Kilcullen observes: “Mumbai represents the state of the art in urban littoral terrorism.” He inventively compares their meticulously prepared attack to the hastily planned and botched US raid on Mogadishu in 1994, arguing that whereas Lashkar-e-Taiba understood and used Mumbai’s natural “rhythms”, the US special forces – admittedly for a very different purpose – worked against those of Mogadishu and were therefore frustrated. 

Connectivity is crucial here. It is what enabled the Mumbai attackers to fine-tune their assault with such deadly success, disparate Arab activists to co-ordinate their protests in 2011 (Kilcullen has an excellent chapter on Tunisia and Egypt) and US pilots sitting in Virginia to control drones flying missions over Pakistan’s tribal areas. Traditional battle lines melt away, legal frameworks are ambiguous (are US-based drone operators fair targets in a war?) and power diffuses beyond governments. Perhaps the best example is NATO’s 2011 war in Libya, where the alliance was helped by internet activists, like Anonymous and Twitter users, to co-ordinate aid and even target missiles – creating what Kilcullen calls the “informational hinterland”. 

Who are the people operating in these future cities? Kilcullen tries to develop a theory – “competitive control” – that can accommodate developed states, Somali terrorists, American gangs, Caribbean drug cartels, Afghan insurgents and everyone in between. Anyone who can provide stable, predictable rules for dispute resolution can tie the local population into their system of control. Think of the Taliban, whose rise to power in mid 1990s Afghanistan was underpinned by their ability to provide harsh, brutal but dependable law enforcement where the warlords generated only chaos. Kilcullen draws from this the lesson that traditional principles of counter-insurgency – such as “winning hearts and minds” – are far less important than enforcing rules. 

If these theories seem broad, and perhaps confusing, that is because they are. Any book that tries to squeeze Jamaican drug traffickers and Tunisian football hooligans into the same framework is going to run into trouble. But this eclecticism and ambition is also the great strength of Out of the Mountains. It will spawn ideas, and pull our attention to the emerging megacities of the world and their assorted urban guerrillas. 

Shashank Joshi, research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute


Whatever happened to plain English? 

Who Touched Base in my Thought Shower? A Treasury of Unbearable Office Jargon

Steven Poole, Sceptre, London, 2013, 212pp ISBN 978-1444781847 

The ability, or rather desire, to speak clearly seems to have decreased substantially in recent years. Office jargon emerged across the UK and the USA in the late 20th century, but it has grown more meaningless and, frankly, perverse as time has progressed. 

Author, journalist and cultural critic Steven Poole attempts to chase the roots of some of the more common and obscure examples of modern-day office jargon in Who Touched Base in my Thought Shower? Poole gives examples of offi ce jargon ranging from “across the piece” to “zerotasking”, giving hilarious literal deconstructions before exploring the origin and development of each phrase. 

The book appeals for individuals to say simply what they mean, rather than subjecting workers to the horrors of jargon, which he refers to as one of the most “spirit sapping indignities of modern life”. There is nothing more frustrating than obscuring meaning through the use of meaningless terminology, which presents itself as “a kind of cheap competence that often marks a lack of competence in anything that matters”. 

Poole writes of how he became extremely popular upon first writing about jargon for The Guardian in 2013. Commenters on The Guardian website’s network related to Poole’s fury by saying that office jargon made them want to “stab someone in the eye with a pen”, and even admitting to engaging in “Bullshit bingo” during meetings, by picking out how many times bosses used ridiculous terms. 

Nowadays jargon is extensively used within the workplace and by those in the public sphere, and has proved particularly popular among politicians. Poole points out that Margaret Thatcher was one of the few politicians who refused to use jargon, referring to it as “all this guffy stuff”. 

Speaking about his book on Radio 4’s Today programme, Poole emphasised that office jargon often has far more sinister undertones than just being annoying, and is frequently used by bosses in an attempt to obscure what is actually going on. Examples include referring to the need for staff cutbacks as ‘resizing’ the company, rather than simply saying that people will be laid off – resizing would never be used if a company was being expanded. 

Poole’s message is on the importance of clarity of communication. In a world where offices and organisations are increasingly interacting with people for whom English is not a first language, it is important, now more than ever before, to communicate clearly and without all the ‘guff’ that office jargon encompasses. 

Meaning is so easily lost when tied up within jargon, if indeed a meaning ever existed in the first place. To give a famous example, Kevin Rudd told an interviewer back in 2008 when asked a question about Asian security: “I’ll reverse engineer and start at the third and move back to the first.” Frankly, your guess is as good as mine – and presumably his. 

Poole’s concise jargon dictionary is a hilarious look at modern office jargon and the perceived need to obscure all meaning. A phrase which stands out as perhaps the most memorable: “As the astronaut Jack Swigert famously said during the near-catastrophic Apollo 13 mission: ‘Houston, we have a solution opportunity’, because of course, it would be wrong to ever admit to there being a problem. 

Jade Fell, Global staff writer


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