Book review: War and the City: Urban Geopolitics in Lebanon

reviewed by Jonas Hagmann

5 May 2022, 11:12 a.m.
Jonas Hagmann

War and the City: Urban Geopolitics in Lebanon book cover

War and the City: Urban Geopolitics in Lebanon

Reviewed by Jonas Hagmann

Sara Fregonese, War and the City: Urban Geopolitics in Lebanon, London: I. B. Tauris, 2019; 256 pp. : ISBN: 9781780767147 (hbk), ISBN 9780755636549 (pbk), £95 (hbk), £28.99 (pbk)


In 1975–1976, Lebanon and the city of Beirut were consumed by devastating armed conflict. But whereas this empirical fact is uncontested, its historical causes and political meanings remain controversial. Sara Fregonese’s book War and the City focuses on the rationalisation of the conflict and asks: Do Western descriptions of the war live up to the realities observed in Beirut? By apprehending the sense-making practices of former local combatants, the book’s aim is to provide a ‘contrapuntal reading of the conflict’ that foregrounds Beirut’s ‘own urban knowledge(s)’.

This reading is developed one step at a time: The introduction details the book’s overarching rationale. It presents post-colonial and Foucauldian notions of marginalised knowledge(s) and makes the case for listening to the stories of those fighting in the streets of Beirut, hence the explanations of the conflict that – according to Fregonese – were suppressed by the truth-asserting descriptions of Western foreign ministries. Chapter one then develops the role of cities in security politics and analysis. The idea of ‘national security’ eclipsed much of their visibility in the past, Fregonese maintains, with the exception of colonial warfare, where cities featured as sites of resistance that ought to be pacified. Urbicidal practices contribute to its resurgence in security thinking today, however. Cities became locales for foundational cultural struggles, as the norms they supposedly express – cosmopolitanism, progress etc. – are now fiercely contested.

After the conceptual discussions, chapters two and three investigate empirically how such violent politics came about in Lebanon. Colonial cartographies were crucial here. Western traveller logs and maps had developed a gradually more forceful logical ordering of the region historically. They attached religious traits to individuals and associated population groups with territory, thus effectively producing the sects for which Lebanon is known today. After World War II, these categories were pitted increasingly strongly against each other, as they blended with the rise of pan-Arabism, the question of Israel and the advent of the Cold War. These developments asked more vehemently to ‘what side’ Lebanon belonged and offered competing options for which to advocate and fight.

Chapters four and five continue the historical itinerary. They explore how the aforementioned controversies gained salience in the 1960s and 1970s, and how they were explained by Washington, Paris and London. The city of Beirut grew rapidly and very unequally in this period as a result of Western export policies. All the while, inhabitants of the Palestinian camps became more activist and economically powerful. The resourceful Palestine Liberation Organisation grew into a veritable ‘state within the state’, and the Lebanese authorities lost control over the camps. All factions began to train for civil conflict, and cycles of shootings followed one another until the 1975–1976 war. These clashes document the local complicity in making and contesting identity, Fregonese argues, yet governments far away continued to rationalise the violence in exceedingly externalist terms: they suggested that Lebanon was falling to the USSR; that its conflict was a tragedy against which nothing could be done; or similarly, that it epitomised the religious violence ‘natural’ to the region.

Chapters six and seven then turn the gaze to veteran accounts of the conflict. They show that for the inhabitants of Beirut, the war did not unfold according to the reasons distant foreign ministries suggested. Indeed, five ex-combatants clarify that their operations were always based on their own, sober rationalisation of the terrain and stakes. The 1975–1976 war was, therefore, no irrational act of violence, contrary to what Western diplomats argued. This was also true in the 2000s, when armed factions shared the command of Beirut. Their power-sharing arrangement rejects Western concepts of Lebanese politics and sovereign statehood, the author argues. The conclusion condenses the book’s central insights: local rationalisations of conflict do not follow ‘official geopolitical narratives’; local agency abounds and contributes to making urban conflict meaningful; and built environments are not inert but powerful vectors for societal interpretation.

War and the City puts the spotlight on important political practices, which are the ways actors co-construct meaning in and through their own urban environments, and how those interpretations may develop differently from far-away truth claims. It provides a critical genealogy of how colonial cartographies helped create the social containers upon which inter-communal violence thrived, and solid empirical insights into the 1975–1976 war. The book is clearly structured, lucidly written and fortifies important analytical points, such as how locals are not irrational subjects void of their own agency and rationalisation techniques just because foreign diplomats say so. Although these insights may not be entirely novel to critical scholars, these contributions remain important and useful for the field of Urban Studies.

Alas, there are also aspects of War and the City that are debatable. One is the stark and changing ontological positions implied in the book. For example, readers will find the colonial maps to be characterised in impressively structuralist ways: the chapters present foreign cartographies as if they translated directly into local practices, to the point that concepts elaborated in foreign capitals find direct and undistorted throughput into local life in Lebanon. Such ontology of operation and political power aligns little with contemporary theories of effect (whether constitutive or causal in the Aristotelian sense). These always deem multiple forms of agency involved in making political power – also colonial power – reality on the ground. By ignoring the appropriations, transpositions and translations involved in the process, the book thus does not provide particularly refined accounts of colonial geopolitics after all. Indeed, it is also this strong description of foreign maps as god-like rulers of local life that strips the inhabitants of Lebanon of the very agency that the author seeks to salvage in the book. What this means is that the silencing of local perspectives is, at least in some respects, also facilitated by the book’s own ontological positioning.

One-sided ontologies also play central roles later in the book. Readers will find that prior to World War II, international views dictated social behaviour in Lebanon and left no room for local co-construction. By the 1970s, however, the inverse situation applied, as the combatants interviewed now enjoy impressive – almost unchecked, it seems – liberties to rationalise urban conflict. Of course, it is crucial to explore multiple sources of interpretation, and local ones first and foremost. Also, it may well be that the global distribution of interpretative power shifted across the years, moving away from the ‘big states’ and towards more locally-constructed practices. Yet, the book makes little effort to explain the move from structure to agency (to put it simply). Again, this makes it difficult to gauge what parts of the analysis reflect empirical reality, and what kind of empirical reality, and which ones were stimulated by implied ontological stances.

War and the City also raises tough questions as to who speaks and is heard in the study, and therefore whose picture the readers are given. The ‘official geopolitical narratives’ to which Fregonese repeatedly appeals – and which she forcefully challenges – pertain to highly homogenising accounts of US, French and British Foreign Ministry statements. This raises a number of questions: Is it sensible for (critical) Urban Studies scholarship to work with monolithic accounts of national positions (‘the’ US view)? Do expressions of these three countries alone make ‘the’ official geopolitical narrative? And is it sensible to focus on Foreign Ministries exclusively, and to ignore further interpretative actors such as (UN or academic) experts, journalists, NGOs and business groups? Back in Lebanon, the exclusive focus on veterans also raises the question of how representative the collected views are there. Whether non-combatant residents of Beirut saw things similarly to the five veterans is not something the book can answer, for such population segments are not given a voice. War and the City, then, helps a lot to differentiate interpretative practices around the 1975–1976 conflict. Yet it is quite likely that these were even more diverse than the book describes – not just among city dwellers, but also in the international arena, across the three ‘officially sense-making’ polities and inside these countries’ diplomatic circles.

Lastly, it is important to add that readers from the other two disciplines involved in the book  security studies and international relations (IR) – will surely struggle with some characterisations of their literature. For example, it holds true that ‘national security’ became a popular concept in some US security studies quarters. This reduction was never accepted universally, however, and it is odd to argue that violence in/against cities became a non-issue in the security field, when nuclear strategising was about targeting cities for a very long time, and significant expertise focuses on transnational urban security governance. Similarly, it rings true that Realpolitik in its crudest and most formalistic variant is not sensible to the hybrid assemblages of state sovereignty described in chapter seven. The Strangelovean view on politics thus ascribed to IR bears little resemblance to that discipline’s fine-grained texture and complexity, however. It ignores the differentiated kind of IR scholarship that has been produced since about the early 1990s, and with which critical Urban Studies does, in fact, have a lot in common.

Together, War and the City is an insightful, eloquent and dedicated book that makes strong and empirically grounded contributions to the understanding of violence in Lebanon and cities in conflict. As such, it is an impressive and highly insightful read. Readers should be aware, however, that some of its contributions are developed and sharpened via stark ontological choices, consequential methodological decisions and simplistic presentations of further bodies of literatures.


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