The history of the last century, and the beginning of this one, has been one of urbanization. That means that not only do we live in cities, but also that we fight in cities.

The future of warfare lies in the gutters of the "broken cities of our world," and one of the most surreal byproducts of this shift is the growing network of “mock-up” Arab cities built by the U.S. and other militaries to simulate arenas of war.

The rich heritage of counterfeit cities

History is littered with ambitious projects to re-model entire cities on distant sites. In recent years China has been building real-scale counterfeit versions of Paris, Austrian alpine villages and even Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Hollywood has a long pedigree in producing (expensive) simulations of city environments, including a 98-acre concrete simulation of Gotham City for 1989’s Batman film.

And then of course there are Dubai’s plans for a 3-D-printed mock-up "Martian city" in the desert. And my own favorite the mock version of Paris built on the outskirts of the city to fool German bombers in the First World War.

Most recently, new technology startups are creating products that promise to "recreate reality" through massive agent-based simulations that provide the immersive experience of a city without needing to erect a single wall.

Cloned cities in the desert

However one increasingly popular application of such city cloning comes from the military, both in the U.S. and elsewhere. The installations are designed to help prepare for what is known as MOUT (Military Operations on Urban Terrain). The simple logic, they argue, is that it is better to make mistake here than in the genuine battlefield.

Israel was one of the pioneers this tactic. Their mock-up known as "Chicago" in the desert south of Jerusalem reportedly included some gruesome touches like the smells of rotting corpses, and Arabic graffiti. It’s difficult to understand the military training logic behind such levels of authenticity.

The UK also just invested £2.4 million (more than U.S. $3 million) in a fake refugee village at one of their military training sites to replace an obsolete World War II facility modeled on an East German village.

However, on U.S. soil, the most famous is a network of 21 virtual Iraqi villages in the Mojave Desert. The network of villages in California, are known as "The Box," and come complete with the main “Afghan village” of Medina Wasl, a complex of underground tunnels and caves, and butchers selling fake meat. So authentic is the result that there have been reports of soldiers leaving suffering "battle fatigue."

In a piece of macabre theatre, members of the local Iraqi expat community (who, presumably, could easily be fleeing from conflict themselves) are brought in as "extras" to add authenticity. As a supplement, actors and stuntmen are even borrowed from Hollywood.

Where battlefield meets theme park

Perhaps the most surreal aspect of all of this are the free daily tours offered to tourists by Fort Irwin, complete with a gift shop to visit before leaving. British military “ghost villages” are also made available for unusual Christmas family days out.

The extended use of these complexes for entertainment is captured by urbanist Steven Graham’s concept of the "theme park archipelago" – combining both military planning and the entertainment industry.


While traditional styles of rural warfare could be simulated in remote old scrubland, the advent of "modern urban warfare" means that more effort needs to go into this latest generation of urbanised military training sites.

A report by the RAND Corporation has even suggested that deindustrialised run-down parts of real cities might be soaked up by this new demand — certainly a novel approach to urban regeneration.

But these counterfeit cities tell a sad story of the modern Middle East. Cities like Fallujah, Nablus and Aleppo are unlikely to be candidates for a Chinese theme park clone. But our clichéd images of these cityscapes — people running through dusty, half-collapsed streets, with injured children — are being given physical form in deserts thousands of miles from their namesakes.