Secession in the Desert: How Walking through a Mock Iraqi City Led to Aridtopia | Tyler Stallings

In October of 2009, I had the opportunity to take a tour of the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms, California in the Mojave Desert.[1] It was part of a UC-wide project called “Mapping the Desert/Deserting the Map: An Interdisciplinary Response.” I co-organized the project with Dick Hebdige from University of California, Santa Barbara, who had hoped to start an artist-based research studies program at UC Riverside’s Palm Desert campus[2]. However, the ensuing California budget crisis thwarted the plans. Nonetheless, the Marine mock city has continued to occupy my thoughts in the years that have followed the experience.

Built with shipping containers – the ones that we see on freighters docking in San Pedro or on trains taking those same containers and their goods out on the rail lines that feed the other states – the mock city that I saw was meant to mirror a typical Iraqi one at the time, since we were then at war with that country. Now, I assume that the mock city has since been rearranged, like Lego blocks, to suggest an Afghan one, or perhaps an Egyptian one, maybe even one in Syria. Whatever the city, I assume that it’s one in the Arabian or Syrian Deserts.

Our guide said, “Future wars will be fought in cities.” His example for other cities was not an Arabian one however. Instead, he said, “We could stack these containers to seem like a city block in Chicago.”[3]

I know that he meant to exemplify the heights that the Marine’s could reach with their stacking. But, whether he knew it or not, and if he did, perhaps he slipped in sharing his information, it was not to many years after my visit that the Marines did have an opportunity to occupy Chicago with their mock-ishness.

On April 12, 2012, The Chicago Tribune reported that during the preparations for a NATO summit in the city that “as attention on security intensifies, the city announced Monday that a ‘routine military training exercise’ would be under way in and around Chicago from April 16 to 19 to help personnel preparing for overseas deployment learn to ‘operate in urban environments.’ A city spokeswoman said the training is done around the country and is not related to the NATO meeting.”[4]

Under contract, Lockheed Martin has been building Urban Operations Training Systems all over the U.S. They are often city-size simulation facilities, like the one in Twentynine Palms, to help soldiers maintain their skills that they honed patrolling cities overseas and to prepare for the future.[5]

There are several districts that make up the one in Twentynine Palms, covering 274 acres in the desert. Fake markets, hotels and other businesses are populated with actors who create scenarios, ranging from humanitarian relief efforts to peacekeeping to police work and direct combat. The town can also be populated with up to 15,000 Marines for a training simulation.

The simulations involve not only what the Marines can see, but they are also to be trained to find escape tunnels, weapons caches, watch for where the last man in a line could be taken hostage, deal with hidden bombs in what would appear to be abandoned vehicles. There are thousands of linear feet of underground tunnels so that the actors can appear most anywhere throughout the city to simulate a surprise attack. Occasionally, there are shrapnel-free, special-effect explosions to mimic incoming missiles or suicide bombers, perhaps. Either way, you can’t trust a carpet seller, right?

Unfortunately, I cannot help but think that Marines’ training in both mock cities and real cities, both abroad and domestically, is unsaid preparation for an extended martial law. My gut response is to think that this would be implemented during a financial crisis brought on by diminishing oil supplies. However, living here on the edge of the Mojave, and thinking about the many arid lands around the world, several of which have been the settings for war, it seems that another resource will be the reason for military occupation: water.


While staying abreast of the mock city construction and mock military exercises in U.S. cities in these past few months, it was during this time that author Ernest Callenbach died on April 16, 2012.

He wrote the novel Ecotopia, which he self-published in 1975 [6]. It became a cult success, telling the story of a utopian world in which Northern California, Oregon and Washington had seceded from the United States in order to live in a “steady-state” with the environment, which we call “sustainability” today, or more radically, “permaculture”. When he wrote the novel, he was well into his career as the editor of Film Quarterly, which he edited for thirty-three years.

The book was inspired from his desire to write a magazine article about the problem of waste in the consumer society that surrounded him in the early 1970s. Instead, he opted to write a speculative novel about a country that embraced recycling, among other changes in social values. In a sense, the novel became an extended magazine article, eschewing characterization for observations about this new society, told from the point of view of a reporter from the United States entering into Ecotopia for the first time in twenty years after secession.

Soon after reading Ecotopia, I wanted to imitate his action of using writing to bear witness. However, I wanted the setting of my book to encompass a particular location and passion where I live, the arid land of Southern California.

In a true moment of inspiration, the name, “Aridtopia,” formed in my mind quickly.

I searched the web for any sign of its use. I found none, which was a surprise to me, as the name had become commonplace in my thoughts already in just a short amount of time. Immediately, I registered the web domain,


Here is the beginning of defining Aridtopia through fiction, but with the sensibility of a pamphleteer, ranter and activist:

Aridtopia is a speculative, utopian community in the Mojave Desert. It was founded when parts of southern California and Nevada, along with all of Arizona and New Mexico seceded from the United States to create a “dry-water” ecosystem: a balance between human beings, water and the desert. It is one of several new nations created after the U.S. federal government abdicated central control in light of economic, environmental and educational collapses. Today, the U.S. is composed of its original thirteen states from centuries ago, and has been renamed The Thirteen United States (TUS). Now, decades later, after The Grand Secession, Aridtopia is publishing a short history that is for the benefit of its citizens, its neighbor nations, and The Thirteen United States. It’s also for TUS adherents who live in the new nations, but hope to reunite the land from Pacific to Atlantic Oceans, as it was at one time in the near past.

History in Aridtopia is told from personal accounts only. Individuals are held accountable, not governments, corporations, families, tribes or partners.

I will start with a description of where I live. One’s environment and one’s spirit are inseparable, although they may change over time, but in tandem.

I live on a former Marine Corps base in the Mojave Desert, about 140 miles east of downtown Los Angeles. In the past, First Nations people would claim certain geographical sites as sacred, such as mountains, as the source of the birth of their people – upwelling from the depths of the planet. After The Grand Secession, Aridtopians decided to repurpose past structures as a way to repurpose them for a dry-water state but also to rehabilitate the land, to make it sacred again. Although, not in terms of being a site of mythical birth, but as a recognized partner in developing a new life.

I live in what was once a city, but not a city, a mock city for military combat training in urban settings. Constructed with stacked shipping containers that are bolted together, they resemble adobe pueblos of the past, as in the five storied, terraced ones in the San Juan country in northern New Mexico, like Pueblo Bonito in Chaco Canyon.

When this was an Iraqi mock-village, one side of the central plaza had narrow streets and dense housing to represent the poorer inhabitants, while the other arm that extended from the opposite side of the plaza had wider streets and less dense housing to represent the upper class. These variations allowed for simulations on how to maneuver a tank through varying street widths. We have not such distinctions in the reformed plan. Like kivas in the past, there is no privileged seat. There is no throne.

Aridtopians need to work together a lot. Since life is very communal for now, our homes tend to be small and simple. Instead, the big structures are the Gathering Spots. A couple of hundred years ago in desert towns, such a spot might have been the town saloon – boxes with giant false fronts to suggest grandeur. Inside, you see fancy, carved bars that could be either a place to sip a drink or perhaps a baroque altar. You can see the values of pioneers embodied in the architecture. It was largely men who came out with the shirts on their back to make stakes in mining or ranching. Hard work, hard life, hard drinking. But most of these towns are gone because wood is not native to the deserts, at least not the way it was used for stud and clapboard. Instead, we have centuries-old, adobe cliff dwellings, among other structures, still standing throughout the Southwest.

Like the long history of desert architecture, whether ancient, United Statesean, or where I stand now, the main design features in Aridtopia are open plans in which the interior and exterior flow into one another, but including barriers against the constant and intense sunlight. You see canopies, loggias, and perforated screens everywhere. In fact, most people sleep under them at night rather than within the container of their walls, especially during the summer months.

We Aridtopians look at the teacher-plants around us for inspiration. There’s the Saguaro, with its vertical rods, like tendons that hold it upright for years. There’s the Cholla with its lattice structure and the Ocotillo with its emergent, tail-like slender stalk, usually over ten feet long, waving in the air under tensile strength.

The steel shipping containers are slowly replaced with less and less rigid walls; flexible ones that have been formed in order to withstand heat, wind, and a lack of precipitation. Cacti and succulents are full of secrets. Or, not really secrets, but simply there waiting for humans to recognize the integrity and strength of their designs.

In general, this approach to architecture is a part of what we call the Sun Agreement. For example, in one of our main squares, there is a giant canopy under which people gather. It is perforated to allow wind to pass through, so as not to tear the fabric, so as to provide shelter from the sun, but allow light to pass through as if through a tree’s foliage, and finally to allow birds and insects to dart in and out freely. It is Sympathetic Architecture that works with the sun, land and low precipitation.

The world is based on relationships. Nothing happens that is not an outgrowth of relationships. From an Aridtopian viewpoint, the most radical things to do now are to grow your own food, to choose your relationships, to decide how you want to breathe and to create clean water. It is the end of the Imperial Human.


Next chapter: How someone chose to join Aridtopia? Who was willing to believe in producerism rather than consumerism? Who was willing to get rid of third person narrator and enjoy “I” and “We”? Who was willing to stop watching and start feeling? Who was willing to change their habits? Who felt that they could leave others behind?


This is where my imagination lives now.

“May moisture find you.”


[1] Watson, Julie, “$170 million mock city rises at Marine base,” MSNBC News, January 26, 2011. Accessed on May 30, 2012,
[2] “Mapping the Desert” was co-organized by Sweeney Art Gallery, University of California, Riverside, and University of California Institute for Research in the Arts (UCIRA), which was co-directed by Dick Hebdige at the time. The related website documents all phases of this project and prior ones for arts-based desert research initiated by Hebdige,
[3] Podcast documentation posted on website for “Mapping the Desert/Deserting the Map: An Interdisciplinary Response,” Sweeney Art Gallery, University of California, Riverside. Accessed on May 31, 2012,
[4] Coen, Jeff and Heinzmann, David, “Chicago preparing for NATO summit,” Chicago Tribune, April 16, 2012. Accessed on May 31, 2012,,0,1795383.story.
[5] Ackerman, Spencer, “Lockheed Gets Big Bucks to Prep Soldiers for Urban War,” Wired Magazine, Danger Room column, January 18, 2011. Accessed on June 1, 2012,
[6] Callenbach, Ernest. Ecotopia (Berkeley: Heyday Books, 1975, 30th anniversary edition).

Images: Tour of Mock Iraqi City at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, Twentynine Palms, California, during “Mapping the Desert/Deserting the Map: An Interdisciplinary Response” project, co-organized by Sweeney Art Gallery, University of California, Riverside, and University of California Institute for Research in the Arts (UCIRA), October 23, 2009. Photographs © 2012 Tyler Stallings.


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