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Urban Myths? Exploring assumptions in the literature of urban Warfare: Part 1

City skyline with burning buildings and sky filled with smoke

‘The truth is rarely pure and never simple’

The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde

Urban warfare literature is a child of the ‘90s. Before then, it was a few lonely monographs considering how best to defend towns in the path of the Soviet juggernaut rolling across the plains of northern Europe. Even these orphan papers were easy to dismiss. Soviet doctrine emphasised the bypassing of urban areas, so Western imaginations could remain captured by visions of massive tank battles and deep penetration killer helicopters.

Then the Soviet Union disintegrated and the Cold War ended, not in a bang but with a whimper. The world held its breath, while from the ashes of the Cold War, the spectre of urban warfare arose and an industry of urban warfare commentary, study, and speculation was born.

This is the first of several blogs in which I will examine the recurring themes of urban warfare literature. I hope to provide a range of perspectives, foster discussion, and further readings on the topic.

I’ll begin at the pointy end. Robert Scales identified US centre of gravity as dead American soldiers. In Australia it is no different.  Indeed, our tiny size makes casualties the prime consideration, so we’ll start there.

Urban warfare. Bloody is it?

Urban warfare literature is replete with warnings of its particular peril.  It is described as combat in hell, where we condemn our soldiers to feral cities, cities without joy and urban jungles to confront the spectre while desperately trying to deny the widow-maker. But is it particularly bloody? Are the casualties particularly horrific? All war is bloody - but what are we comparing urban combat to?

The first area of caution arising from the literature is the danger of conflating the risks of urban combat with the risks of offensive action.

Ralph Peters’ extraordinarily influential 1996 commentary published in the US Army journal Parameters predicts that “the future of warfare lies in the streets, sewers, high-rise buildings, industrial parks, and the sprawl of houses, shacks, and shelters that form the broken cities of our world.” The lyrical passion of his piece lends itself to endless quotation, but the core assumption of the work remains little remarked upon even though it’s in the title - Our Soldiers, Their cities.

Our soldiers. Their Cities. When Western literature talks of urban warfare we are conceiving offensive action in foreign cities. The most recent literature in English, on defending our own cities against anything but the Warsaw Pact, is dated 1940. So, comparing apples with apples, considerations of the bloodiness of urban combat must be judged with regard to the casualty calculations of mounting a deliberate attack.

Secondly, if we accept the contention that our understanding of urban warfare is synonymous with ‘attacking urban areas’, then the second factor for weighing bloodiness is acknowledging the difference between attacking prepared defences versus attacking a lightly defended city.

Preparation is key.  An excellent comparative essay written for the US Army has analysed two cases of Israeli attacks on cities - Jerusalem 1968 and Suez City 1973. The first was a successful surprise attack against the Jordanians with tactical success, while the second was one of the great debacles of military history where a committed Egyptian defence left Israeli armoured columns guttering in the streets. If a case might skew data and perception of the dangers of urban warfare it would be Suez City.

The authors of the essay conclude that the most important variable explaining the divergent outcomes was the preparation of the city for defence. In contrast, an unprepared city is vulnerable as the Soviet coup de main to seize Kabul in 1979 and the US ‘thunder runs’ through Baghdad show. Battles such as Suez, Stalingrad and Grozny attest that the prepared city is a very different creature indeed.

Cities lend themselves to defence. Pre-existing reinforced concrete structures with adjacent clear avenues of fire (ie. roads) make cities partially fortified to begin with. In the time a platoon, sweating in the jungle, can carve shell scrapes, their fellows in an urban environment have barricaded the lower entries to a multi-story building, mouse-holed interior lines of communication, and smashed loopholes through walls to control all approaches with direct fire. The epic of Pavlov’s House in Stalingrad - where a platoon held off the German advance for 60 days in an isolated apartment block- attests to the efficacy of these positions. And preparation is not just static.  The ‘defenceless defence’ of the Chechens in Grozny leveraged surprise, tempo, and manoeuvre to confound a Russian enemy who could establish no front line. The Russians acknowledged their inability to counter such an aggressive defensive posture, revised tactics, and reduced the city to rubble from a safe distance.

If we acknowledge that we generally use the term ‘urban combat’ to refer to ‘attacking prepared defences’, we will have a more pragmatic expectation of casualties. Interestingly though, a 2002 study from the DuPuy Institute crunches vast quantities of data, comparing World War II urban battles to non-urban battles, and finds no support for the contention that urban conflict is particularly intense.  Indeed, their study finds lower casualty rates for the attacker in urban engagements.

So why the impression urban combat is particularly bloody? I would contend that at a critical moment, when Western forces were feeling underemployed in a post-Cold War world, two spectacular military disasters played out in Mogadishu and Grozny under the relentless glare of the world’s media. These disasters resulted from incoherent strategy, poor planning, and mission-creep, but they happened in cities. The visceral images of conventional forces defeated and shamed were filmed against the background of city streets and bullet scarred buildings.

It is in the bloody streets of Mogadishu and Grozny that urban warfare revealed its brutal, pitiless, modern face. These are the streets we will visit in the next article of this series.

The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

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