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Urban Myths? Exploring assumptions in the literature of urban Warfare: Part 2

Canadian bulldozer in rubble of WWII Caen. Dark dressed couple in foreground watching bulldozer.

In Part 1 of this series, Dan Kealy drew attention to one of the great themes of urban warfare literature - that city fighting is uniquely, excessively bloody. This article charts the development of this theme from World War II to the present and argues that it manifests a core challenge to the achievement of successful urban operations – specifically, force protection.

The dilemma of ‘prophylactic high explosive’

A recurring observation throughout urban warfare literature is that lessons have to be relearned time after time - at a cost of blood - because they aren’t enshrined in doctrine and training. In 1968, the Vietnam War saw the US Marine Corps deployed with no urban warfare training.  The consequences were felt during the battle for Hue City when leaders were left to scrabble through footlockers looking for World War II field manuals to help guide military actions.

In Part 1 of this series, we reviewed a data analysis conducted by the Dupuy Institute that compared World War II urban actions with non-urban actions.  The study found that attacking cities was no bloodier than other attacks, and perhaps less brutal. The same study also found that, in an urban environment, the defence was, on average, more costly than the attack.

This means that cities do not advantage the defender but cost more to fight from. From a Western point of view then, cities were not a negative  - less casualties in attack (and Western forces were the attackers) and more attritive in defence (and the defenders were the enemy).  It is no surprise then that post-World War II doctrine had no great cause to focus on urban warfare. Memories of the US army, suffering through the Hurtgen forest, the Australians bleeding on the Kokoda trail, the Canadians bogged down on the Dieppe beach, the British/Indian army wading through Burma and the Marines slaughtered on Okinawa - all had a firm place in military mythology and post-war reminiscences. There was no reason for the steady, decisive allied victories such as the US battle that cleared the German city of  Aachen  to stand out.  The experience of World War II gave Western armies no reason to think of city fighting as anything special amongst the horrors of combat.

In Part 1, we introduced a paradigm that has featured within urban warfare literature over the last 30 years – namely, extreme bloodiness and defender advantage.  Yet, the Allied experience of 1940s warfare leaves quite the opposite impression. When did the switch happen? Why was the paradigm inverted?

To best illustrate this, we leap forward half a century to the Russian army that had reason to remember urban warfare in a different light. This was a military that had successfully waged a campaign of urban warfare across eastern Europe during World War II including the epic of Stalingrad, widely known as "meat grinder of a million men”.  The Russian inheritors of the Soviet empire would presumably not be afraid to use again the expertise gained over this period.

On New Year’s Eve 1994, Russian armoured columns advanced into Grozny, capital city of the break-away state of Chechnya. It was a statement of intent, a show of force to intimidate the separatist nation and humble the population.  But by the close of New Year’s Day 1995, Russian forces had suffered a brutal defeat. More than 1000 soldiers had been killed and over 200 armoured vehicles destroyed by Chechen fighters wielding handheld weapons. It would take another two months of savage house-to-house fighting before the city could be declared pacified. Civilians suffered catastrophically, with 27,000 dead and half the city’s population displaced. Later separatist forces retook Grozny in August forcing a 1996 Russian withdrawal from all of Chechnya.  In the largest urban battle since World War II, a former superpower, with overwhelming superiority in men and materiel, had been defeated by a rag-tag irregular force.

The Chechen defence of Grozny established the characteristics of a modern urban warfare paradigm, specifically - defender advantage great enough to overcome conventional tech and firepower, and unexpected slaughter of the attacker at a breathtaking scale of intensity. Only a year before, another global superpower received a bloody nose in a confrontation that underscored these urban warfare traits. An interrupted snatch-and-grab by US Special Forces in the Somalian capital Mogadishu developed into a besieged US force defending a city block, and a firefight which ended in thousands of Somali casualties – mostly civilians. Eerily prescient of Grozny, the bloody skirmish rang the same thematic bells - efficacy of urban defence (however improvised) and cruel attrition of attacking forces. Why had the Somalis and Russian military failed, and failed so bloodily? What was so different from the Western experience of World War II? Had the nature of cities changed so much in fifty years?

It wasn’t so much that the city had changed, but the way we fight. World War II was waged as an unlimited war. Preparatory bombardment was standard in all operating environments, but particularly destructive in the close, three-dimensional, nook-and-cranny terrain of the city. Aerial bombardment was followed by shelling, then close mortar support, then as nooks were identified, tanks and direct-fire artillery smashed the buildings around any crannies still returning fire, and finally the infantry would move in to pick up the pieces. This style of warfare has been pithily termed ‘prophylactic high explosive’. It gave rise to the appalling verb ‘rubbling’ and it was justified on the basis that it protects the troops and buries the enemy.

Of course, this tactical obliteration of cities to achieve force protection has catastrophic impacts on civilians.  Then as now, they suffer both the immediate trauma and the ripple effects as shelter, drinking water, sanitation, governance, and the basics of existence are rubbled. In World War II, military bombardments were rationalised as the lesser of two evils, an unpleasant necessity to defeat an intractable enemy and bring the cataclysm to an end as hastily as possible. But even so, efforts were being made to restrain the impact on civilians. The Canadians reduced prior bombardment and accepted greater risk to their troops in order to spare the people and city of Groningen, however the aggressive use of flamethrowers somewhat compensated for the lack of artillery preparation. MacArthur’s liberation of Manila began with restrictive rules of engagement, only to revert to the full-firepower model when ground commanders became unsettled by increasing casualties. So too, a quarter of a century later in Hue - the ancient imperial capital of Vietnam - initial restrictions on firepower intended to spare the city had to be abandoned in order for the Marines and their South Vietnamese allies to make any progress against the North Vietnamese who had seized it.  

In 1994, the Russians were invading a city with a high ethnic Russian population, so, while they bombarded, they refrained from advancing behind the curtain of explosives (which historically had such a proven protective effect).  And the Somalis simply didn’t own the ordnance. In its absence they both suffered fearsome casualties. The Russians returned to Chechnya in 1999 and reverted to the proven formula, effectively destroying the city of Grozny - and were condemned for doing so by the international community.

Since the norm of steady progress behind direct fire and artillery bombardments of cities during World War II, times have changed.  Armies are smaller, with less firepower and its use is far more politically constrained. We have been left with the core quandary that has driven 30-years’ of study, generating millions of words in analysis, conceptualisation and argument. How do we protect our soldiers when they are conducting opposed operations in cities?  Initiatives technical, tactical and operational abound, but no silver bullet has appeared on the urban battlefield. As the recent operations to evict Islamic State from Mosul in Iraq, and Marawi in the Philippines show, three decades of urban warfare research may be an encouraging start, but we have not yet even scratched the surface.

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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