Sun Tzu, the great philosopher of war, was not a fan of urban warfare. When listing off different ways to wage war he suggested that “the worst policy is to attack cities, attack cities only when there is no alternative.” Indeed it seems like an almost unchallenged theory that urban warfare is inherently long, costly, indecisive and ruinous. In “Concrete Hell” Louis DiMarco, a former Lt. Colonel in the American Army, challenges this theory and offers some surprising conclusions.
Instead of being an aberration urban warfare is constant throughout history. Instead of being pointless and costly it is often decisive and no more bloody than other forms of warfare. Instead of being a refuge for guerrilla fighters and terrorists soldiers are more likely than not to triumph. Yet perhaps the biggest myth he quashes is that tanks, rather than being a liability in urban warfare, are actually a vital asset.
Starting with a general history of urban warfare since ancient times the author then focuses on 9 case studies since “World War 2.” Beginning, unsurprisingly, with Stalingrad he moves from conventional wars such as Korea, to what could be called “internal pacifications” such as the French in Algeria and the British in Northern Ireland and finally to Chechnya and Iraq in what he describes as “hybrid war.”
In the conventional war case studies, Stalingrad, Aachen, Inchon and Seoul, and Hue respectively, the fighting was between standing armies while seizing, and retaining, the city was the paramount objective. Considerations such as collateral damage and political blow back, while not completely absent (especially at Hue), were generally secondary to the military objective of taking the city.
Regarding “internal pacifications” the fighting was between government troops on one hand and terrorists or revolutionaries on the other. These case studies include the French in Algeria and the British in Northern Ireland. Here the military contest was not as vital and political considerations came to the fore. As government forces were fighting not just to take cities but to pacify rebel groups and establish legitimacy to rule, the successful seizure of urban areas, if done so at the cost of significant civilian losses and violating the rule of law, often led to a pyrrhic victory. Indeed the widespread use of torture used by French forces during the “Battle of Algiers” alienated enough of the French public, who had suffered similar abuses under the nazis, to eventually convince the French government that holding onto Algeria was politically impossible. Likewise, while the British never lost Northern Ireland, the often heavy handed conduct of the British army against the Catholics, as well as the lack of political considerations to address their grievances until later in the conflict, meant that the war in Northern Ireland went on for more than 30 years until a relatively satisfactory peace settlement was reached.
As for so called “hybrid warfare” the author describes the Russians in Grozny in the “First Chechen War” and Ramadi during the “Iraq war.” In these cases the soldiers were facing guerrilla opponents who were not as strong as regular forces, yet not as weak as terrorist or revolutionary forces (as in the case of Algeria and Northern Ireland). The opponents in these instances were guerrilla forces fighting against foreign intruders and had considerable benefits in local intelligence, motivation and unit cohesion. In such situations the conventional forces are still likely to win but they are once again constrained by numerous political factors.
In Grozny the Russians eventually won and captured the city, though not before they suffered horrific casualties, bombed the city to the ground, and lost most of the legitimacy of their cause. In Ramadi the Americans adopted a different philosophy, the so called “population-centric” approach, and eventually won over the population, neutralized the enemy insurgents, and secured the city without suffering heavy casualties or inflicting significant collateral damage.
Finally there is the case study regarding “Operation Defensive Shield” in which the Israelis moved into the West Bank in 2002, but focuses primarily on Nablus and Jenin. This operation was neither a conventional approach, a counter-insurgency effort, nor designed to permanently neutralize the enemy, but simply to degrade the capabilities of terrorist groups attacking Israel. As it was a limited operation, both in time and scope, it never addressed the route causes of terrorism against Israel. However, as its objective was limited only to reducing terrorist capabilities, and as it did so effectively, it can be classified as a success.
As for why these battle begin, as in why fighting occurs in cities despite Sun Tzu’s warnings, the author presents a few solid arguments along with some common sense. For starters cities are centers of government, economics, culture and industry. As such seizing them can disrupt governance, trade, industrial production, and other vital assets in order to wage war. They are also where the masses reside and nothing is more ruinous for morale than being occupied. Additionally some cities, especially capital ones, are what Clausewitz refers to as “the centre of gravity” for the enemy, the fall of which will neutralize his capacity, or at least his will, to fight. Indeed the seizure of the enemy’s capital has often been decisive in war, as it was in the case of Rome regarding the fall of the Roman Empire, and for Paris in the “Napoleonic Wars,” the “Franco-Prussian War” and the “Battle of France.” More over, the “Battle of Berlin” was the last major operation in Europe in “World War 2,” the seizure of Saigon ended the “Vietnam War” and the fall of Baghdad ended Saddam Hussein’s rule in 2003.
Additionally, urban warfare also occurs when there are important enemy forces stationed in cites, such as the F.L.N. in Algiers, or if enemy forces are too strong to bypass. Then some cities are captured to facilitate further operations. These are usually important communications centers such as a city that lies along major converging rail lines such as Moscow, which dominates all communications in European Russia, or a vital port, such as Cherbourg or Antwerp (which the Allies both wanted to ease their logistical constraints after landing in Normandy). The author even cites the example of the British capturing Louisbourg in the “7 Years War” prior to their attack on Quebec showing that despite the typical stereotype this American author has a good grasp of Canadian, as well as American, history.
Finally there is the point that urban warfare offers significant defensive advantages for weaker conventional forces, insurgents and terrorists that none of them would enjoy fighting a strong conventional force in open terrain. Usually the defender uses urban landscape, with its countless places to both conceal themselves and ambush enemy forces, as well as the presence of civilians, to compensate for inferior numbers, lack of equipment, or simply to being less competent than their enemies. The presence of civilians has mostly been a boon with the rise of media, and when fighting democracies, as most collateral damage is usually blamed on the attacking force. For some reason people in the Western world always seem to blame conventional armies, who generally try to avoid civilians casualties as much as they can, versus terrorist and insurgent groups who purposely put civilians in harms way.
Even though it is a well documented practice for terrorists and insurgents to put civilians at risk so that any deaths will result in subsequently higher recruitment and political capital for their cause the majority of people in liberal democracies somehow end up sympathizing for these irregular groups, few of whom ever support freedom, tolerance of all religions, or gender and racial equality. While the author always remains detached and objective there is little doubt that such sentiments of frustration towards the home front would find considerable sympathy among soldiers who have engaged in counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism.
Either way the value of urban areas to the enemy is relative. The author suggests that it is necessary to know the enemy’s military, geopolitical, economic and cultural considerations, as well as the roles, and importance, of his cities before attacking them. For just as there are no lack of examples of the fall of major cities ending wars there are plenty of other examples to suggest that it is not inherently decisive either. The Persians may have captured Athens but later lost the naval battle at “Battle of Salamis” and had to evacuate Greece. The Japanese took Nanking in 1937, and Napoleon took Moscow in 1812, but their enemies still had plenty of space to retreat and considerable resources and people to fight them. The Russians may have taken Grozny in 1995 and the Americans Baghdad in 2003 but their wars were far from over and did not end how they had wanted. Yet it is still a general consideration that a modern society based on conventional fighting forces is still more vulnerable to the loss of its major cities than a backwards one based on irregular forces.
However, such factors aside there are some generally accepted principles regarding urban warfare. First is that to decisively capture a city the enemy combatants inside need to be cut off from outside support. In other words the city needs to be surrounded, or at least all the lines of communications going in and out, need to be secured. This may sound so blatantly obvious but being a serious student of military history myself I am shocked by how many accounts of the “Battle of Stalingrad” don’t even acknowledge the fact that one of the key reasons Stalingrad never fell to the Germans was that they never managed to either secure the east bank of the Volga River, or at least effectively interdict the traffic across it.
An extension of this principle is that the fighting to surround a city, or to cut it off, is often more time consuming, and costly, than the fighting inside the city itself. Certainly this makes sense; the “Battle of Berlin” was essentially a giant mopping up operation once it was encircled, the Communists at Hue began to retreat after they were cut off, and the Americans found it much easier to conquer Aachen compared to the vicious fighting to effect its encirclement. Essentially it comes down to morale and logistics. Warfare is generally a costly exercise, and once you run out of bullets, food, and equipment you can no longer effectively engage in it. As for morale nothing is worse for the psychology of soldiers than knowing they are surrounded and cut off from supplies.
Then there are basic principles for the actual fighting inside of cities. While there are differences between fighting conventional forces (or at least decently equipped guerrilla forces) vs. poorly equipped rebel and terrorist groups the main lessons seem the same. The most important is that given how inherently complex urban battlefields are it is necessary to adopt an all-arms approach. This includes infantry, tanks, armored fighting vehicles, engineers, and often heavier weapons such as artillery and airpower. The infantry especially have to be well equipped with mortars, snipers, flamethrowers, heavy machine guns, and other weapons to suppress various enemy targets in cities.
Tanks, as noted above, are not a wasted asset in urban warfare but usually essential. The difference is that unlike its principle uses in maneuver warfare, a combination of shock action and mass, in urban warfare tanks are divided up into small groups to help infantry suppress enemy forces as well as taking out strong points. Tanks were even vital in Stalingrad, for both sides, despite the popular myth that the rubble in the streets severely limited their mobility. Where tanks fail in urban warfare is when they are not properly screened by protective infantry, or when they are too exposed in open areas that have not been secured.
The American forces attacking Aachen in 1944 developed very effective tactics to protect Tanks in urban warfare including:
1). Limited the exposure of tanks on main streets.
2). Moved tanks down side streets as much as possible.
3). Having them constantly screened and protected by infantry.
4). Used buildings as cover (having tanks shoot around corners).
5). Suppressing enemy positions with fire whenever tanks had to move from one firing point to another.
This was in stark contrast to the initial Russian moves into Grozny in late 1994 when mechanized and armored forces advanced down the streets in long columns, without any reconnaissance, and much of their soldiers sleeping in their trucks. The result was predictable as one Russian regiment was ambushed by Chechen forces using RPGs (Rocket Propelled Grenades) machine guns and snipers who initially attacked the leading and trailing vehicles of the convoy first, knocking them out and trapping those in the centre. The RPGs in particular were used to devastating effect, being shot from high up to hit tanks and armored vehicles at the top where they were thinly armored. These Chechen forces ambushed the column on both sides from buildings and alleyways and effectively neutralized the convoy’s combat power. The Russian tank crews discovered that their turrets could neither elevate high enough to hit the Chechens on the roofs, or depress low enough to hit those in the basements. One can probably not find a better textbook example on how to ambush a convoy than this.
Returning to the proper use of tanks in city fighting the point about dividing tanks up into smaller groups is a vital consideration. Whereas all out conventional fighting in maneuver warfare tends to reward speed and concentration urban warfare requires smaller groups attacking more systematically. Given the countless buildings, alleyways and other urban terrain that offers multiple ways to kill soldiers it is generally advisable to proceed more cautiously and to conquer cities street by street. Thus as stated above tanks should be divided into smaller groups to suppress enemy fire and to take out strong points.
However, the author does mention that there are times when it is possible to take a city relatively quickly. Certainly his case study regarding Inchon and Seoul during the “Korean War” illustrates that a combination of surprise, a speedy advance, as well as a shortage of enemy troops and the lack of time for the defenders to prepare adequate defenses can result in a short urban campaign. He also asserts that the only possible means to effect such successes are quick amphibious assaults, as at Inchon, airborne attacks, such as various German operation in “World War 2” (though it should be noted the Germans often suffered prohibitive casualties and sometimes failed to take their objectives) or daring armored thrusts, such as the British seizing Antwerp in 1944 or the American advance that captured Baghdad in 2003.
Of course the other alternative to fighting a street by street battle would be to subject a city to siege. This requires sufficient forces to surround and cut off an entire city for a considerable length of time. It also requires considerable patience, usually months, and a good logistical system to maintain the army during a drawn out siege (much of Sun Tzu’s opposition to sieges is regarding the strain it places on logistics). The object is usually to force the enemy to surrender via starvation, or running out of important supplies. Curiously the author devotes little content to sieges, maybe because they are no longer that prevalent, the “Siege of Sarajevo” in the 1990s being the most memorable in recent times.
Yet perhaps another factor is that our author, having previously been a colonel in the American army, and one who has written doctrine manuals for troops, has realized that sieges are not a realistic option for the American army in the 21st Century. Firstly, the American public and policy makers are generally hesitant to back operations that last months on end, preferring quick solutions which hopefully lead to decisive results, which of course precludes long drawn out sieges. Secondly, sieges, given that they rely on starvation as a strategy, inevitable lead to humanitarian crises and this is also politically unacceptable to the American public. Indeed the Israelis, who are arguably more accepting of harsher methods towards civilians than Americans, were ultimately forced to let in convoys of food and aid to Hamas occupied Gaza Strip to prevent such a crisis due to being pressured by international opinion. Therefore unless America was locked in a fight for survival her army would likely not be allowed to subdue a significant urban center via siege.
Coming back to the various arms needed in urban warfare engineers are vital for demolition work, as well as disarming IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices). They are especially useful when fighting today’s generation of terrorists, as the Israelis in Jenin and Nablus, and the Americans in Iraq had to neutralize literally thousands of small IED’s in urban areas that were spread between doorways, windows, alleys, inside furniture and closets, near roads, etc.
Artillery and airpower is used for very tough opponents, usually against conventional forces, or stubborn insurgents. It is also used by relatively inexperienced, or incompetent forces, such as the Russians in Grozny in late 1994, who lack the skill and training to take urban areas without incurring prohibitive casualties. However, it is obvious that the use of heavy firepower in cities usually results in significant civilian casualties. The Germans killed nearly 40,000 Russian civilians in one day of heavy bombing at Stalingrad. Likewise the Russian conquest of Grozny in the mid-90s probably killed 30,000 civilians and wounded 100,000 more.
Yet airpower and artillery are often restricted for military commanders, especially in democracies, by political masters at home. This leads us to another key consideration, at least in modern times, regarding urban warfare. The rise of television and media, beginning with the “Vietnam War,” has given the public a more realistic picture of war. Additionally, in the past decade with the rise of cell phones, cheap cameras, and social media, information has been passed along almost instantaneously giving governments and militaries no significant time to put their spin on events. This has lead to more micromanagement of military force by politicians, as well as to more cautious behavior by militaries themselves, to limit not only their own casualties, but civilian ones as well. An infamous example of this was the “Battle of Mogadishu” where U.S. policy makers restricted the use of airpower, which forced American forces to rely on helicopters instead. Unfortunately two were shot down and this led to a significant firefight in the city, a political fiasco for the American government, and ultimately the withdrawal of American forces from the U.N. backed mission in Somalia.
These two concerns, limiting military as well as civilian casualties are often contradictory as it is generally true in warfare that keeping military casualties down requires firepower to be used more liberally and for the rules of engagement to be loosened. Unsurprisingly these practices generally result in more civilian casualties in urban warfare. Likewise restricting firepower and tightening the rules of engagement saves more civilians but exposes soldiers to more risks and results in more military casualties. However this is not win all, or lose all, situation and more professional forces using specialized equipment and proper tactics can still triumph with relatively few casualties, soldiers or civilians, as will be shown by the case studies of Nablus and Ramadi.
Either way political considerations have come to the fore since Vietnam and they are not likely to recede so willingly or not militaries have to adapt. Of course how much political factors will matter depends on the type of war. As Clausewitz notes in “On War” in unlimited war, which is all out conventional warfare between states, military considerations generally dominate while political ones often retire to the background. However, in limited war, especially one which is not waged for vital interests of the state, political factors dominate.
Thus in “World War 2” during the battles of Stalingrad and Aachen both sides cared less about collateral damage then winning the military contest. By Vietnam this began to change as the fighting in Hue saw the Americans triumphant but the temporary occupation of Hue by the North Vietnamese, as well as the general shock of the “Tet Offensive,” demoralized the American public and slowly led to their discontinuation of the war. Fighting terrorists and putting down insurgencies, especially in foreign lands, is even more political as taking territory and destroying armies are not as vital, or not as common, and the public finds it hard to gauge progress and gets upset when things such as collateral damage, war crimes, and instances of torture and prisoner abuse surfaces.
Yet besides political machinations for the home front there are also political factors regarding the urban battlefield. While winning hearts and minds obviously is not a key consideration when invading a hostile country it is paramount when the objective is counter-insurgency. Here soldiers and policy makers have to work in tandem to address the population’s grievances, create infrastructure and economic opportunities, as well as protect the people from reprisals from insurgents or terrorists.
Another vital asset for urban fighting, at least regarding counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism, is a comprehensive intelligence system that understands and analyses the human component of the environment. Essentially the army needs to know the people, where they live, their neighbors, who they associate with, their occupations, etc. This allows the army to understand the neighborhoods they live in, control the population, and notice when something has changed.
The French accomplished this in the “Battle of Algiers” by detailed census work which allowed them to know where the population lived and where they worked. They also got their bearing by painting numbers and letters on buildings (the advent of GPS obviously makes this seem antiquated). This made it simple to pick people up for questioning or launch operations quickly as they could easily pinpoint where they were. The French also got additional Humint (human intelligence) from high stress interrogations and torture. Despite the naive view that torture is ineffective to get information it worked for the French, and combined with an efficient intelligence system that quickly collected, corroborated and then passed information to ready strikes teams it allowed them to quash the FLN terrorist cells in Algiers and win the battle.
However, this is where political factors resurface, as was noted above when the French army’s brutality in Algiers alienated the French public and turned them against the war. Yet Humint in urban warfare is absolutely necessary and the French army were not wrong to make detailed censuses or even using high stress interrogations (providing they followed international law) but the extensive use of torture on tens of thousands of Algerians, and the summary executions of thousands more afterwards unequivocally was. As a comparison, according to Max Boot, the author of “Invisible Armies,” the much maligned President George W. Bush was responsible for ordering “enhanced interrogation methods” against a mere 28 high value detainees and these interrogations were closely monitored to ensure none of them were seriously hurt. While no doubt there were more controversial occurrences during Bush’s presidency such as the practice of rendition and scandals such as Abu Ghraib, American conduct towards civilians and combatants, terrorists or soldiers, has generally been more humane compared to most other nations facing similar threats.
Returning to the importance of intelligence the British in Northern Ireland and the Americans in Iraq benefited from “census patrols” where their armed patrols would mingle with the population, explain their intentions to put the civilians at ease, and then learn about their neighborhoods. This combined with protecting civilians from reprisals, and helping to build government infrastructure and economic opportunities for the people, slowly built trust between the army and the people and encouraged the latter to give intelligence to the former which helped them fight the insurgents. Even the Israelis, who generally do not even pretend to try winning over the Palestinians, are experts at Humint and use a system of informants (recruited by a combination of coercion and greed) and interrogation teams near the front lines to quickly interrogate, though usually not via brutal means, civilians in the war-zone to get information about their enemies. The recent use of UAV’s in the past decade has also given modern armies real time intelligence regarding fighting inside cities.
However, if there is one major lesson to take away from DiMarco’s book it is that urban warfare is not necessary bound to be long or bloody. Certainly the chapters regarding Nablus and Ramadi demonstrate what well trained and equipped forces are capable of in urban settings. Israeli forces in Nablus in 2002 for example, lost a single military casualty and caused relatively few civilian casualties at 8 dead. Likewise the American forces pacifying Ramadi from 2006-7 lost perhaps 80 dead and caused light civilian casualties in 9 months of operations. According to the author the attacker often does not need a prodigious amount of infantry. American forces secured the city of Ramadi, with a population over 400,000 with 5000 soldiers and two understrength Iraqi brigades. Additionally, the Israelis secured the major towns in the West Bank (with a significantly higher population) with less than 30,000 soldiers.
It is worthwhile describing what methods and tactics the Israelis used in Nablus and the Americans used in Ramadi. In the case of Nablus the Israelis used a mechanized infantry force backed by bulldozers in one prong of their attack and their elite paratroopers in the other. The former force used infantry, armor, engineers and snipers as a team. Heavily armored D-9 Bulldozers, which were effectively imperious to IED’s and small arms fire, led the way by setting off IED’s, as well as shielding Israeli units behind them, and even knocking down walls so that the Israelis could quickly strike inside buildings. It also gave the Israelis the option of simply using the bulldozers to knock down buildings on top of terrorists who refused to surrender. Meanwhile the infantry and tanks had their usual roles in urban warfare, while the snipers were used to attack terrorist units that tried to flee or against others that tried to move against the Israeli attacking forces’ flanks. This “equipment centric approach” as the author calls it protected the Israeli forces effectively, allowed relatively fast advances, and gave the terrorist forces few instances to inflict damage on Israeli units.
The other prong in Nablus was led by Israeli paratroopers. The objective was to limit exposure on streets and to advance via buildings. However they did not use doorways, windows or stairs (all obvious entry points) but used pick axes and explosives to advance through walls, floors and ceilings. This kept them off the street and did not expose them to fire by going through obvious choke points. The keys were speed and surprise and terrorist units had to continuously fall back until they had suffered significant losses, or ran out of space. The paratroopers also used snipers in the same role as the other Israeli force did.
In Ramadi from the summer of 2006 to the spring of 2007 the Americans used the “population centric approach” to counterinsurgency as well as the methods of “clear, build and hold” to win the contest with Al-Qaeda in Iraq. Switching from their usual policy of heavy handed attacks which although inflicted significant casualties on the insurgent groups also caused prohibitive civilian casualties, the Americans focused on securing the population by establishing combat posts in the middle of densely populated areas. After beating off the expected counterattacks by AQI (Al-Qaeda in Iraq) forces the Americans would build government infrastructure, gain the trust of the Iraqi people, and create opportunities for the Iraqi people to give them a stake in the struggle. This was simply another version of the “Oil Spot” strategy that the French sometimes used to win over native peoples in their empire.
The American military methods in Ramadi were essentially a combination of strategic attack and the tactical defense. By moving into populated centers the Americans provoked AQI (who needed the support of the people for intelligence, recruitment and supplies) into attacking their combat outposts to chase the Americans out or otherwise lose their control over the people. However, this played into the American’s plan as while insurgents are effective at hitting isolated patrols and convoys they are generally not equipped to attack strongly manned and properly prepared defensive positions. The result was predictable as most AQI attacks against American combat outposts in Ramadi never made it past elite American snipers who neutralized the terrorist units much as the Israeli snipers had done in Nablus. After the Americans had finished clearing, building and holding one outpost and securing the population around it they simply moved onto another area and did the same thing. Eventually their outposts dominated the city, and as other coalition forces controlled all traffic coming in and out of the city, the insurgents became strangled and ultimately neutralized.
However, another key consideration which led to the American victory was that the combination of coalition progress in neutralizing AQI, as well as them protecting the Iraqi people and giving them a stake in the conflict, along with the increasingly atrocious conduct of AQI (who killed and mutilated anyone who stood in their way) convinced most of the Sunni insurgent groups in Ramadi to change their allegiance to the Americans and the government in Baghdad instead of backing AQI. Once again this illustrates the importance of coordinating military and political efforts in counter-insurgency.
Additionally, it is significant that the Israelis and Americans won both of these contests without excessive use of firepower, especially artillery or airpower. This was partly because their forces were well trained and sufficiently equipped enough to accomplish their objectives without brute force, and partly because as liberal democracies their populaces, as well as international opinion, would not tolerate excessive civilian casualties. Indeed the American forces at Ramadi were specifically warned not to create another Falluja, which with its significant military and civilians casualties, and indecisive ending, was a political disaster for America.
Besides these various lessons the author asserts that in the future urban warfare will be more, not less, prevalent. This is based on simple demographics, the reality of military power in the 21st century, and on the record of conflict during the last decade.
Regarding demographics the author notes the population explosion of the last few decades, which is not slowing down. This explosion has also resulted in a mass influx of people into cites from rural areas. In 1800 a mere 3% of the world’s population lived in cities, in 2000 this was about half, and by 2030 the U.N. Projects it will be 60%. Likewise there are now nearly 500 cities in the world with populations over 1 million people. But perhaps the quintessential point is that much of this, if not most, population growth has occurred in less developed nations in Africa, the Middle East and Asia. These nations, which generally have less prosperity, democracy, and opportunities than Western nations have not been able to accommodate urban populations as effectively as the latter have. The result has been the rise of massive urban ghettos full of inequality, crime, disease and resentment. All of this creates fertile recruiting grounds for revolutionary and violent ideologies and not surprisingly often leads to terrorist and guerrilla groups.
As for the realities of military power in the 21st century given the inherent dominance of western militaries, and strong ones in China and Russia, and given that these nations will likely not be fighting each other, means that most wars will be small wars waged between nation states and small terrorist or insurgent groups. As urban areas gives these groups some measure of an even playing field, a chance for significant media coverage (as well as the chance to take advantage of collateral damage) and as the population of the developing world is becoming more concentrated in these areas, it is natural that cities will became the major battlefields of the 21st century.
Finally there is the record of warfare during the last decade. The “Iraq War” was dominated by urban warfare, as was the recent conflict in Libya in 2011. The fighting in Syria, and the recent violence in Iraq, has also revolved around cities. Afghanistan and Chechnya have admittedly seen less fighting in this regard but it is obvious that whenever possible insurgent groups will try to use any chance they can to make highly advertised attacks in urban areas to get publicity as the “Moscow Theatre Hostage Crisis,” the “Boston Marathon Bombings,” and the recent bombings in Volgograd attest. Ask the average Russian and American about countless battles and skirmishes in Chechnya and Iraq and they will not remember them. Ask them about attacks launched on their own soil in major cities they will not only remember them but express shock and dismay (Lenin was only pointing out the obvious when he said “the purpose of terrorism is to terrorize”).
Louis DiMarco has produced a very excellent and concise book on urban warfare. He gets the main ideas right, goes into considerable depth regarding strategy and policy, but does not get bogged down into the smaller details which belong to military manuals. Having read several reviews of this book online which criticize the author for not providing more details regarding the finer infantry tactics on the ground I would suggest that like the greater theorists of war DiMarco focuses more on strategy and the bigger picture, which generally does not change from war to war, vs. armchair generals who focus too much on small matters on the ground which change quite frequently.
Indeed would the modern world really take Sun Tzu seriously if half of “The Art of War” consisted of detailed tactics regarding chariot battles and outdated warfare in 4th century B.C. in China? Would Clausewitz’s “On War” have generated the same adulation if he went into detail about how to mount a cavalry charge, or how to best use line and column formations which were prevalent in the early 19th century? The same goes for the great naval theorists; Alfred Mahan would look very foolish if he had concentrated on tactics for steam ships once submarines and aircraft carriers were developed, and Julian Corbett, despite being correct about the primacy of securing sea communications was dead wrong when he predicted that submarines would be of little use to navies. All of these theorists devoted some of their works to tactics but they were wise to limit it and wisely chose to concentrate on strategy which has always been more lasting.
Besides getting the main ideas right DiMarco also deserves credit for readability. A lot of military books, especially ones emphasizing a supposedly neglected form of warfare, are either overly detailed, are too preachy or somehow fail to stimulate enough interest as they are too busy promoting doctrine and ideas. Having tried, and failed, twice to read Heinz Guderian’s “Achtung Panzer,” the epitome of an overly detailed and dogmatic book, I can tell you that DiMarco’s work is much simpler, and more enjoyable, to read.
Few of his chapters are over 20 pages (sadly a key consideration in an age where reading is not held in high esteem) and all are good as stand alone case studies for those who do not want to read the entire work. His chapters on Algeria, Northern Ireland, Jenin and Nablus, and Ramadi are especially good and offer solid strategy and tactics for dealing with insurgents and terrorists. The chapter on Stalingrad is disappointingly limited but given the considerable amount of literature already devoted to it there is no big loss in this.
As for criticisms, which for this book I have few, I would suggest that this is not a book for corporals and privates on the ground but for generals, politicians, and enthusiasts of military history. While soldiers obviously could benefit a lot from this work it is not a detailed manual describing every little tactic of urban warfare.
Arguably though the book sometimes becomes overly descriptive of the actions of platoons, companies and battalions on the ground, especially in the Aachen and Hue chapters, which does little more for the general reader than to illustrate how complex urban warfare can be. But considering the author is an ex colonel in the United States Army it is hardly surprising that he would go more into detail regarding these case studies versus others.
Perhaps a more valid criticism regarding this book would be what it does not cover. The fact that DiMarco, who surely heard of Sun Tzu, never even mentions the great philosopher, let alone his objections to urban warfare, is odd. While the author’s arguments does more than enough to convince readers that urban warfare is a legitimate means of warfare his omission of Sun Tzu is puzzling. Likewise, many soldiers and scholars would probably wonder why the author chose Ramadi, instead of Falluja, to describe the “Iraq War.” However, considering Ramadi was a case study for effective urban pacification while Falluja was obviously a fiasco for American policy in Iraq, it is not hard to see why the author focused on the former.
In the end DiMarco’s book does an excellent job of explaining the quintessential context of urban warfare, as well describing the basic strategy, tactics, and political considerations that are needed to succeed in it. His lessons are solid, his objectivity is impeccable and he still manages to both enlighten and entertain. Certainly there are few books analyzing a particular form of warfare that accomplish all of this. I give Louis DiMarco’s “Concrete Hell” a solid 9 out of 10 for getting to the crux of the matter that is urban warfare and not wasting time on sentiment or complex details. This book is a must read for any military officer, policy adviser, or politician who contemplates waging warfare in the 21st Century.
Share article on