War and the City in the New Urban Century

No matter how many valuable functions the city has furthered, it has also served, throughout most of its history, as a container of organized violence and a transmitter of war.

—Lewis Mumford, The City in History (1961)

London, his part of it, lies wide open, impossible to defend, waiting for its bomb, like a hundred other cities.

—Ian McEwan, Saturday (2005)

Since the end of the Cold War, cities, particularly those of the developing world, have emerged as one of the most common environments for armed conflict. The nexus between globalisation, urbanisation and rapid demographic growth in the “global South” appears to be changing the character of warfare. We appear to be on the cusp of an “urban century” dominated by burgeoning megacities with a growing potential for violent implosions capable of causing major political crises. A new “literature of the megalopolis” has emerged in such disciplines as sociology, philosophy and geography. This new literature concentrates on the erosion of the rural–urban divide; on the shift in armed violence from landscape to cityscape and on the consequent need for metrostrategy over geostrategy; and upon the rise of urban hypertrophy and the phenomenon of the Zwischenstadt or “cities without cities” that defy effective governance.

During the Cold War, no Western army seriously considered a future in which urban warfare would be frequent. Today, every Western army knows that at some point it will fight in what are commonly known as “military operations on urban terrain”. Yet even as military professionals have sought to prepare for the peculiar and daunting challenge of conducting urban military operations in an era of networks and globalised security conditions, the growing significance of the links between cities and war has yet to penetrate the mainstream of policy. Most policy-makers think largely in narrow terms of domestic urban counter-terrorism and defending critical infrastructure in which police forces and emergency services predominate. They appear to be unaware that we face a future in which crises in global megacities are likely to challenge the military resilience, demographic resources and political will of many liberal democracies.

War and the City in Historical Perspective

Because cities represent crucibles of human civilisation and social organisation, many military analysts find it disturbing to have to regard them as arenas for armed conflict. “The chief function of the city,” observes the American literary critic and urban theorist Lewis Mumford in his masterly 1961 study, The City in History, “is to turn power into form, energy into culture, dead matter into the living symbols of art, biological reproduction into social creativity.” There is a natural tendency to recoil in revulsion from images of shattered buildings, lines of displaced civilians and piles of dead among mountains of rubble.

Consider the contributions to world civilisation from the Athens of Pericles, the Florence of the Medici, the Vienna of Beethoven, the Paris of Picasso, the Berlin of Brecht and the Detroit of Henry Ford. Consider too, that imperial Rome invented the apartment block and the suburb; that nineteenth-century London introduced policing and sewers to modern life and that Paris gave us the concept of town planning. In the twentieth century, New York invented the skyscraper and the subway system and Los Angeles became the first city of the automobile. The notion of armed attack in or against cities—whether Jericho and Babylon in the ancient world or New York and Washington in 2001—strikes at one of humanity’s most ingrained fears. It is the fear that, for all of its achievements, urban civilisation provides no escape from the scourge of war and mass violence. In Thomas Homer-Dixon’s graphic phrase: “September 11 won’t be the last time we walk out of our cities.”

The relationship between war and the modern city is rooted in the processes of the Western industrial revolution. It was the migration of millions of workers from countryside to industrial city in the nineteenth century that led to the historical phenomenon of mass, urban-based societies—William Blake’s compulsive “cogs tyrannic” and “dark satanic mills”. Prior to industrialisation, walled cities or fortresses with their limited populations were largely of symbolic rather than strategic value—obstacles, prizes or pawns—to be surrendered, sacked or exchanged in the elaborate tapestry of medieval and dynastic warfare.

It is a mistake to believe that siege warfare and urban combat are the same phenomena. Pre-industrial military theorists from Sun Tzu to Machiavelli always urged city-avoidance in warfare on the grounds that, unlike the static rural environment, an urban environment is dynamic and thus resistant to military control. The pre-industrial science of siegecraft was designed to overcome exterior walled fortifications and bears little resemblance to the development of industrial-age urban military operations, which are concerned with fighting inside modern cities. The latter may be defined as dealing with a distinct urban military geography composed of “those military activities in an area of operations where significant defining characteristics are man-made physical features, associated urban infrastructures and non-combatant populations”.

Until recently, military strategy paid little attention to fighting inside cities. As G.J. Ashworth has observed in his important 1991 study, War and the City, urban areas are poor test beds for the military art, and “protagonists of a strategy of mobile warfare, whether Napoleonic or Blitzkrieg, will have little use for cities as battlefields”. It is no accident that much of the most insightful writing on the conduct of strategy and operations in industrial cities was produced by nineteenth- and twentieth-century social revolutionaries such as the Frenchmen Auguste Blanqui and Paul Gustave Cluseret and the Irishman James Connolly. These figures were quick to recognise the revolutionary potential of new industrial cities as agents for radicalisation and armed political violence. They grasped that the industrial city that had emerged by the mid-nineteenth century could be used as an urban jungle, the “natural front” for insurgents skilled in street fighting, but their ideas remained, for the most part, outside the mainstream of Western military thought.

One of the few career soldiers to write on the subject of the city in military strategy was the French Marshal Thomas Bugeaud, whose 1847 book, La Guerre des Rues et des Maisons was influential in the era of the Second Republic and Empire. In the 1850s, Bugeaud’s book was a major influence on Baron Haussmann, Prefect of the Seine, in his scheme to rebuild and transform Paris from a medieval-style city of narrow, mean streets that favoured insurrection into an industrial-age metropolis, a “Citadel of Civilisation”, based on wide boulevards and avenues—an architecture that facilitated not only aesthetic taste but also social and military order. It is indicative of the status of the modern city in Western military strategy that Bugeaud’s influential book has never been translated into English.

In Europe, cities were introduced to the beginnings of industrialised urban warfare in such conflicts as the Paris Commune of 1871, the Irish “Troubles” of 1916–22 and the Spanish Civil War of 1936–39. During the 1871 Paris Commune, fought between Communard rebels and government forces, there was a level of indiscriminate brutality and physical destruction not seen in European warfare since the notorious 1631 sack of Magdeburg in Germany during the Thirty Years War. In Paris, over 20,000 people perished in two weeks of street fighting, while the Communards set fire to the city, destroying such historical landmarks as the Tuileries Palace and the Hôtel de Ville. When government forces finally prevailed, Haussmann’s “Citadel of Civilisation” was a place of smoking debris that moved the writer Théophile Gautier to record that “a silence of death reigned over these ruins; in the necropolises of Thebes or in the shafts of the Pyramids it was no more profound”.

In the twentieth century, the Irish “Troubles”, in which city-based armed violence by Irish revolutionaries and British troops was prominent, and the aerial bombing of the Spanish city of Guernica by the German Condor Legion in 1936, foreshadowed the urban carnage that was to envelop many European cities during the Second World War, when military operations inside industrial cities came of age. Between 1942 and 1945, epic urban battles such as those of Stalingrad, Warsaw, Manila and Berlin became part of the strategic repertoire of both Axis and Allied armies. Indeed, it has been estimated that no less than 40 per cent of all fighting in the war took place in urban areas.

Not surprisingly, by the end of hostilities in 1945, most of the characteristics associated with combat in modern cities had been identified. In the later twentieth century these characteristics were to reappear with a vengeance in cities such as Hue, Mogadishu and Grozny and, in the twenty-first century, throughout the cities of the Palestinian West Bank and of the Sunni Triangle.

Lessons from the Second World War

The characteristics of urban warfare are eight-fold. First, because urban areas are dynamic, non-linear human creations, they represent a unique environment in which a human-material interface presents special military challenges unknown in field warfare. Not least of these challenges is that of moving forces effectively and maintaining cohesion in shattered cityscapes full of concrete canyons and cul-de-sacs littered with debris and broken infrastructure.

The second characteristic is the dominance of firepower. Battles in cities such as Stalingrad, Manila, Warsaw and Berlin demonstrated in the words of Soviet Marshal Vasilii Chuikov that “a battle within a city is a battle of firepower”. Moreover, urban conditions favour an entrenched defender who is able to employ firepower from three-dimensional cover (street, rooftop and subterranean). As the British “Red Devils” paratroop commander, Major General R. E. “Roy” Urquhart recalled in his 1958 memoir of the defence of Arnhem by British airborne troops during Operation Market Garden in September 1944, “a built-up area is hell for the attacker and an asset for those in defence”.

A third feature of fighting in cities is the way in which urban architecture dissolves formation warfare, creating a maze of microenvironments ranging from narrow streets, alleys and courtyards and rooms to the high ground of rooftops. Confined urban space drives military manoeuvre downwards to the level of platoon and squad. In Stalingrad, much of the fighting involved small assault squads of generally no more than six or eight. In his study of the battle of Stalingrad, the British military historian Anthony Beevor writes that “much of the fighting consisted not of major attacks, but of relentless, lethal little conflicts” in ruined buildings, cellars and sewers—dubbed Rattenkrieg (the war of the rats) by German soldiers. Co-ordinating a city battle waged by multiple small groups emerged to become one the most demanding command tasks during the war.

The fourth feature of urban operations to emerge out of the Second World War was that cities restrict the use of large indirect weapons systems—notably artillery and airpower—in favour of direct-fire weapons carried by squads of soldiers. In city-fighting, it is sub-machine guns, grenades, mortars, sniper rifles and flame weapons that matter. When Soviet squads were fighting in the streets of Berlin in 1945, Chuikov’s tactical advice was:

“You will find yourself in a labyrinth of rooms and corridors all full of danger … Chuck a grenade at every corner. Go forward. Fire bursts of machine-gun fire at any piece of ceiling which still remains … Never waste a moment.”

A fifth characteristic was the problem of fighting in cities inhabited by large numbers of non-combatants. On some occasions, a civilian presence led to restraint in the use of force, as in the Western allies’ campaign across Europe, where many cities and towns in the Netherlands and Germany were spared bombardment in favour of careful house-to-house operations. The antithesis of the Allied approach was Heinrich Himmler’s infamous order of August 1944 to the SS to deal with Polish insurgents in Warsaw by “erasing” the city—leading to enormous devastation and the deaths of almost 200,000 civilians.

Large-scale civilian casualties and urban destruction were also features of the battle for Manila in 1945. In their fanatical defence of the capital, Japanese forces massacred almost 100,000 civilians—nearly 14 per cent of Manila’s civilian population. To achieve victory, American assault forces were forced to blast out entrenched Japanese defenders, leaving 70 per cent of the residential and business areas in flaming ruins. The American officer Major General Robert S. Beightler, observing the destruction of Manila from his headquarters, wrote sadly:

“Great sheets of flame swept across the rooftops, sometimes spanning several city blocks in their consuming flight. The roar, even at that distance was like a Bessemer converter, and the earth shook frequently … We saw the awful pyrotechnics of destruction, spreading ever faster to encompass and destroy the most beautiful city in the Far East.”

A sixth feature is the way cities swallow armies. In the words of Ashworth: “the urban environment creates a highly physically structured but fragmented series of compartmentalised battlefields that can absorb large quantities of personnel—which, once committed, will be difficult to extricate, regroup or reinforce”. These factors were at work in nearly all the major Second World War urban battles. For example, in Stalingrad in 1942, the Soviet 62nd Army virtually disappeared, while the Germans lost their entire Sixth Army. In the epic 1945 Berlin campaign that finally ended the Third Reich, the Soviets employed a million troops and suffered over 350,000 casualties.

A seventh characteristic was the physical and psychological demands of fighting in urban areas. Evidence from urban combat in the Second World War indicates that it was perhaps the most demanding form of warfare. In built-up areas, soldiers require a constant alertness at horizontal, vertical, interior and exterior spatial levels of activity. These multiple requirements, combined with multiple industrial and chemical hazards, contribute to the onset of rapid battle fatigue. Between 1942 and 1945, battle fatigue was compounded by sensory overload from noise and vibration and from ricochet, fragment wounds and the back-blast emanating from high-powered weapons fired in confined spaces. Psycholog-ical stress came from the perpetual dangers of hidden ambush, booby traps and sudden sniper fire. During 1942, doctors treating German soldiers in Stalingrad found that many of their patients resembled zombies and had the symptoms of premature ageing stemming from “shrinking of the heart”, a condition usually associated with geriatrics. “In its way,” writes Beevor, “the fighting in Stalingrad was even more terrifying than the impersonal slaughter at Verdun [in 1916].”

The final lesson to emerge from the Second World War was that to be effective in cities, armies needed to use all their assets by deploying combined arms teams of infantry, armour, artillery and engineers. Only by unifying their combat arms could an army’s whole become more than its parts in urban environments, allowing tanks, engineers and infantry movement to be successfully co-ordinated.

War and the City in the Cold War

The Cold War era that followed the Second World War was shaped by new strategic questions of deterrence, arms control and the concept of limited war. Thus, although Western armies developed doctrines of Fighting in Built-Up Areas and Military Operations on Urban Terrain, these remained of marginal concern in the first quarter of a century of the Cold War, when conventional war was subordinate to nuclear issues.

The marginal character of urban military operations during the Cold War era was reinforced by the reality that most incidents involving the use of military force in cities occurred in the context of insurgency. Strategies of urban insurgency were employed by various independence and revolutionary movements from Palestine in the late 1940s through Cyprus and Algeria in the 1950s to Aden in the 1960s. In the 1970s and 1980s, the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) in Northern Ireland and the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) embraced forms of urban insurgency. Finally, urban insurgency also became a major, if brief, focus for various “urban guerrilla” movements in Latin America inspired by the writings of such theorists of city-based insurgency as Abraham Guillén and Carlos Marighela.

Notable exceptions to these insurgent-style urban operations occurred during various “limited wars” shaped by the politics of superpower nuclear confrontation. In 1968, United States military forces fought an unexpected pitched urban battle against the Viet Cong in the city of Hue. In 1973, during the Yom Kippur War, the Israelis were forced to fight well-entrenched Egyptian forces in Suez City. In the 1980 battle of Khorramshahr during the Iran–Iraq War, Iraqi forces waged a twenty-five-day city battle against the Iranians.

Because urban military operations were either confined to unconventional warfare or occurred only episodically in conventional operations, they had little impact on later Cold War Western military doctrine. From the mid-1970s onwards, when the emerging precision munitions revolution encouraged a major revival of Western conventional warfare theory, it was manoeuvre warfare in open terrain that predominated. Such an approach was symbolised by the US Army’s adoption of AirLand Battle doctrine in the 1980s. When AirLand Battle principles were vindicated by the US military’s stunning desert victory over Iraq in the 1990–91 Gulf War, urban military operations fell into further obscurity. By the dawn of the post-Cold War era, Western military thinking was firmly dominated by the emerging American theory of the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) which visualised rapid conventional victory being achieved by the exploitation of computer era technologies, notably microelectronic communications, precision strike weapons and stealth platforms.

From the End of the Cold War to the “War on Terror”

During the 1990s, despite the West’s focus on RMA-style rapid decisive operations in open terrain, an inexorable shift from a rural towards an urban environment suggested an alternative strategic future—one in which warfare would be far more complex. As early as 1961, Lewis Mumford foresaw an era in which the city would be transformed into a “post-historic” megalopolis and become a universal form. Agricultural areas, he suggested, were destined to become “isolated green islands, slowly disappearing under a sea of asphalt, concrete, brick and stone”. Mumford’s vision is being vindicated with the rise of the “invisible city” defined by information networks and cybernetic signatures based on the provision of services and financial goods. As the Canadian scholar Roy Woodbridge notes, “cities of the twenty-first century will be the dominant habitat for humankind. Cities are now the great concentrators of natural capital consumption.”

In 2000, the world’s population passed six billion, and of this number over 40 per cent was located in cities. Demographers estimate that this percentage will increase to 60 per cent or more by 2030. Ninety-five per cent of all urban demographic growth is occurring in the “global South” of the developing world in South and South-East Asia, Africa and Latin America, and almost all of it is occurring in cities. In 1970, in the Asia-Pacific region, there were only eight cities with populations in excess of five million. At the beginning of the twenty-first century there were thirty. By 2030, the world will have forty cities with populations in excess of ten million and of these only two, New York and Los Angeles, will be in the West. The pace of urbanisation is a reminder that globalisation is not simply confined to trade, communications or security but is primarily about the disappearance of those geographical, social and cultural boundaries that interact to create stable communities.

In the emerging megacities of the developing world, urban population is frequently disconnected from economic-infrastructure growth, creating serious problems of governance and security. Not surprisingly, since the end of the Cold War, urban studies have focused on the economic, political, social and ecological consequences of global megacities. In 2007, in an unprecedented recognition of these new trends, the Graduate Institute of Geneva devoted its annual survey of world small-arms proliferation to the rise of armed urban violence, and entitled its publication Guns and the City.

These demographic urban trends have obvious implications for warfare in the twenty-first century. War and cities appear to be redefining themselves in terms of space, scale and time because of globalisation, population movement and the diffusion of technology. As Stephen Graham, editor of the 2004 study Cities, War and Terrorism, has suggested:

“Warfare, like everything else, is being urbanized. The great geopolitical contests of cultural change, ethnic conflict, and diasporic social mixing; of economic re-regulation and liberalization; of militarization, informatization, resource exploitation, and ecological change are, to a growing extent, boiling down to often violent conflicts in the key strategic sites of our age: contemporary cities.”

If cities are becoming the crucibles for future warfare then the West has one obvious strategic weakness: demography. While the developing world burgeons with people, much of the West’s demography—with the exception of the United States—is seemingly in long-term decline. If the developing world represents an explosion of youth, the developed world of the “global North” increasingly represents the phenomenon of the ageing society.

For much of the West, the solution to upholding what has been described by some commentators as “a geriatric peace” can only be accomplished by resorting to high technology. Yet the “shock and awe” of Buck Rogers-style high-technology Western military supremacy is increasingly challenged by the spectre of Mad Max people-centric asymmetric warfare waged in complex terrain and built-up areas that emphasise the “time, space and will” equation of protracted irregular or semi-regular militia operations. At the same time, globalisation has facilitated a proliferation of cheap small arms alongside internet communication, global positioning systems, cellular phones and commercial scanners—all of which facilitate asymmetric fighting in cities.

From the turn of the millennium onwards, the combination of globalised security conditions, burgeoning demographic growth, urbanisation and proliferating weapons technologies persuaded a number of Western analysts—ranging from American military and urban scholars through British defence analysts to French cultural theorists—to pay serious attention to the potential of cities as “the key strategic sites of the age”. In 2003 the American military scholar Richard J. Norton postulated the rise of the “feral city”—a Blade Runner-style megalopolis at once “savage, toxic and ungovernable”. In 2004, the British defence analyst Alice Hills speculated that the shift from a rural to an urban habitat in the new millennium may become so profound that there is a possibility of “urban operations shaping many of the critical security issues of the twenty-first century”.

Throughout the 1990s and into the new millennium, the prominent French philosopher and urban theorist Paul Virilio predicted an era of “recuperated feudalism” based on new global cities and distinguished by endless conflict in “a long night of jacqueries and transnational crusades”. For Virilio, writing in his 2005 book City of Panic, geopolitics is giving way to a new form of metropolitics in which a new “metrostrategy” replaces geostrategy and war is relocated to the world’s sprawling new cities. In 2007, another French writer, Georges-Henri Bricet des Vallons, meditating upon the meaning of “strategic globalization and urban warfare”, described “metropolitical warfare” as armed conflict that is “centred on a built-up area [and] based on the idea of maximal integration of [all] battle parameters”.

Several American military theorists have been more prescriptive in their writings on the future of war and the city. In 1996 Ralph Peters argued:

“The future of warfare lies in the streets, sewers, high-rise buildings, industrial parks, and sprawls of houses, shacks, and shelters that form the broken cities of our world. We will fight elsewhere, but not so often, rarely as reluctantly, and never so brutally. Our recent military history is punctuated with city names … but these encounters have been but a prologue, with the drama still to come.”

In 1998, US Marine Corps Commandant, General Charles C. Krulak, justified the US Marine Corps’ decision to prepare for urban conflicts with the famous statement: “The future [of war] may well not be ‘Son of Desert Storm’, but rather ‘Stepchild of Somalia and Chechnya’.” The US Army was not far behind. In a major study entitled Sharp Corners, prepared for the US Combat Studies Institute in 1999, Professor Roger J. Spiller predicted that warfare was in the process of turning a “sharp corner”, away from “the dying military tradition” of open combat towards city warfare. Spiller was not alone in his views. Former US Army Chief of Staff, General Gordon A. Sullivan, and former Commandant of the US Army War College, Major General Robert H. Scales, have both argued that future conflicts are likely to centre on heavily populated and built-up areas. In Scales’ words, “military leaders who believe that future warfare will not encompass this unpleasant [urban] environment are deluding themselves”.

This growing interest in the implications of cities as battlegrounds has been given credence by military events. In the decade and a half between 1993 and 2008 warfare in cities has occurred in Somalia through Chechnya to areas of the Middle East. Urban battles such as the US “Black Hawk Down” encounter in Mogadishu in 1993; the Russian reverses in Grozny in 1994–95; Israeli operations in Jenin and Ramallah on the West Bank in 2002; and the second battle of Fallujah waged by coalition forces in Iraq in late 2004, gave modern armies a bitter taste of urban military operations in globalised security conditions.

Faced by the rise of urban conflict in the 1990s, the US Marine Corps, the US Army and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) took steps to rediscover older lessons and to modernise their doctrine to meet the new challenges posed by the metamorphosis of the city into an information-age battlespace. In 2002, for the first time, the US armed forces published Joint Doctrine for Urban Operations. In the same year, NATO’s Research and Technology Organisation in a “2020 report” warned that built-up areas represented the most likely areas for future armed conflict. In 2008, a NATO follow-up report reinforced this view stating, “demographic trends indicate … that future military operations of all types [can] be expected to have an urban dimension”.

The post-2003 insurgency in Iraq in cities such as Mosul, Najaf, Samarra and especially Fallujah has demonstrated the daunting task facing advanced Western militaries when they undertake urban operations. The second battle of Fallujah, in November 2004, pitted 6000 US marines and troops supported by 2000 Iraqi soldiers against some 3000 local and foreign mujahidin insurgents. Recent descriptions of the battle by Bing West and David Bellavia resonate with many of the enduring characteristics of Second World War urban military operations. Indeed, putting political context, technology and modern rules of engagement aside, the type of operations conducted in Fallujah in November 2004 would have been recognisable to the GIs and Marines who cleared the streets of Manila in 1945 and to those who fought in Hue in 1968. In No True Glory, Bing West provides a graphic description of contemporary urban combat in Fallujah:

“On the rooftops the [American] snipers were shooting at the insurgents flushed by the tanks while SMAW [shoulder-launched multi-purpose assault weapon] gunners systematically destroyed the houses designated by the squads. It was exhausting, dangerous work … walking down narrow, dust-clogged alleys behind the growling tanks, barely able to hear the shouts of the fire team and squad leaders, hurling grenades in windows, slapping C-4 [explosive] to door fronts, ducking from the blast, waiting for the dust to clear a bit, then bursting in, a stack of four or six Marines with rifles and pistols, firing and blasting from room to room.”

In an echo of Marshal Chuikov’s tactical advice, David Bellavia writes in his 2007 memoir, House to House, of the modus operandi of twenty-first-century small-unit urban operations: “Dominate the room. Use controlled pairs. Slow is smooth; smooth is fast. Don’t be in a hurry. Recharge your ammunition at every point.”

All the lessons of modern urban warfare derived from the Second World War have been reaffirmed by the post-2003 insurgency in Iraq—a dynamic environment, the role of firepower, combined arms organisation, large numbers of ground troops, and an extra- ordinary level of physical and psychological stress. Bellavia’s memoir of fighting in Iraq’s cities is replete with references to the constant physical challenge of the modern urban environment:

“Every step brings the danger of a fall among rubble. Broken glass coats each [building] ruin like ice crumbles on a new fallen snow. Our boots crunch it underfoot, but when we slip, our hands break our fall and end up studded with shards of glass. We pick them out as best we can and keep on going.”

In the second battle of Fallujah, the USA lost fifty-one killed and 425 seriously wounded—a high 8 per cent casualty rate—while between 1200 and 2175 insurgents were estimated killed. The battle demonstrated how, despite advances in post-industrial electronic technologies that now embrace unmanned aerial vehicles and joint direct attack munitions, urban warfare continues to demand the most elemental qualities of soldiering.

In Fallujah, jihadist suicide fighters, some ironically fortified by epinephrine and atropine steroids, probed American strength like the Zulus at Rorke’s Drift testing the British garrison’s guns. Some insurgents strapped with explosives and carrying car battery detonators had to be literally blown to pieces by US firepower; other insurgents simply marched forward with weapons blazing to try to pinpoint the positions of advancing Americans for their mujahidin comrades to deliver accurate rocket and mortar attack. Then in the savage room-to-room fighting that finally ensued, insurgents screamed “Allahu Akbar”, to be met by an American counter-cry, “The power of Christ compels you”.

If all this was not enough, in the wake of the fighting there were other unique horrors to be faced. In 2005, on a visit to Australia, Colonel Craig Tucker, the officer who commanded the US 7th Marine Regiment in Fallujah, told the author how, in the aftermath of the struggle for the city, even the toughest of his men became unnerved when the post-combat silence was broken by the eerie wail of thousands of feral cats emerging from the ruins to feast on insurgent corpses.

Training, Technology and Urban Insurgency

If, as seems likely, military activity in cities becomes more prevalent in the first quarter of this century, there are two areas that require greater attention from policy-makers, uniformed professionals and defence scholars. The first area is the need to continuously improve military training and technological capabilities in order to compensate for lack of manpower in future military operations in urban areas. The second area is the need to identify and understand the linkages that appear to exist between the processes of insurgency and urbanisation.

Technology and Training in Urban Military Operations. In her 2004 book Future War in Cities: Rethinking a Liberal Dilemma, Alice Hills has argued that the West is confronted by a unique “strategic grammar of urban warfare” which it must master. Because of the West’s lack of military manpower, most liberal democracies are almost certain to seek solutions to urban operations in the twin realms of technology and training. In terms of technology, over the next decade, advances in robotics, intelligence and digitisation promise delivery of a new generation of laser range finders, air-bursting munitions, fuel-air rockets and small unmanned ground vehicles for use in cities.

Armoured vehicles are likely to undergo considerable adaptation for urban conditions. As Brigadier David Rutherford-Jones, the current Director General of the British Royal Armoured Corps, has observed, “recent experiences in both Iraq and Afghanistan have taught us that urban terrain can no longer be considered a no-go area for armoured fighting vehicles”. As a result, special “urban tanks” with shaped armour, cameras, electrical turret machine-guns and counter-sniping weapons are likely to become much more widespread. Improvements to an array of small arms including “door buster” shotguns, rifle grenades and cluster bombs can be expected to assist soldiers in the gruelling work of fighting in built-up areas. Some non-lethal weapons systems, such as long-range acoustics and directed energy devices, are also likely to be introduced in order to clear buildings in which enemy fighters might be mingled with innocent civilians.

However, technology is only as good as the training that accompanies it. Future warfare in cities will occur in a multinational, inter-agency context, and military personnel will have to undertake unprecedented co-operation with a host of media personnel and humanitarian aid and relief workers. It is at this civil–military intersection that the strategic grammar of urban warfare is most likely to reveal itself. The use of force is almost certain to be governed by the immediacy of electronic media images that now pervade political judgments and public reaction. For this reason, NATO has sought to introduce “a manoeuvre approach to urban operations” in which the use of discriminate force and a focus on understanding the human and cultural geography and infrastructural dynamics of urban cityscapes is emphasised. NATO forces plan to prepare for future missions in cities in multiple scenarios: ranging from “nodal isolation” of selected urban zones using special operations forces and precision strikes, through full city area control by large numbers of ground forces, to the evacuation of huge numbers of urban refugees into special sanctuaries.

Whether urban military operations with their elemental violence and complex human-material environments are susceptible to ultimate mastery by a combination of advanced technology and sophisticated manoeuvre missions remains to be seen. To date, it must be stated that the evidence is not promising.

Understanding the Growing Nexus between Insurgency and Urbanisation. Over the past fifteen years nearly all those who have embraced urban warfare—Somalis, Chechens, Palestinians and, more recently, assorted jihadist fighters in Iraq—have been irregulars or militia forces. The diversity of Western adversaries in Iraq is captured by Bellavia’s memoir: “In Fallujah we [Coalition forces] face the insurgent global all-star team. It includes Chechen snipers, Filipino machine gunners, Pakistani mortar men, and Saudi suicide bombers. They’re all waiting for us down the street.” As the US Marine Corps scholar Frank G. Hoffman has pointed out, the concept of sanctuary in insurgency warfare is rapidly changing as age-old rural distance is replaced by the new reality of urban density. Urban areas now frequently provide sanctuary, shielding and recruitment for insurgent forces. In October 2008, NATO’s Research and Technology Organisation noted:

“The patterns of insurgency and counter-insurgency around the world in the last few decades are that these have become urban in nature, and deliberately so in order to take advantage of the perceived weakness of counter-insurgency forces to operate effectively in urban areas … Guerrillas, insurgents and other non-state groups have all taken advantage of the benefits (to them) of operating in such an environment and will no doubt continue to do so.”

The strategic trend in irregular warfare towards built-up areas suggests that one of the emerging characteristics of twenty-first-century insurgency is its tendency to follow the movement of people into the cities. Although a few scholars of irregular warfare such as Jennifer Morrison Taw, Bruce Hoffman and Max G. Manwaring have highlighted the likely prominence of urban insurgency in the future, the bulk of research on insurgent warfare has focused on broader questions of continuity and change with Cold War paradigms. Writers such as David J. Kilcullen, Robert M. Cassidy and Frank G. Hoffman have concentrated upon tracing a generic “revolution in global insurgency” and the rise of “complex irregular insurgency” stemming from the post-Cold War change from national guerrilla movements towards more culturally diverse and transnational forms of insurgency.

To date there has been a relative paucity of research on the implications of an increase in irregular warfare in an age in which rising megacities may become the new dystopian battlegrounds of the twenty-first century in which soldiers begin to resemble Ridley Scott’s Blade Runners hunting down lethal replicants in the form of transnational insurgents. As Frank Hoffman suggests, counter-insurgency doctrine remains archaically Cold War and classical in its approach. In a direct reference to the much-lauded, but somewhat traditionally-focused 2006 US counter-insurgency manual, he poses the challenge: “How is this [manual] relevant to the highly connected, religiously inspired, urban dwelling, global guerrilla of today?”

The point is well made. Given the burgeoning population growth in the developing world and increasing numbers of insurgents prepared to operate in cities, there is a clear imperative to re-examine the ecology of irregular warfare. Contemporary insurgents and transnational terrorists thrive in labyrinthine cityscapes that amplify their capabilities and frustrate technologically superior adversaries. The movement of many insurgents into the sprawling cities and towns of the developing world means that many future military operations may involve intensive counter-insurgency in urban environments. Future city battles are likely to be defined by a pervasive media presence, and skills in civil–military co-operation, psychological operations and urban infrastructural knowledge will need to complement Western combat expertise. In the years ahead, urban military contingencies are likely to display an intimate relationship between the use of military force, physical morphology and social geography that requires far more research from Western strategists.

Developing an Urban Lens for Strategy

Given the fundamental shift in the global population from countryside to city, strategy in the twenty-first century—whether civilian or military in origin—must seek to develop an effective urban lens based on understanding the processes of demographic and topographical interaction. In developing an appreciation of the use of modern force, Western strategists have long drawn upon such subjects as history, economics, international relations and political science. Now, in the new millennium, strategy needs to come to grips with the new inter-disciplinary scholarship from geography, sociology, criminology and anthropology that informs modern urban studies. As Guns and the City notes, “no single disciplinary perspective can capture the inherent complexities of using military force in urban areas”.

Those responsible for developing and implementing Western military strategy increasingly need to come to grips with the intellectual reality that urban planning and security-building are twinned activities. There is every possibility that, in much of what the British soldier-scholar General Sir Rupert Smith has described as a future of “war among the people”, the city, not the countryside, will dominate. Much of the world’s future military activity may occur not in terms of traditional geostrategy, but in the context of Paul Virilio’s new “metrostrategy”.

Integrating aspects of urban studies into contemporary military strategy has the potential to improve our knowledge in at least three critical areas. The first area is the necessity for strategic analysts, scholars and uniformed professionals to think about cities as specific strategic sites. A second issue is the requirement to recognise the strategic implications of the decline of the traditional rural–urban divide. The third area concerns the development of an understanding of methods to control armed urban violence that are drawn from municipal principles of policing and community development. These three areas can only be sketched in this essay but hopefully, in the future, they will become part of a more detailed and systematic policy-related urban imperative in strategic studies generally.

Cities as Strategic Sites: Military Operations as Urban Planning. In urban military operations, all civil assets from water purification and electricity through garbage removal to securing medical infrastructure and public transport are invested with military significance. In this respect, the strategic policy-maker and military professional face many of the same problems as the urban planner or emergency services manager. Developing a comprehensive urban lens will require that strategy consider embracing the broader concept of “military operations as urban planning” (MOUP). Such an approach is necessary in order to ensure that in-depth study of the interaction between the city and strategy is properly informed by inter-disciplinary knowledge that is outside the immediate priorities of the military art.

By employing an MOUP philosophy in strategic studies, it will be possible to situate urban military activity in a broader intellectual context, allowing defence analysts to consider a full range of insights from areas of non-military research such as human and cultural geography, town planning and emergency management. These fields of knowledge have much to teach strategic thinkers about the control of cities, especially under globalised security conditions in which interconnected layers of society and infrastructure co-exist. For example, understanding demographic composition and density of population may determine policy choices on rules of engagement and the way force is best employed in specific urban locations. An interdisciplinary approach may also help to inform policy, strategy and operations by revealing variations in architectural design and building materials that may determine the shape and likely impact of combat and humanitarian operations in urban spaces dominated by media images.

The Strategic Implications of a Declining Rural– Urban Divide. Related to an MOUP approach will be the need for awareness among strategic thinkers that globalisation and the outward spread of the megalopolis in the developing world are eroding rural space in many countries. As Mike Davis puts it in his 2006 book, Planet of Slums, “rural people no longer have to migrate to the city; it migrates to them”. Metropolitan areas such as Karachi, Dhaka and Rio-São Paulo now extend outwards up to several hundred kilometres with populations of anywhere between 10 million and 40 million people. The traditional rural–urban divide that has defined the conduct of warfare since the time of the ancient Egyptian and Hittite empires may, in the course of this century, become blurred or possibly non-existent.

This century will be the first in which most of the world’s population will live in built-up areas—a phenomenon that constitutes a profound social revolution. For this reason, Robert Neuwirth’s idea of “shadow cities” and Thomas Sieverts’ concept of the Zwischenstadt or “cities without cities”—that is, the replacement of many centralised urban conglomerations by clustered “city webs” composed of arbitrarily divided urban enclaves that often defy effective governance in favour of warlordism—are developments that should concern every student of strategy.

Strategic studies in universities and military colleges must, in future, draw upon those areas of urban research that distinguish between the characteristics of peri-urban, semi-urban and inner-city forms of habitation and their implications for security policy and the efficient employment of military force. If some of the key cities of the developing world such as Karachi become sprawling “shadow cities” with no clear rural–urban divide—only a chequerboard of poorly governed dense enclaves and webs—then policy-makers will require a nuanced understanding of the dynamics of urban agglomeration and the competing interests of social groups in order to determine how military ends can best be used to fulfil strategic and political objectives.

The Municipal Imperative in Controlling Armed Urban Violence. The control of military violence in large cities presents special problems for strategists, particularly if central government is weak, fragmented or even non-existent. An “urban geography of security” is required, and here strategic policy-makers and uniformed professionals can learn particular lessons from the experience of law enforcement, policing and community development in cities where central governance has failed. Indeed, it has been suggested by the American strategist Max Manwaring that, despite differences in motivation, much of the violent “street gang phenomenon” in the cities of developing countries is semi-political in that it is linked to narcotics and government corruption and has natural linkages to urban insurgency. Evidence suggests that in conditions of weak central governance, military efforts to control violence are best concentrated upon creating municipal or community-level security.

Studies of attempts to reduce urban armed violence suggest that a municipal law-enforcement typology of coercion, compliance and voluntarism at local community level can be highly effective as a co-ordinated policy instrument and as a means of managing perceptions of security. A mixture of coercion employing such measures as “gated communities” and forcible disarmament; compliance measures that emphasise the role of community policing; and voluntarism involving amnesties and citizen neighbourhood watch schemes can, in unison, be effective. Such approaches have much to teach military professionals and policy-makers confronted with a spiral of armed urban violence that defies central control. Scholarly research that seeks to refine the municipal imperative in security control may make a major contribution to a broader understanding of security in the megacities of the future.

The creation of an urban lens for the study of strategy will be a complex and time-consuming undertaking requiring the development of a highly nuanced, multi-disciplinary framework for the study of evolving global cityscapes with their interactive spatial dynamics and heterogeneous populations. Ultimately, the urban imperative in military strategy is likely to be shaped by a combination of real-world events, policy-demand and operational contingency. Progress will also depend on the extent to which the megacities of the “global South” come to be understood by strategic thinkers and policy-makers as constituting a long-term socio-political revolution with serious security implications for the liberal democratic West.


In 1961 Lewis Mumford warned that every urban conglomeration contains within it the “lethal genes” of war. What we have witnessed over the last fifteen years, and what we will continue to witness in the future, is the melancholy replication of Mumford’s “lethal genes” across the developing world. In the course of the early decades of the twenty-first century, for the first time in history, cities will be home to most of the world’s population and, in this sense we are entering the social revolution of an “urban century”.

The strategic implications of a changing global demography from countryside to cityscape have already been presaged by the fact that urban military operations by insurgents and militias have multiplied in the developing world since the end of the Cold War. For many irregulars, urban terrain appears to be the ultimate environment in which to wage asymmetrical warfare. This is not the kind of terrain that the West’s military forces would prefer to fight on, but there may in many cases be no choice—particularly in humanitarian crises that are projected by television into our living rooms. While we can be sure that future wars will also occur in environments other than urban areas, it is the “metrostrategy” of the city that remains the least understood of future potential conflict environments.

A policy of city-avoidance has much to commend itself as a civilised and humane approach to war—one that is steeped in the notion of the metropolis as a place of social and artistic creativity, not military destruction. Aristotle, in The Politics, wrote that cities come into existence to provide physical security and the pursuit of the good life for human beings. Sadly, given global trends, the notion of the city—especially in the developing world—as a benevolent, war-free zone is rapidly becoming unrealistic. Military practitioners have since the early 1990s learned this lesson to their cost in the deadly furnace of urban combat from Mogadishu to Fallujah. To date, strategic theory, not to mention public awareness, lags behind military practice and continues to remain curiously disconnected from analysis of cities as arenas for military conflict where the use of force will need to be integrated with the physical morphology and social geography of modern cities.

If Philip Bobbitt is right when he observes in his 2008 book Terror and Consent: The Wars of the Twenty-First Century that, “the agenda of human rights protection is the central political idea of the West today”, then there is every chance that, in the future, liberal democracies will be forced to defend those rights in turbulent global urban environments. Because of mass urbanisation, failed states in many instances will simply mean failed cities.

In the years ahead, important inter-disciplinary aspects of urban studies that deal with the security and control of cityscapes are likely to enter the study of strategy. As the American strategist Rear Admiral Henry E. Eccles once observed, it is the essential task of every generation of strategic thinkers “to penetrate to the inner structure of warfare, to its component parts and to their interrelations”. Ultimately, the inexorable rise of the interconnected global megacity, with its lethal genes and profound implications for social order, will compel Western strategists to rethink their mental geography of war, society and governance.

Dr Michael Evans is the ADC Fellow at the Australian Defence College, Canberra. In 2007 he authored a special study for the Adviser on Warfighting to the Vice-Chief of the Australian Defence Force on the future of urban warfare, and in 2008 he supervised the writing of the Australian Army’s new 2008 manual, Counterinsurgency: Developing Doctrine. The views expressed in this article are his own.

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