US May Face Cruel Laws of Urban Combat

By Alfred W. McCoy

Boston Globe

Thursday 3 April 2003


As the US Army approaches Baghdad, it may be forced to fight a modern urban war with high casualties and massive destruction. Coalition commanders are, like most officers, ill prepared for city combat. In contrast to the sound principles military science has derived from countless engagements in open terrain, true urban battles are few, and their lessons are little studied. But a review of combat inside other cities -- Stalingrad, Manila, and Berlin -- reveals some laws for a uniquely brutal kind of battle that may soon be fought inside Baghdad.



Nobody really understands urban warfare. The US Army's commander for Iraq, General William Wallace, recently admitted he had no doctrines for fighting inside Baghdad. ''I don't know that there's a model in history,'' he said. ''I think all warfare is a balance between reconnaissance and fire and maneuver -- regardless of whether you're in an open desert or an urban environment.'' The general is not alone in his ignorance of urban warfare. A recent US Army War College study found ''our doctrine and cultural focus have remained preoccupied with the classic `fight in the woods,' '' and troops have not been trained for ''urban operations.''



The modern city is a battleground that closes the gap between combatants, enabling weak defenders to hold ground against overwhelming force.

Despite a 2:1 advantage in artillery and 4:1 superiority in tanks, Hitler's Panzers lost their famed mobility inside Stalingrad, and the Germans were defeated in four months of street fighting. ''Modern cities,'' reporter Hanson Baldwin explained, ''with masonry structures and a maze of streets make natural fortresses.'' In cities, attackers soon lose advantage in each of Wallace's three tactical components -- maneuver, firepower, and reconnaissance. The cityscape allows even a weak army to hold a line otherwise crushed by an attacker's flanking maneuvers in the open. The urban maze acts like a tropical jungle to conceal defenders from superior firepower. Attackers lack the micro-scale maps, showing buildings and tunnels, that are key to effective reconnaissance.



Ultimately, every attacker is faced with the same cruel choice between taking high casualties or destroying the city. In 1945, General MacArthur reached Manila's outskirts with 280,000 troops and plans for a grand victory parade. He was soon forced to destroy the city he loved to liberate it from just 17,000 Japanese. After four weeks' fighting, Manila was devastated, 100,000 Filipino civilians died, and Americans suffered 6,675 casualties. There is no way, short of demolition, to extricate determined defenders from the urban labyrinth. Like the US Army at Ben Tre during Vietnam's 1968 Tet offensive, attackers have always found it ''necessary to destroy the town to save it.''



Urban warfare is the most brutal of all battles. Like rats locked in a dumpster, armies fight without restraint in a terrifying battlefield that allows no retreat. Inside alleys and tunnels, command control collapses and soldiers fight muzzle-to-muzzle. Attackers unleash indiscriminate firepower. Defenders respond with suicidal desperation. Both can die in extraordinary numbers. The 19th century's few urban battles reveal the defenders' suicidal psychology. At Moscow in 1812, the czarist governor, determined to expel Napoleon, burned the city to the ground. At Manila in 1899, Filipino forces attempted arson in hopes of slaughtering American soldiers in an inferno. Today, chemicals, biological agents, and explosives have become the defender's weapons of desperation.

In close urban combat, casualties soar. At Berlin in 1945, more than 200,000 Germans died in 11 days. Even with 10-to-1 troop superiority, absolute air control, and customized tanks, the Soviets still lost 78,000 soldiers.

In past urban battles, the body count has ranged from 3,000 to 30,000 killed per day. What will be the impact of such violent images in history's first war televised live? Even if the battle for Baghdad has comparatively few casualties, international opinion might react to such slaughter adversely.

In Iraq's lunar landscape, Baghdad is the only terrain that allows Saddam's army a defensible fortress. Given the historic 10-to-1 superiority attackers have needed to prevail inside cities, one might well ask what will happen when 200,000 coalition soldiers face even 50,000 Iraqi defenders in Baghdad.

There is no reason to think that the US Army can escape the cruel laws of urban warfare in Baghdad. Like MacArthur who reached Manila's gates with dreams of triumphal entry, American commanders outside Baghdad may see their predictions of easy victory turn into a nightmare of urban warfare.




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