Urban Warfare, Then and Now by Bing West - The Atlantic
A few weeks ago, the Atlantic Monthly Press released Mark Bowden’s excellent book, Hue 1968, A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam. As he did previously in Black Hawk Down, Bowden brings the reader down the deadly streets of a savage urban battle, meticulously describing the action from the points of view the participants. Currently, the roughly yearlong battle for the Iraqi city of Mosul is drawing to a close. Although a half century separates these two classic battles, the similarities in urban combat far outweigh differences. Why is this so and what does it portend for the future?
After 10,000 North Vietnamese soldiers slipped into the poorly guarded city of Hue in February of 1968, it took a month of intense fighting, principally by American Marines, to root them out. One reason was gross negligence by the high command in estimating the enemy’s strength. A deeper reason was the physical reality of urban density, trapped civilians, stout houses, and massive stonewalls. There was no avoiding house-to-house fighting to force back a determined enemy. In terms of total fatalities among friendly and enemy troops and civilians, the result was, to quote Bowden, “well over ten thousand, making it by far the bloodiest [battle] of the Vietnam War.”
Similar ferocity marked the Marine assaults against the Iraqi city of Fallujah in 2004. Eighteen thousand of the city’s 39,000 buildings were damaged or destroyed. More than 120 Americans and thousands of Iraqi civilians and insurgents died. Had it not been for modern medical techniques, about as many Americans would have been killed in Fallujah as in Hue. And over a decade later, it has taken 100,000 Iraqi forces (to include the Kurdish peshmerga soldiery) a year to kill or drive out the estimated 5,000 terrorists called ISIS from Mosul. Undoubtedly the toll, if ever accurately assessed, will be much higher than in Hue of 1968.
Urban warfare remains characterized by slow, massive destruction. Yet 50 years ago, there were no computers, no internet, no GPS, no UAVs, no digital communications, no night-vision devices, and no precision strikes. Two facts account for the lack of change in tactics. First, cities are constructed of steel and concrete, with streets providing the open spaces, which are usually linear. Any fighter in the open is quickly cut down. No technology can accurately detect and count humans inside buildings and tunnels. So the attacker must advance by blasting through the sides of buildings and slowly, slowly search every room. Second, tens to hundreds of thousands of civilians can be trapped in the cities. The terrorists in Mosul have prevented the civilians from leaving in order to use them as shields…