Small Wars Journal

The Destructive Age of Urban Warfare; or, How to Kill a City and How to Protect It

Thu, 03/28/2019 - 6:50am

The Destructive Age of Urban Warfare; or, How to Kill a City and How to Protect It by John Spencer – Modern War Institute

… So, is it possible to kill a city, to completely destroy it? Yes, of course it is. This is especially true if the attacker understands what cities are: complex, adaptive, and living organisms that are home to major populations, with all the social, physical, and governmental systems to support them. Just like other living organisms, cities have vital anatomy and resource flows—like a beating heart or functioning brain and oxygen, water, and food. If these vital components are severely traumatized or cut off, then the city will die. But the fact is that the size and complexity of modern cities make them extremely resilient.

Why is it important to even ask the question, though, of whether a city can be killed? It is important for many reasons. When we try to answer the question, it makes clear the lack of a uniform and widely accepted definition of cities, and a generally poor understanding of them. They are not, as the US military tends to view them, just major combinations of manmade physical terrain, a population, and a supporting infrastructure. Most importantly, asking the question exposes the lack of a widely used and real-time framework and set of analytical tools for understanding how cities survive, adapt, and flourish. In an era of increasingly likely urban conflict, that is a serious deficiency.


Each city is different. Each one is a living organism with its own metabolic processes, of which some are vital and others merely important. Each city has a reason for being—why it was selected as an ideal place for a large cluster of people within a civilization to converge, prosper, and drive continued urban growth. Those reasons can change over time. An industrial or port city can transform over time to an information and technology center or a node in the global digital economy or a new natural resource exporter.


Studying a city reveals its vital functions and flows, and if they are properly understood and mapped, then that information can be used not to destroy it but to maintain, protect, or in the case of post-conflict operations, to revive it. While looking at cities as organisms or ecosystems is well established in academic communities, it is not in the military or many of the other organizations that often have prominent roles in post-conflict reconstruction efforts…

Read on.