Small Wars Journal

Urban Warfare, Then and Now

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…

Read on.


There are two dialogues on Tet .
The popular version is that General Westmoreland willfully underestimated or ignored the number of enemy fighters we faced; the second is that the VC did not grow appreciably in numbers and after Tet they were spent as a counter insurgency or as effective a guerrilla force and that Hanoi became fully committed to a more conventional strategy in triple canopy jungles and threw tunnel systems. To be sure, there remained guerrillas and villages that were anti South Vietnam's government. But in the end the NVA triumphed without counter insurgency by gunning their tank engines and rolling right down the main highway after the US Congress reneged on promised air support.
The Lost Battalion of Tet and other Marine and soldier stories do now speak of defeat in the field recognize the fact that Tet marked a turn in operations from an indigenous centered counter insurgency to NVA main forces taking over more and more of the fight.
Vietnam in some fighters onions was significant in the same way the Chinese entry into the Korean War was significant and I agree with that appraisal.
These templates that always use and emphasize our failure in Vietnam are wrong, and compound it like then Senator Obama did by using Vietnam as a false positive for Iraq.
I appreciate the need to arrive at valid constructs that will better address counter insurgency's and urban warfare in what Kilcullen dubbed the littoral and other check lists but it is being framed in a series of false comparisons that are not historically accurate. In this example they missed why Hue was a turning point. Not because of a popular insurgency they massacred all the community leaders and it was largely a conventional foreign force that fought in buildings, house to house. The battlefield was a city a city that was not the enemy.