Concrete Hell: Urban Warfare in the 20th Century

It is difficult to deny that the threat of urban warfare en masse is starker than ever in the twenty-first century. Cities are strategically important locations due to their positions as economic, political and cultural centers and so are highly valuable military targets. There is also the crude argument that warfare is a human phenomenon and it is clear that people are increasingly to be found in cities and so war will naturally follow them there.

The most recent UN report on the subject estimated 54 percent of the world’s population reside in urban areas and that this will rise to 66 percent by 2050, adding 2.5 billion to the world’s urban population. A related and more sophisticated argument – prominently made in David Kilcullen’s Out of the Mountains– is that due to this urbanization, cities are placed under increasing strain to deliver municipal services, leading to a breakdown of law and order as insurgent or criminal entities step into the ensuing power vacuum. As a result of these trends and realities, militaries can expect to find themselves engaged in wrestling a city from the hands of another conventional military or, more likely in this century, insurgents and must be prepared from the struggles they are likely to face in this environment.

In his 2012 book on the topic, Concrete Hell, retired US Army Colonel Louis DiMarco attempts to grapple with this threat to modern militaries through turning to history in the hope that militaries do repeat past mistakes. To this end, DiMarco opens by skilfully articulating the transition from siege warfare to house-to-house fighting by the turn of the twentieth century, and the inherent difficulties in both. Despite questionable editing and proof reading here and throughout the book, this should not distract from the serious message Colonel DiMarco intends to address here.

Urban warfare properis characterized by securing a physical and hostile urban area from the grip of an entrenched enemy through mid- or high-intensity combat.

Subsequently, nine case studies are offered to illustrate the lessons taken from urban warfare since World War Two – four state-on-state engagements and five state-on-insurgent engagements. These case study sections are rightly divided into a political background, an account of the engagement and what lessons can be taken away from it with regards to urban warfare. The author claims that he does not wish to simply write a history of these engagements, but when more than three quarters of each case study is dedicated to contextualizing and describing events, this has severely handicapped what can be said for possible urban warfare lessons as the majority of the text is bogged down in description. DiMarco is consequently also not truly able to form an overarching argument regarding lessons for urban warfare and makes only limited links between the different case studies which are largely analysed in isolation.

One further issue with these case studies is that two do not truly have a place in a book on urban warfare. Whilst seven of the nine case studies deal with a military attempting to wrestle control of a city which has fallen into the hands of an enemy – conventional military or insurgent – two are concerned with policing cities which insurgents operate in. These two case studies – the Battle of Algiers and the Troubles in Ireland – were characterized by bombings and isolated attacks on one side and securing the population on the other. Urban warfare proper, however, is characterized by securing a physical and hostile urban area from the grip of an entrenched enemy through mid- or high-intensity combat. Consequently, the lessons for urban warfare which DiMarco arrives at for these two case studies are more concerned with issues of counterinsurgency than urban warfare, such as the strategic consequences of utilizing torture to obtain information, as well as the utility of patrols and checkpoints.

Urban warfare certainly plays a role in tackling insurgencies which were able to take the strategic offensive, with the case study of the Vietcong and Hue being a classic example, but the FLN and PIRA never held enough power or support to aggressively take the fight to the French and British, respectively. While possibly avoided due to being well-covered examples of urban warfare, Colonel DiMarco displayed poor judgement in including these two urban counterinsurgencies at the expense of Mogadishu and Fallujah. COIN can and often does involve urban warfare and vice versa, but the two are not mutually inclusive. They are worthy of study as separate subjects.

Despite the substantive literature on the topic produced in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Colonel DiMarco (who contributed to the writing of the U.S. Army’s FM 3-06 (Urban Operations)) also avoids engaging with any of the debates or academics and soldiers who contributed. Passing reference is made in the conclusion to the Three Block War (without mentioning creator of the term, USMC General Charles Krulak), but this is the extent of the engagement with the existing literature. In truly grappling with both the tactical and strategic issues of urban warfare, the author would have been better served if he had engaged with works from individuals including Russell Glenn (who wrote prolifically for RAND on the subject), former Commandant of the US Army War College, General Robert H. Scales, or British academic Alice Hills.As a result, whilst Concrete Hell is a suitable primer for anyone who wishes to engage with the basic issues and history of urban warfare, in taking the debate surrounding urban warfare forward and into the twenty-first century, Colonel DiMarco has failed to truly add anything new and possibly does a disservice to the literature through muddying the definition of urban warfare with case studies of urban counterinsurgency.


[Photo: Flickr CC: New York National Guard]


Peter Storey is a graduate of the University of Sheffield and holds an MA Intelligence and Strategic Studies from Aberystwyth University, UK. His current interests lie in asymmetrical warfare, Afghanistan, and terrorism.


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