Combat in urban areas is the most destructive type of warfare imaginable. Densely populated terrain, complex systems of systems that support human life, military weapons not optimized to these conditions, and asymmetric close-quarters battle tactics all make warfare in cities unforgiving for combatants, noncombatants, and cities alike. The unintentional—and at times intentional—destruction of the physical terrain, populations, and infrastructure of cities during combat leave effects that can be felt for generations.

Media coverage of military operations in cities often features the term “destroy.” For instance, recent headlines about urban combat in cities across the Middle East included:

Mosul Is Completely Destroyed
“Totally destroyed”: East Aleppo a year after battle
Raqqa: a city destroyed then forgotten

A quote about the city of Bến Tre during the Vietnam War’s Tet Offensive speaks to the destructive nature of military operations in populated areas. “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it,” a US Army major involved in the fighting there said. This statement, like the recent headlines about urban fights in Iraq and Syria, illuminates significant important questions that bring together perspectives from the military, diplomatic, and nongovernmental organization professions and the field of urban studies: Is it, in fact, possible to destroy a city—to kill it? More fundamentally, what is a city, and what frameworks do we use to understand a city? Do militaries destroy cities?

Definitions—whether of “cities” or effects-related verbs like “destroy”—are not as easy to unanimously pinpoint as they might seem, which complicates these questions. But defining the terms and attempting to answer the questions may provide a better understanding of how to approach cities as a military force—and possibly, how to better protect, restore, and revive them.

The basic question of what constitutes a city is addressed inconsistently across various fields of study and by different organizations.

Beginning with dictionary definitions, Merriam-Webster defines a city as “an inhabited place of greater size, population, or importance than a town or village,” which is rather vague. Definitions that distinguish the difference of an urban area as opposed to a rural area are not helpful. The US census defines an individual urban area as one with 50,000 or more residents, and anything else as rural—a simplistically binary approach. Other classifications are based not just on population size, but also governance and administrative borders, functional areas and roles, or even royal decree. Furthermore, formal administrative boundaries that often have historic or political meaning are often not aligned with the physical or economic borders of an urban area, yet another complicating factor.

Military doctrine adheres to a simple definition based on population and administration, defining a city as a “large, densely populated urban area incorporated as a municipality” that may be “part of a larger urban area,” and with a population of one hundred thousand to one million.

A basic urban geography text divides cities between their physical aspects—such as the ground the city is built upon, shelters, buildings, or permanent facilities for different functions—and its social aspects—which allow the city to function as a “a geographic plexus, an economic organization, an institutional process, a theater of social action, and an aesthetic symbol of collocative unity.” Accordingly, the social functions of a city are as key to its existence, distinction, and definition as are its physical attributes.

The Rise of Cities

Cities are actually a relatively recent phenomenon. While the first cities date back over six thousand years, they were not globally prevalent as communal entities until three hundred years ago. A historical look at their emergence is important to determining how they can and should be defined.

The one fundamental precondition for the emergence of cities, of course, is the existence of a civilization. It’s no coincidence that the words “cities” and “civilization” share the same Latin root. Civilization is defined as a “complex sociocultural organization that contains formal institutions and that organizes strangers into a cohesive community under the control of a centralized authority.” Cities cannot exist independent of a civilization.

In additional to the existence of a civilization, the first cities had to have three preconditions to form. There had to be a proper ecological environment: fertile areas and physical features to provide and transport food, resources, buildings materials, and defensive attributes to protect a large population. There had to be advances in agricultural and building technologies to support and sustain nonagricultural populations. Finally, there had to be social power and structures to coordinate collective organization and mechanisms for food distribution, construction, and social activities.

There is no single factor that triggered the emergence of cities. Cities formed due to agricultural surplus, for religious, defensive, and trading reasons, and to meet other needs. But, as civilizations advanced, so did the number and complexity of cities. Advances in irrigation and supply methods, transportation, the Industrial Revolution—these and many other events or innovations changed why and how cities formed. Tracing a specific city’s development can provide real insights as to the vital factors of that city’s existence. But this points to other questions about cities. How do we understand them? How do we know what keeps them functioning and within the physical and social classifications of a city?

Understanding Cities

The US military attempts to understand urban environments by separating them into three parts: (1) a complex, manmade physical terrain, (2) a population of significant size, and (3) a supporting infrastructure. But military doctrine does not include a separate analytical framework for cities, nor does it consider cities as a separate unit of analysis. Rather the military’s general frameworks are expected to apply to the characteristics of whatever location (rural, urban, wooded, desert, jungle, etc.)–whatever “operating environments,”—around the world US forces may be called on to operate in.

There are two main analytical frameworks the military uses to understand operating environments, one for the strategic and operational levels and another for the tactical. The first—PMESII-PT—consists of eight variables: political, military, economic, social, information, infrastructure, physical environment, and time.

The missions the military can be given can vary greatly. Once the mission has been identified, the military formations assigned to accomplish tactical objectives in an operating environment use the second framework—METT-TC—which considers the variables of mission, enemy, terrain and weather, troops and support available, time available, and civil considerations.

These frameworks overlap with each other, and they include subcategories that aid in understanding the physical terrain (building construction, roads, structures, etc.) before and during operations. Because of the importance of the civilian population in urban operations, civil considerations are further broken down in a framework called ASCOPE—areas, structures, capabilities, organizations, people, and events.

Considering these tools, it could be argued that the US military does in fact have the frameworks necessary to understand the physical terrain, populations, and infrastructure of cities. The problem, however, is that doctrine, specifically, and the more general way in which the military thinks about cities are characterized by reductionist approaches that seek to identify, isolate, and analyze each of these components separately. Troops are thus left unprepared to appreciate that while a city is a single entity, it is also a complex system.

This approach contrasts with those of many urban studies disciplines within the academic community (such as anthropology, economics, history, political science, sociology, and demography), which have a long history of conceptualizing and analyzing cities as individual entities made up of complex systems. They frequently compare cities to biological systems, ecosystems, and individual organisms. A key feature of such comparisons is the idea of urban metabolisms; much like biological metabolic processes that transform inputs (e.g., sunlight, food, water, and air) into energy and byproduct waste, cities have similar, critical metabolisms and flows. They require daily inputs of clean air, water, food, and resources to sustain people, infrastructure, and terrain.

Borrowing approaches like these from academia gives us much more to work with when addressing the question of whether a city can be killed or destroyed. If we think about cities as biological organisms, they are both resilient and fragile. If otherwise healthy, they can withstand great trauma. But they also have critical components (akin to a live organism’s brain, heart, and blood) and vital requirements (e.g., air, water, and food) necessary to sustain their existence.

While cities have similarities with individual organisms, there is also virtue in conceiving of cities as something like complex adaptive systems—ecosystems, for example, where interaction with the environment changes it in cascading, unknown, and multiplying ways. Together, the two analytical analogies leave us with a view of cities that recognizes that they have critical components, metabolic-like processes of inputs and outputs, and an interconnecting system of systems that give it life.

No one city is the same. Each was formed in a specific context and continues to develop—with a certain population size, for instance—under particular conditions. Therefore, each city has different and evolving reasons for their continued existence. By examining their critical inputs and metabolic processes, it is possible to discern what they need to maintain well-being and growth, but also to prioritize the major flows that keep them alive. It is important to note also that both historical research of an urban area and real-time analysis are important, since what keeps a city at its optimal physical and social levels can change dramatically over time.

Killing the City

With a better grip on how a city should be understood, the question can be asked again: Is it possible to kill a city? More specifically, do militaries kill cities?

A dictionary definition offers another useful starting point. “Destroy” is defined in Merriam-Webster as a verb meaning “to ruin the structure, organic existence, or condition of,” or “to put out of existence . . . [or] kill.” Cities, then, are killed when their vital components or those criteria by which they are designated cities (e.g., population size, social organization) are permanently destroyed. If an entire population was killed, removed, or reduced to a small group, if the physical terrain was made uninhabitable to the degree that the population could not or would not return, it would be dead. If the vital inputs or flows that maintains the city’s existence (e.g., a major water source) or function (e.g., as a trade or mining city) are drastically changed or removed and the population slowly disappeared, the city would eventually die.

If an entire city’s physical structures were damaged or destroyed, but the population survives, then the city as an entity would still be alive—albeit severely wounded. If an entire city population was removed from a city, and most of the structures flattened, but the city’s core features of its existence—as an ideal location for civilization, fertile ground, waterways, transportation systems, etc.—remained so the population quickly returned, it did not die.

History’s City Killers

Cities have been destroyed throughout history. Nature is to blame for most of these cases, in which the complete and final eradication of a civilization from a large urban area that meets the physical, population, and social thresholds to be designated a city. When Mount Vesuvius erupted it AD 79, it erased Pompeii and its over twenty thousand inhabitants from history. Scientific research has suggested that Minoan culture—and potentially the city of Atlantis—was wiped out by a massive tsunami caused by a volcanic eruption. Climate change has deprived cities of water, the most basic requirement of a civilization in an urban area, and is posited as the cause of death of major cities—from Mohenjo-daro and Harappa of the Indus Valley civilization in present-day Pakistan to the Khmer Empire’s city of Angkor Wat, “once the world’s largest pre-industrial urban center.”

A major shift in a city’s purpose can also cause its death. Ghost towns across the United States were once thriving as centers of gold, silver, and copper mining or key urban hubs along major thoroughfares of westward expansion. Once the mines dried up or a new and better route was discovered there was no longer a need for a collective human community in that location. Leadville, Colorado, one of the biggest mining camp cities in the United States, had a peak population of over fifty thousand and was the second largest city in the state, but shrank to less than three thousand after mines closed and silver prices declined. While discussing the impact of foreign car imports on the US economy In the 1980s, Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone is said to have told President Ronald Reagan “Mr. President, we’ll acknowledge the economic problem, but what about Hiroshima? We never destroyed one of your cities.” Reagan replied, “What about Detroit?”

There is a wide body of research on the concept of urbicide—the “deliberate attempt to deny, or kill, [a] city.” The term has a wide range of uses. It is commonly used to denote everything from massive urban construction planning and projects that change the urban social or physical landscape (such as a new high-income apartment building that drives low-income residents out of the area) to the intentional reconstruction (such as redevelopment in the Bronx, New York) or destruction (such as the bulldozing and relocating of residents of slum districts in India’s megacities) of cities as part of civil urban reform. It is also used in reference to violence against cities motivated by ethno-nationalist assaults or aimed at cultural annihilation (such as genocide against the residents of Sarajevo during the Bosnian War and the Jewish residents of Warsaw during World War II). The term can also imply an intentional targeting of cities with violence.

There are clear historical cases of militaries and military leaders that have tried to completely kill a city—from biblical and ancient history to the twenty-first century news. Some of these targeted more than physical terrain, turning their violence against the populace, killing or enslaving all inhabitants. Others seemingly understood that if a city was to be really destroyed, its life support mechanisms (water sources and fertile land, for example) or its reason for existence (trading, sea commerce, or as a religious center) had to also be eliminated. Through both intentional and incidental destruction, leaders from Caesar to Hitler have committed urbicide.

One of the most notorious cases of a military force’s efforts to destroy a city was what Rome did to the North African city of Carthage, considered the world’s wealthiest city at the time of its destruction. The phrase “Delenda est Carthago” (“Carthage Must be Destroyed!”), uttered by a Roman censor at the end of his speeches in the Roman Senate, may be the first recorded incitements both of genocide and urbicide. During the Third Punic War (149–146 BC), Romans besieged Carthage for three years after their demands for the city to be abandoned were ignored. Once the city fell, the Romans executed a premeditated plan of annihilation with extreme violence. They burned the city to the ground, reportedly for seventeen days. The ashes were said to be a meter deep. They erased all records of the city and were rumored (most likely a myth that was never proven) to have sowed the ground with salt to make it infertile. About 140,000 of Carthage’s women and children were evacuated to friendly states, while an estimated 150,000 Carthaginians perished in the final battle, and another 55,000 were captured and forced into slavery.

Carthage laid in ruins—successfully and utterly destroyed—for decades until a plan proposed by Julius Caesar was initiated around 40 BC. The new city of Carthage was rebuilt and repopulated upon the ruins of the destroyed city, remaining an important Roman colony for centuries. The city was again completely destroyed in AD 698, this time by a Muslim army under the Umayyad caliph, who, after destroying it, established the coastal city of Tunis, about ten miles away, as the new center for trade and capital of the region. Carthage remains in ruins to this day.

The full story of Carthage cannot be appreciated without understanding its geographic advantages as a city of maritime trade. It allowed the Phoenicians who founded the city to expand trade regionally and around the Mediterranean Sea. Its immense harbor and armada of trading ships were the greatest factors of its growth, wealth, and ability to sustain its population. Carthage was in fact destroyed many times. Its inhabitants were eradicated or dispersed. But it was not until the Muslims successfully established an alternate trading center that Carthage’s geographic location no longer made it worth re-establishing.

In the history of city destroyers few match the carnage of Genghis Khan and his Mongol army as they conquered most of Central Asia. Genghis Khan is believed to have reduced the global population by 11 percent. Lacking the destructive military technology of modern days, the Mongols primarily employed horse-mounted infantry to attack city residents, sparing only skilled workers like carpenters while unskilled inhabitants were killed, raped, or used as human shields in subsequent city assaults. The cities that received the worst were the ones that incited Genghis Khan’s vengeance. On hearing of a revolt in the captured city of Herat, in modern-day Afghanistan, in 1221, he ordered the entire population, estimated to be as high as 1.6 million, massacred. Legends say only nine people survived. His brutal tactics even included diverting rivers to flood and erase the remains of cities from history.

Centuries later, Adolf Hitler demonstrated a similarly intentional destruction of cities, often also driven by personal anger and shaped by an understanding that if a city is to be destroyed, its vital components (populations) and the resources (e.g., food, factories, rivers) it depends on had to be destroyed as well. On June 10, 1942, Hitler’s orders to completely destroy the village of Lidice in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia in retaliation for attacks by the resistance movement were implemented. Lidice was too small to qualify as a city, but clearly follows the pattern of urbicide. Nazi soldiers killed all men, transported all women and children to concentration camps or other sites, burned and demolished all structures, killed all animals, emptied the cemetery, and even diverted the river that passed through the village.

On a much more massive scale, the Nazis orchestrated a deliberate destruction of Warsaw. The Germans had plans to demolish the city and to kill its estimated Jewish inhabitants even before the war began. After rebellious riots in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943 and 1944, Hitler ordered the entire city “razed to the ground.” Special “Annihilation and Incineration Detachments” were dispatched to Warsaw to ensure it was systematically destroyed. Between 85 and 90 percent of all structures in the city were destroyed and the remaining occupants massacred or sent to concentration camps.

In 1945, Adolf Hitler issued a last ditch “scorched earth” order, known as the Nero Decree, to destroy the infrastructure, supplies, cultural sites, and anything else of value to advancing Allied armies moving across Germany, especially cities. Fortunately, the order was widely disobeyed. But although these cities were saved, Hitler’s population-centric genocide was paired with clear cases of urbicide, like those of the Romans and Genghis Khan.

German forces also attempted to destroy cities by aerial bombing. The Luftwaffe’s Condor Legion, together with the Italian Aviazione Legionaria, used aerial bombardment against a civilian population center in Guernica during the Spanish Civil War in a precursor to both World War II and contemporary bombardments in Syria and Yemen. The Nazis, specifically, did so not only to destroy important cities and reduce an enemy’s means to fight (since cities often also serve as military-industrial hubs), but also in the misguided belief that the bombing of cities would undermine a country’s will to fight. The German bombing of London destroyed more than seventy thousand buildings, damaged another 1.7 million, killed some forty-three thousand and wounded 139,000 others, but only galvanized the British to continue fighting.

The Allied forces also fell victim to the belief that strategic bombing could have a decisive effect during World War II and were guilty of urbicide. The United States dropped around 1,700 tons of bombs on Tokyo, Japan, destroying over 280,000 buildings, killing an estimated one hundred thousand people, and injuring a million more. British and US forces dropped more than 3,900 tons of bombs on Dresden, Germany, with estimates of fatalities ranging from twenty-five thousand to 250,000. Over twenty-four thousand of the 28,410 houses in the inner city of Dresden, an area of fifteen square miles, were destroyed.

Nuclear attacks stand in a class of their own for city destruction. The two atomic bombs used during World War II caused historic levels of destruction in an astoundingly short amount of time. On August 6, 1945, the United States dropped a nine-thousand-pound uranium bomb, named “Little Boy,” on Hiroshima, Japan. A manufacturing center and the location of a major army base that housed the headquarters of the Japanese 5th Division and the 2nd Army Headquarters, Hiroshima had an estimated population of 350,000 before the attack. The bomb’s blast, equal to 15,000 tons of TNT, destroyed five square miles of the city in seconds. Ninety percent of the city’s seventy-six thousand buildings were incinerated or reduced to rubble. The exact number of lives lost is not known, but an estimated ninety thousand were killed by the blast and up to two hundred thousand more were killed by the bomb’s effects, including burns, radiation sickness, and cancer.

Three days later, on August 9, 1945, the United States dropped a ten-thousand-pound plutonium bomb, named “Fat Man,” on Nagasaki, Japan. The bomb’s blast, equal to twenty-two thousand tons of TNT, destroyed 2.6 square miles of the city and killed an estimated forty thousand to seventy-five thousand people almost immediately, while another sixty thousand people suffered severe injuries. The total number of civilians killed by the end of 1945 as a result of the bombing is estimated to be eighty thousand.

The dropping of the two atomic bombs are not only historic examples of the destruction and death that can be imposed on cities by military forces. They are also major examples of cities resiliency.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not killed. Yes, they had unimaginable destruction brought upon them, but as complex living organisms host to major populations, the social and physical systems of systems that they rely on, and metabolic-like flows, they remained alive—even if severely wounded. Water and power were restored within a week and telephone lines back in operation in less than a month. The population of Hiroshima, which had been reduced to just over eighty thousand after the bombings, surged to 169,000 by February 1946. Nagasaki was transformed from its war-industry focus back to its core functions of foreign trade, shipbuilding, and fishing.

Urban Warfare since World War II

After World War II, the international community came together to establish new guidelines and laws—or to strengthen old ones that weren’t strictly adhered to during the war. These rules included a focus on the prohibition of bombing noncombatants in cities. In cities, by their very nature, the key principles of distinction and proportionality in international humanitarian law are frequently at odds with military objectives. Nevertheless, many efforts after the war were aimed at preventing any intentional or expected death of noncombatants in cities, especially by means such as area bombardment, where it is extremely difficult to separate military objectives from the populations within cities.

However massive aerial bombardment of military targets in and around cities, according to the theory of strategic bombing, has not gone away in the post-WWII era. Over eleven days during the Vietnam War, the United States dropped an estimated twenty thousand tons of explosives over North Vietnam, mostly in and around Hanoi. In 1999, NATO reported that it dropped twenty-three thousand bombs over a seventy-eight-day operation to destroy military targets, many in cities, within Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia’s government estimated the cost of damages from the bombings to be $100 billion and reported that 50,000 houses and apartments had been destroyed or compromised. But in these incidents, US and NATO forces did commit themselves to the rules of international law relating to targeting and their objectives were not wide-scale destruction of urban areas.

There have also been campaigns against cities and episodes of urbicide that have arguably occurred despite international prohibitions. In 1999, Russia waged their second war within five years against Chechen rebels, including in the city of Grozny. After near defeat in 1994, the Russian tried to prevent their soldiers’ exposure during the close engagements that occur in urban combat in their second assault. In the 1999 war, they stayed mostly outside Grozny and subjected it to intense wide-area aerial bombardment. For almost an entire month, the Russians conducted up to 1,700 sorties a day against targets in the city. Decimated by two wars, some say not a single building was left in the city undamaged. In 2003, the United Nations called Grozny “the most destroyed city on earth.”

The Syrian government’s response to the rebellion that began in 2011 seems to have followed the Russian approach and, in many cases, was even worse with the regime’s use of barrel bombs—oil drums or similar containers filled with explosives and metal fragments dropped from helicopters. Amnesty International reported that in a single month at least eighty-three barrel bombs were dropped on the city of Aleppo. Aleppo is one of the clearest cases of urbicide—the deliberate attempt to kill a city or portions of it—in modern times. It is one of the world’s oldest continually inhabited places and was Syria’s most populous city before the civil war, with an estimated population of over two million. Indiscriminate bombing and wide-scale urban fighting caused over 121,000 residents to flee, 35,691 structures to be destroyed, and an estimated $7.8 billion worth of damage to the city. Similar concerns are seen in Saudi Arabia’s aerial bombardment in Yemen, where bombing civilian targets has raised concerns regarding potential violations of international humanitarian law.

There have been horrific episodes of recognized genocide since World War II, in places ranging from Cambodia to Darfur and East Timor to Iraq. But that there have been comparatively fewer post-WWII cases of urbicide is in part a testament to Western-enforced norms and humanitarian-law efforts. It is, however, also a function of advancements in technology, which have played a role in reducing urban destruction in warfare. Innovations in precision navigation and munitions have enabled military forces to vastly increase their accuracy and distinction when striking military targets within cities.

A side effect of the reduction of aerial bombardments and urbicide, though, has been an increase in unintentional destruction. All of the advancements in modern intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and precision aerial strikes has moved warfare deeper into urban areas. Enemy forces, insurgents, and others negate a superior military’s long-range and precision-strike capabilities by hiding among the structural and population density of cities in an increasingly urbanized world. This requires militaries to assault besieged urban areas, and because of a long history of seeking to avoid urban combat, militaries use World War II–era technologies, weapons, and tactics. These tactics include clearing large urban areas by going house to house and, when an enemy is encountered, either attempting to forcibly enter the building or penetrate it with large explosive munitions (some precise, some not), such as artillery and mortars.

The destruction caused by military operations to liberate cities or to eliminate rebels, insurgents, or terrorists defending from within a city explain why forty years ago a US Army major said of Ben Tre that “it became necessary to destroy the town to save it,” and why that sentiment is seemingly reflected in other cases since then. With the Syrian civil war and the US-backed operations to reclaim major cities taken by the Islamic State, the world has seen the results of modern-day urban warfare. The major cities of Aleppo, Raqqa, Mosul, and Marawi were subjected to more damage than the world had seen since Grozny, and perhaps even since World War II. Aleppo and Mosul were two of the largest cities in the region, with historical significance as trade crossroads linking the Euphrates River Valley with the rest of the region and beyond, to Persia, Central Asia, and China. Now they are both wounded, with major portions of them in ruin from the brutal urban combat that unfolded within their boundaries.

In Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq, over forty thousand homes and sixteen neighborhoods were reduced to rubble during the nine-month battle to reclaim it. Over eight hundred thousand of the city’s residents were displaced by the fighting. It is estimated that $42 billion will be needed to repair the war-torn city.

But none of these cities were fully destroyed. None were killed. Portions of them, such as in eastern Mosul, were heavily populated and vibrant within weeks of the battle.

The destruction caused by aerial bombardments—from London and Dresden to Hanoi and Grozny—is increasingly being replaced by the destruction caused by military tactics to clear entrenched insurgents, terrorists, and rebels with house-to-house techniques and wide-area explosives not designed for urban areas. This is not intentional violence against a city; it is unintentional, but still predictable, destruction. The urban dimensions of international humanitarian law and the law of armed conflict are therefore vital areas of focus in any consideration of the future of warfare.

Historically, military efforts to intentionally destroy a city have been mostly unsuccessful. This is even more clear in the post-industrial age. Almost all of the cities targeted in World War II—Dresden, Berlin, Warsaw, Nagasaki, and others—were quickly repaired and flourish to this day. Of course, there are examples of extreme destruction imposed on cities or resettlement of populations that beg further questions about our definition of a city—whether, for example, a city whose physical structures and supporting infrastructure remain standing but whose population is killed or removed with another population resettling the same location (e.g., Carthage) can be said to have died. These are important questions, but don’t detract from the remarkable resiliency to violence cities have shown.

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.

Repairing war-torn cities takes immense resources and efforts. One of the reasons for the quick revitalization of major cities in Japan was that the Japanese government immediately adopted a reconstruction plan for rebuilding 119 war-devastated cities. In Warsaw, painstaking work was completed to meticulously rebuild the city to its former self, to include using old photographs of the city to ensure it was returned to its original state. These efforts took historic financial and societal investments.

In modern history, cities have rarely, if ever, been killed. That does not mean that it will never happen again; increasingly powerful nuclear arsenals mean complete destruction of cities is always possible. But in an increasingly urbanized world, with larger and larger cities, even cities that survive can see massive destruction. As the era of urban warfare is already here, the unintentional and immense destruction of major elements of cities means that the military and any other organization involved with urban warfare or post-conflict operations needs to establish shared definitions, shared understandings, and city-specific analyses. That way, the next time a city is wounded, all the right people will have a common operational picture and prioritized list of the vital elements to repair to bring the city back to health in the shortest amount of time.


John Spencer serves as the Chair of Urban Warfare Studies as the Modern War Institute and Co-Director of the Urban Warfare Project. He is a retired Army major who served twenty-five years as an infantryman, including two combat deployments to Iraq. Follow him at @SpencerGuard.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or the US government.


Image credit: Freedom House