Editor’s note: Welcome to another installment of our weekly War Books series! The premise is simple and straightforward. We invite a participant to recommend five books and tell us what sets each one apart. War Books is a resource for MWI readers who want to learn more about important subjects related to modern war and are looking for books to add to their reading lists.
This week’s installment of War Books comes from John Spencer, MWI’s chair of urban warfare studies. The list, a version of which was originally published in 2018, features a set of books that explore the unique environmental conditions, tactical and operational challenges, and strategic considerations at play when military forces operate in cities.
Today, it is nearly impossible to watch the news without seeing reports of armed conflict in cities. We all watch global trends with the hope of predicting the future. The military rightfully makes predictions and prepares for the most high-risk and most probable combat scenarios. I have argued for years that we should be preparing—both physically and mentally—for urban combat. The urban battles that have taken place in Ukraine over the past two years and the ongoing Israeli campaign in Gaza make clear that doing so is imperative.
The trends of rapid population growth and urbanization in the less developed countries of the world have increased political instability to a tipping point in many spots around the globe. Political violence is now an urban phenomenon, and will only become more so.
Enemy forces—whether state-based, terrorist, proxy, or something else—have learned that they can greatly reduce technological and other advantages of state-based military forces like those of the United States by pulling them into densely populated urban areas. A quarter century ago, Marine Corps Gen. Charles Krulak famously described the complex challenges awaiting military forces in cities—what he dubbed the “three-block war.” Asked by a journalist why American national interests will lead US forces into such scenarios, he replied, “They’ve watched CNN, the enemy has. They’ve seen the might of our technology. They’re not going to fight us straight up. We’re not going to see the son of Desert Storm anymore. You’re going to see the stepchild of Chechnya.”
To be sure, the US military has fought on urban terrain in the past. But generally, wars have been fought for cities, not in them. And in the past, urban fights happened so infrequently that military forces adapted when necessary and then quickly returned to preparing for combat outside of urban areas. But urban is the future, and the future is now. Urban battles are the decisive fights of today’s wars, and they promise to play the same role in tomorrow’s wars.
Gen. Krulak’s predictions have come true. Instead of decades between major urban fights we have seen years and in some cases months between combat in places like Fallujah, Sadr City, Mosul, Raqqa, Marawi, and now Bakhmut, Mariupol, and Khan Yunis.
In the years I have spent studying urban warfare, including working on my book, Understanding Urban Warfare, I have a number of books and reports to be invaluable resources. To prepare cognitively for the future challenges of urban warfare, here is a list of several that I recommend as a starting point.
Anthony King, Urban Warfare in the Twenty-First Century
A large majority of Western militaries have been reduced in size in recent decades. Many of the theories that shape our thinking about land warfare were developed before that reduction, when militaries had field armies reaching into the millions of soldiers. This trend is one of the many reasons that, as this book explains, warfare has progressively migrated to cities. In addition to examining these reasons, the book also describes the strategic effects and political implications of an era in which armed conflict is increasingly defined by its urban character.
William Glenn Robertson and Lawrence A. Yates, Block by Block: The Challenges of Urban Operations
This book is an anthology of urban operations case studies. It contains ten short summaries of operations in cities during World War II and ends with more recent Russian attempts to subdue Chechen fighters in Grozny and the Serbian siege of Sarajevo. Operations range across a spectrum, from combat to humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. It is the best publication I have found that depicts the basic facts of many past urban fights.
Chief of Staff of the Army’s Strategic Studies Group, Megacities and the United States Army: Preparing for a Complex and Uncertain Future
Megacities are cities with a population of ten million or more. This report was the start of a major introspective and intellectual campaign by the US Army and many others to assess the Army’s understanding of these large cities and, if needed, to operate in a city of such density and complexity. The authors recommended new ways to look at and prepare for military operations in major cities.
P.D. Smith, City: A Guidebook for the Urban Age
Too often the military focuses solely on the enemy and the mission—not the environment. The complexity of dense urban environments, though, means each action taken by a military force has potentially massive second- and third-order effects (and fourth-, fifth-, and beyond). We often have very little understanding of the flows, economics, information, cultural life, structures, and process of how cities work. This book is a great study of the history, evolution, and components of cities—from ancient to modern.
David Kilcullen, Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla
Dr. David Kilcullen provides a compelling story of how four megatrends—population growth, urbanization, littoralization (coastal settlement growth), and connectedness—are not only changing the world, but also changing conflict. The book also examines important case studies, including Mogadishu and violence that broke out with the Arab Spring.
This book reviews the major battles involving US forces, beginning in World War II. As large-scale fighting in cities have become an increasingly dominant feature of modern conflict, it is important not to forget the US military’s experience in those unique urban operations—and the lessons that can be extracted from that experience.
Louis Dimarco, Concrete Hell: Urban Warfare From Stalingrad to Iraq
David E. Johnson, M. Wade Markel, and Brian Shannon, The 2008 Battle of Sadr City: Reimagining Urban Combat
Benjamin R. Barber, If Mayors Ruled the World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities
Antony Beevor, Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege: 1942-1943
Stephen Graham, Vertical: The City from Satellites to Bunkers
John Spencer is chair of urban warfare studies at the Modern War Institute, codirector of MWI’s Urban Warfare Project, and host of the Urban Warfare Project Podcast. He is also a founding member of the International Working Group on Subterranean Warfare. He served twenty-five years as an infantry soldier, which included two combat tours in Iraq. He is the author of the book Connected Soldiers: Life, Leadership, and Social Connection in Modern War and coauthor of Understanding Urban Warfare.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense
Image credit: Spc. Dustin D. Biven, US Army