Modern combat for U.S. servicemembers has seen a dramatic shift toward urban warfare. Yet, with the U.S. military gladly taking a rear-view mirror look at Iraq and Afghanistan, the question remains whether the urban warfare lessons of the past two decades will be held onto or lost.

What Is Urban Warfare?

Recent conflicts have focused more heavily on urban warfare than the wars the U.S. was training for when the Soviet Union was the biggest threat. Yet, urban warfare is nothing new to U.S. forces. In fact, every major conflict has involved some fighting in cities.

One of the first major urban combat engagements faced by U.S. troops was the Battle of Monterey in 1846. Gen Zachary Taylor led the U.S. forces, which included Texas Rangers, in the attack on the Mexican city. The battle lasted three days, with heavy losses for the U.S. forces and house-to-house fighting. 

American troops have fought in urban terrain in conflicts ranging from the Civil War to WWI and WWII. At the Battle of Fredericksburg, Union and Confederate forces fought in the streets of the city during some of the most concentrated fighting of the war. 

The battle to retake Manila from the Japanese saw brutal fighting and destruction in urban terrain. The monthlong fighting devolved into a house-to-house struggle to recapture the city. Gen. Douglas MacArthur took a step toward more modern tactics, initially ordering restraint in the use of artillery to preserve the city and civilians. Still, the devastation was significant.

Why Is Urban Warfare So Bad?

Manila destroyed in WWII due to urban warfare
Manila was one of the most damaged Ally capitals at the end of WWII, following the devastating Battle of Manila. House-to-house fighting and the use of artillery by both sides added to the destruction. (National WWII Museum)



While cities have existed for as nearly as long as civilization itself, today’s urban environments are larger and more sprawling. Additionally, as economies develop, citizens move away from agrarian and toward more urbanized living. The UN reports that the world’s population living in urban environments is expected to be 68 percent by 2050.

The Civilian Cost

The increased population in urban centers adds to the strategic value that makes cities a military target, according to a report from the International Committee of the Red Cross. This situation is only complicated by insurgencies and guerrilla tactics, which may prefer to embroil local populations in conflicts.

The Red Cross’s solution calls on respect of international humanitarian law on the part of belligerents. Yet combat veterans know all-too-well the degree to which an enemy will try to capitalize on respect for human life.

Writing for the Modern War Institute, John Spencer notes combatants in the past didn’t worry about civilian casualties as much. At the same time, the weapons used have grown more destructive, increasing the likelihood of collateral damage and casualties.

The Soldier’s Burden

Nor is all urban terrain the same, according to Spencer. If the enemy is contained or few civilians are around, the fighting is comparatively straightforward. But in other environments, the only confirmation someone is an enemy combatant may be when they open fire.

Additionally, military forces engaged in urban warfare over long periods of time have to juggle a number of non-combat challenges. That might include taking over the role of civil government or assisting in keeping services in order. These are tasks often addressed by Civil Affairs in the military. Yet, the longer a conflict persists, the more the alphabet agencies that get involved.

Marines prepare to enter a building in Fallujah
Members of Task Force 2-7 prepare to enter a building in Fallujah on November 9, 2004. (Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Johancharles Van Boers/U.S. Army)

How Do You Survive It?

The simplest way for a civilian to survive urban warfare is to get out of the way.

Still, this is not what happens much of the time. It may seem significant, at a quick glance, that 70 to 90 percent of civilians evacuated Fallujah. Yet, in a large city, that could still leave tens of thousands of civilians in the battlespace.

Urban Warfare: What’s Next for the American Military?

Read Next: Urban Warfare: What’s Next for the American Military?

Nevertheless, human beings are extremely adaptable. While urban environments experiencing warfare should be incredibly inhospitable to civilians, people do survive.

In Sarajevo, an estimated 500,000 people remained in the city while it was under siege. The population dealt with constant shelling and the threat of snipers. People burned furniture and books to survive the cold. They huddled together in basements and shared living space with strangers. Yet, it was still a city, and people went to work and school. They foraged for food and shared what they had. Just going to get food invited the risk of being picked off by a sniper, yet people persisted and found ways to survive.

Will the US Retain its Urban Warfare Lessons?

Sarajevo residents collecting firewood winter of 1992–1993
Sarajevo residents collecting firewood, winter of 1992–1993. (Wikimedia Commons)


A brief search of papers on urban warfare doctrine demonstrates that the subject was hotly debated before recent conflicts. Block by Block: The Challenges of Urban Operations came out just as the U.S. was entering the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. The paper includes a thorough discussion of Soviet urban warfare operations in Kabul. 

Many of the concerns, conflicts, and problems identified in past papers and discussions are not new. 

At the same time, urban warfare is promising to only get more complicated and more common. In a commentary carried by the RAND Corporation, Chad Serena and Colin Clarke discuss”megacities,” usually defined as cities with over 10 million inhabitants. These sprawling urban landscapes with millions of inhabitants may encompass multiple cities that have grown together. In 2015 there were 27 megacities; projections predict another dozen by 2035.

The nature of such urban centers, especially outside the developed world or in already unstable regions, would make them ripe for insurgencies.

Even if the U.S. gears up again for the potential of a future Sovietesque enemy, urban warfare seems inescapable. 

Yet, operations in Panama in 1990 were no preparation for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The future of urban warfare for the U.S. military may be about more than retaining lessons from those conflicts. The next war, even an urban one, may be no more informed by recent conflicts than the last one.