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.