Center for Strategic Communication

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

“The worst policy of all is to besiege walled cities”

 – Sun Tzu

It is said that when Alexander the Great conquered fabled Babylon, the already ancient metropolis was so vast in size and population that it took his army three days to reach the center of the city. Alexander’s path in Babylon, it is written, was strewn with flowers and welcoming crowds; the Babylonian elite, having experienced two thousand years of bloody Mesopotamian history, were shrewd enough to see the writing on the wall.

Those beside Alexander who have enjoyed such good fortune when fighting in cities have been few.

Cities however remain and battles are sometimes fought in them. What to do? A Marine general believes he knows:

ORLANDO, Fla. — US land forces will eventually find themselves locked in fights within huge, dense urban environments where skyscrapers tower over enormous shanty towns, and these troops need more realistic training to operate within these future megacities, a US Marine general is warning.

“I’ve trained in every environment, jungle, the desert, the mountains, cold weather, but I’ve never really trained well in an urban environment,” said Brig. Gen. Julian Alford, the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory commander, earlier this month at the Interservice/Industry Training, Simulation and Education Conference (I/ITSEC) in Orlando, Florida.


“We are going to have these megacities that are ringed with these shanty towns and we are going to fight there because it will be the people who are uneducated, unemployed, the young men who are not married and they are mad about their lot in life,” Alford said.

“We talk about the three-block war, but we are moving quickly to the four-floor war,” he added. “We are going to be on the top floor of a skyscraper . . . evacuating civilians and helping people. The middle floor, we might be detaining really bad people that we’ve caught. On the first floor we will be down there killing them. … At the same time they will be getting away through the subway or subterrain. How do we train to fight that? Because it is coming, that fight right there is coming I do believe with all my heart.”

Well….yes, but a necessity is not always to be regarded as a virtue.

This is not a criticism of Brigadier General Alford, whom I’m certain is a smart man tasked with thinking through warfare in all possible environments to which a President might order young Marines. If he wasn’t seriously contemplating the risks and problems of urban warfare then the general would not be doing his duty. Heck, I hope he’s thinking about how Marines would fight in Antarctic mountains or in the Taklamakan.

That said, it would be most unwise for a great power whose political elite cringes at the death of enemy combatants in numbers and can no longer tolerate even incidental enemy civilian casualties when attacking enemy formations, to develop enthusiasm for plunging large numbers of American general purpose forces into a third world “megacity” of tens of millions where they might have to fight their way out. Putting troops in a vast warren of insurgency in some hellhole shantytown labyrinth with the highly restrictive ROE now so fashionable with Beltway chattering ninnies who reek of what military historian John Keegan termed “….the air of the seminar” would be to court defeat.

Assuming we do not have some kind of Jacksonian revolution in Washington that revives a tolerance for Stalingrad level casualties, the liberal use of heavy artillery and close air support, then urban warfare is better left to Special Operations punitive raids, drones and the intelligence community’s clandestine officers. Urban warfare on the large scale is seldom worth the cost, unless you need to exterminate an enemy force or impose unconditional surrender – and if you capture a “megacity”, you “win” the privilege of providing basic services to millions of desperately poor people who seethe with anger over your presence. Great.

The best way to win a war in a “megacity” is to stay the hell out of it.