Storming the City
U.S. Military Performance in Urban Warfare from World War II to Vietnam
University of North Texas Press, Denton, Texas, 2015, 368 pages
Book Review published on: January 6, 2017
The title of this worthwhile book, Storming the City, may be misunderstood to mean it is a catalog of twentieth-century U.S. urban warfare tactics, techniques, and procedures. Similar misunderstanding abounded regarding John Nagl’s Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam. Despite the title, that book was not about counterinsurgency lessons learned so much as it was about characteristics of adaptive, learning organizations, using two counterinsurgency case studies as contrasting illustrations. So it is here that Alec Wahlman focuses on the two major reasons for U.S. success as seen in four urban warfare case studies. The first reason for success is what he calls transferable competence—aggressive tactical initiative to try new things, coupled with rapid proliferation of lessons learned and doctrine. The second is battlefield adaptation. One can argue these same two characteristics contributed to U.S. tactical military successes overall in these wars. However, the urban operational environment most effectively showcases both in action, given city fighting’s unique and formidable difficulties.
Wahlman, a veteran analyst of fourteen years at the Institute for Defense Analyses, examines U.S. military ground force performance in taking Aachen (European Theater of Operations in October 1944), Manila (Pacific Theater of Operations in February 1945), Seoul (mobile phase of the Korean War, September 1950), and Hue (Tet Offensive in the Vietnam War, February 1968). Each battle earns its own chapter that begins with a short historical orientation. The analytical treatment then divides into six categories: (1) command, control, and communications; (2) intelligence and reconnaissance; (3) firepower and survivability; (4) mobility and counter mobility; (5) logistics; and (6) dealing with the population. Wahlman’s comparative matrix at the end of the book suggests that the first case—Aachen—showed the United States at its best across all six categories. There is a relatively declining performance trend in Asia, the worst performance exhibited in the fight for Hue City. The reasons for this are complicated, and the author does good service in disabusing the reader of simplistic notions that U.S. ground forces became less proficient in urban warfare. However, the small sample size of only four cases and mostly qualitative and anecdotal evidence are reasons enough not to infer too much from this matrix.
Not unexpectedly, the comparison ranks the United States consistently high in firepower and survivability as well as in mobility and countermobility capabilities. Also not surprising, the worst relative U.S. performance is in terms of intelligence and reconnaissance. Lastly, the author challenges two common urban conflict misperceptions: (1) an overall numerical 3-to-1 offensive ratio is mandatory, and (2) infantry is the most suitable branch of arms for city fighting.
While not predictive of future U.S. ground force performance, Wahlman’s Storming the City suggests that intangible characteristics through which units discover, learn, and adapt will matter most, although technological advances in firepower, survivability, mobility, and logistics will certainly matter. If you can only have one urban warfare book in your professional library, make sure this is it.
Book Review written by: Col. Eric M. Walters, U.S. Marine Corps, Retired, Fort Lee, Virginia