Urban Studies Urban Warfare
David Betz
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 July 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190922481-0046


Urban warfare refers to combat occurring in a built environment of some significant size. It is sometimes referred to as Military Operations on Urbanized Terrain (MOUT) or as Fighting in Built Up Areas (FIBUA). It is widely considered to be particularly challenging. Partly this is because of the inherent complexity of the built environment, which taxes the ability of commanders to apprehend the battlespace, to lead their own forces effectively, and to judge the location and intent of enemy forces accurately. Partly it is because of the presence of civilians and sensitive civilian infrastructure (i.e., places of worship, hospitals, museums, etc.) in the battlespace, which limits the choice of tactics and weapons available to commanders for fear of violating laws of armed conflict. Partly it is because cities are nodes in global networks of trade and communications, as a result of which the consequences of tactical decisions may propagate widely and quickly to significant strategic effect. Sun Tzu advised fighting in cities only if “absolutely necessary, as a last resort,” a rule to which statesmen and commanders have tried to adhere to this day. However, on account of long-term trends in demographics, urbanization, and connectedness the major armed forces of the world have been preoccupied with a postulated unavoidability of urban warfare. Military doctrines and strategies often now start from the assumption that the future of land operations will increasingly be centered on urban terrain. The literature on urban warfare is quite segmented by discipline, normative outlook, particular areas of concern, and some fundamental points of disagreement. Researchers in urban studies detect in the growing military focus on operating in cities a “new military urbanism” that is by nature neo-colonialist, xenophobic, and “anti-urban.” The job of activist scholarship, in this view, is to expose and confront this development. In war and strategic studies, by contrast, scholars are interested in solving the challenges of urban warfare, including through the use of theories derived from disciplines like urban studies, anthropology, geography, and informatics. There is a further division between analysts who see urban warfare as an essentially modern phenomenon whose meaningful history stretches not much further back than the Second World War, and those who see war and the city as interlinked with relevant lessons going back as far as the origins of both.

General Overviews

Scholars of the history of cities are sensitive to the role of war in their field of study, sometimes as with Mumford 1961 seeing security as a primary impetus and continuing driver of urban development, but in all cases recognizing it as a part of the story of why and how humans have gathered to live and work in this way. Students of war have similarly recognized the central place of cities in their discipline. The main thrust of Von Clausewitz 1993, still the dominant conception of war, though often paired with Tzu 2000, is that it is an extension of politics by other means and an act of force to compel one’s enemy to do one’s will. It follows that to succeed in war one needs to dominate the places where one’s enemy’s politics are conducted and their strength is generated: cities, particularly capital cities. As concentrations of political and economic strength and as symbols of cultural iconic power of great significance, cities have shaped war, a point much developed by Machiavelli 1900. Likewise, war has shaped the city with defensive considerations influencing many decisions on things from location to street pattern and configuration of public spaces, as well as most obviously the degree of overt fortification. Readers wishing to understand urban warfare in the round need to be familiar with two related but distinct bodies of literature.

  • Machiavelli, Niccolo. The Prince and the Discourses. Translated by Luigi Ricci. New York: Carlton House, 1900.

    A much referenced and wide-ranging classic text that still deserves close attention by students of war and politics. For those interested in urban warfare, chapter 32, Book 2, in which he discusses Roman views on the strategy of fighting in and for cities is especially relevant.

  • Mumford, Lewis. The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects. New York and London: Harvest, 1961.

    This is the classic and most widely cited history of cities. Its particular strength for students of urban warfare is a consistent focus throughout on the influence of war and security on the morphology of cities. Superb bibliography of its time which is still very useful, extensively annotated.

  • Tzu, Sun. “The Art of War.” In Classics of Strategy and Counsel. Vol. 1, The Collected Translations of Thomas Cleary, 3–176. Boston: Shambhala, 2000.

    This ancient work of strategy is still highly quotable, as frequently in the context of business and politics as in war. As with Machiavelli, who similarly advised generals to avoid city-fighting, Sun Tzu’s remarks often feature in the preface of works on urban warfare.

  • Von Clausewitz, Carl. On War. Edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret. New York: Alfred Knopf, 1993.

    Two centuries after it was written, and published posthumously in an uncompleted state, this is still the most significant and influential text on the subject of war. Its unique value is not as a “how to” manual on warfare, let alone urban warfare, but as a philosophical work on the subject of the nature of war. It is difficult to engage in the serious study of war without a degree of fluency with Clausewitz.

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