Jean-Louis Dufour

War, the City and the Soldier Publication date : February 1, 2002

Soldiers have waged war against towns for at least three millennia. There are innumerable accounts of town sieges and raids. A few famous urban battles have given rise to a myriad of works of historical research. Memoirs, souvenirs, diaries and notebooks are not lacking — and neither are films and novels. Social scientists have researched the difficult existence of urban dwellers during wartime. They have studied their relations with the representatives of friendly military forces in unoccupied towns, as well as with the enemy in towns under foreign military power. Yet rarely have writers undertaken a work of synthesis to examine the unique circumstances arising from the combination of war, soldiers and towns. Urban areas do not in any way resemble the territories that soldiers are generally used to. Conventional terminology does not apply. During wartime, the urban population is one of the stakes of battle — but it can also be an operational hindrance. When faced with an urban goal, military strategists generally hesitate, not knowing what type of behaviour to adopt. Whether the struggle in question is an international or a civil war, soldiers must adapt their behaviour to a variety of situations: Is the town fortified? Is it under siege or attack? Is it being shelled? Are the town dwellers being held hostage, or are they victims of terrorism?
In urban centres during wartime, soldiers’ tasks include aiding the civilian population, as well as imposing and keeping peace among various factions. This has been the case for U.S. soldiers in Saigon, Hue, Panama, Mogadishu, Los Angeles or New York; for French soldiers in Algiers, Beirut, Kinshasa, Brazzaville, Sarajevo or Mitrovica; for British soldiers in Belfast or Freetown; and for Soviet and Russian soldiers in East Berlin, Budapest, Prague or Grozny. In the Palestinian territories, Israeli soldiers constantly have to face the complex realities of war in towns. According to a report by the Rand Corporation, 237 out of 250 recent military interventions by U.S. Marines included urban operations.
Today, 53 per cent of the world’s population lives in urban centres, which are often immense, and will soon be gigantic. It is quite possible that in the future, wars will be fought exclusively in cities. If such is the case, the armed forces will have to change the nature of their weapons and war material, and governing bodies will have to redefine their defence and security policies so as to adapt them to a radically new situation.

A former army officer, Jean-Louis Dufour was the editor in chief of the French magazine Défense. He specialises in the study of international crises and contemporary armed conflicts, and teaches courses in these issues at the École Spéciale de Saint-Cyr, the Centre d’Études Diplomatiques et Stratégiques and the Institut des Hautes Études de Défense Nationale, as well as at several French and foreign universities. He is also a military and strategic consultant for a number of French-language media organisations.
He is the author of many articles and books on political science, including La Guerre au XXe siècle and Les Crises internationales, de Pékin 1900 au Kosovo 1999.