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Book Reviews



Reviewed by Maxime Langlois

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by Tanguy Struye de Swielande (ed.)
Réseau multidisciplinaire d’études stratégiques - N° 3, Brussels :Bruylant, 2008
336 Pages
ISBN: 978-2-8027-2651-7

Reviewed by Maxime Langlois

Cities, those emblems of civilization and nests of human activity, have always been of crucial importance during wartime. They have been besieged, defended, taken, destroyed, liberated, and occupied. The collectively authored Les interventions militaires en zones urbaines: paradigmes, stratégies et enjeux [military intervention in urban areas: paradigms, strategies and issues], published in 2008 by Bruylant (Brussels), attests that cities are still of strategic importance today. The book, which was overseen by the Réseau multidisciplinaire d’études stratégiques (<www.rmes.be>) and edited by Tanguy Struye de Swielande, explores various aspects and issues with regard to military intervention in urban environments. The work meshes well with the current climate of asymmetric warfare in which combatants1 offset their weaknesses by confronting modern troops in cities. The book is divided into three parts: “Approche générale” [theoretical/historical aspects], “Aspects techniques” [technical aspects], and “Cas d’application” [practical cases].

The chapters in Part 1 give a general overview of armed intervention in urban environments. The city is presented as an unpopular environment among troops, particularly because it weakens the strong and strengthens the weak. Three factors that have an impact on urban operations—compartmentalization, three-dimensionality, and people—are discussed. The section on three‑dimensionality stands out in particular because it aptly describes the challenges that vertical structures and underground spaces pose in a world where three‑dimensional maps are not the norm. It is also pointed out that almost all of today’s combats involve combatants against troops, rather than troops against troops. Emphasis is placed upon the fact that combatants are often loosely organized and difficult for troops to defeat, and troops are, more often than not, tricked by rudimentary tactics. What is more, troops and governments are eager for speedy victories, and this leads to intervention practices that, ironically, make victory in urban areas even more difficult. The authors also stress that cities are growing quickly, and that intervention in urban environments will become routine practice.

Part 2 is dedicated to techniques of adapting to urban combat and the technology to which troops have access. It is argued that to defeat combatants, troops must strive to understand the underlying causes of an insurrection in order to quell it at the source, instead of simply reacting to it. Therefore, technology is presented as an incomplete solution for troops conducting urban operations. However, the current general trend, especially among American forces, is to react and to rely heavily upon technology. It is also noted that Western values, such as respect for human rights and protection of civilians, give combatants an advantage, because these values compel troops to limit their striking power. Using the term “aérurbain” [air-urban], Joseph Henrotin argues in one of his contributions that aviation must better adapt to interventions in urban environments, otherwise it will be bypassed. On the topic of robotics, Alain de Neve questions whether robotics truly enhance operational effectiveness in urban areas. Even though robotics limit risk and casualties, thereby boosting troops’ morale and national support for an intervention, they are still inappropriate for urban environments. De Neve concludes that although robotics are used in an attempt to lighten troops’ workload and reduce the risks of combat, they could easily have the opposite effect, increasing the number of tasks that troops must perform, and making them more vulnerable.

In the last part, the authors examine the Israeli, American, Belgian, and Russian experiences in urban environments. The Israeli forces are described as having had mixed results in terms of adapting to urban combat since 1982. However, it is noted that there was a marked improvement during the last Intifada, after which Israeli circles, including staff, started to perceive military intervention as an inappropriate way to solve a problem. The chapters on the United States focus upon their recent experience in Iraq. Historically, the US Army is presented as having rarely institutionalized lessons learned in the past. The Marine Corps, by contrast, appears ever prepared to do just that in order to ensure the organization’s survival. Despite the rather negative results of the first year of their intervention in Iraq, the Army and the Marine Corps demonstrated a solid ability to adapt as of 2004, thanks in particular to their combined efforts with regard to doctrine development. The results of the Russian interventions in Grozny were also very mixed. In 1994, the Russian forces, disadvantaged by a low level of readiness, won a victory that was described as disastrous. The 1998 intervention, on the other hand, ended in a victory deemed satisfactory; the Russians gave a better performance but were unable to quash the Chechen separatist movement.

In conclusion, de Swielande and Henrotin point out that urban warfare troops need to be humble and to return to the basics. They also argue that urban operations require a combination of efforts (military, diplomatic, economic, cultural, and judicial), rather than a strictly armed response.

The book is not without its flaws. Firstly, readers will notice a lack of empiricism in certain key places. For example, the argument and the raison d’être of a number of chapters hinge upon the affirmation that urban interventions have become more and more important, and that this trend will persist as urban populations continue to increase. Plausible though this may be, the correlation is never shown empirically. The presence of introductory words and phrases, such as “clearly,” “evidently,” and “…it is a truism to point out” attest that this shortcut was taken by more than one contributor. The use of a larger number of primary sources, and, especially, more statistics, could have increased the scientific weight of the book.

On another note, Francophones will not appreciate the plethora of Anglicisms. While it is preferable not to ‘gallicize’ some English terms, particularly those that are technical in nature, readers will find that, all too often, words or expressions that are easily translatable or have a French equivalent are used, such as “revolution in military affairs,” “military operations on urban terrain,” “improvised explosive devices,” and “sniper.” Readers will also notice a lack of diversity in terms of the contributors, as 11 of the 16 chapters of the book were penned by de Swielande and/or Henrotin.

That said, the work in itself is comprehensive. The pace and organization of the book are well thought out. The analyses are generally well developed and complementary. The contributors skilfully underscore the basic concepts of intervention in urban environments; for example, conventional forces have difficulty learning from their mistakes, and technology is not an appropriate solution to problems that are cultural and political in origin. Certain chapters, especially the ones on “aérurbain” and robotics, will be particularly enjoyed by military readers.

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Maxime Langlois is an MA candidate in War Studies at the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston, Ontario.


  1. For the purposes of this review, “combatant” means a member of a non-government armed organization, such as a guerrilla.