Storming the City by Alec Wahlman


For readers interested in Vietnam War strategy, the battle for Hue should be the highlight of Storming the City: U.S. Military Performance in Urban Warfare from World War II to Vietnam (University of North Texas Press, 400 pp., $29.95, hardcover; $13.99, Kindle) by Alec Wahlman.

The book answers a three-part question: “When the need arose to fight in urban terrain in the mid-twentieth century, how effective were U.S. forces, why, and how did that performance change from World War II to Vietnam?” Wahlman bases his findings on four battles: Aachen and Manila in World War II, Seoul in the Korean War, and Hue in the Vietnam War.

He makes it easy to compare the battles by describing each with the same format: Operational Context; The Foe; The Assault; Command, Control, and Communication; Intelligence and Reconnaissance; Firepower and Survivability; Mobility and Counter-Mobility; Logistics; and Dealing with the Population.

In these victorious engagements that were fought in three wars over three decades, the Army and Marines were ill prepared for urban warfare, Wahlman says. Aachen and Manila were primarily Army operations. Winning at Seoul and Hue depended mostly on the Marines. Throughout the entire time, field manuals for both services presented little information on how to capture a city, and training for fighting house-to-house was minimal.

Despite winning, American tactical performance gradually grew less effective, according to Wahlman. At Hue, Americans failed to isolate the city. Therefore, throughout three weeks of fighting, North Vietnamese Army forces continued to receive reinforcements of men and supplies by night. American intelligence also failed to recognize the size of the NVA force and the complexity of the Hue Citadel.

“The precise location of enemy positions inside Hue was largely discovered through contact,” Wahlman notes. Prolonged fighting permitted the enemy to establish its own government within the city and to execute many South Vietnamese administrative personnel.

These victories resulted from outstanding leadership, mainly at regiment level. The leaders adapted tactics learned in the field to an urban setting. Commanders such as Lt. Col. Derrill Daniel and Lt. Col. John Corley at Aachen and Col. Lew “Chesty” Puller at Seoul had extensive combat experience. They knew how to fight side by side or drive right through the middle of an enemy.

Similarly, Wahlman concludes that America’s successes resulted from “transferable competence” and “battlefield adaptation.” Transferable competence included quality leadership in small units; heavy firepower with adequate logistical support; coordinated efforts between infantry, armor, artillery, engineers, and air support; previous combat experience; and the design of American armored vehicles. Except for the last point, the other conclusions seem to be self-evident traits required for any successful military operation.

Battlefield adaptation is the ability of leaders to alter tactics based on a particular environments. Each battle area offers different problems. The greatest difference between urban and field combat is the shortening of lines of sight in the former. The resultant confined battle space often affects factors such as rules of engagement and population control. This necessity for adaptation is not unique to urban warfare; it was needed in earlier engagements such as fighting in hedgerows and forests.

Wahlman’s research claims to undermine two myths about urban warfare. First, the attacking force’s “traditional” three-to-one manpower advantage was proved unnecessary. Americans had only a three-to-two advantage in Manila, and at Aachen the Germans actually outnumbered Americans by three-to-one.

The second myth is that urban fighting is an infantry job. Wahlman challenges that by saying that infantry “is most effective when part of a combined arms team,” which relates to his transferable competence argument. Basically, he’s saying that a combined force is more likely to maintain an effective methodical advance with fewer losses.

Tet Offensive, Battle of Hue, Vietnam

U.S. Marines at the Battle of Hue

In closing, Wahlman looks at urban warfare since Hue and into the future. Population migration into urban areas favors opponents of the United States, he says, and emphasizes the vulnerability of unsecured supply lines for forces attacking a city. Situations such as those encountered at Fallujah might easily bog down an attacker and slow the tempo of combat. Furthermore, as shown at Mogadishu, urban confrontations could reduce the effectiveness of superior technology. In such cases, the price tags increase steeply.

In preparation for possible future needs, the Army has built urban warfare training complexes and published a field manual. Adaptation is still considered crucial to success in this area. Technologies offer new avenues for tactics, but in many cases the enemy has access to the same or counter equipment, Wahlman says.

“Advances in sensors, protective equipment, and offensive capabilities notwithstanding, urban warfare is and will continue to be a nasty, difficult business,” he says.

Poor maps are the book’s major flaw. The maps are too small and lack contrast, which make them nearly impossible to read. Better maps might enhance the reader’s understanding of maneuvers at the battle sites.

Wahlman is highly qualified to write this book. For fourteen years, he worked as an analyst at the Institute for Defense Analysis, primarily for the Department of Defense, focusing on irregular and urban warfare. He holds a PhD. in military history from the University of Leeds. The book contains sixty-three pages of notes and thirty-five pages of bibliography.

—Henry Zeybel