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Out of the Mountains – The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla

15 Jul 2015
reviewer Major General James Molan AO DSC (Ret.)

David Kilcullen’s third book, ‘Out of the Mountains – The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla’ adds significantly to the literature on conflict in the ‘urbanized, networked littorals of an increasingly crowded planet’.

The author admits to his central contradiction that guerrillas have been in and out of the mountains now for many decades and that there is a fairly solid understanding by military practitioners of fighting in cities. In the next 50 years, this will need to expand to accommodate the expansion of megacities and the likelihood of nations facing a ‘multi-domain challenge’.

Kilcullen’s  first military posting was as an infantry platoon leader in an Australian infantry battalion I commanded. Our most recent experience had been Vietnam, so our training never covered urban fighting. Militaries that don’t fight often, like the Australian military of that era, quickly forget what is important.

But it did not take long for similar armies, involved in the serious fighting in Iraq,  to realise that urban fighting skills were essential. The most valuable characteristic of any soldier is adaptability, perhaps proving that whatever the immutable basics of tactics are, they might only ever need to be adjusted between cities, deserts, mountains and valleys. However, every time you adapt, you pay a price in time and casualties. And urban fighting takes a lot of everything.

Adaptability is critical because a platoon leader who fought in Fallujah may have been a company commander in the Korengal Valley and might now be leading his battalion to its pre-positioned NATO equipment in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania or Poland. What price the urban guerrilla then?

Robert Zoellick recently paraphrased Napoleon to point out that the borders of a nation’s interests are marked by the graves of its soldiers. The interests of modern western nations are vast and not limited to mountains or cities. For example, Australia has buried its soldiers far wider than the regional mountains or cities of Papua New Guinea, Malaya, Vietnam, Timor or Korea. Australian troops have captured Gaza once and Damascus twice. Australian dead lie in Turkey and Europe. Australia has had soldiers in the Sinai for years as well as in Somalia, we had a presence in Iraq and fought most effectively in Afghanistan, and our troops are now back in Iraq.

To pick one trend, even when you are focusing out to 2050, and to use that as the strategic or tactical focus of a nation might be necessary but is still risky. The urban littoral is expanding exponentially and our forces may not be able to manoeuvre around such megacities forever. He comes close in his last sentence  to saying that future generations should focus on the cities to the exclusion of much else and he is quite right that strategists and tacticians should be aware of the military challenges of urban terrain. But most nations will still need to focus their strategy far wider and at the tactical level, be able to move from deserts to mountains to towns to megacities without breaking stride.

I suspect that the challenge may not be only the conurbations of 2050 but the same challenge that has caused our failure to decisively win our wars over the last 15 years. Our soldiers have fought brilliantly in all terrain and consistently won tactical battles. The problem is the lack of national resolve and persistence, meaning our strategies have been inadequate and have never matched our soldiers’ tactical adaptability. Whatever the question is, in campaigns in mountains, cities, deserts or jungles, the answer is likely to be strategy first, then, as Kilcullen has said in other books, let our soldiers find the answers.

David Kilcullen, Out of the Mountains – The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla, Scribe Publications, London, 2013

Major General James Molan AO DSC (Retired) is a highly decorated and distinguished officer in the Australian Army, having served in Iraq (as the Coalition’s Chief of Operations), East Timor, the Solomon Islands and Indonesia. In retirement Major General Molan is a commentator on security and military issues and teaches at the Australian Defence College.