Baseball legend Yogi Berra, a noted mangler of the English language, watched Roger Maris and Micky Mantle smash back-to-back homers during a game in the 1961 season. Shaking his head at the wonder of it all, Yogi redundantly said it was like déjà vu all over again. That’s the way I’m feeling reading reports and watching video from the Israeli Defense Forces brutal fight in the tunnels and rabbit warrens of the Gaza Strip.
During the infamous Tet Offensive of 1968, I fought in Hue, the ancient imperial capitol of Vietnam. I’m looking at and reading about some of the same close combat encounters in the densely packed urban concrete sprawl of Gaza City, Khan Younis, and Rafah. It’s remarkably similar to some of what we faced when NVA forces made a brutal bid to take and hold the city of Hue. At a time when most of the combat in Vietnam occurred in jungle-covered mountains, flooded rice paddies, or small rural villages, none of us were trained or ready for what’s now called Military Operations in Urban Terrain or MOUT. It was classic On the Job Training for most of us sent to fight in Hue. At the time I developed my own acronym that I thought fit the situation: FISH or Fighting In Someone’s House.
Of course, the IDF has known for years that they might have to engage in urban combat either in the Gaza Strip or the West Bank against fighting formations that are schooled in the intricacies of urban combat but that doesn’t make their fight less bloody or frustrating. For those who haven’t pondered or experienced that nightmare, it’s interesting to point out the similarities in what’s facing the IDF now and what faced us in Hue a half-century past.
Defenders in urban areas love to occupy and shoot at you from the upper levels of buildings which provide platforms for lethal plunging fire on attackers. And snipers have a deadly field day shooting from the shadows provided by roofs or upper stories of abandoned buildings which always seem to overlook the main streets or roads that crisscross an urban battlefield.
Just as we did in Hue, the Israelis try to mitigate some of this by leveling such structures with artillery or air strikes. That kind of fire support is crucial to advancing infantry but it provides the bad guys with lots of attendant rubble which makes for effective cover and concealment to continue the fight down in the streets. As we were during the early days of fighting in Hue, the IDF is under extreme pressure to avoid civilian casualties which can hamstring or limit the use of heavy artillery or air strikes in urban combat. There’s no good answer to the “collateral damage” problem. Certainly, the Israelis have done more to avoid civilian casualties than we were able to do in Hue. Public warning, alerts, and evacuations help but they also alert your enemy about where to expect the next strike.
Then there’s the over-arching concerns that seem to pervade any fighting in densely populated or politically sensitive areas. For weeks while struggling to clear enemy forces from Hue sectors on the south side of the Perfume River, we were denied support of heavy weapons which dithering diplomats far from the battleground feared might destroy important cultural sites. That cost lives and frustrated the Marines doing the fighting. It only got worse when we crossed the river to assault enemy forces hiding in the Citadel, a walled fortress that was once the seat of ancient Annamese emperors. Fortunately for us at the time we had some hard-nosed combat leaders who told the diplomats where they could stick their restrictions and called up the supporting fires we desperately needed.
The Israelis fighting in the Gaza Strip aren’t encumbered by such restrictions right now but they are definitely feeling the pressure from the US and other nations that are striving to reduce civilian casualties that are part and parcel of any urban fight. Looks to me like they are doing all they can to get civilians out of the way but savvy Hamas fighters are using innocents as shields just as the NVA often did in Hue. In cases like that up against an evil enemy who fights with total disregard for human life, you’ve got to be hardheaded and hard hearted.
There’s been a lot of handwringing over IDF air or artillery attacks on Gaza Strip neighborhoods that contain hospitals. Civilian casualties usually result from an effort to eliminate fighters who use such facilities as harbor sites for attacks from what are generally considered neutral or safe zones. Been there and seen that in Hue when we hit the Central Hospital Complex on the southside of the city. We found NVA troops playing possum in hospital beds and even found a couple trying to pass as a nursing sister or nun. When your opponent in an urban fight knows you’re under pressure to avoid civilian casualties, you can bet he’ll use civilians as a shield one way or another. Sure, you try to do what you can to avoid civilian casualties at times like these, but in the end in Gaza—as it was in the end at Hue—you wind up having to move slowly and winkle the enemy out of sanctuaries in eyeball-range close combat.
The use of tanks can become problematic in urban terrain. Tankers are often channelized into firetraps on narrow city streets where their ability to freely traverse turret-mounted weapons can be restricted. Same deal in Hue but the Marine tankers and Ontos crews eventually developed a classic shoot-and-scoot maneuver that allowed them to employ firepower without getting trapped in the narrow confines of city streets. So far reports from the Gaza Strip indicate IDF tanks have been held out of the streets and mostly used for long-range fire support. That’s wise but might change as the IDF moves south into more open areas.
Urban environments also provide hidden freeways or what the tactical mavens call interior lines of communication for defenders. In Hue, the NVA used the city’s sewer systems or canals to move troops and supplies around out of sight. In the Gaza Strip, Hamas is using a system of elaborately prepared tunnels for the same purposes. Recent reports from the area indicate the IDF is flooding some of those tunnels with seawater. Wish we’d thought of that on the southside of Hue where we often had to chase fleeing enemies through the sewers or into canal spillways. The effect of those sewers and tunnels was the same in both fights. Unless you deny the enemy use of tunnels, the defenders can and will suddenly pop up unexpectedly all over the place to hit you in the rear or flanks, forcing you to play whack-a-mole. And as long as those underground routes exist, the enemy has a superhighway to carry ammo and supplies into the battle.
In Gaza Strip fighting in and around tunnels, the Israelis have a problem that we did not have in Hue—the hostages that are being held in underground lairs and sites. That makes full-scale destruction problematic and gives defenders a trump card to play against IDF engineers tasked with closing or blocking tunnels.
Another potentially lethal aspect of infantry combat in areas like Gaza or Hue is the increased shrapnel effect of all the rounds flying in the urban fight. Added to the chunks of hot metal from indirect fire weapons are dangerous pieces of concrete, cement, and rebar that get blown off or chipped off to become deadly shards in a street-level firefight. Helmets, eye protection, and body armor are all good and valuable, but it’s those chips of building materials that always seem to find the uncovered parts of your body and draw blood. Shots of IDF troopers swaddled in bloody bandages demonstrate that hasn’t changed.
Hurts me to see it but it appears old Yogi was right about déjà vu. I’m hoping the Israelis will heed another of his sage comments: It ain’t over until it’s over.