Mélange du Mercredi/War in Cities: The Spectre of Total War

Welcome to Mélange du Mercredi (Wednesday Mix). Each week, we highlight one of the latest and greatest in reading, film and other scholarly resources, focusing on a variety of issues pertaining to international humanitarian law. This week, Vincent Bernard, Editor in Chief of the International Review of the Red Cross, writes an editorial looking at War in Cities: The Spectre of Total War. As always, if you have suggestions, or would like to submit a post on something you feel our readers will also enjoy, we're happy to include them. Just email Editor Niki Clark

Editorial: War in Cities: The Spectre of Total War

Vincent Bernard

A scene of devastation, blanketed with grey dust, stretches into the distance in eerie silence. Walls riddled with bullets, buildings collapsing in on themselves, external walls blown away to reveal an intimate view of a bedroom or living room, streets blocked by piles of rubble.

These sickening images of destruction – filmed from above by drones and shared on social media – probably best symbolize the current resurgence in urban warfare. Other images come to mind: bombed-out hospitals, children being pulled from wreckage, snipers roaming the maze of tunnels and walkways that have been blasted through the walls of now-uninhabited houses.

Contrasting starkly with these often deserted urban scenes of destruction are the pictures of overpopulated camps and makeshift boats brimming over with men, women and children. City-dwellers are often forcibly evacuated or driven to flee by conflict or hardship, with no choice but to leave behind their work, their relationships and the safety of their homes.

But not everyone can or wants to flee. For those who remain, life often becomes extremely dangerous and precarious when the complex fabric of urban services disintegrates: power, water and food supplies are cut off, leading to isolation, cold, darkness, illness and anxiety about what tomorrow may bring. As schools, businesses and shops close, people’s future prospects disappear. Bombs – through negligence, error or criminal intent – strike people and the infrastructure they need to survive.

Gaza, Sana’a, Ramadi and Aleppo have recently joined the long list of cities that have been devastated by warfare throughout history, and other cities in Syria and Iraq may soon go the same way. After an issue dealing with how war has changed, and with future editions due to cover displacement, migration and the conflict in Syria, the International Review of the Red Cross felt the need to address the subject of urban warfare, not just because of the humanitarian crises that are continuing to unfold, but because urbanization is an unstoppable trend. Tomorrow’s wars will inevitably take place in urban areas, where more than half of the world’s population now lives. According to the United Nations (UN) World Urbanization Prospects report, urban population growth is accelerating. Only 30% of the world’s population lived in cities in 1950, but the figure was 54% in 2014 and is projected to rise to 66% in 2050.


In 2010, the Review dedicated an issue to instances of urban violence that do not reach the threshold of armed conflict.2 In this issue we have chosen to focus on urban conflicts which do reach that threshold, dealing with the operational and political issues, the rules governing the methods and means of warfare, and the challenges in providing a humanitarian response.

To download the full editorial, click here.