San Diego Here's the bottom line on urban combat. You don't want it. When the Israelis went into Beirut in '82, I was one of an army of correspondents who went with them. At that time the main Christian militia, the Lebanese Forces, were allied with the Israelis. It only took the Israelis a couple of weeks to roll the Palestinian fighters all the way back to West Beirut. The Palestinians were backed to the sea, prepared to make their last stand.
The Israelis stopped. They thought it would be nice if the Lebanese Forces went into West Beirut and cleaned it up for them. After all, they said, it was their city.
I was in the LF press headquarters when the Christians presented their reply. The LF press officer took a certain umbrage at the Israeli attitude. "Yes, it's our city and the people on the other side, aside from the Palestinians, are our friends and relatives. We're not going in."
There was a stalemate of a couple of weeks while the Israelis and the Lebanese Forces played "After you, my dear Alphonse."
The Israelis calculated that their casualties taking West Beirut would exceed all their casualties in all their wars to date.
The Lebanese Forces were an all-volunteer force, and they volunteered on a mission-by-mission basis. Nobody wanted it.
In the end they, the Israelis and the Lebanese Forces, let the Palestinian leadership escape to Tunisia rather than try to take West Beirut.
There was no cowardice in their decision and no ignorance. At that time the Lebanese Forces were probably the best city fighters in the world. God knows they had more practice than anybody else.
As it happened I had been in Beirut the summer before, and at one point I'd been to lunch at the apartment of the same LF press officer, with the idea that we'd see some combat training that afternoon.
His apartment was in East Beirut, only a couple of blocks from the Green Line that separated Christian East Beirut from Muslim/Palestinian/Syrian West Beirut. It was a very nice luxury apartment, except for a couple of rips in the couch where shrapnel had come through the window. That must have happened recently, because the window was still boarded rather than replaced.
I dined well with my press officer friend (who would prefer I not use his name here, since mortal enemies now control his country) and his live-in girlfriend. His maid from Sri Lanka served a delicious, light, fluffy meat I had never encountered before.
He's a big guy with a deep voice, who rolled his Ls and Rs, "Llllamb's brrrains," he replied to my query. "More wine?"
After lunch I started assembling my gear. "Where are you going?"
"We were going to training."
"Let's watch it on television. It's easier."
I was amazed. This was 1981. It was the first VCR I'd ever seen.
What I saw was a training facility made of old tires, stacked to create a corridor with doorways in it, as in an apartment house or a narrow Arab street.
Young men in the tailored insignia-less fatigues I'd come to associate with Lebanese Forces worked the corridor with the smooth precision of a well-drilled basketball team. There were three fire teams of three men each and a squad leader. The squad leader stayed in the corridor, directing traffic. The fire teams leapfrogged from room to room. The first man tossed in a grenade and, right after the explosion, the other two went in side by side, one sweeping left, the other right, firing a long burst as they entered.
They would kill anything alive in there, but anything alive and armed had a microsecond to kill them.
Later I went into the Sannine Mountains with my friend, and he showed me some of their firing techniques. I learned to put two slings, made into one long one, on an assault rifle, hung around my neck to support the weight, with the buttplate of the rifle just below my navel (the hara for you martial artists, the center of the will for Castaneda fans, the third chakra for the meditators), guiding the weapon with the left hand, firing with the right. This wasn't as accurate as taking a well-aimed shot, but critical milliseconds quicker, and much more accurate than firing from the hip. We were firing at a couple of dumptruck loads of gravel, and every time I fired, the spot I was looking at exploded into flying rocks.
That's all my training in urban combat, but I had fought one very grim 24- hour day in the city of Nha Trang during the Tet Offensive of 1968.
A small Vietnamese signal unit (with only about 25 guys left in the compound because of the Chinese New Year) had come under attack by what later turned out to be a battalion of 600 hardcore Viet Cong who had prepped by taking opium and had notes pinned to their shirts that read, "We volunteered to die for the glory..." blah blah blah, whatever. They launched their attack at first light.
At that time, I was a captain, information officer of the 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne). My assistant, First Lieutenant Frank Orians, heard that there was some war downtown and woke me. We grabbed our rifles, patrol harnesses with about ten clipped 20-round magazines apiece, and a couple of cameras. By the time we were ready to go, a couple of recon guys who were passing through the headquarters joined us.
We parked two blocks from the compound and walked in.
When we arrived they were still under attack, but we had been preceded by a company of Mike (Mobile Strike) Force, maybe a hundred guys with six Americans. They were Cham people, Muslim fishermen from the seacoast around Nha Trang.
The enemy was in a neighborhood to the north. We were pretty much pinned down by a machine gun in a second-story window. We couldn't seem to shut it down. The Mike Force wanted to flank on the left, but there were open paddies there, and moving through that muck in the open would have been suicidal. On the right, a crowd had formed to watch the battle, and vendors moved among them, selling soup.
By noon Frank and I had enough pix for a good little feature, so we went back to the Special Forces (SF) compound. Then I got a call from Sy Wohlen, the CBS bureau chief in Saigon. He wanted us to take a crew down there. I sent a man to pick them up at the air base, and we went back to the fray. The correspondent, Don Webster, later told me it was some of the best footage to come out of Tet, but they got it out too late for the Cronkite show.
A number of other SF guys had showed up, and Captain Scott Gantt had taken command. All the people who lived in that neighborhood to the north were still there, "human shields" for the Viet Cong. We didn't want to kill them, but we had to get the VC out.
Scotty speaks Vietnamese, so he got a huge loudspeaker set up from the Vietnamese signal detachment and announced for the people to leave. The VC realized that the people's presence was keeping heavy fire from being brought to bear on them and refused to let them go. A few sneaked out, but they were shot at by the VC. Then Scotty had a helicopter gunship fire one rocket into the neighborhood. He made the same announcement again, and people poured out into the streets, running toward our position, their "liberators," the VC, shooting them as fast as they could.
One Mike Force guy, Sammy Coutts of Cupertino, CA, ran into the line of fire to pull a little Vietnamese girl to safety.
More things happened that day and the night that followed than I have space for here. Frank Orians had been an enlisted SF medic before OCS (officer candidate school), so he treated the wounded, mostly Vietnamese civilians shot by the VC. We were running low on ammo, and he had a truckload of patients to take to the province hospital. We asked him to get more ammo on the way back. The ammo-dump NCO wouldn't give it to him without a signed requisition, so Frank just drew down on him with his M16. "Load her up," he said.
The VC set fire to a fuel dump, and it looked like the burning of Atlanta all night long.
After the Mike Force left for another hot spot, there were never more than 40 of us there that night. We were not a unit -- just a bunch of clerks and jerks that showed up to help. We weren't trained for urban combat, although we were well armed and motivated. We were attacked all night long by over 600 well-armed and trained enemy. They didn't have any more luck than a cat trying to scratch its way into a bowling ball.
There were 200 enemy dead in the neighborhood when we moved through it the next day, one-third of their original force. We didn't lose a man from our ad hoc defense force.
If it was me, and I had the choice, rather than fight house-to-house in a city, I'd build a fence around it and call it prison, then let anybody out who was willing to leave unarmed. Let them rot in there if they want to.