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Psychology of Urban Warfare

Uploaded 10/28/2023, approx. 21 minute read

Those of you who are married to narcissists or in committed relationships with narcissists have already experienced urban warfare.

So maybe there's nothing new I can tell you.

But more seriously, Israel has invaded Gaza yesterday. The forces are still there. It is not clear whether this is the invasion that Israel has been promising or threatening with in the past three weeks, but at any rate, there are forces inside Gaza and they're beginning to get involved in what is known as urban warfare.

How is urban warfare different to other types of fighting? And what are the psychological implications of urban warfare?

This is the topic of today's video. And yes, it is based on a few weeks of personal experience with urban warfare in the first few months of my three and a half year service in the Israeli Defense Forces.

So unfortunately, I'm bringing personal insight into this as well as many other studies, analysis by military experts, by army psychologists, trauma experts and so on and so forth. I've distilled everything, put everything together as I usually do.

And to give you as complete a picture of the aftermath, psychological aftermath of fighting within dense human populations, door to door, room to room, house to house, hand to hand, face to face, you and the other person and only one of you will come out alive.

My name is Sam Vakhnin. I'm the author of Malignant Self-Love Narcissism Revisited. I'm a former visiting professor of psychology in Southern Federal University in Russia. I'm currently a longtime member of the faculty of CEAPs, Commonwealth for International Advanced Professional Studies, Cambridge United Kingdom, Toronto, Canada, and an outreach campus in Lagos, Nigeria. Please aside, let us delve right into the urban landscape.

First, don't try this at home with your significant other.

I'm going to describe the features, the military features of urban warfare and then I'm going to move on the second half of the video.

I'm going to move on to psychological analysis of the psychological impacts of urban warfare on mostly the attacker, the military that is initiating the urban warfare.

Now, first of all, the vast majority of armies in the world are not built for urban combat. Most armies in the world focus on what is known as combined arms maneuvers or combined arms maneuver warfare, which is the air force, infantry, tanks, the Navy, all acting together and creating an envelope, a containing envelope, mostly for infantry soldiers.

The aim of traditional conventional armies is to overwhelm an enemy by concentrating speed and mass at critical points with an element of surprise.

So, modern armies are highly mobile and they transfer forces where the enemy does not anticipate and the idea is to break through defenses and flanks of the enemy and somehow perhaps to surround the enemy at any rate to break the resistance of the enemy.

Now, this has been going on since Alexander the Great and Napoleon and others. So there's nothing new in any of this, but this is doubly so with modern armies, modern militaries that include heavy weight elements such as tanks or fighter planes and so on.

In cities, all the above means nothing. All the above is actually a disadvantage. The bigger the force that infiltrates a city, the easier a target it becomes.

So cities force you to break down into smaller and smaller and smaller units, sometimes only two people, and you have to move slowly through side streets.

Moving through a main thoroughfare, through main street, big street, is seriously flawed, is seriously wrong. You move through side streets, through gates, shortcuts, above roofs and so on and so forth in order to reach your destination.

This cannot be done with 20,000 people.

So you naturally end up breaking up to tinier and tinier units and you cannot, with such a small force, overwhelm defenders, overwhelm your enemy.

You can do this in a forest, you can do this in a desert, you can do this in a field, but you can't do this in a built environment.

And the irony is, the more buildings you destroy, the more defenses you provide to your enemy.

Because rubble is optimal, ruins can be booby trapped and serve as concrete covers.

So you're creating an effect, your enemy's defenses, by bombing buildings from the air.

As Israel has been doing for three weeks now.

So you're moving small units, you're much more likely to end up in an ambush or a killing zone.

Actually a well-prepared enemy channels your movement, makes sure that you can move only along a certain axis or a conduit or a venue so that you end up where they want you to end up.

And then they kill you. And then they kill you again.

The enemy is hidden. You have to constantly guess. Surprises are the only unsurprising thing. Surprises are the only guaranteed thing.

And it's very shocking. It's a constantly, it's a percussion, it's constantly shocking environment. And it involves hand-to-hand combat, face-to-face, eye-to-eye. You smell the sweat of the enemy. You look into their eyes, their pupils dilating. You see the veins in their necks pulsating. It's very, very intimate. It's very intimate.

Some people even say erotically charged. It's a life and death dance, repeated over and over and over again until you die.

Because your chances to die in urban warfare are much, much higher than in open warfare. The enemy is everywhere. It is underground. It is on the ground. It shoots at you from tops of buildings.

So this is a three-dimensional death envelope. You're enveloped by death and destruction.

And you begin to develop the belief that you're doomed, that there's no way out of this.

And so you begin to behave accordingly.

As we'll talk about it later.

Sometimes you become much less careful and cautious than you should be.

Defiant. In your face.

Defiant death. You know?

It's a grind.

Urban warfare is a grind. There's no clear end. Well-defined goals. Mission, success, mission statement. Horizon. It feels like it could last forever.

You start with, an army starts usually with shaping, shaping operations, preparing the ground.

And then urban warfare follows in the form of invading the territory, an invasion.

But all the advantages in urban warfare accrue to the defender.

Urban warfare is bloody. It's slow. It's complex. That's why it's known in military jargon as the great equalizer. It equalizes the poorly equipped, poorly trained defenders with the highly equipped, highly trained attackers. It equalizes because the defender knows the terrain much better than you do. And so they can counter attack in very, very unexpected ways.

And there's always civilian collateral damage. Civilian casualties are absolutely inevitable. Inevitable.

And that makes you the attacker, the bad guy. Even if you are fighting a terrorist organization such as ISIS or Hamas, which is indistinguishable from ISIS, even then you are the bad guy because you end up killing babies and children and pregnant women and women who could have become pregnant had you not killed them.

So you become the bad guy.

And there's no way to avoid this because terrorists fight from within populated urban areas. And they very frequently use the population, the civilian population, as human shields. They maintain their headquarters, their warehouses, their munition dumps, their launching pads, everything within hospitals and mosques and schools and kindergartens and shopping malls. That's a fact. That's a fact in Gaza as well, where major hospitals are actually the headquarters of Hamas operations.

And so civilians are going to die. Civilians are going to die.

And the idea is to somehow push the defenders or the terrorists or whatever you want to call them, somehow push them into a demarcated location, a boundary location and besiege them in these pockets.

But these seizures can last like years.

Remember Stalingrad? They can last years.

So this engenders a siege mentality.

It is like static trench warfare. Only trench warfare is in open fields.

And this is trench warfare where even the trenches are invisible and shapeshifting.

So there's a siege mentality of both the attacker and the defender.

They both feel under siege.

Now you don't take prisoners in open warfare. Anyone moves? You kill them. You kill everyone in sight.

Yes, I know. This is a crime of war. This is a crime against humanity.

And no military commander would admit to it. And no military, no army would admit to it.

But this is how it's done. It's done this way because a prisoner with his hands up could be booby trapped. A child coming out of a tunnel could carry a Kalashnikov.

You don't play games. You don't take chances. You don't speculate in second guess. You shoot first. You ask questions later.

So this is total warfare.

And as a soldier, you end up killing children. You end up killing women. You end up killing civilians who are somehow allied with the defenders or the terrorists or whatever. Clearly allied with them because they emerge with them or from their hiding places.

And this is devastating, mentally devastating.

Even during the Holocaust, there have been Nazi soldiers and Nazi commanders and very high-level commanders who went bonkers, who went insane, having had to shoot civilian population on a regular basis.

Now, modern urban warfare is carried out at night. It's a night operation because the attacker, which is usually a regular conventional army, has superiority of night vision technologies.

So most of these attacks are at night. The warfare is asymmetrical in terms of technology, material, supplies, munitions, air cover, and so on. And this asymmetry is at its peak at night, where the attacking soldiers can see pretty well and the defending ones are blinded by the darkness.

All kinds of assets are used in modern urban warfare. I'm talking about drones. I'm talking about robots.

And this renders the fighting impersonal, mechanical, automated, robotic. The assets are airborne or they lead or they're involved in land warfare.

To clear rooms, for example, you would send a drone into the room, send a robot into the room and blow them up if you see someone there.

So it's all very kind of video game. War is a video game.

When you blow up a building in a contested urban warfare zone, it's exactly like shooting someone in a video game and it dehumanizes. It dehumanizes or objectifies the other person. They're no longer human beings. They are just characters in a video game.

And we've seen this in the recordings released by WikiLeaks, recordings of pilots, American pilots and others fighting, bombing humans, but treating them exactly as characters in video games.

Now, even in urban warfare, there is a place for combined arms maneuvers. Infantry and commander units guide pilots, fighter pilots, bombers, Navy and artillery as to where to direct the fire.

But this leads to a lot of friendly fire incidents.

And so in truth, fighters in urban warfare prefer not to. They use air power and artillery and so on.

Only very, very rarely and scarcely because they're terrified of their own, of their own military.

You're on your own. In urban warfare, you are all alone.

No one can help you. No one has your back.

It's you and only you.


There's been an interview that I read with a top Ukrainian commander, Kvluk. And he said that the heavily armed forces are followed by isolation forces.

We first devastate, destroy the whole area.

And then the next echelon, next round, next wave of army comes in and kind of cleans. These are the cleaners, the clean after.

And he said the assault echelon carries with it a double supply of hand grenades, disposable grenade launchers, jet flamethrowers, anti-tank missiles, man pads, combat medics in armored evacuation vehicles wait at the distance of visual communication, just in case they're needed.

He says, never walk the streets, yards, private buildings, holes in fences and walls of the way to victory. He said that everything should be close by the logistics, the medical units, the UAVs, the unmanned aerial vehicles, the cruisers, the drones and the commander of the force of the assault force should be in control of what these drones are doing, as well as feeding bomber pilots and fighter pilots with exact coordinates, pinpointed coordinates in real time. So airplanes are always above head waiting to attack and they usually do so within seconds.

Kebliuk mentioned something very important, which leads us segways into the second part of this video, which is the psychology.

He says urban warfare is personal responsibility. He says, if you don't have something in battle, if you miss something, it's your fault. Ballistic protection, a first aid kit, a tawny kit, preferably two. You must have these things.

When you pack your backpack, says Kebliuk, an extra pack of cartridges is much better than a can of food. Everyone should clearly identify their combat tasks. They should know who is acting to the right and to the left of you. They should know how to contact the commander, the combat medic or the sapper. Sapper is a combat military engineer.

And this is the crucial element in urban warfare and the key to understanding the extreme psychological impacts of urban warfare.

You are absolutely responsible for what's happening to you. If there's no one to blame, it's your fault, 100%.

And no one has your back and no one supports you and you're on your own and it's life and death and it's hand to hand and it's knife to belly and it's just the way it is.

And you must survive at all costs.

This of course creates post-traumatic stress disorder in many veterans of urban warfare.

And you are between 10 and 40% depending on the severity of the battle. This is lifelong. The PTSD is lifelong.

The sites in urban warfare are nothing like what you see in regular battle. Nothing.

The civilians, the babies, the slaughtered mothers, the body parts, the charred bodies, the surprises, the shocks, the explosions, the knives in the back, your own people firing on you by mistake. It is absolutely devastating and that's why very few soldiers can survive more than a week or two or three in urban warfare.

And most urban warfare winds up in days or there is a kind of rotation involved because the attrition rate is enormous.

You see this in urban warfare very often there's no movement, no discernible movement and there's no way to define your accomplishments. It's like a bit of a frozen scene. It's very surreal, very nightmarish and gruesome death, gruesome forms of death are your constant companion, the stench, the visuals. You wake up to it, you go to sleep to it if you catch some sleep, very few are able to sleep and this becomes your scenery, this becomes your life, this becomes your environment.

And you don't hesitate to step on bodies, to eat next to a decapitated head or a dead baby.

You get desensitized.

The enemy becomes so many body parts, totally dehumanized.

By the way, there's the same effect in the medical profession, medical doctors often describe the same effect, especially in specific departments like emergency rooms and ICUs and so on.

You need to reduce the human form to an organ or a body part in order to survive, simply to survive.

There's a constant sense of abandonment, constant sense of isolation, oh my god I've lost my units or I'm stuck with only one body and he's wounded.

This constant sense of wandering off and never being able to find your way back.

It's very primordial, it's like a tiny, tiny infant in a giant shopping mall having lost his or her mother.

There's extreme dependency on other people.

So there's an external locus of control.

You feel that your life is determined from the outside and there's nothing much you can do about it.

The next explosion, the next mine, the next booby trap, the next knife in the back, the next attack, the next terrorist, the next defender, the next whatever, freedom fighter, whatever you want to call them, where from up, down, under, this room, that room, rubble, this child, this woman, what?

You're constantly on the alert.

It's a flight of fight response taken to extremes and this external locus of control is a form of surrender.

You give up on your life in effect.

You move, continue to move, continue to go through the motions like a zombie and there's a lot of splitting going on.

The enemy becomes diabolical, demonic, worthy of extermination, extinction and eradication regardless of any human considerations, let alone legal or criminal considerations.

You just need to kill this thing out there that is no longer human in your eyes and threatens your life on a constant basis because it is evil.

This of course provokes alloplastic defenses.

Inability to take responsibility for what you've done because if you do, the trauma will be all consuming and destroy you from the inside.

So you deny it.

It wasn't my fault.

I had to do it.

I had to do it to protect myself, to protect my buddies, to protect the country, whatever.

So there are a lot of alloplastic defenses involved.

At some point, you simply give up on acting human and you defy.

You defy the defenders or the terrorists.

You defy the situation.

You defy your own commanders.

You challenge your fate and destiny to a duel.

Say, I'm going to do whatever the heck I want.

I'm going to act out.

I'm going to crazy make.

I'm going to defy you.

I'm going to, in your face, challenge my own mortality.

Let's see who wins.

This leads to behavior that is very risky and often leads to death.


At a point where you say, I no longer care.

See if I care.

I'm going out there and I'm going to shoot like crazy everywhere.

I'm going to spray the whole compound.

I don't care.

The minute you say, I don't care, you don't.

You're lost.

And there's a moral collapse, a tendon upon it.

You're no longer a moral agent or a moral person.

You act more like a predator, an animal.

All the veneer of civilization melts down, dissipates.

And what's left is animal versus animal.

You look like an animal.

You haven't you haven't showered in days.

You're caked with mud and sweat and blood.

You're terrified inside.

Your eyes peered through the mud cake mask and they are demented.

Youdemented. You look like a deranged escapee from a mental asylum.

And all you can think of is how to kill, kill, kill.

You become a killing machine and you develop magical thinking.

There's all kinds of superstitions, talismans, mascots, sentences you have to repeat to yourself, a sequence of and this is a sequence of activities which will kind of isolate you, offend you or defend you from bad happenings.

This is obsessive compulsive. These are obsessive compulsive rituals.

The only defense you're left with, primitive, against the horror that you find yourself embedded in and perpetrated.

Because perpetrating also bears a mental cost.

This ladies and gentlemen is urban warfare. Should Israel invade Gaza? Full scale invasion? This is what awaits both the Israeli army and Hamas fighters. None of them will be spared the agony of fighting and then the agony of recalling the fighting and the trauma that will never leave them for life.

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