The Voices of War

62. Abby Zeith And Ruben Stewart: International Humanitarian Law In Urban Warfare

VOW 62 | Urban Warfare


My guests today are Abby Zeith and Ruben Stewart from the International Committee of the Red Cross. Abby is a Legal Adviser in ICRC’s Arms and Conduct of Hostilities Unit, where her work focuses on urban warfare and the conduct of hostilities, more generally. Ruben, a Military and Armed Groups Advisor in the ICRC unit, manages relations and dialogue with arms carriers. He focuses on Non-State Armed Groups, battlefield behaviour, and new technologies. Abby and Ruben join me today to discuss urban warfare, including aspects of International Humanitarian Law that seek to govern it, as well as issues related to the conduct of combatants and the impact of Urban Warfare on civilians affected by it.


Some of the topics we covered are:

  • Abby and Ruben’s backgrounds and entry into the ICRC
  • Understanding ‘good faith interpretation’ in International Humanitarian Law (IHL)
  • Defining ‘urban warfare’
  • Three reasons why urban areas are frequently targeted by belligerents
  • Challenges for IHL in urban warfare
  • Impact of war on moral frameworks
  • Lessons captured in ‘Commander’s Handbook on reducing civilian harm in Urban Warfare’
  • Importance of appropriate doctrine and training for urban warfare
  • Impact of culture on understanding and application of IHL
  • Convincing belligerents of the value of IHL
  • The costs of non-compliance
  • The role of technology in urban warfare
  • Passionate discussion about Samuel Moyn’s thesis that humane war is more palatable to domestic audiences and therefore makes war a more appealing political option
  • Second and third order effects of urban warfare on civilians
  • Key lessons for those fighting urban wars to keep in mind


We referred to a couple of important documents during our chat. You can find the links to those below:

Reducing Civilian Harm in Urban Warfare: A Commander’s Handbook

The Roots of Restraint in War


Some additional resources you might find of interest are:

Urban warfare: an age-old problem in need of new solutions – Humanitarian Law & Policy Blog

Explosive Weapons with Wide Area Effects: A deadly choice in populated areas

Understanding Civilian Harm in Raqqa and Its Implications for Future Conflicts


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Abby Zeith And Ruben Stewart: International Humanitarian Law In Urban Warfare

Before we get to the excellent episode with Abby Zeith and Ruben Stewart from the International Committee of the Red Cross, I want to share some good news. The Voices of War crossed the significant milestone of 50,000 downloads. In the podcasting world, this is a significant achievement and is one I’m immensely proud of. Thank you, everyone, for tuning in. It is wonderful knowing that people get value out of these conversations.

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Your help will make the show more prominent and give me more punching power when approaching big names for appearances on the show. It is a win-win so please take a few seconds to rate or review. Now let’s get to this incredible chat with Abby Zeith and Ruben Stewart from the ICRC. It is a long episode, but I assure you, it is well worth it.

My guests are Abby Zeith and Ruben Stewart from the International Committee of the Red Cross. Abby is a Legal Advisor in the ICRCs Arms in Conduct of Hostilities Unit, where her work focuses on urban warfare and the conduct of hostilities more generally. Aside from ICRC, Abby spent more than a decade in the Australian Army, has both a signals officer and a legal officer, and served on operations in the Middle East. She has experience with United Nations and the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission. Abby holds a Master of Law in International Legal Studies.

Ruben is a Military and Armed Group Advisor in the ICRC unit that manages relations and dialogue with Arms carriers. He focuses on non-state armed groups, battlefield behaviour and new technologies. Before joining the ICRC, he served as an infantry officer in the New Zealand Defence Force for 10 years and then spent 15 years in the Middle East, primarily working for the United Nations. He holds a Master’s in International Relations. Abby and Ruben joined me to discuss urban warfare, including aspects of international humanitarian law that seek to govern it, as well as issues related to the conduct of combatants and the impact of urban warfare on civilians affected by it. Abby and Ruben, thank you for joining me.

My pleasure.

Thanks so much for having me, Maz.

Before we get into the nitty gritty of urban warfare, we will get a bit of a background for both of you. How did you both find yourself working for the ICRC? What motivated the move? Given that it’s three of us, I will nominate initially until we get the conversation flowing. Ruben, you are nodding. Why don’t you start us off on this one?

It was by mistake. In hindsight, career paths can look like it follows a fairly straight line, but I bounced around in the New Zealand Defence Force and the UN. The ICRC offered an opportunity that was too good to pass on which included a move to Europe, which was a nice break after a long period in the field in the Middle East. It was by accident, but I’m happy that it occurred.

It is a welcome accident ending up in Geneva. It is a smart move. What about you, Abby?

I always wanted to be an IHL lawyer. I walked into defence recruiting when I was an eighteen-year-old undergrad law student. I said, “How can I become a military lawyer? I want to work on IHL.” They told me to go away and get a law degree. I transferred over to Legal Call full-time after spending some time as a reserve general service officer. Some post-grad study landed me overseas. I worked for a couple of organisations working on the implementation of IHL or the Law of Armed Conflict in various ways. Eventually, that landed me over at the ICRC. I started for them in New York and ended up in Geneva. I’m working in a couple of different capacities for them.

Most people would know of the ICRC and what it broadly does, but most don’t know how far and how broad its remit spans. Can you both explain to our readers how you understand the organisation’s purpose writ large, your role within it, and how it fits in? We can start with you, Abby, this time.

ICRC has been around for a number of years. Its primary role is to prevent and reduce the humanitarian suffering of conflicts. We do this in many different ways. We take this approach called the Prevention, Protection and Assistance Approach. It is a multidisciplinary one. It ranges from dialogue with belligerence and political authorities on how to better respect IHL. Before armed conflict occurs and during conflict is where our protection work happens in terms of in the conflict zone out there where hostilities are occurring, but also in places of detention and places where displaced people are, whether it be in camps or cities.

Our assistance work is focused on restoring access to essential services, economic security and health types of activities. It is a broad range. From my perspective as a lawyer at the ICRC, our role is promoting the positive good faith interpretations of the laws of armed conflict and being a bit of a guardian of IHL in that sense.

I will come back to that because I want to explore a little bit more what that means. Ruben, how does your role fit into ICRC’s work?

I work as part of the unit that does relations with Arms carriers. To complement what Abby said, it is worth articulating that ICRC started its life on the battlefield when our Founder, Henry Dunant, was at the Battle of Solferino in 1859. His immediate response was, as Abby outlined, which was delivery of assistance to those soldiers who were wounded and prisoners.

After a couple of years, ICRC was established in 1863. We saw the development of legal frameworks to help prevent or establish the remediation measures that could be taken when conflict occurs. From the outset, ICRC has been present on the battlefield delivering assistance and trying to mitigate that effect through a legal framework by engaging with Arms carriers. I belong to the unit that focuses on that element. By Arms carriers, we are talking about State Armed Forces, non-state armed groups, PMCs, and police gendarmerie-type units. We are continuing both of us in our respective roles the long tradition of ICRC’s work in this area.

What does that mean to maintain dialogue in relations with armed groups? What does that look like? What I see in my head is you are an educator, negotiator, coach almost, and adjudicator, but also, you have the international stick of judgment with you as part of ICRC. What does that role mean?

You had me up until when you said we carry the stick. All of the other roles you talked about are what we do. Our primary role within my particular unit is to disseminate and promote adherence and respect for IHL. That engagement can be as simple as standing in front of a class and delivering a lecture on IHL. It could be a long-term engagement looking at the doctrine of an Armed Force, providing recommendations on how their practices can better comply with IHL, and reviewing some of the activities that are being undertaken.

This is the protection approach that Abby was referring to, where we look at a specific event on the ground and say, “We think that could have been done in a way that would make it more legally compliant, and we will have that discussion with the Arms carriers to make those recommendations to them.”

This is where Abby’s work comes into it. This is the good faith interpretation. It might be a good time to ask about that because it seems to me highly subjective. Even the terminology good faith interpretation is highly subjective. What does that mean? When you are trying to interpret conduct in war as a lawyer, what does good faith interpretation mean? It strikes me as a loosely defined term, slightly slippery and by design.

What we need to remember is that the IHL started in treaties or international conventions. Naturally, all international treaties and conventions are only formed after significant negotiation. A concluded treaty is not always perfect. Some words in it are not well defined. Sometimes that is deliberate.

For the most part, it is fair to say all the IHL treaties, at least the four Geneva Conventions, and all states have signed up for that. They accept the substance of what is in those treaties. The majority of states have signed up for those additional protocols that apply specifically to the conduct of hostilities. Even those states haven’t signed up for those additional protocols, all of them except they are bound by the fundamental rules on IHL by way of customary international law in a non-international and an international armed conflict.

They may not always agree with the ICSC on how you interpret the rules. Sometimes they don’t even agree with each other. That is to be expected. There are clear concepts, even when we think about proportionality, concepts of military advantage, excessiveness and incidental harm. We have a view on how to look at those concepts and principles and apply them to certain situations. Folks don’t always agree with us. Part of our work is to engage closely with states and parties to armed conflict to try and reach a more consistent understanding of how these rules could be applied in particular situations.

When we think about applying IHL in good faith, it is about coming back to the key principles and reasons why IHL exists in the first place. That is for protecting those who aren’t participating in hostilities and are no longer participating in hostilities, such as those rendered in order combat by their wounds, sickness, detained, or surrender.

One of the things I like to emphasise is that it is important to reach a legal agreement on how you think about the treaty terms that were concluded. It matters when those words are taken out of the books and into military operations themselves. Operationalisation of the rules and principles into doctrine, training, planning, and conduct is important.

If I could use one example, it is the principle of precautions. One of my favourite IHL principles is governing the rules on hostilities. It applies to both attacking and defending parties. That principle and rules underpin it requiring attacking parties to do a number of things related to target verification, the type of weapons and tactics you use, and issuing of warnings to the civilian population. When you are in defence, there are a number of things that need to happen to segregate the civilian population under your control from military operations and take measures to protect them.

When it comes to the principle of precautions, any precaution that is feasible to protect civilians must be taken. What do we mean by the term feasible? For us and all states, the rule is that when you are considering what is feasible, you need to consider all of the humanitarian and military considerations relevant at that time.

When it comes to conducting military operations, what is feasible is going to depend a lot on decisions that are made well before a military operation kicks off. A lot of those decisions are being made at the operational and strategic levels, particularly in terms of resource allocation, force composition, the rules of engagement, and the command and control measures in place for a particular operation. Your targeting process is a great example of that. Operationalisation is what I would like to stress there.

That all makes sense, especially when you start thinking about good faith and how deeply that can go down into even the tactical space. The embedded assumption of good faith is that the person giving the order, pulling the trigger, and commanding the operation is going to act in good faith. In other words, he will have the interests of the non-combatants in mind and subscribe to and accept the Geneva Conventions as a guardrail for the conduct of war. That is the challenge. That is where both of you spend most of your time. It is to convince belligerence, whether through liaison or legal policies and matters, that there is a right and a wrong way to carry out the most gruesome activity that humankind has invented.

That brings me to a particular operational area, and that is urban warfare, which we have come to know and seen its impact. Before we get into specifics of urban warfare, we can get a definition of what we mean when we say urban warfare and explore some of its character characteristics. Abby, you might be best placed to lead us off on this, and we can go across to Ruben. I went to the lawyer first on this one.

You won’t find it in the law. I’m not sure you will find it in military doctrine or even policy at the international or domestic level because there is no universal definition. It is easy to spot an urban battle when you see one, particularly if it is of high intensity, Grozny, Mosul, Aleppo, Marawi, Mariupol, and the list goes on.

Urban warfare doesn’t need to always be of high intensity. It takes many faces and forms. Similarly, what happens outside an urban setting can impact what happens inside and vice versa. At the ICRC, we think of urban warfare in a broad sense. We are talking about any hostilities in urban areas as well as those military operations during armed conflict that affect urban areas. That could include a siege around an urban area. It might include hostilities that damage critical infrastructure in the countryside, but that might affect the delivery of urban services.

Urban warfare doesn't always need to be high-intensity. It takes many faces and forms, and what happens outside an urban setting can impact what happens inside it. Share on X

When it comes to terms like urban area, urban settings and cities, we use them interchangeably to refer to a complex, densely built and populated area that has an influence over a larger area. It can include urban centres of various sizes. There is no definition of urban warfare. When it comes to the key characteristics of urban warfare, it is clear that it is one of the most destructive and resource-intensive forms of warfare.

Belligerence tends to operate in a highly decentralised manner sometimes and often alongside partners and coalitions. You see a lot of old traditional types of weapons and tactics being used, a lot of sea and encirclement, tunnels, booby traps, artillery, mortars, snipers, and the like. You see those types of traditional methods being complemented by more modern capabilities, such as new technologies of warfare and precision. There is a huge effort to dominate the information environment, assert control and influence the public. What is of most concern to the ICRC is the fact that it is fought amongst a huge presence of the civilian population. It gives rise to a number of devastating humanitarian consequences.

Most of that spoke to me. It is close to my heart as a child of the war in Bosnia and having lived through a little bit of the war in Sarajevo, which still is the longest siege in modern history. When you say urban warfare, urban is anything that controls a larger area. Sarajevo is the capital of Bosnia. It was about choking down Sarajevo because if Sarajevo fell, Bosnia would fall. That released close to my heart.

We also know that urban warfare is nothing new. We have seen its devastating effects over the recent decades in some of the cities you have mentioned, and we are seeing it play out now in Ukraine. Mariupol is being decimated as we speak, as in many other parts of Eastern Ukraine. What is it about cities that makes them strategically and militarily important?

There are obvious strategic and tactical advantages to urban areas. I will leave that to Abby to cover. One element is particularly interesting to me. That is because of my work on non-state armed groups, and this is how, in one way, they differ from State Armed Forces. They draw a lot of their support and administrative functions from urban areas. They don’t have a CSS function or logistics chains to support them. They will use urban areas almost as a logistics base, recruiting base, and funding base, because that is where the majority of the population can be gathered.

You have heard the phrase feral cities being used. We are talking about large numbers of disadvantaged, primarily used, often unemployed men who can be fertile recruiting grounds for non-state armed groups. That predates back to the 20th Century when trade unions and student groups were a large part of those non-state armed groups.

In terms of funding, if you want to conduct fundraising activities, you would do that in a place with the largest population. Through criminal activities, extortion, bank robberies or kidnappings, urban areas can offer you a source of funding. Logistics-wise, a lot of intakes make use of commercial off-the-shelf technologies, be it handheld drones and mobile phones. Those are easier to procure in urban areas.

They are also easier to be fixed, repair and modify in urban areas. You find those technicians who got to modify your established network and a mechanic who is going to build your vivid are more likely to be found in urban areas. There are a number of areas where in-tags would want to conduct urban operations. For the strategic and tech tool, I will leave that to Abby.

We have seen an increase in urban warfare. People have fought in cities from the moment they began building them, particularly in the last few decades. We are going to see this increase. You could summarise three key reasons. The first one is demographics. We have more than half of the world’s population living in cities already. This is only going to grow to 70% by about 2050, or at least that is what the UN predicts. When we have cities growing vertically and populations becoming denser, we know they are going to become increasingly congested, complex, and interdependent. Demographics is a big thing.

The other point is the strategic value of cities, and you have already touched upon it. They are an embodiment of national identity and a core hub of people, power, economic activity, history, social institutions and culture. They have strategic value. When it comes to belligerent strategy, there are a lot of reasons why one might drive fighting to the urban area. Ruben raised a lot of them there, particularly in the context of non-state armed groups.

The strategic value of cities embodies the national identity. It's a core hub of people, power, economic activity, history, social institutions, and culture. Share on X

When you think about the physical and human terrain that a city offers, it offers a lot of advantages to a defender, especially when they are facing a numerically or technologically superior opponent. At the same time, the attacker might use the city to isolate a defender within the city to prevent their escape, including by resorting to siege or encirclement.

There is some interesting stuff being written by our Lieutenant Colonel Amos Fox over at the US Army about the increase in siege or encirclement tactics in contemporary urban warfare. I would encourage you to take a look at that. It is an interesting argument. The other point as to why one might draw fighting into an urban area is combat density. There is an excellent book written by Professor Anthony King over at the University of Warwick, who looks at urban warfare, how it has been conducted, and projects on how it is going to be conducted in the 21st Century.

He makes this argument, which is quite compelling to say, “Many modern militaries are much smaller these days for a number of reasons, and they can’t amass the type of frontages and conduct the open battle that was most common in the 20th Century. They also can’t envelop or inundate entire cities. What you are going to increasingly see is a convergence of military operations onto decisive points, and they will be primarily located in urban areas in a future conflict. It is a great book. I would encourage you to take a look at that one.

You mentioned it has changed over the last number of decades. The principle change as you have gone through. The main one is the demographics. More of us live in cities, which makes it more difficult to both police, but also to uphold IHL, International Humanitarian Law. This is maybe to Abby and then we will go across the Ruben. What is the role of IHL in urban warfare? What can IHL offer us in such a complex and dense environment? We will go across to Ruben for a more practitioner-level understanding of what you see from the armed groups you speak to on the ground.

What IHL can offer us in armed conflict and urban warfare is a lot. That is no surprise I say that because I’m an IHL lawyer. When it comes to the IHL rules on the conduct of hostility, distinction, proportionality, and precautions, they are all about protecting civilians from fighting. They are the most important when it comes to fighting in urban areas.

Urban warfare is one of the most destructive forms of fighting, not just for civilians but also for combatants. It is an incredibly difficult form of fighting both from a legal, moral, and strategic perspective. The urban battle space is complex and multidimensional. You got combatants or soldiers who have to think about what is above ground, underground, and in buildings. They are often in harm’s way while they are doing that. It is difficult to comply with IHL simply because of the density of the civilian population, infrastructure and their proximity to military objectives. That is what makes it even more important to try.

VOW 62 | Urban Warfare
Urban Warfare: Urban warfare is one of the most destructive forms of fighting, not just for civilians but also for combatants. It’s a difficult form of fighting, legally, morally, and strategically.


The other thing I would like to mention is when it comes to fighting in cities, it brings with it a heavy sustainment burden, which I’m sure you are familiar with. I don’t mean what is required to defeat an adversary but also to respect various legal and humanitarian imperatives. We can think of things like providing for the needs of the displaced, safe evacuation routes for civilians, medical care to the wounded and sick, both civilians and combatants, protection of captured personnel, and handling of human remains. They are all clear IHL obligations, but they are heavy sustainment challenges for forces.

Continuing the sustainment is the reconstruction piece afterwards, which is something the military forces have to keep in mind. The bill for the reconstruction of Mosul was in the tens of billions of dollars for a relatively short nine-month battle. If there are elements of the conduct that help reduce civilian harm by reducing the damage to civilian objects, which brings it in compliance with IHL, there are also benefits in regard to the reconstruction and reparation costs post-battle.

The reconnection of severe ties between the local populations is another aspect of IHL or why adherence to IHL. Not just rebuilding the physical but also the emotional and social capital that has been decimated, especially in urban warfare. Have you had any experience with that, Ruben?

The ISIS takeover of Mosul in 2014 was due to a breakdown of the relationship between Maslawis and the government of Iraq. Part of their conduct during that battle was to ensure they rescued the Maslawis from ISIS, and they did it or tried to do it in such a way that they rebuilt the relationship by ensuring that civilian considerations were built into the operation from the outset and during their conduct. They realised that this was the first step in a long process of re-establishing government authority. That was going to be on the basis of respect and trust. It couldn’t be coerced. That was an important element in shaping how the Iraqi Security Forces conducted their operation in that area.

One of the things that strikes me as particularly difficult for both of you from your jobs is we often assume that IHL hates their rules of war and conduct of war. We need to follow them. That feels to me that it is almost a throwaway because the environment of war is such that IHL doesn’t always feature at the forefront of your mind, especially when we are talking about urban warfare.

As you said, Abby, you don’t know you’ve got above you, below you, and next to you potential threats. You’ve got IEDs, snipers, mortars, artillery tanks, and civilians. It is such a complex environment. I will throw it across to you, Ruben. Through your liaison and contact with groups, what is it about the war that makes combatants forget or disregard IHL? Why is it difficult to implant IHL into a combatant, whether from a recognised Armed Force or a non-established non-state armed group?

Looking at how violence is employed, it is worth looking at it on a bit of a spectrum. At one end, we will have strategic violence. That is where violence is employed deliberately. It is sanctioned at the highest levels. For example, acts of tourism would be strategic violence. That is for that purpose. We have opportunistic violence, which is violence conducted by soldiers at the lowest level. It is not sanctioned by commanders. It would be punished by commanders. It was found out that was occurring. That could include looting.

VOW 62 | Urban Warfare
Urban Warfare: Opportunistic violence is violence conducted by soldiers at the lowest level and unsanctioned by commanders.


Devorah Manekin at Hebrew University has termed entrepreneurial violence, which is the violence that occurs with the knowledge, especially of mid-level commanders, but is not punished in any way when it occurs. Sometimes it can be encouraged because those mid-level commanders think that is a better way of undertaking operations. That is where there is a level of command and control engagement in the application of violence.

When it comes to the individual, and this is where we are pointing towards in the first part of your question, we know that when the rounds start flying, our focus tends to narrow quickly and quite considerably. A lot of the moral judgments we make are automatic and intuitive. They are not rational or deliberative. Stress has a large part to play in reducing our rational decision-making. There are visceral states that exist, be it our fight for survival, hunger, fear, and anger. These are all emotions or visceral states that can cause us to take actions that might be illegal.

There are other emotions in terms of a determination to be fearful. For most people, there is no desire to harm others. We have loyalty to a peer group. These can offset some of the other states I talked about. There are also underlying conditions as to why soldiers or commanders might contravene IHL. There is a vast number of reasons. Not all of those can be built into our system of disseminating IHL. The way that a soldier conducts themselves on the battlefield is an important consideration for us to understand.

One of the reasons that the unit I belong to is almost entirely recruited from former service personnel is we have been in that position. We have heard the crack and thump. We have the dust on our boots. When we are engaging with militaries, we are engaging from a position of, “We have been in your position. We understand the challenges.” However, it is possible, and here are some examples of how to do it.

Correct me if I’m wrong. I suspect it is far easier speaking to recognised militaries than non-state armed groups. Would that be accurate?

Not entirely. You will have a good view of all arms carriers as having a lot of similarities. They are conducting conflict. The nature of war is violent, iterative, primarily, and political when it is undertaken. The nature of the conflict is the same. The normative framework that applies in those settings is the same for both sides. As Abby was saying, “If it is a non-international armed conflict that involves a non-state armed group and a State Armed Force on another, the same legal framework applies to both.” The content of our engagement with those groups and circumstances is generally on the same matters. It comes down to the distinction, proportionality and proportions they undertake in their activities.

The nature of war is violent, iterative, and primarily political when it's undertaken. Share on X

The manner in which we would engage them may differ slightly from a State Armed Force. ICRC is present in a country at the knowledge of a state. Therefore, through state channels, we are able to establish contact with a State Armed Force. A non-state armed group might be achieved through the communities we are delivering assistance to because the non-state armed group has closer ties with those communities. They might have some of their personnel in detention that we visit as part of our detention visits. It might be that our convoys run into non-state armed group checkpoints as they are moving through whatever area we are operating in. That is the way that contact is established.

In that way, establishing contact can be difficult. The engagement follows a similar process. We have to establish our bonafide. We have to explain to all of the arms carriers our humanitarian principles and how those shape how we act. We are a neutral, impartial, and humanitarian organisation. We don’t take sides. We are not going to take a personal perspective. We are there for those that have become victims of conflict, be they civilians, combatants or fighters who can no longer participate in the battle for whatever reason.

A lot of it comes down to us acting in the same way we preach. People can see that we are neutral and impartial. From there, the dialogue continues. It is similar between State Armed Forces and non-state armed groups. Sometimes reaching a non-state armed group can be more difficult than trotting off an email or a phone call to someone at a military headquarters.

Abby, do you do any engagement with belligerence in the legal sense?

I engage mostly with militaries and also civilian government officials, particularly in my work on urban warfare, which is why I work closely with Ruben’s unit. We tend to work together on some of these issues. One example I use, and it is a shameless promotion on the show, is a publication we published late in 2021. It is called A Commander’s Handbook on Reducing Civilian Harm in Urban Warfare.

VOW 62 | Urban Warfare
Reducing Civilian Harm in Urban Warfare: A Commander’s Handbook

The drafting of that publication was led by Ruben’s unit, but it involved a number of colleagues within the house. It is the result of a lengthy study of a number of urban battles over a series of decades and extensive engagement with State Armed Forces to discuss with them some of their practices, both good and bad, and the ways in which they could better protect civilians.

We drew a lot on a number of good practices that State Armed Forces have been using in conflicts and our own recommendations we have had for a number of years to come up with this publication. The beauty of it is it is not long. I don’t know about you, but when I was in uniform, I wouldn’t often read doctrine if it was long.

This publication sets out a number of good practice recommendations on doctrine, training policy and conduct on how to reduce harm in urban warfare. That only came about from engaging with militaries across the globe. Within the legal division itself, we engage all the time, both with Jags as well as uniform personnel.

It is important when doing work on the conduct of hostilities because we need to have these robust conversations with militaries to understand where they are coming from and the challenges they are facing when it comes to tackling what is a complex or wicked problem. Ruben talked a lot about the considerations for the soldier at the individual tactical level when they are in an incredibly dangerous environment. That is the urban. It is important not to forget that the strategic and operational levels make a lot of important decisions before that phase of hostilities affects what happens in the urban battle.

What do you mean? Explore that a little more because that strikes me as a particularly important point.

I mentioned Lieutenant Colonel Amos Fox, who has written a lot of great stuff. He has put out a provocative argument, as well as Anthony King. They say, “Western militaries, you have trained and focused on warfighting that has this idea of manoeuvre as the centre of warfighting. You need to manoeuvre through the battlespace. The war needs to be fast and violent.”

That whole concept is turned on its head when you end up in a city. It becomes a grinding attritional battle where you fight street by street. You got micro sieges or encirclement. The battle does slow down. It ends up not being the battle you prepared for. You are only as good as the preparations you had before in terms of thinking about some of these challenges, particularly when it comes to civilian harm.

One of the things we emphasise when it comes to urban battles is civilians cannot be trapped. They must not be trapped. They need to be able to have the option to leave if they want to. They need safe passage out. Sometimes we might say that parties to armed conflict are illegally obliged to evacuate civilians in certain circumstances.

Evacuation doesn’t happen out of nowhere. They are complex operations involving a lot of actors, planning and coordination that need to be thought about above the tactical level. They are thinking about the types of decisions that need to be made in phase zero or the shaping phases of military operations to ensure that when it comes to phase four, things aren’t as bad as they are. That is what I mean by that.

I will take it even beyond phase zero. If we look back at the writing of doctrine, the training, and the equipping of the force, these can all help set a military force up for better success when it comes to the protection of civilians. An example I like to use is back in Mosul, where the counterterrorism service was given one of the primary roles in retaking Mosul.

The counterterrorism service was established as a hostage recovery force. It is a counterterrorism-type force to kick in doors, clear rooms, and take buildings, and within tasked with the conventional task of recapturing the city. It wasn’t recapturing a city. It was rescuing Maslawis from the Islamic State Group. They approached it in the same way their training had set them out to do. Their mindset and training are carried over into conventional operation, which is, “We are here to rescue those civilians.”

From the moment a CTS trooper joined the CTS, it was drilled into them that they are there to rescue civilians and hostages. Every element of their training, equipping, and support they got from partnered military forces was to develop those instincts. The muscle memory that triggers discipline is all focused on, “Is that person a civilian or a combatant?” At the end of the day, the recovery of those hostages, or civilians, is what is going to determine mission success. That mindset can occur years before a battle is undertaken. As Abby was saying, they have to build on each other. You can’t have those mindset years before a battle unless you are going to follow it through in the planning and phase zero through to phase four.

I had an interview with Tony Ingesson, who is a Swedish researcher on cultures and subcultures with the behaviours at the tactical level in combat. He looked at both heroism, but also atrocities. He talks about what you are describing there. The subculture a unit will embody and live in is shaped even before phase zero.

It is shaped at the recruit level, where you start the non-conscious programming inside that person’s behaviour. They don’t have to think. They act out of instinct as opposed to a cognitive process that, as you rightly pointed out before, under high stress, tunnel vision kicks in, heart rate goes up, and sweaty palms. There is much thinking going on. It is a gross motor skill and instinct takes over, which makes sense about why we drill things in the military. What difference have you observed between the conduct of militaries who have trained and have the protection of civilians inculcated in their unit culture or subculture versus those who don’t? Can you point your finger and say there is a distinct difference in the way they approach war or combat?

For training, it is critical and ingraining the theoretical underpinnings of what a military force, its values and norms they say they are all about. We know from education that if you are going to attend a lecture, you are going to retain 5% of the knowledge. If you are going to read, you retain 10%. That is unacceptable. You are never going to pass an exam if you read or listen to a lecture. There has to be a follow-up.

What we are aiming for is when it comes down to training. If you are going to practice what you are taught, your retention levels jump to 75% or 80%. If we are serious about the protection of civilians, it can’t be something reflected in doctrine, which is often read but rarely practised. It can’t be taught in a classroom. You got to go out there and practice these scenarios.

The CTS example in Iraq is a good one, where you got a counterterrorism or a hostage recovery force. They run those drills ad nauseam. They do that in such a way that they are prepared for what it is that they are going to be undertaking. They will have civilian role players in those rooms acting and responding as civilians would.

Unfortunately, when we see a lot of urban training facilities, the civilian presence is superficial, almost token and doesn’t reflect the population densities we see. If you are going to run an urban training event and you don’t have a civilian presence, it is almost like running jungle warfare training in the desert. It’s absurd to think you can train for an urban environment without having civilians there.

I’m reminded of my Physics teacher back in high school. Above the chalkboard, he had written, “I hear, and I forget. I see, and I remember. I do, and I understand.” I don’t know whose quote that is. I know it is a famous quote. I can’t think of who said it, but it has always stuck with me. That makes absolute sense because that is how we need to approach it. This speaks to that culture in inculcating the desired behaviours.

It is funny you both keep mentioning doctrine. I keep trying to avoid the obvious fact I work in the unit responsible for the project managing the writing and updating of our Army doctrine. I have to admit that I have had to look at the Commander’s handbook. I have already shared it with some of my peers because we are looking to include some of those aspects in our revised ADF doctrine. It is not a shameless plug. It should be said loud and clear. These are important aspects of war that we don’t often talk about.

We were incredibly grateful for the opportunity to engage with some experienced ADF officials during the consultations to elaborate on that handbook. A lot of the insight that they had from their experience was integral to producing that publication.

I also echo the point, which has been recognised at the highest level of defence, that doctrine is rarely read because it is long and verbose. There has been research on the level of literacy one needs to have to read some of our publications. It was tertiary-level training to understand, which is not where it needs to be. If we want our soldiers to be referring to these documents and to be the go-to handbooks for them, they need to be written in a language that speaks to the audience. You shouldn’t need a PhD to read a publication and understand what he is trying to say.

I will do a plug for one of ADF’s publications. Lieutenant Colonel Charles Knight’s team produced this great compendium of urban warfare and urban operations academic doctrine and a whole bunch of publications. It is a huge compendium. I found that incredibly useful. It is all of the great urban war stuff in one place.

I don’t want to harp on about doctrine, but it is one of those things. Even in my previous Army career, I used to shy away from it because of all the reasons we mentioned, but it is fundamentally important. We can laugh it off as doctrine is boring, but it underpins everything. It sets the guardrails and tone that the military will embody in its training and live.

Doctrine is a guide, but it is the fundamental building block before you can get creative. Going straight to the creative part without understanding the building blocks built over is where things can go wrong. We have touched on a particular aspect of the conflict. That is near and dear to my heart. That is culture and different cultural values. How do we account for different cultural norms and behaviours expectations when teaching IHL? We can start with Ruben here and get Abby’s view.

It is understanding culture. Let’s use the broadest definition of culture we possibly can. We are talking about the norms, values of the community, religious and spiritual beliefs. We are talking about those unspoken etiquettes or rules of societal interaction that are unwritten but can be extremely strong. There is a study by ICRC. We were prolific at doing research into elements like this. We conducted a study in 2018 called The Roots of Restraint which looked at the influences that can complement IHL. That kicked off a long line of work, especially in regard to religious and spiritual beliefs. We have looked at the complementarity of Islam and IHL. We had published quite a bit on Buddhism.

Some of the early work on IHL was driven by these religious values that have existed for millennia. They were codified in religious teachings and practised. It became part of the early 19th Century into the body we now know as IHL. A lot of IHL can find its history in some of those religious and spiritual beliefs. Some of the concepts that occur in IHL, such as that prisoners should be treated honourably, reflect the age of knights and chivalry in terms of how prisoners are to be captured.

As you rightly note, these influences still pervade now to varying degrees, and militaries go to great efforts, as all three of us know when we joined, to teach the history and the elements that make up military culture. Pride, professionalism, courage, honour, and integrity all make up a professional military practitioner.

There is a key element within that, which is being professional means being technically proficient. A technically proficient combatant is more likely to accurately employ their weapon system than someone who is not professional. That is strange coming from a humanitarian, but if you know your skill and trade, you can more accurately direct that in a way that prevents civilian harm from occurring. In regards to some more civilian cultures, and these don’t have to be written in religious tracks, there are norms that have existed within societies back to tribal times that certain elements of society are protected. They should not be targeted. They do not take part in hostilities.

VOW 62 | Urban Warfare
Urban Warfare: Being professional means being technically proficient.


A few years ago, one of our delegates, the unit for arms relations, was talking to cattle herders down in South Sudan, where they were wrestling. He knew the answer, but he asked the question. He was like, “That old man over there, can he be part of the wrestling match?” He was told, “No, he can’t. Don’t be ridiculous.” He was like, “What about this young boy? What about this lady?” He was told, “No, of course not.”

He pointed out that the same rules you have for wrestling apply in IHL. There are protected people who must not be targeted. If we can find opportunities, that does take a knowledge of the local context and the environment in which you are operating, plus a knowledge of the military cultures and subcultures that exist to identify those parallels that we can use to highlight IHL. It is not new. These are the principles of IHL. Some of the specific rules date back centuries and millennia.

It makes sense why it also transcends any particular national or unit culture because no one sets out to become a war criminal. We intuitively understand and know what is right or wrong. We know who should be part of this wrestling match or this war and who might not. Inevitably, we are seeing it play out now. Not all belligerence will adopt that position. Civilians shouldn’t be harmed because civilians can become a strategic target to suppress an identity and resistance and stage false flag operations.

It is not happening now. It has happened before. It certainly has happened in Bosnia, where the intention was to kill civilians to blame the victims for killing their own. They stage a false flag operation in Sarajevo, the bombing of shelling of a marketplace where the Serb Army was accusing the Bosnians of killing their own people to go to the UN and cry, which was proven wrong. This is something that happens all the time.

How do we convince combatants who are not interested or don’t care about IHL, or are going against it because it is in their interest? What have you found to be effective, and what is not? I want to hear from both of you on this, if possible. Ruben, in your case, you have spoken to belligerents. How do you speak to armed groups? I suspect you have also spoken to some who we would consider otherwise terrorists, which terrorism is targeting civilians for political aims. How do you convince them that it is firstly illegal, and secondly, there is an interest to protect civilians?

There can be a variety of approaches that can be taken in that regard. For a number of non-state armed groups, compliance with IHL can be seen as a road to legitimacy. If they are seen to comply, build this into their own codes of conduct, and punish people who may transgress, that can be seen that they are a responsible force. They are fulfilling some of the elements of statehood they are aspiring for.

However, other non-state armed groups are trying to do away with the existing order. They don’t want to sign up to the international order. They want to do away with it completely. Therefore, that is where we need to find what it is that defines them. That underpins a lot of our work on religion and IHL because some people can identify more with divine law than man-made law using their phrasing.

If we can identify the language and religious teachings, it complements IHL and lays out many of the same elements. The Quran is a good example, and Torah does it. Many of the teachings and religions support and underpin IHL. We can have a discussion that lays out the rules without referring to IHL. There are other arguments that can be used as a story that I use to underpin the civilians that have agency during urban battles.

During the battle for Mosul, we know that some of the Iraqi ISIS fighters pushed back on some of the tactics being employed by the foreign fighters from the Islamic State. Because they considered those tactics, it was primarily through the placement of IEDs to be detrimental to the family and friends of the Iraqi fighters who were the people living in that city.

The result was we did see a lot less IEDs being deployed and utilised. This is more static IEDs in Mosul than we did in Fallujah and Ramadi. The argument can be as simple as, “How about your own families and communities?” You could go to the extreme and say, “Targeting civilians can be a waste of resources. What are you achieving by targeting civilians? There is a perfectly valid military target that you can direct your attention and resources to. Why would you expand those resources on civilians that are going to generate ill will towards you?”

As State Armed Forces found themselves in Afghanistan and Iraq, if you harm civilians, your support and source of intelligence dries up. It can undermine your mission completely if you don’t take care of civilians. Added to that now, every person in the world has a mobile media device in their pocket that can record, edit and disseminate information.

You have mentioned recent conflicts, but we have started to see this occur more, especially in some of the conflicts in the Middle East and in places where mobile phone coverage and internet coverage are high. The way that civilians are treated can reach the world stage in a matter of seconds from that incident occurring.

I want to get to the technology piece, but I want to give Abby a chance to jump in on this engagement piece with those who are seemingly uninterested.

I might take the question in a slightly different direction because when we discuss IHL with people, we hear that whether it be armed actors, political actors, or otherwise, we are confronted with this scepticism on the significance of the law. We hear some of the things you said before, “They are terrorists. The law doesn’t apply to them. They don’t respect the rules. The rules that were made a number of years ago aren’t relevant to the war now.” When you combine that negative discourse with the media reports, we see various atrocities in conflict zones. It can lead us to question, “What is the relevance of the law in modern warfare?”

When you combine the negative discourse with the media reports, we see various atrocities in conflict zones that question the law's relevance today. Share on X

For the ICRC, we stress this recurring discourse that IHL is always violated and, therefore, useless. It is not only wrong. It is dangerous. We know that violations occur. We know many of them are deliberate, and suffering does follow. If you have these negative perceptions of the utility of IHL, it can create an environment where violations can become more acceptable. The normalisation of violations can have a terrible impact on persons affected by armed conflict.

What I would like to stress is that reality is much more nuanced than what you see in the media. There is daily evidence of IHL compliance by belligerence. What we don’t see every day in armed conflicts across the globe is that many parties are fighting by the rules. These quiet everyday achievements of IHL, a wounded person allowed through a checkpoint, a child who receives food, and gets to go to school, detainees who are able to send a message to a loved one or to a family member to let them know where they are and if they are okay. Those are examples you don’t see in the media. They are not visible to the public, but they are happening every day.

VOW 62 | Urban Warfare
Urban Warfare: The reality is much more nuanced than what you see in the media.


It can prove that respect for IHL is possible, and it is happening. It is important not to lose sight of this. It is something that the ICRC has been trying to do for many years because we have consistently faced this narrative that IHL is irrelevant. We want to keep stressing. There are plenty of examples of the positive application of IHL, including by belligerence, where they are facing incredible scrutiny in the media, whether it be justified or not.

The accountability that IHL on belligerence coupled with the eyes of the world. This is what I meant by the stick of justice. When I alluded to your role initially, Ruben, I never meant you had this stick in a kinetic sense but more in the shaming effect. That speaks to this road to legitimacy. You talked about this PR sentiment as to why you ought to follow IHL.

I left Sarajevo in the second last UN convoy that ever left the city. There were a number of armed groups that danced, played around the convoy and shot around the convoy. The convoy was allowed to pass through because the world was watching. It was the UN that was leaving Saravejo. That has an impact. Despite IHL being laughed at by some, it does set the conditions that will shape how a conflict will occur. If the eyes are not upon the belligerence, we also know that things go haywire. Ruben, did you want to say something?

In addition to the formal consequences you talked about, there are informal consequences that will occur. If you are going to not comply with IHL, you might not face legal prosecution, but you will be judged in the eyes of the global community. It might even be your own community or peers who figure that you have dishonoured their unit by not conducting yourself in a professional manner. It can be the internal consequences.

We know that when civilian harm occurs, if you witness it and participate in it, that can lead to mental harm and injury. There are consequences that extend far beyond. In some cases, it can be more devastating than going through a judicial procedure. If you are ostracised by your peers, you are outcast by your community, and your mum is not going to speak to you again because she knows what her son or daughter did on the battlefield, those can be awfully powerful incentives to behave yourself.

That reminds me of discussions I had with the research on child soldiers and what impact that has participating in conflict on a child’s development in the sense of belonging to their community, particularly when the community feels ashamed for having done some grave atrocities. An essential component of the healing process or reconciliation is to embrace the child and, in a way, forgive, which oftentimes is rather difficult.

You did make a point before, Ruben, about technology, and I want to touch on it. What role, in your view, does technology play in urban warfare, not only in its prosecution but also in managing consequences? We have touched on a couple. Can we know some examples of how technology you have seen play out in urban warfare?

Technology does have an impact, but a lot less than we would imagine. I often hear the lack of technology or capabilities as an example or an excuse for not protecting civilians. I don’t accept that. Many of the measures we lay out in a handbook and discussions with armed groups and State Armed Forces are understanding the civilian environment comes from humans. It is from talking to those civilians, urban engineers, and municipal engineers about how the critical infrastructure is all connected.

We are talking to humanitarians or healthcare professionals about those support and civilian considerations, which you are not going to get from UAV at 15,000 to 20,000 feet. It gives you a grainy black-and-white image. They are not going to tell you what the civilian population is going to do if there is an attack. That is imminent. You don’t know what is in the minds, and it comes from humans. Technology can be limited in that respect, but it can also be quite useful. We will start to see how technology evolves in urban operations. If you are talking about the use of a multimillion-dollar medium altitude, long endurance drone or UAV, that is going to be limited in an urban area where it can be negated by a sheet or tarpaulin draped across the street.

What you will begin to see are smaller handheld or hand-launched drones that, through AI, operate as a swarm. The information they collect is collated through AI-drive data or intel fusion to paint a picture. That can be useful when that lower level granularity can be more useful. It must be complemented by that human element.

When it comes to teaching IHL, as the father of some young kids, who are Gen Z-ers, and we have Gen Y-ers out there, these are people who are now NCOs, young offices, and the young soldiers are all of this generation. That is where the Australian Red Cross worked on Game of Thrones in terms of what characters were war criminals because of the actions they had conducted. They spread that out through social media. It conveys the message of IHL, the elements of it, and the general principles that underpin it to a younger audience who may not be familiar with IHL.

Another technology within my unit here is we have developed a virtual reality tool that is a first-person shooter experience that an individual soldier can patrol through an urban area and be faced with IHL-based decisions. It can be as simple as engaging or not engaging as they are patrolling through an urban area. They are faced with scenarios that challenge or get them to practice their application of IHL. We were not going to be able to accompany every soldier on an urban jungle lane and the paradox there, but we can do that virtually. We can put them in a classroom and walk them through that.

At least start the process of conditioning for the right responses.

When we go back to the pedagogical approaches, that practice is going to be far more effective than if we lecture them from the front of the room with PowerPoint.

Practice will be far more effective than lectures. Share on X

Do you reach out to militaries and offer that virtual reality game? How does it get to the end user?

We got some 80 odds Armed Forces delegates around the world. We have this laptop loaded up with an enhanced image to deliver this end. We normally are part of a lesson where we can give them the rules and a chance to practice them. You put someone in that setting where their peers are around them. There is a bit of a competitive spirit. They all want to engage and be a step ahead of their peers. You can foster that competitive spirit to do better at IHL in this environment.

I suspect you already have somebody with the Australian Defence Force. Abby, how does technology play in all of this from your perspective?

In terms of the future of urban warfare, a lot of people are writing about how technology will change and how urban warfare will be fought in the future. I’m not entirely sure if that is the case or not. It is to be seen. One of the things we talk about in terms of the positive aspect of technology and what we would like to see states and militaries develop more or improve is their technology to know and understand the battle space better to get that information to the decision-makers quickly. We know that in urban settings, it is the individual soldier, the JTAC, and the ground force commander. The tactical level is making some serious decisions in terms of where to drop munitions.

We have done a long line of work in the field as well as advocacy here with governments, the UN, and the like on the disruption of essential services and protection of critical infrastructure in cities because this is one of the core issues when it comes to urban warfare. Electricity, health, water and sanitation, food production, and education are essential core services. The critical infrastructure that sustains those services are often damaged during the hostilities, either deliberately or as collateral damage. Sometimes the services are denied by warring parties as part of their strategy.

Essential services might be vulnerable to cyber operations if the essential service systems are not secured by design. We would be encouraged by the types of work being done to improve the soldier from all the way down the tactical level through to the strategic and their understanding of the city’s infrastructural laydown. What are the most critical above-ground and below-ground infrastructure? What makes this city run?

When you think about essential services, they are interdependent. The failure of one can result in the collapse of many. Electricity is needed for water and sanitation. Hospitals and schools need safe water, sanitation, and electricity. When systems like this fail, the scale of the humanitarian consequences does exceed anything that humanitarian action alone can fix. It is a real problem when it comes to fighting in urban areas.

The failure of one can result in the collapse of many. Share on X

We see heavy explosive weapons cause a lot of damage to this critical infrastructure. Sometimes it is because the person who is calling in the airstrike doesn’t know the type of infrastructure they are going to hit is going to cause such significant harm. That is where there could be value from technology in the future.

That reminds me of my conversation with Marc Garlasco, who put me in touch originally with you, Abby, and spoke exceptionally highly of you. He was the Chief IT for the Pentagon during the invasion of Iraq in 2003. He speaks about the 50 attempts at striking Saddam remotely, and 0 out of 50 were successful, but every one of those killed civilians.

He speaks to the understanding of the environment and getting a much better picture of where you are dropping ordinance and what is the likely effect. He speaks to the limitations of technology in many ways that you touched on, Ruben and the need and reliance on humans and the people on the ground to understand what the intent is while Saddam might have been somewhere. He was a conscious actor exercising his agency, moving around and deceiving. It is an interesting piece.

Is it sensitive? Is it touchy? I’m not sure what the right word is. I have also interviewed Samuel Moyn, who is the author of the book called Humane: How the US Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War. The thesis and the argument of the book is that focus on IHL has made war more palatable to some nations. It uses the US as an example because theoretically, at least precision, munitions, and Special Forces, which result from international humanitarian law and pressure on belligerence, have made war become more humane. For that reason, it has also made war a lot more palatable or a far easier tool to turn to because of the seeming lack of impact on civilians.

What do you both think of this hypothesis? Even in his book, he does draw the distinction that IHL was a pacifist in his approach. It argued for, “Let’s ban war full stop.” Because of pressures and the realities on the ground, it went with, “If we can’t ban war, let’s make war more humane. We can have this offshoot effect.” I don’t know who wants to start us off on this one.

I enjoyed the episode you did with Marc. He raised a lot of good points, particularly when it comes to the issue of precision. He raised a couple of valid points going. No matter how precise your weapon is and how accurate you might be on what you are targeting it, it is going to depend on the quality of your intelligence, the size of your bomb, and the nature of your target to determine how much civilian harm you are going to be causing. It is an important point when you hear people talk about the value and merits of precision, particularly if you are using precision across an entire urban battle space that will end up with the same outcome as your bunch of unguided bombs.

VOW 62 | Urban Warfare
Urban Warfare: If you’re using precision across an entire urban battle space, that will end with the same outcome as a bunch of unguided bombs.


On Samuel Moyn’s argument, I have listened to a couple of podcasts about the book, including yours. I’m yet to read it fully. It certainly sounds like an interesting book with quite a US-centric focus. I have heard it has generated some controversy. I’m not surprised by this. If I understand the premise of the argument you described correctly, it is that through IHL, we have legitimised the war effort at the expense of prioritising peace and prohibiting war altogether.

Because IHL seeks to make war more humane, the legal framework is to blame for why conflicts don’t end. If that is the premise of the argument, it is not the first time I have heard an author question the role of IHL. You are going to have a hard time convincing me of it. I might need to read the book still. I would make a couple of points. The first one is to let us not forget that generations of international lawyers have devoted their careers to outlawing war by law. Those efforts have been unsuccessful.

Yes, the UN charter does prohibit war through Article 2(4), but you can’t simply ignore the fact that there are two exceptions when the security council can authorise the use of force collectively to restore international peace and security and for the individual or collective self-defence in the case of an armed attack against a member state.

We also can’t forget that the UN charter does not address the use of force in non-international armed conflicts. We know that they are occurring across the globe. That armed conflict occurs is a fact. Is it not a moral imperative to have some limits in the absence of peace? History also shows us that unrestrained warfare would almost certainly cause large-scale horrors and be an ineffective way of fighting a war. That is the first point.

The UN charter does not address the use of force in non-national armed conflicts, and we know that they are occurring across the globe, so the fact that armed conflict occurs is a fact. Share on X

The second point I would say is let’s be clear about what IHL is as a body of law and its mandate. IHL is agnostic as to the reasons why someone starts an armed conflict in the first place. It doesn’t authorise and legitimise it. It certainly doesn’t encourage its duration. It doesn’t express a view on how to end a war. It is a pragmatic, albeit imperfect, framework to manage an exceptional situation involving extreme violence. Its purpose is to reduce the suffering of those not participating in the hostilities. It doesn’t stop all the suffering, but it does stop some of it.

The real genius of IHL and the reason why it has been universally accepted by states as a body of law is that when the rules were codified, the military was included in the conversation. The laws weren’t adopted until they agreed. That was the only way we were going to get those laws. As for who is to blame for decisions to start a conflict or not to end one, let’s not use IHL as a scapegoat.

Those are political decisions that rest with parties to arm conflict. Institutions such as the UN and the Security Council are charged with dealing with those questions, at least on paper. They give rise to legal issues that exist in other bodies of public international law. That is not IHL. I would be interested to see more empirical evidence to demonstrate that making wars more intense, brutal and awful is going to bring about their swift and decisive end.

I might have misrepresented his argument. I don’t think he makes that argument, or he is as critical of IHL as I might have made it sound. In fact, he is not at all. It is that he is saying that at the cost of appeasement. In other words, we know the war is going to happen. Let’s at least try and make it more humane.

A second-order effect of that is that whilst all noble, Samuel will be the first to say that this is a noble effort and a humane war is better than a non-humane war. In his argument, it is not better than a no-war. That is a bit of a no-s*** statement. The point he is making is that because we have made war seemingly humane, it becomes a much more easily palatable decision for the decision-makers, which you rightly accuse as the ones who are responsible. I couldn’t agree more with you.

It becomes a lot more palatable for them to say, “Let’s go to Iraq. We will do precision strikes. We won’t hit any civilians. Let’s get rid of Saddam. We are going for a quick victory because we have all these precision guard munitions and/or we will send Special Forces.” We now know it is never the full picture, but it is sold oftentimes. That is what his argument is that I might have misrepresented him.

I might have completely misunderstood. I guess the question I ask is, “What is the alternative to not having IHL?” I’m not convinced by an argument. It might not be the one that Samuel Moyn makes, “By raising the price of admission to war through unrestrained violence, is the solution to ending them and to bring us the promise of peace.” It is a tricky argument.

He is trying to reinvent the argument or reignite the original commitment to banning war, facing or tackling that reality, as opposed to accepting that war is going to happen. Therefore, it is making it more humane. That is his cognitive push. Let’s put the ban war position back on the table of a pacifist rather than accepting that war is an inevitable self-evident truth of the human species. That gets us down this cascading option of war being humane. Ruben, you were going to jump in.

It is worth adding that the employment of remote warfare to make it more palatable has little to do with IHL. What makes it palatable is the fact that there is a lack of friendly force casualties through the use of drones, SF, and proxy forces. What makes it palatable to the domestic audience? That is who we are addressing here. It is the fact body bags are not going to come home.

That raises a risk if there is less risk being applied to the force as a whole, and there is that distance. It can create dissonance or dehumanisation of the conduct of warfare. That is a whole other argument in regards to war being a battle of wills and a contest between human groups. The human element of that needs to be kept at the forefront of our understanding of warfare.

He does talk a lot about drones and its usage. We don’t see what happens. He uses Pakistan and Afghanistan as an example. It looks like this has struck a chord with you, Abby, but I think you got something else to say.

It is not surprising that someone who spent a long time around the body of IHL would have those reactions, and that is the intent, as I understand the book. Similar authors have said similar things, particularly in the argument of pacifism and that movement, which is an important one. From what I understand, it is interesting comments made about Henry Dunant and his role in the early days of developing the IHL rules in the ICRC and what their role is both in the using Jus in bello and Jus ad bellum context. I’m looking forward to reading the book. It has been on my list for quite some months now. I have not had a chance to read it, but I need to.

It is controversial, but it is free for thought there anyway. I often say, “I’m as close as one can be as a pacifist while wearing a uniform.” I recognise it much like you described it. There are oftentimes absolute necessities. Unfortunately, it seems, with the human species, we need to resort to war, as grave as it may be. I am in the camp of those who think that often, we choose that option a little too easily and forget. I was a civilian in war. My life and where I am now are a consequence of a war I experienced as a child. I can empathise with that position from a personal level because we tend to jump to the war as being a solution easily.

VOW 62 | Urban Warfare
Urban Warfare: Mostly, we choose war a little too easily and forget that civilians are affected.


I’m not taking into account those serious and long-lasting consequences of warfare on the civilian population. Those effects are not easily seen once you leave a battle space. The consequences and the dangers for civilians from urban warfare are long-lasting. They are not immediately visible. They affect civilians in different ways. It differs depending on whether they remain in the city at war. They leave their homes and cross the front lines or are displaced. The consequences for them reverberate for decades after the conflict ends and the militaries leave. That is something that the ICRC wants to stress to belligerent. They are making decisions to get involved in conflicts. What exactly that means for civilians?

This was a question I had for you I wanted to ask. There are a number of second and third-order effects that we don’t discuss, and you have hit a couple. If you got a few more minutes, I would be happy to hear what are some of those other second and third-order consequences that civilians experience as a result of urban warfare.

We touched upon a couple of them throughout the discussions. The ones from all of the damage and destruction that is caused by the use of heavy explosive weapons are one. They reverberate well beyond the weapon’s initial impact zone. The effects on essential services are another one. One of the things I didn’t mention was in order to have essential services run, and you don’t need the critical infrastructure. You need the people, consumables and supplies.

The essential service personnel you need to maintain and run infrastructure might flee the conflict. They might be harmed while trying to do their job. There is this incredible level of brain drain as a result of protracted hostilities. There is no one qualified to repair a lot of this infrastructure. When it comes to the supply, parts and consumables you need to fix, a lot of that is held up by sanctions regimes and counterterrorism measures that are taken. It is difficult to get those in. That is the one aspect.

Another point was the mass displacement. A decision for a civilian to flee a conflict zone is a self-protection measure, but it is one that comes with significant risk all along the way of that displacement. They might face ill-treatment as they flee, subjected to harsh screening measures. Even when they do reach where they are displaced, whether it be to another city, within the city, or a camp, they still need to find a place to live and employment. Sometimes they are prevented from returning. I’m not talking about months. It is years because there might be unexploded weapon contamination, a lack of essential services, and they got no homes to go to. There are some long-lasting reverberating effects.

VOW 62 | Urban Warfare
Urban Warfare: A civilian’s decision to flee a conflict zone is a self-protection measure, but it comes with significant risk all along the way.


These are all interconnected and flow onto one another. You can start with a seemingly innocuous event like an airstrike that damages an office. That means that those individuals might not have a source of income, they have less money coming into their families, and their families have less access to food at a time when those food prices are rising. Maz, I’m preaching to the converted here because you know this full well.

The downward spiral accumulates harm and risk over time as the situation becomes more dire, and they become vulnerable. It is important to realise that there are members of society that are more vulnerable than others. If we look at the elderly and disabled, at the start of a conflict, they are on the back foot. They might not be able to hear the warnings being delivered by radio or telephone. They might be disabled and not be able to move. We know this when it comes to the evacuations of cities.

It is critical that they understand that despite an evacuation, there are civilians who will remain behind because, for whatever reason, they cannot evacuate. They reached the point where they were unable to leave their homes for whatever reason. There is a number of sad but long list of humanitarian consequences that occur from urban warfare, but they do feed on each other and can spiral quite dramatically out of control.

A long list of humanitarian consequences arises from urban warfare, but they feed on each other and spiral quite dramatically out of control. Share on X

I like the point you made about the loss of income as a result of hostilities. This is something we didn’t learn, and I put myself in this camp during my time in Afghanistan. We forgot that war had an impact on the local population. They would look to make a living whichever way they could, including bringing parts for an IED.

On behalf of this mythical organisation, we refer to it as the Taliban, which we still don’t understand what that might have meant. We would straight away paint that person with the same brush as the same Taliban sitting in Khewra, Pakistan. That is a mistake because when we prosecute that individual as a target, we are not necessarily seeing the true motivations for their participation, but we might have made them murder now and have turned members of their family against the coalition. That is another aspect that triggered my mind, as you said because I have made that same mistake.

My last question to you both is, I want you to say three things if you can think of three on the spot, that make your jobs particularly difficult. In other words, what are three things you would like military and other armed group decision-makers to think about when considering or conducting urban warfare? These are the lessons learned based on your experience those partaking in urban warfare can take away.

Can we do one each because asking for three off the bat is not fair?

Let’s go with one each.

I would start by asking all military personnel, be they belong to an armed group or State Armed Force, to put themselves in the shoes of the civilians in the area they are operating. Think of themselves foremost as sons, daughters, and brothers to better understand what the civilian population goes through. They are in need, as you pointed out through your anecdote, of income. The children are in need of education advancement. They are in need of basics, water, food, health supplies, and medical support. Think through all of the elements of that process, be it the training, planning, or conduct of what it would like to be a civilian in the urban area or even a rural area in which they are about to conduct those hostilities. That is number one for me.

I will make a comment on it because that speaks to me strongly. By trying to put yourself in the shoes of that particular urban setting, you are developing empathy and a sense of relatedness to them, and you are recognising soon, “Their needs are the same as my needs. If my city was on siege, I would be doing the same thing.” By developing empathy, you are humanising or you are doing the opposite of what dehumanisation does, which leads you to become more desensitised to IHL or atrocities in general.

This is why I wanted Ruben to come on the show with me because he is always much more eloquent than anything I can say. To echo everything that Ruben has said and following on from that, whether we like it or not, the future of warfare is going to be urban. It is still going to be destructive no matter what forms of technological advancement happen and the advancements in precision.

The future of warfare will be urban, and it will still be destructive, no matter what forms of technological advancement and advancements in precision there are. Share on X

What I would like is for all states and non-state armed groups to think about how to conduct them to better protect them for civilians. That does start well before you end up in the urban battle and prioritise it in training, doctrine and war games. Those are tabletop exercises. They are important types of exercises to talk through a lot of the challenges that might arise.

It is to take the training beyond the level of door kicking. That operational level of planning and the strategic level, and go, “What do we need to think about to ensure the soldier, the sailors or the air people to support this war? What do we need to have them thinking about now? How do we need to resource them, enforce composition and all of those considerations but with the view of what is best to protect civilians?”

I must emphasise this wasn’t staged in any way, but the fact I’m in the doctrine world that speaks and resonates with me. I couldn’t agree more. I can make you the pledge that I will quietly share both those publications you have mentioned to my peers and circle them around as publications are being drafted. They are both fantastic resources for the enormous amount of work that has gone into thinking about this problem, which is a real problem.

On that note, I want to thank you both personally, as I keep alluding to, as a child of urban warfare and siege, for the work you are doing to help those who are in similar circumstances now but also for those who will be in those circumstances tomorrow. I want to thank you for giving me your time. We have gone well beyond our originally agreed timeframe. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences on this sad but important topic.

I wanted to say thank you so much for the invitation, Maz. Your show is excellent. I have listened to so many of the episodes. I enjoyed them. Thank you so much for putting it out there and having interesting and important discussions with a bunch of interesting folks. Thanks for the chance to join.

Thanks, Abby.

I would reiterate that, especially if you get the opportunity, please invite more ethicists and behavioural change experts to your interviews with David Whetham, Dean-Peter Baker, and Shannon French. Those are all the areas of work I’m interested in and want to pursue in the future. Well done, and please keep it up.

You will be pleased to know that I have another three ethicists locked in for the next several months. Plenty more of that topic to come. Thank you so much for your time. I appreciate it. All the best.


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