In 1968, following the heavy U.S. bombing of the Viet Cong–held city of Ben Tre, the Associated Press’ Peter Arnett quoted an anonymous U.S. major saying, “it became necessary to destroy the town to save it.” Though some have disputed the veracity of the quote, it became one of the iconic utterances of the Vietnam War, symbolizing the U.S. military’s indifference to civilian casualties.
The line comes to mind after reading the New York Times’ description Thursday of Ramadi, which was mostly retaken by U.S.-backed Iraqi forces last month but now features a “panorama of wreckage so vast that it was unclear where the original buildings had stood.”
Many streets had been erased or remained covered in rubble or blocked by trenches used in the fighting. To reach their command center in the city’s southwest, Iraqi forces took a meandering, bumpy dirt track through neighborhoods full of collapsed homes, shrapnel-ridden shop fronts and swimming-pool-size craters left by airstrikes. One was full of green water, apparently from a damaged sewage line.
The damage was partly the result of the heavy U.S. airstrikes launched against ISIS in the city in the final days of the battle. (The coalition has launched more than 600 airstrikes on Ramadi since July.) It’s also partly the result of how ISIS fought the final battle, leaving “scattered webs of improvised explosive devices” and booby traps to slow down their adversaries. Entire areas of the city are still no-go zones because of these traps. The small number of ISIS fighters left behind also used suicide tactics. “They don’t surrender,” Lt. Gen. Abdul-Ghani al-Asadi, the commander of the Iraqi force, told the Times. “They blow themselves up.”
Accounts of decimated towns have become familiar as the coalition has begun to retake territory in Iraq and Syria from ISIS. Reporting for Roads and Kingdoms and Slate, journalist Cengiz Yar described the scene in the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar, which was reclaimed by Kurdish forces in November. “One out of every four houses or buildings in Sinjar is flattened, a result of the U.S.-led coalition airstrikes that helped the Kurds take back the city over the past few weeks,” he wrote. “The majority of the buildings that remain standing have serious structural damage, and while roughly one-quarter of Sinjar could be inhabitable with minor construction efforts in the coming weeks, the rebuilding is far from certain.”
After the Syrian town of Kobani was recaptured by Kurdish forces with support from U.S. airstrikes in January 2015, the Guardian described a place that was “no longer a town in anything but name”:
Over half the city was destroyed, officials say. Entire blocks are pancake flattened, as if an earthquake had struck. Even in quieter areas, no building seems to have escaped unscathed – those still standing are missing windows, doors, whole sections of walls, scorched black by fire or looted during the fighting.
The pattern is now pretty clear. When ISIS is on the verge of losing a city, its fighters dig in with booby traps, IEDs, and suicide bombers to slow down the final assault by ground troops. This forces the coalition to rely heavily on U.S. airstrikes, which only increases the destruction of buildings and civilian casualties. Amid criticism back home, U.S. commanders have been anxious to tout progress in reclaiming territory from ISIS and promise breakthroughs soon in major ISIS-held cities like Mosul. But given that it seems necessary to destroy these cities in order to liberate them, these victories feel pretty hollow.