Twenty years ago, on what looked like a movie set built in the Quantico woods, I learned how to fight in a city. This faux city was called “MOUT Town.” MOUT—Military Operations in Urban Terrain—is U.S. military-speak for high-intensity urban combat, like what’s unfolding in Gaza. Tactically, MOUT was very different from the traditional combat we’d already studied in the Marine Corps. The urban battlefield was highly constricted; streets and buildings funneled us into close quarters with our enemy. Beyond every corner, window, or doorway lurked a potential ambush. Most notably, and adding a specific and complex layer to this type of warfare, civilians blended with adversaries, all played by instructors who ambushed us with paintball guns. Casualty rates in urban warfare far exceed those of other forms of combat, a fact reinforced by the dime-size paintball welts that covered my body by the end of MOUT week.
Less than a year later, in November 2004, I found myself leading a 46-man rifle platoon into Fallujah, in Iraq. This battle pitted 13,000 Marines and soldiers against a defending force of 4,000 al-Qaeda fighters. In staging areas outside the city, we drilled the urban tactics we’d learned in MOUT Town. Chief among those tactics was close-quarters battle, or CQB, a highly choreographed maneuver designed for hostage rescue in which a group of Marines enters a room and clears it of threats. These tactics look similar to what usually appears in movies featuring Navy SEALs or Delta Force operatives as they rescue hostages; it is a familiar, if violent, visual. The idea is to flood a room with so much speed and precision that you overwhelm a defending adversary; your enemy might be able to shoot the first man through the door, or even the second, but they’ll be killed by the third or fourth. In these situations, a room’s door isn’t even called a door; it’s called the “fatal funnel.” The first man knows he’s likely going to get shot—that’s his job.
Armed with these tactics, the second battle of Fallujah began for our platoon. It took only a few days for us to learn that CQB wasn’t appropriate for Fallujah. Unlike in Gaza, the majority of civilians had evacuated the city, and the intensity of fighting was such that it made no sense to send a Marine through the door of a building being defended by members of al-Qaeda who had chosen to remain in Fallujah with the sole purpose of exchanging their lives for ours. We quickly adjusted our approach. When ambushed on a street corner, we’d back off from the building where the threat was coming from. Instead of sending Marines in to clear the building, we’d surround it and radio up either an Abrams tank or a D9 armored bulldozer (loaned to us by the Israelis), and then collapse the building. If this sounds brutal, it was. Yet our calculus was simple: No building is worth a Marine’s life.
As we adjusted our tactics, our enemy adjusted its own. Within a few days, fighters learned that attacking us from a distance would result in being surrounded and killed, in many cases at minimal loss of American life. They needed to draw us in closer. And so, as we cleared the city, we encountered more of what came to be known as “hell houses.”
In these houses, insurgents would train a machine gun on the front door. On either side of that door, two more insurgents would take position. The insurgents wouldn’t shoot at us as we approached but rather would wait until the first Marine entered. The insurgent behind the machine gun would fire a burst into the Marine, causing him to fall forward through the door. The two insurgents by the door, operating as a snatch team, would drag that Marine into the house, away from his comrades, who wouldn’t know at that point whether he was alive or dead. The insurgents, knowing that we wouldn’t leave a fallen comrade behind, had effectively taken a hostage. This forced us to engage in the costly close-quarters battle that we had sought to avoid but that benefited our enemy, whose objective had never been to escape the house but rather to exchange their lives for as many American lives as possible.
Amid the horrors of war, it’s tempting to believe that the categorization of violence is a meaningless exercise. If someone is killed by a rifle shot at long range versus killed while fighting from room to room to rescue a hostage, does it matter? If civilians are killed accidentally in an air strike or are deliberately targeted, it’s all the same, isn’t it? Death is death. Violence is violence. Yet this view, which borders on nihilistic, creates false equivalencies. How we fight matters. Intention matters.
The members of al-Qaeda whom we fought in Fallujah had little to no intention of leaving that battle alive. They weren’t fighting to win. They were fighting to die. Theirs had become a death cult, fixated on martyrdom, paradise in the afterlife, and death to nonbeliever infidels, including many of their fellow Muslims. To maximize American losses, they were willing to take hostages. In the hell houses, those hostages were fallen Marines. But in a larger sense, they took the city itself hostage, displacing its citizens and turning Fallujah into a mousetrap to kill Americans.
Watching the battle unfolding in Gaza, I can see Fallujah’s hell houses. Hamas’s attack on October 7 was designed to elicit a specific, violent response from the Israelis. Hamas has turned the city of Gaza into a hell house. It has not only taken 242 hostages; it’s taken the entire city and population of Gaza hostage. Hamas’s goal isn’t the liberation of the Palestinian people. Like al-Qaeda in Iraq, Hamas is a death cult, whose charter quotes a hadith that states, “The Day of Judgement will not come about until Moslems fight the Jews (killing the Jews), when the Jew will hide behind stones and trees. The stones and trees will say O Moslems, O Abdulla, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him.”
Combat in a city is like a knife fight in a phone booth. The violence is fast and intimate. The images coming out of Gaza are beyond grim. They will worsen as Israeli troops push deeper into the city and enter the hell houses, to say nothing of miles of tunnels they’ll have to navigate as they seek to free hostages. In an urban battle—whether in Fallujah, Bakhmut, Hue City, or Stalingrad—the city is usually destroyed. It becomes the one hostage that can never be rescued. It’s difficult to see how Gaza City will avoid this outcome, or to understand how Hamas could deliver the citizens it purportedly represents to such a fate.
An army’s tactics tell you a lot about its strategic intentions. Hamas’s attacks on October 7 weren’t designed to bring victory to Palestine, or to ease the suffering of the Palestinian people. Before October 7, Saudi Arabia was poised to normalize diplomatic relations with Israel. This would have been a historic breakthrough, decades in the making—a new promise of peace. Hamas shot that promise dead on the threshold. And they’ve dragged it, along with the hostages, into Gaza.