National Security Law Program
Center on Global Governance
The razing of Jericho; the sack of Magdeburg; the siege of Leningrad; the fire-bombing of Dresden. Ever since civilizations began organizing permanent economic settlements, cities and towns have occupied a central role in warfare and in our images of war." On almost every page of historical writings," remarked Grotius, "you may find accounts of the destruction of whole cities, or the leveling of walls to the ground, the devastation of fields, and conflagrations." A driving force behind the evolution and development of cities has been defense and security. As a result, how-ever, cities have become a primary target or object of war, exposing their residents to all the ravages and privations of conflict.
While the targeting of cities has remained a constant in warfare, the political role of cities within the nation-state has shifted. The centralization of authority during the past several centuries made states the primary political unit comprising the international system, while economic development and nationalism made cities integral to the functioning of that modern state. As the strategic significance of cities, and the value military planners place on their protection or capture, has changed, so too have the customs and international legal norms that govern how cities were to be treated during hostilities.
Matthew C. Waxman,
Siegecraft and Surrender: The Law and Strategy of Cities and Targets,
Va. J. Int'l. L.
Available at: https://scholarship.law.columbia.edu/faculty_scholarship/592