Thursday, December 14, 2006

Sherman and total war

I've been reading a book by Robert Kagan entitled Dangerous Nation, about the history of America's international relations. Kagan's thesis is that, from the start, the US was more involved and interventionist, and less isolationist, than conventional wisdom would indicate.

But that's not the portion of the book I'm writing about today. I've been reading the part about the Civil War. In the earliest days of that conflict, people thought it would be possible to wage the war in a relatively "civilized" and circumscribed manner. Instead, it was transformed into one of the bloodiest and most "total" of modern wars fought up till that time.

McClellan, Lincoln's first Union commander, preferred to wage a "gentleman's war." Ulysses S. Grant later described McClellan as one who "did not believe in this war...[letting his] ambivalent attitude toward the conflict influence [his] military performance." Thus do perceptions of a war's justness and necessity color the decisions made in the course of it, even by commanders.

McClellan, who was relieved of his military duties in March of 1862, famously ran for President against Lincoln on an antiwar platform in 1864. He lost, partly due to the impressive battle victories of one of his successors, Sherman, who was his very antithesis.

Kagan writes about the ever-controversial General Sherman [emphasis mine]:

The northern generals who prosecuted the war most effectively , and most ruthlessly, had more understanding of its ideological purposes..."We are not only fighting hostile armies," William Tecumseh Sherman declared, "but a hostile people, and must make old and young, rich and poor, feel the hard hand of war"....Therefore the North must "make the war so terrible...[and] make them so sick of war that generations would pass away before they would again appeal to it "...The Union's conduct of the Civil War would remain, for American commanders in both world wars of the twentieth century, the very model of a great war...a war of 'power unrestrained' unleashed for 'complete conquest.'

Sherman famously said "War is hell," a stark statement that encapsulates the horror of war. He's been accused of committing war crimes during the Civil War, but the evidence is that his campaign against the civilians of the South was mainly limited to destroying property, although it certainly caused a great deal of suffering--as intended.

Sherman also had a way with words. He's the author of many famous quotes about war which show a fascinating combination of the compassionate and the implacable. Sherman felt the two were closely linked in war--in order to ultimately be compassionate, one had to be ruthless, because half-measures kept the population in an undefeated state, ready to wage war again:

Every attempt to make war easy and safe will result in humiliation and defeat.

War is cruelty. There is no use trying to reform it. The crueler it is, the sooner it will be over.

The scenes on this field would cure anyone of war.

War as a remedy for war--it seems paradoxical. And yet, it worked for Sherman. And it seems that the dreadful wars of the twentieth century--World Wars I and II--bore out the principle that if a war is bad enough that a people actually feels defeated (not just humiliated or tricked, but defeated and war weary), they are unlikely to start another.

The First World War, bloody and vicious though it was, was not really a total war in the sense Sherman meant, although it came close. Fought mainly by armies (although those armies were decimated; an entire generation of Europeans lost its "best and brightest" men) it was stalemated for an exceptionally long time, and ended through an armistice--and then a treaty, Versailles--that was so unsatisfactory in resolving it that World War II was not long in coming.

The reasons the Germans were able to come back so quickly to start another war, despite their defeat in WWI, are complex. But one of them was probably the fact that although they felt humiliated by the terms of the Treaty, they somehow managed to feel that they had not really been conquered. In fact, in his rise to power, Hitler played on that perception: German defeat was not a "real" defeat, but the result of a betrayal by domestic forces of a varied nature (including, of course, the Jews)--the "stab in the back" theory.

World War II was, by all definitions, a total war. It involved civilian populations far more heavily; in WWI, most of the civilian deaths had been from influenza and famine, but World War II featured heavy civilian bombardment as a common tactic of the war. In fact, it seems that the experience of the total war of WWII decisively ended even the idea of warfare for Western Europe. It made its inhabitants, harking back to Sherman's words about the South, "so sick of war that generations would pass away before they would again appeal to it."

Revulsion for what they suffered during World Wars I and II--compared to the relative lack of suffering on American soil--is part of what has led to European pacifism and belief in the talking cure, as well as their contempt for what they see as America's tendency to resort far too easily to war. Europe feels itself to have been "cured" of war. The only problem, of course, is that the cure hasn't spread to the world of Islamic totalitarianism. Au contraire.

The first Gulf War was very different than the American Civil War, World War I, or World War II. The Gulf War was waged in a comparatively "easy and safe"--and limited--manner. However, contradicting Sherman's statement that such wars end in defeat, it was won by the US and its allies.

On reflection, though, Sherman appears to have been correct, after all. The Gulf War was "won," but the win was so limited that it led almost inevitably to the present Iraq War. Saddam's defiance at the end of the Gulf War; his massacre of those who, counting on our help, rose up against him; and his flouting of sanctions and inspections; clearly indicated that neither he nor the Iraqi people (except for his victims) had felt the sting of true defeat.

The present Iraq War illustrates the same dilemma of the "easy and safe" war leading to defeat--or, in this case, the perception of defeat, one that seems to have overwhelmed much of our electorate and our MSM.

"Easy and safe" (relatively speaking, of course; no war is either) is a good description of the initial military campaign of the Iraq War. The degree to which that first stage was "easy and safe" was the degree to which the forces now wreaking havoc there felt undefeated. At the time, it was "easy" for them to pretend to roll over during the initial war, which lasted only a few weeks, and then to regroup for the asymmetrical war they've been fighting ever since (a war which, like all modern wars, appeals to our own media--which certainly doesn't seem to need a total war to feel defeated).

I am most decidedly not advocating using the civilian bombardment techniques of World War II in Iraq. But I am suggesting that we acknowledge that we need to be willing to do what is necessary to win, and to make the actual enemy feel conquered (a la, take out al Sadr and his minions, for starters), and not to just go for "easy and safe." If we do the latter, we are doing no one a favor--including most of the Iraqi people.

[General Sherman on the topic of the MSM:

I hate newspapermen. They come into camp and pick up their camp rumors and print them as facts. I regard them as spies, which, in truth, they are.

If I had my choice I would kill every reporter in the world, but I am sure we would be getting reports from Hell before breakfast.

Powered by Blogger