Sherman on war

Not so long ago, in a discussion on Iraq the question came up of what various people would have predicted at the outset of the US Civil War. It seemed to me that all with the possible exception of Sherman, would have grossly underestimated the length and bloodiness of the war, and that all would have predicted easy victory for their side. Of course, rather than speculate, I should have checked Wikipedia. Fortunately, William Tecumseh Sherman was the featured article yesterday, and includes Sherman’s judgement.

You people of the South don’t know what you are doing. This country will be drenched in blood, and God only knows how it will end. It is all folly, madness, a crime against civilization! You people speak so lightly of war; you don’t know what you’re talking about. War is a terrible thing!

Sherman continued, with an accurate analysis of the eventual outcome

You mistake, too, the people of the North. They are a peaceable people but an earnest people, and they will fight, too. They are not going to let this country be destroyed without a mighty effort to save it …

Besides, where are your men and appliances of war to contend against them? The North can make a steam engine, locomotive, or railway car; hardly a yard of cloth or pair of shoes can you make. You are rushing into war with one of the most powerful, ingeniously mechanical, and determined people on Earth—right at your doors.

You are bound to fail. Only in your spirit and determination are you prepared for war. In all else you are totally unprepared, with a bad cause to start with. At first you will make headway, but as your limited resources begin to fail, shut out from the markets of Europe as you will be, your cause will begin to wane. If your people will but stop and think, they must see in the end that you will surely fail.

More famous, and even more appropriate today is his statement at the end of the war

I confess, without shame, that I am sick and tired of fighting—its glory is all moonshine; even success the most brilliant is over dead and mangled bodies, with the anguish and lamentations of distant families, appealing to me for sons, husbands, and fathers … it is only those who have never heard a shot, never heard the shriek and groans of the wounded and lacerated … that cry aloud for more blood, more vengeance, more desolation.

14 thoughts on “Sherman on war

  1. Pr Q is right to finger Sherman as the great pacifist. Thats the way with great soldier scholars. Ike was the most perceptive critic of the “military-industrial complex”.

    Sherman was a great orator on the evils of war. Experience was the great teacher:

    You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out. I know I had no hand in making this war, and I know I will make more sacrifices to-day than any of you to secure peace.

    In a speech to graduating military cadets he did not spare their illusions to ram the message home:

    I’ve been where you are now and I know just how you feel. It’s entirely natural that there should beat in the breast of every one of you a hope and desire that some day you can use the skill you have acquired here.

    Suppress it! You don’t know the horrible aspects of war. I’ve been through two wars and I know. I’ve seen cities and homes in ashes. I’ve seen thousands of men lying on the ground, their dead faces looking up at the skies.

    I tell you, war is hell!

    Mainstream conservatives, who promulgated the great “law of unintended consequences” should have been the first to warn of the dangers of unleashing the militarist genie out of the ME bottle. Main force military conflict b/w peoples is just revolution on industrial turbo-charge.
    Instead, for shame, they closed their eyes in the hope of a temporary repeal.

  2. It should also be remembered that Sherman was the first to realise that in order to win the war the South needed to be physically devastated and its slaves physically set free. The march through Georgia, memorably depicted in Gone with the Wind, was a deliberate campaign of terror against a civilian population – and won the war, more than any other campaign. Sherman in retirement became a great friend of, and frequent visitor to, Samuel Clemens aka Mark Twain – but I suppose you know that from reading Wikipedia, Prof Q.

  3. One of the great ironies of Australian politics is that the PM has stated the need to learn history in our schools.

    He has no doubt read of the history of his own idols Robert Menzies and Winston Churchill.

    For all of that however, he has shown no thought of the agonies of war – only his own glory as the commander. Anyone who had any idea of history knew that Afghanistan has never been pacified in recent history although the British tried in the nineteenth century and failed; in every other country they had succeeded in conquering. Similarly in the twentieth century the Russians failed although they too had great success in pacifying other nations. Despite this and the fearsome reputation of the warriors of that region not only did we enter into a conflict in Afghanistan but before that war was complete entered into another conflict in Iraq.

    Just as the Southern American forces underestimated and discounted the forces of the north we have done the same to the Middle Eastern peoples.

    Men often comment on the way that a woman will repeat the birthing experience, marvelling at the pain endured by a woman in the process. Yet in warfare there is a far greater ability by men to ignore the agony and destruction created. Sherman’s lessons appear to go unheeded by most, now as then.

  4. Notwithstanding any personal feelings Sherman did practice a scorched earth policy saying that war is a cruelty and which could not be refined and those that bring war should be spared no quarter.

  5. actually, war was an immensely satisfying pastime to the bush regime, in the planning stage. redrawing maps, revenge on enemies, rewarding friends in client states, i expect they would feel superhuman. and landing on an aircraft carrier to receive the triumph! dubya must have thought he was caesar. then the real war began…

    this is one reason i would like to wrest the power to send a nation to war out of the hands of politicians and vest it in the hands of those whose sons and daughters will be up at the bloody end. there are plenty of other good reasons to struggle for democracy, but this is one parents can understand easily.

  6. Sherman also bears an uncanny resemblance to Clint Eastwood. I wonder if they are in any way related?

  7. Jill Rush – where is your evidence that John Howard “has shown no thought of the agonies of war – only his own glory as the commander.”

    And you have managed to get the Sherman analogy of the South v North arse about in your statement “Just as the Southern American forces underestimated and discounted the forces of the north we have done the same to the Middle Eastern peoples.” What you are saying here is that the US/UK et al is the equivalent of the South and that the terroists in Iraq are the equivalent of the North. I don’t have the time to go into how many ways this is wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, . . .

    As for al loonis – do you have any proof of your fantasies???

    I thought not.

  8. Razor
    Clearly John Howard has used the Defence Forces for political ends. He takes every opportunity to be photographed with the serving forces whom he has sent to war thoughtlessly. He would have had a great deal more credibility if he had joined up and fought in Vietnam as he would have experienced the horrors of war personally. Of course he supported that war too but only for others to do the fighting and he has done precious little for the survivors.

    I didn’t say that the terrorists are the equivalent of the North. Your mistake is that you have assumed that those opposing the American led forces in the Middle East are all terrorists; however the Afghanis opposing the occupying forces have advantages on the battlefield – the main ones are knowledge of the territory, including mountains, which provide shelter, ability to create their own weapons and the ability to blend in with the civilian population through knowledge of language and customs. There is a tenacity which will be hard to match. Whilst you mention Iraq which I didn’t, it is hard to see the Americans winning there over time.

    I doubt you understand Sherman’s viewpoint either.

  9. Sigh.

    Practically all of you are coming at this – despite the best will in the world – with a body of preconceptions.

    JQ, practically all of the leaders of people of the USA and CSA knew what a long war would be; Sherman was telling them nothing there. However, practically all of the northern voters supposed that the war would be short, and practically all the south supposed that either the prospect would daunt the north and thus there would be no war at all – think Rhodesian UDI – or that internal stresses and/or outside support would help them (compare and contrast the American War of Independence, in which many of the stupider rebels made the first mistake but the second sort of aid did happen). Sherman’s only contribution here was to point out that there would be the commitment to a long war – although even there, he was only right on the stopped clock principle; the “north” was actually a coalition of the north and the west (now midwest), and his assessment of the commitment did not quite apply to the west, while his assessment of the resources did not apply to the north on its own. Ironically, if only the compromises of previous decades hadn’t happened, secession would have happened before either the north was relativley so strong or the art of war had moved to so great a dependence on industrial infrastructure.

    Hal9000, the march through Georgia was not “a deliberate campaign of terror against a civilian population”, though no doubt many of the perpetrators and victims fancied it such, and the same ethical responsibility applies. It was incidentally and consciously terrible, but it was deliberately “only” a destruction of infrastructure that underpinned the war making capability, offering the enemy a poisoned alternative of fighting battles not of his own choosing and not in favourable circumstances. The technical term for this is “havoc”. The whole war is eerily paralleled in a work that many of the particiapants would have known, Washington Irving’s “The Conquest of Granada”, which even has its own march to the sea as part of its end game.

    Jill Rush, the British succeeded in pacifying Afghanistan in the Second and Third Afghan Wars (and in the Fourth, but that was in the 20th century). The trick they – we – learned the hard way was to use incursions, if necessary repeated ones, not invasions, and always leave the enemy with something to lose. (I trust you were not using “pacify” as a synonym for “occupy”, and that you will appreciate that this is a technical area in which the distinction between incursion and invasion matters, unlike the quibbling ethical distinction the unfortunate American PR man attempted when he said that the USA hadn’t invaded Cambodia, it was only an incursion.)

    On the matter of who gets to make war, there has been an unwatched attrition of constitutional safeguards in many countries: the failure to keep actual and real war making capacity linked to legal and formal declarations of war. “Declare war” is not a synonym for “make war”, it is a formal trigger for going on a war footing. For instance, the Malayan campaign of 1948-60(ish) was deliberately never declared a war so as not to trigger the lapse of insurance policies and the collapse of the (then) rubber-dependent Malayan economy. If the US Congress and Senate had minded their business in past decades, Bush wouldn’t have any resources to wage war with, beyond the very short term, unless and until their release was triggered by a formal declaration. This was the reasoning behind having annual mutiny acts in the UK until surprisingly recently; army and navy discipline was only guaranteed in the short term, on purpose. If you tried using troops unconstitutionally, soon enough the civil power would no longer return deserters and so the troops would desert in too great numbers, and if you kept them in barracks so they couldn’t – why, you couldn’t use them to enforce martial law.

  10. PML
    The point you appear to be making is that Sherman got it wrong: and that somehow people, who think war is a poor way to conduct politics, are also wrong.

    If you read my post again you will see pacifying means conquering Afghanistan. The British didn’t manage this as the mountains made it impossible. Those mountains are terrifyingly steep, and the people who live there are tough and brave. Their buildings would make great bikie fortresses and offer a degree of protection from outside ground forces.

    Bush didn’t know this, (one of his unknown unknowns no doubt) and before ensuring that Afghanistan was stable, he started a war against Saddam Hussein. Bush sold this to the American people on the pretext Saddam was evil and because he was a supporter of Osama Bin Laden.

    We can only wonder what Sherman would have made of it.

  11. Jill Rush, you are substituting the nearest match among your preconceptions for what I actually wrote. For instance, imputing “…somehow people, who think war is a poor way to conduct politics, are also wrong” to me is just your own imagination. I was getting at the importance of sorting out what we know now and what was known then, and also what happened by circumstance and what was inevitable (even though not known then).

    No, I did not state that Sherman got it wrong; I stated that he was not quite spot on about “the north”, that he did not actually have solid evidence for what he asserted (which nobody could have had), that much of what he asserted was widely understood to be likely from a long drawn out war, and that many people expected either no war or a short war (with some reason, lacking hindsight).

    What is more, you should read my post again. When I point out that you are in error about pacification, that does not mean that I did not know what you meant. On the contrary, I fully realised that you meant “conquered”, and that you had got it wrong. That does not mean that you were wrong in thinking Britain had not conquered Afghanistan, but that you were wrong in claiming that Britain had not pacified it. That is not a quibble, any more than distinguishing incursions from invasions. Your similar very serious error was in confusing “conquer” and “pacify”, and I was showing how these are very different, in ways that mattered. This is an area where the technical terms matter a very great deal, and your error is of the same sort as diagnosing a disease the wrong way or prescribing the wrong treatment, as though every belly ache needed aspirin.

  12. BTW, “The British didn’t manage [conquering Afghanistan] as the mountains made it impossible. Those mountains are terrifyingly steep, and the people who live there are tough and brave. Their buildings would make great bikie fortresses and offer a degree of protection from outside ground forces.” is basically nonsense. That is, the premises are accurate but do not support the conclusion.

    The facts are these:-

    – The mountains did not render conquest impossible by providing defences for the locals. They did so by making communications INdefensible for attackers, who therefore couldn’t establish themselves in the country on a permanent basis, except in redoubts that got sidelined and were subject to attrition.

    – The “bikie fortresses” were highly vulnerable to being sidelined by penal expeditions with screw guns that could be dismantled and carried in on mules, and later to bombers, because they had cultivated areas and homes near them that were not dug in.

    – Merely destroying that Afghan infrastructure left them a choice between rebuilding in time for winter or keep raiding India.

    And that was pacification. The problem for would-be conquerors simply got turned around and made into a problem for the locals. The trick is doing it, of course.

  13. PML
    You are quite right. I did make an assumption as to what your main point was as the post didn’t manage to do so despite the length.

    Your points are lost on matters that are subjective and semantic; the arguments as to why your definitions are right is an opinion – however the Afghani homes are like bikie fortresses – all of them – basically because there have been so many wars conducted in the region since Ghengis Khan conquered the region.

    The Hindu Kush is great protection for a number of reasons. The communications are just one aspect of the problems for invaders. Undertaking the current war should have meant a great deal more thought and preparation took place, before the USA, Australia and others attacked. As it is, the lack of preparation meant that a core group of Al Quaeda/Taliban escaped to fight another day, and as the Soviet experience showed in the 80’s, the war is likely to be long and may involve a reinstallation of the Taliban. Sherman’s warnings may not have been made in the light of modern weaponry but the psychology of warfare has changed little.

  14. “…the arguments as to why your definitions are right is an opinion…”, well, no.

    The thing is, this is a technical area and the terms are tools. While different terminology is possible, it has to be rigorous, self consistent, and most importantly, capable of making any fine distinctions that the field requires. That doesn’t count when you aren’t doing that, which is why the American PR man was just quibbling when he said that the USA hadn’t invaded Cambodia, it was only an incursion. On the other hand, say, when anti-immigration Americans today speak of an invasion by illegal immigrants, they are kidding themselves; what they face is technically infiltration, and if they were to put in place measures to stop an invasion, that wouldn’t work.

    The psychology of these matters is important, but it isn’t the defining characteristic, the thing that determines winning or losing. If “the enemy’s will” is broken, that affects things, but on the other hand it doesn’t count in extremis, when physical resources of various sorts are what count. Thinking in terms of psychology is what made Hitler fight to the bitter end, based on the idea that the First World War was only lost by a failure of will (ordinary Germans most likely stuck by him for fear of unconditional surrender to the Russians) – but he still lost. But the 1918 failure of will was really a recognition of real facts, of what a bitter end would lead to (and not knowing how hard Versailles would be or how hard the continuing blockade would be). So there is an interplay, but the psychological effects rest on the physical facts, just as the chess convention of stopping at checkmate rests on recognising the inevitable capture of the king that would otherwise take place.

    Guerilla resistance does make outright conquest impossible unless the enemy decides to surrender, if the means only include occupation. So, unless the conqueror decides to give something back, as the British did in South Africa or the US did when ending post-Civil War Reconstruction, conflict continues. But if the conqueror is psychologically and physically capable of it, which also means that outside forces don’t disrupt the means, conquest can include “take away the water, the fish die”. That’s what Britain did with South African concentration camps, and the USA with Philippino ones, but which wasn’t available for the Spanish in Cuba (when they tried “reconcentrado”, the USA intervened). Or, in the Norman Conquest of England, the Normans only occupied part; the more rebellious north, they laid waste. Sure, that had a psychological effect on the south, but mainly it removed any base for rebellion. The Americans don’t have that option today, not for psychological reasons – they can rationalise it – but because even if they make a desert and call it peace that doesn’t create a “democracy”. Devastation also destroys their war aims.

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