Cover Story


The war in Iraq marks a historical turning point, where worldview and technology work together to change the way war is waged

Issue: "Baghdad set free," April 19, 2003

War is cruelty. You cannot refine it."That's what Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman told Atlanta officials in September 1864. He arrested factory workers who had made Confederate uniforms and sent those women north as prisoners. In October, after his supply train was fired upon, Sherman ordered his men to "burn 10 or 12 houses of known secessionists, kill a few at random, and let them know it will be repeated every time a train is fired upon."

Sherman was a military innovator, consciously going against the Instructions for the Government of Armies of the United States in the Field (General Orders No. 100). That document at the Civil War's start reiterated a long-standing policy distinguishing "between the private individual belonging to a hostile country and the hostile country itself, with its men in arms ... the unarmed citizen is to be spared in person, property, and honor." But Sherman in 1862 wrote that those who opposed the destruction of civilian property were captive to "an old idea."

Sherman put his theory into practice. During 1863 his forces in Mississippi pillaged and burned towns. In the summer of 1864, Sherman pressed down on Atlanta and bombarded the city's residences with cannons that could, as he wrote in August, "pick out almost any house in town" and "make the inside of Atlanta too hot to be endured."

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In 1865, as Sherman's troops marched into South Carolina, the first state to secede, Sherman informed Washington that "the whole army is burning with an insatiable desire to wreak vengeance upon South Carolina. I almost tremble at her fate, but feel that she deserves all that seems to be in store for her." The Philadelphia Inquirer observed that the destruction of South Carolina "is but justice, and Heaven will surely mete it out ... the world will approve her punishment, and to the sentence of righteous retribution will say, Amen!"

Northern journalist David Conyngham described the night of Feb. 17, 1865, when South Carolina's capital city, Columbia, burned: "The streets were soon crowded with helpless women and children, some in night clothes. Agonized mothers, seeking their children, all affrighted and terrified, were rushing on all sides from the raging flames and falling houses. Invalids had to be dragged from their beds, and lay exposed to the flames and smoke that swept the streets, or to the cold of open air in backyards."

The New York Herald also described devastation and noted that soldiers "throw in an occasional murder 'just to bring an old hard-fisted cuss to his senses.'" Even one of Sherman's majors told his wife that he was "sickened by the frightful devastation our army was spreading on every hand. Oh! It was absolutely terrible ... women, children and old men turned out into the mud and rain and their houses and furniture first plundered and then burned."

Sherman's doctrine produced victory in the short run. Had his forces not taken Atlanta, a war-weary, disunited Union might well have elected Democratic candidate George McClellan rather than reelecting Abraham Lincoln. McClellan would probably have agreed to negotiations concerning Southern independence. Had Sherman not shown a willingness to wage war on civilians, the surrender of Robert E. Lee might have been followed by years of guerrilla warfare. But Sherman's success came at a price that went beyond individual suffering: For decades afterwards resentment and sometimes hatred of Yankees prevailed in parts of the South.

The American Civil War was a precursor in many ways to the wars of the 20th century. The machine guns that first emerged during the Civil War became central to the trench slaughter of World War I. Not until World War II, though, was the Sherman Doctrine taken to its extreme. Hitler's Germans tried to break British will by bombing the civilian populations of London and other cities. Children were just part of the body count. German troops in other countries replied to snipers by lining up civilians and shooting them.

Then came the counterattack. Allies dropped dumb bombs on German cities, pointing to military targets and factories but bringing huge "collateral damage." Later, American and British forces tried to break the German (and then the Japanese) will by going after civilian populations as well. Regrettable, but what was the alternative? "War is cruelty. You cannot refine it."

At the height of the Cold War, the United States planned to respond to a Soviet nuclear attack with "mutual assured destruction": They wipe out our civilian population, we wipe out theirs. It's no surprise that the left bought into this concept, lock, stock, and gun barrel, assuming during the Vietnam War years that American involvement in southeast Asia represented cruelty, and there was no way to refine it.


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