Wednesday, March 09, 2011

"War Is War"

“[W]ar is war, and not popularity-seeking. If they want peace, they and their relatives must stop the war.”
__ General William Tecumseh Sherman
Controversial in his day, equally so in our own time, General William Tecumseh Sherman put quill pen to paper in the aftermath of the US Civil War to write an autobiography and chronicle his side of the story, in voluminous detail.

Thanks to the marvels of e-book technology his 1875 one thousand-page multi-volume memoirs can be carried effortlessly in a modern reader’s coat pocket. The technology may allow us to delete the file from an e-reader’s storage, but the stories Sherman relates are not so easily dismissed from the human reader’s memory.

Sherman can teach modern-day readers much about the people and the period in which their story took place, and through them, make us see something about our own time. His was a life of constant upheaval, of drama always lurking over the horizon. His recounting of the early days of the 1849 Gold Rush, which erupted during his California mission, were especially stimulating; hundreds of sailing ships would arrive with cargo and prospectors, but never leave, because all their crews would desert for the gold fields. Bank presidents and other wealthy managers of wealth found themselves starving and ill-clothed, as servant after imported servant would desert their households so routinely that their families had a hard time eating regular meals. The lure of gold proved so seductive that few people kept their word; trustworthyness became such a valuable commodity that those possessing the rare virtue sought each other out, formed business partnerships together (as well as doing each other's laundry..!), and made far more lasting fortunes than those dredged up by the get-rich-quick gold-seekers in their muddy rivers and fields.

Death is always close at hand in this book, even before the advent of the War Between The States. The deadly perils of mid-19th Century transportation, for example, are brought to light early on: while Sherman is west-bound to serve at his early post in California, he is shipwrecked twice in one day! No wonder everyone seemed to always do anything they did with such gusto.

The vengeful Union General, the scourge of the South, offered such generous terms of peace to the forces of General Johnston, the Confederate opponent who finally surrendered to him in April 1865, that many in the North charged that he who had marched so resolutely to the sea was now guilty of treason. Yet that same Union General had written a blunt letter in 1862, following the capture of Memphis, leaving no doubt the price he felt was necessary for peace:
“I will write plainly and slowly, because I know you have no time to listen to trifles. This is no trifle; when one nation is at war with another, all of the people of the one are enemies of the other: then the rules are plain and easy of understanding. Most unfortunately, the war in which we are now engaged has been complicated with the belief on the one hand that all on the other are not enemies. It would have been better if, at the outset, this mistake had not been made; and it is wrong longer to be misled by it. The Government of the United Statesmay now safely proceed on the proper rule that all in the south are enemies of all in the North; and not only are they unfriendly, but all who can procure arms now bear them as organized regiments, or as guerillas.”
__Sherman’s letter to Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P Chase

There were many stories that at once set my mind to wandering, and wondering; but none more so than Sherman’s casual meetings with his wartime opponents after the war, in social settings. "It's a small world", then as today. By chance he once found himself sharing a long train ride with former Confederate General Joe Johnston, the erstwhile defender of Atlanta, the forlorn protector of the Carolinas, the thorn in Sherman’s side for month after month of a year’s worth of gruesome fighting. What a meeting that must have been… how much suffering and misery had each conversationalist brought upon the other, just a few short years before; yet there they were, able to put such painful conflicts behind them, to find common ground for civil talk, despite their previous civil war.

It says a lot about the greatness of the United States of America, that such men were capable of such reconciliation, despite all that they had seen, and done. And lost. Today the drumbeat is sounded to never forgive, else victims lose their idealized status as heroes. Once upon a time, the heroes were those who could forgive, who allowed for atonement. Despite even losses as grievous as that of their own son.

Sherman has been accused of many vile deeds (his solution to how to clear a mine-filled road: have Confederate prisoners of war march ahead of his own troops, to set off the waiting mines), and he catalogs many of them in his memoirs, defending or deflecting where he feels necessary. There is one civilian casualty, however, whose death he never denied responsibility: the death of his favorite son, 'Willie' Sherman. A letter to a captain C.C. Smith is included in his memoirs, "as exhibiting our intense feeling" about the tragedy:

"Consistent with a sense of duty to my profession and office, I could not leave my post, and sent for the family to come to me in that fatal climate, and in that sickly period of the year, and behold the result! The child that bore my name, and in whose future I reposed with more confidence than I did in my own plan of life, now floats a mere corpse, seeking a grave in a distant land, with a weeping mother, brother and sisters, clustered about him. For myself, I ask no sympathy. On, on I must go, to meet a soldier's fate, or live to see our country rise superior to all factions, till its flag is adored and respected by ourselves and by all the powers of the earth.

But Willie was, or thought he was, a sergeant in the Thirteenth. I have seen his eye brighten, his heart beat, as he beheld the battalion under arms, and asked me if they were not real soldiers. Child as he was, he had the enthusiasm, the pure love of truth, honor and love of country, which should animate all soldiers.

God only knows why he should die this young. He is dead, but will not be forgotten till those who knew him in life have followed him to that same mysterious end.

Please convey to the battalion my heart-felt thanks, and assure each and
all that if in after-years they call on me or mine, and mention that they were of the Thirteenth Regulars when Willie was a sergeant, they will have a key to the affections of my family that will open all it has; that we will share with them our last blanket, our last crust! Your friend,
W.T. Sherman, Major-General

To see Sherman in today's cultural memory is to see a scowling face plotting some calculated cruelty, a furrowed brow framing a pair of merciless eyes. Reading his memoirs, reading about the loss of his son, I see these wartime portraits, much to my surprise, with new eyes.

William Tecumseh Sherman is no longer the brute I thought him to be; now I see a saddened father looking to shorten, not increase, the suffering of others, a man seeing others as fellow men, a soldier seeking to wage war as the necessary shortcut to winning a lasting peace.


truepeers said...

Even if you believe it is right to limit suffering by ending wars as quickly as possible, and using the force necessary to that, must you not allow yourself exceptions to the rule? Should you do anything to serve your purpose, even if it means dehumanizing your own? Can you torture prisoners willy nilly (the question is raised on the assumption that torture does often work - to discover valuable information, or at least to make the enemy change his plans knowing a captured comrade might spill the beans - despite what many today claim)? Should you make prisoners walk through mine fields? If reconciliation is our hope, shouldn't we refuse certain extreme tactics without going to the other extreme of today's moral relativism that makes excuses for unending war under the rubric of "proportionate respose"?

Dag said...

I think Sherman's campaigns worked for the good reason that the enemy, our own people, in this case, we so badly beaten and demoralised, for the most part, that they finally not only lost the war and the will to fight but lost the will to be resentful enemies.

Yes, the Union was brutal beyond our understanding today, but the brutality was also admirable to the defeated. When men fight, most often now someone calls the police, women faint, and metro-sexuals go into a fawning tizzy over it. Often enough, a group of men will wade in and separate the combatants, the issue unresolved. Maybe there are no broken noses, no black eyes, no chipped teeth, and no bond between two men who now know that one is dominant and the other not. Thus, there is no possibility of further friendship based on mutual respect for the courage and determination to suffer for ones right.

The Confederacy fought bravely, which earned the respect of their enemies. There was little lingering hatred, in spite of the examples one can readily point to only because they are so obvious and atypical; and nothing on the scale of the "undefeated" Germans, post 1918. Today, and for all of my life, it is the post-Confederacy that has produced the greater number of military volunteers in America. They are not joining the jihad out of a sense of revenge but are usually the most committed and dedicated patriots in the nation. That is due, I argue, to the total destruction of the South's will to hate. It became a will to love. One loves strength, not pity or worse, sentimentality. One loves winners. Such is the nature of things. Our nation proves it.

Charles Henry said...

If reconciliation is our hope, shouldn't we refuse certain extreme tactics

That’s just it, despite his brutal reputation he nevertheless did act within boundaries, he did set limits to what he would have his army do to the enemy he was fighting. He was no Genghis Khan, eradicating every living thing, every human inhabitation that lay astride his path. Today we have the expression, “human shields”; I don't think the expression existed yet in Sherman’s time, but he seems to have felt that the Southern Army repeatedly used the Southern civilian population as human shields to fight behind. And when he fired back, he was the one they blamed for civilian deaths incurred in the fighting.
(and from such stories comes the current charge that he re-introduced the concept of “total war” back from Medieval history, opening the door for the eventual unsparing fury of 20th century warfare)

During the siege of Atlanta, he accuses the Rebel army of establishing its fortifications so close to the city that, if the Union Army were to fire into the defensive lines, they couldn’t help but hit civilian buildings lying behind those lines. He felt it was the enemy sending their own people to their deaths, through their actions, rather than his own. His attitude was, this is where the enemy chooses to fight, so this is where we do the fighting.

The more successful his campaign through Georgia and the Carolinas became, however, the more he kept trying to avoid such slaughter, by entreating with the besieged commanders ahead of each battle, to surrender before the shooting began; to recognize his Army’s winning track record to date, so that they would see the writing on the wall, and spare unnecessary suffering for their own people. And it tended to work, which is rather remarkable when we realize that if there was anyone in the South that was particularly hated by the North, it would be the citizenry of South Carolina, seen as they were as the instigator of the whole war in the first place.

Taking his actions as a whole, I don’t see the behaviour of a man unshackling himself from his conscience.

Any officer issuing orders for a charge likely expects that he is sending men to their deaths; the pain is part of the process, which is why war is so terrible. War means fighting, and fighting means killing, as Sherman’s frequent adversary, Nathan Bedford Forrest once put it. One chips away at the purity of one’s soul with each command, and there comes a moment when what remains is so small, so un-renewable, that one accepts, as the South eventually did, surrender over annihilation.

Eowyn said...

Excellent post. Sherman is near the top of the list of those I would choose to have dinner with.

I've had a nearly lifelong crush on Sherman; a man's man, brilliant tactician and one whom history won't forget, I don't think.

Far from sadistic, Sherman sought to minimize carnage at any cost before resorting to it.

He said, "I know I had no hand in making this war, and I know I will make more sacrifices today than any of you to secure peace."

The problem with securing peace is, sometimes you have to deal a short, sharp, convincing blow to hammer home the point, hence the march to Georgia. If Sherman didn't coin the quote "if you step on my toe, I'll break your foot," he surely practiced it.

He and Ulysses Grant were one of history's symbioses. Fate, or another effort, brought them together at a fulcrum-point in time, with time-, and history-changing results.

Sherman did not love the actions he felt compelled to commit -- quite the contrary. But he had the stomach to do them when necessary, quickly and convincingly. Think Bush's "shock and awe" campaign at the beginning of the Iraq War. (Something Sherman would have shaken his head at -- style over substance)

Brilliant man, brilliant post :)

truepeers said...

I imagine there are a lot of historians willing to scapegoat Sherman for the 20th-century turn to "total war". (If anyone is to blame, it's the French and Germans but in their defense, somebody had to get to modern total war first and show us the face of real apocalypse.) Whatever the wrongness of this scapegoating, the fact remains that we cannot simply turn our minds back to the more noble nineteenth century for answers to our dilemmas, but we must come to terms with the legacy of Hiroshima and Auschwitz. This requires us, it seems to me, to think in ways that can lead to actions (not Obama-like deer in the headlights) that shift the playing field while doing everything possible to avoid taking us again to a moment of "surrender or annihilation".

It's not just because the other side now has nukes, or soon will, but because our own society is being ripped apart, or trapped in nihilism, by the fear that we will all be morally implicated in some mass murder and radiation (or other poisoning) of the earth. White guilt cannot be pushed back out of history by getting everyone to read Sherman. We have to come to terms with more recent revelations that lead many Westerners and non-Westerners to choose cultural suicide over the mere possibility that one day "survival" or "victory" will mean a return to total war.

So i think we cannot win the present wars until those who would hide behind human shields are suitably isolated from a larger mass they try to provoke and "lead", so that we can take them out with acceptable levels of collateral damage. If we do get to the point where we acctually reduce, say, the entire Middle East to rubble, we will not be any longer at a point where renewal and reconciliation will be very likely, in my opinion. Various forms of pathological hatred and suicide are just as much a fact of history as renewal. Only a few tribes, nations, and certainly empires, survive more than a millennia. And I would tend to argue that the secret to the success of the longer-lived lies in their capacity to defer "the final conflict", not to embrace it.

Consider, for starters, that the American civil war happened at a time of still high fertility and at the start of a wave of exploiting unparalleled opportunities in new forms of energy and technology. That allowed a capacity for renewal that is not so often present. But consider also that many of the suicidal cultural forces in American life might trace their roots to the America that looked into the abyss of total war, just as in Europe they stared into the abyss that the escalating French-German rivalry led some to imagine.

truepeers said...

I am not convinced by the argument that we can draw clear lessons by comparing the "conclusive finality" of the second American civil war, with the inconclusive First World War. It's not just that America might now be described as being in a state of "cold" civil war, with some of the old fault lines re-appearing (though today with the anti-federalists having the stronger claim to be defenders of liberty). It matters, to any calculation of "conclusiveness", who is fighting, what their values are going in, and how they can or cannot accept a "definite" conclusion. If the second American civil war didn't begin as a battle over slavery, it bascially ended with Lincoln expanding the conflict to be a civilizational conflict over the continuation or not of slavey. There was much about the second half of the nineteenth century in America that might lead one, however grudgingly for some, to the conclusion that slavery's time was up. There was much reason to accept the imposition of a modern market economy.

In contrast, the French-German rivalry was rather more that of equals or emulators who were less fighting for opposing social visions as for dominance of the new Europe that was emerging. Even had World War I had ended with a successful break-out march that led to the destruction of German cities, would the Germans have been any less likely to turn to the fascist ideology? I can't, off hand, think of any good reasons to believe this. Hell, if the victorious Italians could dream of a renewed Roman empire...

The most important lesson i would take from the second American civil war is Lincoln's insight that America could not continue half slave and half free but one or the other had to dominate. Today,I see that insight as being applicable globally. So, to my mind, our wars must be fought with an eye to making it possible for slave societies to be slowsly disbanded and changed, granting that this cannot happen overnight. It is this idea which I would like to see informing tactics and strategy.

Today, "surrender or annihilation" is no less a consideration on people's minds, but the game, it seems to me, is to make "surrender" more of a rejection of the anti-modern forces in one's own society, an acceptance of the rules of a global marketplace; it cannot be a base surrender to outsiders. In other words, the "surrender" has to come before the prospect of total annihilation is truly imminent. If we/they wait till then, it's probably too late.

Eowyn said...

Is this ever getting to be an interesting conversation :)

Dag has nailed a crucial piece:

"Yes, the Union was brutal beyond our understanding today, but the brutality was also admirable to the defeated. When men fight, most often now someone calls the police, women faint, and metro-sexuals go into a fawning tizzy over it."

In essence, a man's identity has been fused into him by competition, brought to its ultimate dark fruition in warfare, up to this point in history. Now we are "civilized." And men gnaw in frustration over their soft shackles, and women are discontented with "unmanly" men.

Brutal? Yes. It's unimaginable to be a soldier ordered to charge headlong into a hurricane of shot and shell. (Ever seen a Minie ball? Ugh.) After every battle whole hectares of trees were flattened to stumps.

Charles Henry hits another important piece:

"One chips away at the purity of one’s soul with each command, and there comes a moment when what remains is so small, so un-renewable, that one accepts, as the South eventually did, surrender over annihilation."

Indeed. Grant hardly needed to exhort his troops to grant respect at Appomattox; so moved were the soldiers that total silence and stillness prevailed.

At a Gettysburg reunion in 1938 of soldiers from both sides (here's some rare footage -- )the men were reduced to tears, and hugged each other as long-lost brothers.

And truepeers contributes a cogent insight that brings us up to date:

"It's not just because the other side now has nukes, or soon will, but because our own society is being ripped apart, or trapped in nihilism, by the fear that we will all be morally implicated in some mass murder and radiation (or other poisoning) of the earth. White guilt cannot be pushed back out of history by getting everyone to read Sherman. We have to come to terms with more recent revelations that lead many Westerners and non-Westerners to choose cultural suicide over the mere possibility that one day 'survival'or 'victory' will mean a return to total war."

Yes ... men have fought since time began, refining the instruments of bloodshed that it is no longer necessary to beat spear against shield.

Why? Because they could.

Now they still can, but the sheer lust for victory palls behind the joystick of a Predator drone, or the push of a missile button. "Winning," indeed, no longer means who has the biggest ... well. The yardsticks have changed, and men are left adrift.

What we've got left is the moral relativism by which we've all been raised, and all the while our spirits long for a clean contest. I'm reminded of a passage from C.S. Lewis, which I paraphrase: "I am Caspian X, son of Caspian IX of Narnia, and I will prove my claim upon any man's body in clean battle."

We've left our adolescence behind, human-wise. Our physical bodies already seem superfluous, somehow, so in thrall are we to our own technological inventions. No longer do we wish to run, jump, shout and sing, fight, win and start another day. Now, we think, and fret, and fear.

I think I must agree that the Civil War represented a kind of Rubicon crossed, in that technology, though hobbled by old-school tactics, nevertheless boosted warfare (read: loads more casualties with less effort and materiel) far forward.

But it was part of a long continuum with a foregone conclusion -- slaughter of each other just because we can is Wrong.

We know it in the left brain, but the right brain craves the rush.

Frances said...

Two comments:

1) it was from the gold rush - Californian or British Columbian - that the saying arose "no tickee, no laundlee". White miners, apparently, had no problem trying to claim their confriere's laundry. The Chinese responded. To this day, that's an honoured comment here in the West.

2. Hiroshima and Nagasaki - read Sir Laurens Van der Post's book 'The Night of the New Moon'. It is easy to lament the loss of life because of the two A-bombs released over Japan; it is more difficult to acknowledge that these events - terrible as they were - actually resulted in the most best and most humane end to the war. Had the US not used nuclear weapons, there would have been unsparing bombing of Japan and an island-to-island invasion with an horrific number of casualties on both sides. And that's without considering the problems associated with Japanese troops who would be stranded in other areas of the South Pacific. Ruthless as it was, the dropping of the atomic bombs achieved a quick end to the war, as well as saving the lives of the many prisoners of war who were held in Japanese-occupied territories when the Emperor took control and surrendered.