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Impearls: “Shermanesque”

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Earthdate 2004-07-11

“Shermanesque”

James Joyner in Outside the Beltway critiques a recent piece by Victor Davis Hanson on what the proper response should be to another massive terrorist attack in the U.S. on the scale or worse than 9-11.  Donald Sensing in One Hand Clapping then picks up this story, commenting “James Joyner takes VDH mildly to task for what I agree is a rare lousy column on VDH's part.”

While the indicated article by Victor Davis Hanson isn't a favorite of mine (I prefer this recent piece by him frankly), still I think he's making an important point here, and much as I respect both Joyner and Sensing, I believe both are getting Hanson wrong, as well as misinterpreting history.

In the indicated piece Hanson uses the term “Shermanesque” — referring to Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman's invasion of Georgia and the Carolinas during the American Civil War — as inflicting “collective punishment,” as indeed it did, on these southern regions for their role in furthering the bloody War Between the States while sitting back, far behind the former battle lines, more or less fat and happy.  Joyner in his reply then picks up on Hanson's phrase as somehow implying “unmeasured attack,” as he put it, perhaps even “nuking the entire Muslim world” along with “annihilat[ing] the entire populations of the Middle East.”

Now people who have read my work know I'm hardly one to argue for “unmeasured attack,” or “annihilating the entire populations of the Middle East” — quite the reverse.  From what I can see, however, Hanson's article does not argue for any of that.

In fact, Hanson says nothing in his piece about killing on a vast scale in response to a large-scale terrorist attack, and moreover it's really a slur on William Tecumseh Sherman and what he accomplished during the American Civil War to imply that his invasion of the South massacred whole populations or even small portions thereof.  Yes, Gen. Sherman's army did destroy troop concentrations which tried to oppose it, and went on to deliberately demolish much civilian and public property, engendering (as Joyner pointed out) long-lasting “regional enmity.”

Nevertheless, murder was left out of the equation.  Here's what Winston Churchill (yes, that Churchill) had to say about it in his superb History of the English-Speaking Peoples (which has an excellent section on the U.S. Civil War by the way): 1

Georgia was full of food in this dark winter.  Sherman set himself to march through it on a wide front, living on the country, devouring and destroying all farms, villages, towns, railroads, and public works which lay within his wide-ranging reach.  He left behind him a blackened trail, and hatreds which pursue his memory to this day.  “War is hell,” he said, and certainly he made it so.  But no one must suppose that his depredations and pillage were comparable to the atrocities which were committed during the World Wars of the twentieth century or the barbarities of the Middle Ages.  Searching investigation has discovered hardly a case of murder or rape.

Thus, though Sherman destroyed much property (and earned lasting hatred from southerners as a result), the nearly total lack of civilian casualties is a remarkable humanitarian record and achievement — one must note amidst the carnage of the bloodiest war (out of one-tenth the present population) in U.S. history — not an example of “unmeasured attack,” certainly not the equivalent of “nuking the entire Muslim world.”

Victor Davis Hanson is a historian, and surely is aware of this detail about Sherman's campaign — even if much of the public (especially the South of the U.S.) has built up this myth of Sherman's “atrocities.”  In my view, that's what Hanson is advocating here: communicating to the supporters of terrorism that “War is Hell” without invoking wanton massacre.  As he writes in the subject piece, “Perhaps it would be best to inform hostile countries right now of a (big) list of their assets — military bases, power plants, communications, and assorted infrastructure — that will be taken out in the aftermath of another attack, a detailed sequence of targets that will be activated when the culpable terrorists' bases and support networks are identified and confirmed.”  Culprit regimes should “anticipate the consequences should another 3,000 Americans be incinerated at work.”  That doesn't sound like massacre to me, and as Hanson points out, could well help prevent another massacre — of Americans.
 
 

Reference

1 Winston S. Churchill, A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, Volume Four: The Great Democracies, Dodd, Mead & Company, New York, 1958, pp. 258-259.



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