Book Reviews - Spring 2015

“You Cannot Refine It”

From victory to annihilation, the evolving nature of combat

By John Nagl | March 4, 2015


Sherman’s Ghosts: Soldiers, Civilians, and the American Way of War, by Matthew Carr, The New Press, 336 pp., $26.95

Military historian Russell Weigley’s 1973 masterpiece, The American Way of War, posits that Americans have developed a distinctive brand of armed conflict that focuses on the complete destruction of the enemy. We weren’t always so bloodthirsty; George Washington’s rebels waged a war of attrition against the better-armed redcoats, dealing the British death from a thousand cuts until the empire decided that its American colonies weren’t worth the cost. When the United States became a great power, supplanting Britain, its military adopted a more conventional set of strategies. Weigley succinctly states that “the strategy of annihilation became characteristically the American way in war.”

Following in Weigley’s enormous footsteps, British journalist Matthew Carr attempts in his new book to explain the how and why of this strategic shift. His is a worthy inquiry. American military strategy is a subject of enormous importance for global affairs, with significant implications for the course of the ongoing war against radical Islamic extremists and the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as for the prospect of military engagement with a rising China.

Carr looks forward by gazing deeply into America’s past. Exactly 150 years ago, Union Army General William Tecumseh Sherman (“Uncle Billy” to his troops) cut a swath of destruction through the Deep South that continues to resound in our national memory. Its consequences are particularly fresh in the minds of southerners, who now as then account for a disproportionate share of American military leadership. They well remember Sherman’s response to Atlanta mayor James Calhoun’s plea on humanitarian grounds that Sherman not evacuate the city’s civilian population. “I want peace, and believe it can only be reached though union and war, and I will ever conduct war with a view to perfect and early success,” Sherman said. “War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it.”

The first half of Sherman’s Ghosts recounts Sherman’s March to the Sea, which began in Atlanta on November 15, 1864. His army burned and pillaged its way through Georgia until the capture of Savannah late the following month. For all the suffering Sherman inflicted, the Confederacy refused to surrender, so he continued through South and North Carolina before finally accepting the surrender of Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston and his 90,000 troops in April 1865. The end of America’s bloodiest conflict was near, hastened by the efforts of what Carr calls Sherman’s “Destruction Machine,” which devastated an area 700 miles long and more than 100 miles wide. This, Carr argues, was something horrible and new in warfare, something that affected the course of not only the Civil War but of every future American war as well. If it would subject its own citizens to starvation and homelessness, devastating the means of production and even survival, what would limit how the United States waged war against other countries?

Not much, Carr argues in the second half of his book, an intellectual history that attempts to connect Sherman’s innovative use of strategic destruction with every subsequent American conflict. The link is clearer in earlier wars, such as those against American Indian tribes, many of them carried out by Sherman himself, who became commander of the Military Division of the Missouri in 1865. His attitude toward the American Indians was similar to that he evinced toward the people of Atlanta the previous year: “The more I see of these Indians the more convinced I am that they all have to be killed or maintained as a species of paupers.”

As Sherman’s direct influence receded—he died a national celebrity in 1891 after numerous speaking tours of the North—Carr’s task becomes more difficult. The American counterinsurgency campaign in the Philippines at the turn of the last century had much in common with Sherman’s Indian wars but was also marked by real concern for the civilian population and ultimately resulted in a form of self-rule. The German army stoutly prevented free access to the German countryside and civilians during the First World War. Indeed, the failure to impose the high cost of war on the German population, as Sherman had on Georgia’s, may well have contributed to the “stabbed in the back” thesis that so aided Hitler’s rise. Strategic bombing theory and technology evolved in the interwar years, driven by a belief that society could not endure another bloodletting like that on the Western Front—ideas that became reality with the carpet bombing campaigns against Germany and Japan. The nuclear weapons dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki—targets chosen precisely because they had been relatively untouched by the war—were the ultimate implements of Shermanesque destruction. Uncle Billy would have approved.

But war has continued to evolve, and new technologies have made possible the destruction of an enemy’s ability to continue fighting without the indiscriminate devastation of the civilian population and its resources. My first war, Operation Desert Storm, saw reasonably precise air targeting of Saddam Hussein’s war machine and command and control with relatively little effect on Iraqi civilians. More recently, drones have provided even more precise intelligence and an improved ability to strike legitimate military targets in Pakistan’s tribal areas. Would that we could summon Sherman’s ghost for a discussion of this new American way of war, but in the absence of another medium, Matthew Carr has done a commendable job.

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