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Wednesday, December 7, 2022

Israel, William Tecumseh Sherman, And Hiroshima–The Nature Of Total Victory

Israel has been accused of using ‘disproportionate’ warfare to destroy Hamas. Its critics have described its bombing of Gaza as inhumanely brutal – a military Goliath unfairly fighting a plucky but badly outgunned enemy and in so doing killing hundreds of civilians and destroying public and private infrastructure.

While Israel has indeed destroyed much of the Palestinian territory and killed civilians, its strategy is far from inhumane.  In fact, Israel has gone out of its way to target Hamas leaders, public infrastructure, and civic property.  More importantly Israel’s strategy was as much psychological as military. By specifically targeting those Hamas leaders who were responsible for starting the war and persisting despite many opportunities for peace and reconciliation, Israel was sending a message to the general population.  It wanted the populace to see who was to blame for the terror and destruction of their territory and who suffered the ultimate penalty.

An Israeli Air Force F-15 Eagle fighter plane performs at an air show during the graduation of new cadet pilots at Hatzerim base in the Negev desert,...

Israel was also unapologetic for the civilian casualties incurred through its bombing attacks. Civilians are not innocent bystanders, it said, but complicit in the actions of its leaders.  A militantly jihadist regime can never exist without the support of the citizens it governs, Israel implicitly said, and civilians must pay the price for this support.

In short Israel, which could have destroyed the entire Gaza Strip and ridded itself of an implacable enemy once and for all,  did not do so.  The IDF had two goals in mind.  First, to destroy the weaponry which was threatening Israel; second to eliminate the political leaders who were behind the aggression and/or to humiliate them so thoroughly that any cachet, credibility, or moral authority would be degraded and destroyed.

It has been successful in both.  Rocket launchers and tunnels are routinely destroyed.  The leadership of Hamas is repeatedly neutralized; and most importantly the population understands completely what their leaders have wrought.  After each Israeli military response Palestinian leaders are dead, public infrastructure is in ruins, and the means to attack Israel seriously damaged.

In an article in the National Review  Victor Davis Hanson compares Israel’s strategy with that of William Tecumseh Sherman, the brilliant general of the Union forces in the Civil War. 

Sherman’s brutal marches from Tennessee to Atlanta, Atlanta to Savannah, and Savannah up through the Carolinas have been called ‘disproportionate’, but they were not.  There is no doubt that Sherman left a trail of ruin and desolation behind him; but he targeted the ‘plantationists’ – the wealthy landowners who led the South into war and who persisted in the fight at the expense of hundreds of thousands of young lives and the destruction of territory, culture, and history.

Sherman was doing exactly what the Israelis did in Gaza.  He wanted to show the people who was responsible for the misery they had suffered.  He was willing to open himself to criticism, opprobrium, and hatred by those Southern aristocrats whom he had chased; but he knew that the citizenry would know better.  Their leaders over whom they had little control were behind the foolish and ill-advised war.

William Tecumseh Sherman - Essential Civil War Curriculum

Sherman knew that the Union forces were superior and would eventually and ultimately prevail, but he understood that military conquest was only part of victory.  His goal was to humiliate the South – to show its people that the heralded aristocratic Cavalier was nothing compared to the tough and gritty farm boys from the North; that its leaders were inept and incapable of stopping the Union advances.  Sherman wanted the South never to rise again.

Sherman understood – like the Israelis – that military victory was only part of the equation; and that complete victory meant the destruction of the will of the enemy and its civilian population.  Sherman said, “War is the remedy our enemies have chosen, so let’s give them what they want.” He understood that such complete capitulation could only be achieved if he “traversed holy ground” and captured cities which were symbols of the Confederacy and what people were led to believe was Southern supremacy; and if they were easily taken or destroyed, the will of the people would be further eroded.

Sherman was very clear about his march through the Carolinas.  He knew that the journey would be arduous and physically demanding; but he wanted to burn a trail through the very heart of the Confederacy – the place where the rebellion had started – to show the South once and for all that not only had their armies been beaten, but that their whole culture had been destroyed.

Hanson quotes Machiavelli who said, “Men hate those who destroy patrimony more than their fathers”; and Sherman understood that destroying patrimony would be the total destruction of the enemy.  The South would recover from the physical devastation, Sherman knew, but would never recover from the absolute humiliation of its culture.

Machiavelli, Niccolò | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Sherman – again like the Israelis – was unapologetic about civilian casualties, for he knew that political regimes, no matter how autocratic, are a result of a supportive or at least complaisant population.  Complicit civilians whether directly or indirectly so, must suffer the consequences.

The United States understood this philosophy well when it dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  The Japanese had obstinately refused to surrender even thought it was clear that they had been beaten.  Their generals and political leaders – like those of the South or Hamas – felt that somehow their elite code of heroism and national destiny would carry them through; and Truman meant to show them that Japan was forever a defeated, powerless nation.  

The mighty, apocalyptic destruction of Japan’s two principal cities was far more than a further degradation of the country’s military machinery.  It was the annihilation of a culture and a complete breaking of will. As in the case of the South and Gaza, the civilians of Japan would necessarily have to suffer for the sins of their leaders and for their indirect complicity in their actions.

The military campaigns of Sherman and the IDF were in fact ‘humane’ compared to those of the United States under Roosevelt and Truman.  The firebombing of Dresden and Tokyo as well as the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were far more devastating than anything that Israel or the Union forces ever did.

America unfortunately has forgotten the lessons of Sherman and WWII and is unlikely to learn that of Israel today.  America’s strategy is based on conditional victory and limitation of civilian casualties.  The invading United States army in Iraq could have secured Baghdad, completed the task of the total defeat of Saddam and his Baathists, and prevented the sectarian violence that has only gotten worse if it had been uncompromising and brutal in a long and disciplined occupation.  The Taliban could have been completely neutralized of the United States had destroyed both their military encampments and those civilian populations harboring them.

American military planners should reject any criticism which urges compassion and sympathy in the wrong places at the wrong times.  They should look at Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Tokyo, and Dresden with a dispassionate and critical eye.  They must reject the current lamentation over the ‘disproportionate’ warfare.  Wars are for winning. 

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