Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman famously said that “War is hell.” He should know, having ransacked and ravaged a wide swath of Confederate territory on his March to the Sea in late 1864. Sherman’s “scorched earth” tactics broke the back of the Confederacy by greatly reducing its ability to manufacture weapons, transport troops, and both feed and clothe its army.
Heartless in its conception and conduct, Sherman’s March unquestionably hastened the war’s end and therefore, most likely saved tens of thousands of Confederate lives in the process.
In many ways, Sherman’s March was a necessary evil in the same way that dropping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki 81 years later finally forced Japan’s surrender and avoided the mass casualties – on both sides – of a homeland invasion. Pacifists and second-guessers may beg to differ but my father, who was poised in the Philippines for the final assault on Japan, wholeheartedly agreed with President Truman’s decision.
Gen. Robert E. Lee echoed Sherman’s sentiments, saying that, “It is well that war is so terrible, or we would grow too fond of it.” Here you have two of history’s greatest military minds agreeing that war is an awful invention that should be avoided at all costs. Except, that is, when it is absolutely necessary.
Therein, my friend, lies the rub. Sometimes war is necessary and when it occurs, it should be fought with every available resource with the goal of winning as decisively as possible as quickly as possible.
That is exactly how George Washington and Ulysses Grant conducted the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, respectively.
Washington’s Continental Army was undermanned and undersupplied, and so he thought nothing of hanging deserters or confiscating food from civilians. Likewise, Grant didn’t hesitate to use his enormous advantage in manpower to overwhelm the Rebel forces… even if it resulted in heavy Union losses in the short-term.
But just imagine if ABC News had been around to cover the deplorable living conditions at Valley Forge during the harsh winter of 1777. Or if CNN had its cameras providing live action footage of the Battles of Shiloh, Antietam, Cold Harbor, and the Wilderness.
My best guess is that, as living rooms across North America were flooded with horrific scenes of frostbitten feet, bloodied bodies, and mutilated corpses, there would have been a national outcry to immediately cease hostilities. Yes, even if it meant surrendering to the British in the War of Independence or allowing slavery to continue in the Confederate States of America.
From my perspective, that hypothetical scenario explains why America hasn’t won a major military conflict since World War II. Simply put, we – as a nation – have lost our stomach for war.
Now don’t get me wrong; I hate war as much as anyone. My father left for the jungles of the South Pacific as a happy-go-lucky 18-year-old in 1942… and returned three years later a battle-tested veteran who suffered nightmares and night sweats for years. And yet, he was fortunate compared to my great-uncle Wright, whose B17F was shot down over Monchen-Gladbach, Germany in August 1943. His remains were later recovered and buried at the American military cemetery in Margareten, Holland.
But had men like my dad and my great-uncle not enlisted – and not fought bravely, risking life and limb – Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich would have continued to enslave Europe; and Imperial Japan would have controlled most, if not all, of East Asia and the Pacific Rim.
The stalemate in Korea, our defeat in Vietnam, and our humiliating withdrawal from Afghanistan would have been a foreign concept to the fighting men and women of America’s Greatest Generation. But that is what TV screens and magazine covers will do to a populace that no longer believes in a cause greater than themselves.
Safety at all costs usually results in surrender at all costs.