AUGUST 20, 2014 4:00 AM
Sherman in Gaza
His march through Georgia has been gravely misunderstood ― as has Israel’s strategy in Gaza.
By Victor Davis Hanson
The IDF’s 401st Armored Brigade in action near Gaza. (IDF via Flickr)
Victor Davis Hanson
His brutal methods were aimed at instructing the civilian South that those who had precipitated the war surely deserved its harshest penalties. Only when the luminaries of the Confederacy saw that their bellicose rhetoric had brought them personal ruin would they be willing to curb their enthusiasm for secession: “It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, more vengeance, more desolation. War is hell.”
Sherman envisioned his wave of unapologetic ruin as dividing the populace and sowing dissension, and thus encouraging tax delinquency, desertion at the front, and loss of confidence among the elite. In all of these aims, he was largely successful.
The brutal Sherman way of war did not spare civilians from the general misery. Yet another purpose was to remind the Southern populace that because they had largely followed their privileged leaders into a hopeless war against a far larger, more industrial, and wealthier Union, they too could not escape the collateral damage that followed from the targeting of plantations and Confederate property.
Sherman accepted Southern hatred, but he assumed that after he left the Deep South, civilians would start to see a logic to his devastation: The homes and property of the middle classes and poor were largely spared, the infrastructure of the wealthy and of the state were not. That ruthless selectivity would spawn endless arguments among Southerners over who was to blame for such destruction — well beyond Sherman himself. Certainly, for all the popular hatred, Georgians and Carolinians were far more likely to be alive after Sherman left than Virginians were after Grant was finished.
The Israeli army was eerily Shermanesque when it went into Gaza. The IDF targeted the homes of the wealthy Hamas elite, the private sanctuaries of the tunnels, and the rocketry and other infrastructure of the Hamas terrorist state. The homes of civilians who did not have rockets in the backyard or tunnels in the basement were usually not hit, and that sent a telling Shermanesque lesson. Long after the international media’s cameras have left, Gazans will argue over why one man’s house was leveled and another’s was not, leading to the conclusion more often than not that one was being used by Hamas, either with or without its owner’s consent, while the other was not. But all Gazans suffered amid the selective targeting — as did all Georgians and Carolinians for their allegiance to a plantationist class whose own interests were not always the same as those of the non-slave-owning white poor. Fairly or not, the IDF was reminding the people of Gaza that while it tried to focus exclusively on Hamas, such selectivity was often impossible when Gazans followed such reckless leaders who deliberately shielded themselves among civilians.
The IDF taught the supposedly fearsome Islamic warriors of Hamas, who adopted the loud bells and whistles of primordial killers and who supposedly love death more than life, that nondescript Israeli conscripts, through hard training and with the help of sophisticated technology, were in fact far deadlier than a man in a suicide vest or an RPG-wielding masked bandit. The IDF, then, like Sherman, sought to dispel the romantic notion that a uniformed conscript army cannot fight a warrior culture, or that it becomes so baffled by insurgencies and asymmetrical warfare as to be rendered helpless. The IDF went into the heart of Gaza City and came out largely intact after defeating all those it encountered.
Sherman was obsessed with separating bellicose enemy rhetoric from facts on the ground. He believed that unless humiliation was a part of defeat, a tribal society of ranked hierarchies would always concoct myths to explain away failure. Southern newspapers boasted that Sherman was a Napoleon trapped deep in a Russia-like Georgia and about to be cut apart by Confederate Cossacks. Yet when his Army of the West sliced through the center of the state, Sherman smiled that some Southerners had suggested that he go instead over to South Carolina and attack those who “started” the war.
Again, once the IDF is out of Gaza, civilians will ask their leaders what the tunnels and rockets, the child tunnel-diggers, the use of human shields, and all the braggadocio were supposed to achieve. What will Hamas tell its donors, when it requests money for more cement and rebar? That it wishes to build schools and hotels and not more instruments of collective suicide?
Sherman welcomed the hatred he earned from the South. He understood well the dictum of Machiavelli that men hate far more those who destroy their patrimonies than those who kill their fathers. He accepted that humiliating the South was a far graver sin than destroying its manhood, as Grant had done from May to September 1864 in northern Virginia. Lee at least could say that brave Southerners had killed thousands of Grant’s troops in defense of their homeland; Sherman’s opponents, like Generals Hardee, Hood, and Johnson, could not brag that very few Northerners died marching through Georgia or the Carolinas.
Sherman’s rhetoric was bellicose, indeed uncouth — even as he avoided killing as many Southerners as he could. He left civilians as mad at their own leaders as at him. For all that and more, he remains a “terrorist,” while the bloodbaths at Cold Harbor and the Crater are not considered barbaric — and just as the world hates what the IDF did in Gaza far more than the abject butchery of the Islamic State, which at the same time was spreading savagery throughout Syria and Iraq, or than the Russians’ indiscriminate killing in Ukraine, or than what passes for an average day in the Congo.
Sherman got under our skin, and so does the IDF. Today we call not losing very many soldiers “disproportionate” warfare, and leaving an enemy’s territory a mess and yet without thousands of casualties “terrorism.” The lectures from the IDF about the cynical culpability of Hamas make the world as livid as did Sherman’s sermonizing about the cowardly pretensions of the plantationist class.
We tend to hate most deeply in war those who despoil us of our romance, especially when they humiliate rather than kill us — and teach us the lesson that the louder and more bellicose often prove the more craven and weak.
— NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Savior Generals.