William Tecumseh Sherman’s brutal March to the Sea was not the first military rampage against civilians—even in the United States—but it continues to attract attention and comments from military leaders.
Veteran journalist Carr (Fortress Europe: Dispatches from a Gated Continent, 2012, etc.) begins with Sherman’s biography, emphasizing his 1864-1865 southern campaign and equally harsh tactics during the Indian wars that followed. Although the book’s second half ostensibly discusses his legacy in America’s subsequent wars, it turns out to be a grim account of military hypocrisy in the service of mass slaughter. Sherman considered civilians essential to enemy war-making capacity. His troops mostly destroyed property, but this was not the case during the Philippine insurrection (1899-1902), during which soldiers murdered civilians en masse. Similar atrocities in Vietnam were dwarfed by the immense toll from indiscriminate bombing during World War II and the Korean War. Carr reminds readers that Sherman’s campaign produced minuscule deaths compared to the vicious Grant-Lee battles in Virginia. As America has grown intolerant of military casualties, leaders have eagerly adopted high-tech weapons (smart bombs, drones) whose operators work far from the enemy. These weapons turn out to kill a surprising number of bystanders, rendering America’s admirable, winning-hearts-and-minds anti-insurgency paradigm obsolete a mere decade after it was adopted. Sherman might have disapproved of the current tactics. When outraged contemporaries denounced Sherman’s march as a barbarous throwback, this “reflected a widespread assumption that warfare between ‘civilized nations’ had undergone a process of moral advancement in the nineteenth century.” In fact, the “principle of civilian immunity was firmly embedded in the West Point tradition to which Sherman belonged.”
Carr not only examines the campaigns and career of Sherman; he also attacks the mindsets and assumptions that have continued to allow America to rationalize its wars.