War Is Cruelty; You Cannot Refine It

Why hasn’t the anti-war movement, so incensed over G.W. Bush’s relatively innocuous war in Iraq, deconstructed Abraham Lincoln who is universally revered as our greatest president? Why is it that the American Civil War and the men responsible for its prosecution have not been subjected to the usual revisionism that has been applied to, for example, Truman’s decision to use the atomic bomb against Japan and the Roosevelt-Churchill decision to fire bomb Dresden?

In recent years, the only leftist criticism of the Great Emancipator has been that even he was insufficiently free of racist attitudes which, so the critics claim, proves that America is an irredeemably racist country. But little is made of the fact that Lincoln’s decisions, his miscalculations and obvious initial mismanagement of the war resulted in the deaths of more than 600,000 young Americans (6 million! in today’s population).

In today’s Wall Street Journal, a review of two books on William Tecumseh Sherman’s scorched earth campaign in the South, meant to end the war as quickly as possible in order to shore up Lincoln’s dismal re-election prospects, shows us that the Civil War was not fought in a manner meant to please liberal sensitivities or “world opinion”:

… Possessed of an incendiary disposition—in more ways than one—Sherman was taken by the notion that the quickest way to win the war would be to march his army straight through the heart of the South, destroying everything in his path. Or, as he put it to his ­commander, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant— to “make Georgia howl.” At the same time, Sherman conceived a plan for the final undoing of Atlanta, which had cost him so much trouble to ­capture.

…One aspect of the Atlanta ­campaign that remains controversial is Sherman’s treatment of civilians and the actual burning of the city. Most people associate the burning of Atlanta with the scene from “Gone With the Wind,” but that was not Sherman’s burning; rather, it was Rebel Gen. Hood’s destruction of his remaining supply trains and ­ammunition—which created a big bang for sure but was nothing ­compared with the conflagration that Sherman left in his wake.

After Hood abandoned the city, Sherman marched his army in and promptly ordered the remaining ­citizens to leave. That was a serious matter in those days, since it wasn’t as if you could just get in your car and drive to a motel. Atlanta had been a city of about 20,000; with winter coming on, the wild countryside would simply not support so many people roaming about with no food or shelter. City officials ­protested, but Sherman was having none of it. “War is cruelty; you ­cannot refine it,” he replied.

What Sherman finally decided on was the annihilation of the city ­itself—an instructive example, as it were, for other Southern cities; or if you will, an act of terrorism. Earlier he had warned Atlantans to “prepare for my coming.” In his written orders he couched the warning in terms of obliterating everything of military value, but, as in so many other places his army visited, the reality was ­destruction of the town by fire—the 19th century’s version of carpet-bombing.

This kind of devastation was ­relatively unprecedented for ­Sherman’s time; the burning and sacking of cities had more or less gone out of fashion as the customs of “civilized” warfare had generally foreclosed the molesting of civilians.

Sherman defied this sense of ­military restraint almost from the ­beginning; in fact, his earliest ­pyromaniacal urges in connection with Southerners and their property seem to have developed in 1862, while he was in charge of the ­recently captured city of Memphis. There, in retaliation for Confederates shooting at Union steamboats from the Arkansas side of the Mississippi, Sherman ordered the torching of all towns, villages, farms and homes for 15 miles up and down the river.

Sherman wrote a letter to one of Lincoln’s cabinet members, ­declaiming that all Southerners—­soldiers and civilians alike—were ­enemies of the Union and ­recommending that they be driven from their homes and treated as “denizens of the land”—whatever that meant. Their holdings, he ­suggested, could be forcibly ­repopulated as the British had done in Northern Ireland.

After the Union capture of ­Vicksburg in the summer of 1863, Sherman had led his army corps in a carnival of destruction and pillage across Mississippi, during which he declared to the prostrated ­Southerners that “all who do not aid us are our enemies, and we will not account to them for our acts.” He further threatened, in writing, “to take every life, every acre of land, and every particle of [your] ­property—You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will,” he said.

Despite these menacing pronouncements, Sherman denied to his dying day that he ever meant for his troops to burn civilian property, but few believed him. Shortly after ­Sherman departed Atlanta for his “March to the Sea,” a Confederate colonel named W.P. Howard inspected the damage and filed a report with the governor of Georgia. The city’s infrastructure was completely ­destroyed, he said—railroads, foundries, shops, mills, schools, hotels and business offices—and “from four to five thousand houses” burned. A mere 400 homes were left standing, Howard wrote. Sherman had watched the scene from horseback as he rode out of town and later remarked: ­”Behind us lay Atlanta, smoldering and in ruins.”

A similar conflagration occurred when Sherman reached Columbia, the capital of South Carolina, but he ­suggested that it was the Southerners themselves who started the fire. The closest he ever came to an ­apology was a line in his after-action report admitting that his men “had done some things they ought not to have done.” Mr. Bonds correctly notes that recent revisionist ­historians have tried to play down or even deny Sherman’s role in the burning, but he acknowledges that the vagueness of the general’s orders left room for misinterpretation.

It is hard to reconcile the peculiar psychology of Sherman’s military ­tactics with the fact that these were his fellow Americans whose homes were being burned—mostly women, children and old men, at that. For ­despite all his hard-bitten ­declarations against the Confederacy and its supporters, Sherman, in his private correspondence, often made a point of expressing an abiding ­fondness for the South and the Southern people.

With his victory at Atlanta, ­Sherman solidified himself as an American hero—in the North, at least—and ensured what Lincoln’s ally Sen. Zachary Chandler called “the most extraordinary change in publick opinion here that ever was known.” The South’s hopes to exploit Northern discontent and wring a ­”political victory” from the war ­vanished.

Eventually, Sherman’s scorched-earth tactics validated a new ­standard for military operations—the notion of “hard war” or “total war,” in which civilians were no longer treated as innocent bystanders and their property became fair game. This policy was incorporated, ­improved and refined over the ­ensuing decades, reaching its most pitiless apogee at Hiroshima in 1945.

Since the ascension of Barry, I’ve found myself muttering again and again the line: What if Bush (or Israel) had done that?

And talking about what neither George nor Israel could get away with, Mark Steyn deconstructs Teddy:

In its coverage of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s passing, America’s TV networks are creepily reminiscent of those plays Sam Shepard used to write about some dysfunctional inbred hardscrabble Appalachian household where there’s a baby buried in the backyard but everyone agreed years ago never to mention it.

In this case, the unmentionable corpse is Mary Jo Kopechne, 1940-1969. If you have to bring up the, ah, circumstances of that year of decease, keep it general, keep it vague. As Kennedy flack Ted Sorensen put it in Time magazine:

“Both a plane crash in Massachusetts in 1964 and the ugly automobile accident on Chappaquiddick Island in 1969 almost cost him his life …”

That’s the way to do it! An “accident,” “ugly” in some unspecified way, just happened to happen – and only to him, nobody else. Ted’s the star, and there’s no room to namecheck the bit players. What befell him was … a thing, a place. As Joan Vennochi wrote in The Boston Globe:

“Like all figures in history – and like those in the Bible, for that matter – Kennedy came with flaws. Moses had a temper. Peter betrayed Jesus. Kennedy had Chappaquiddick, a moment of tremendous moral collapse.”

Actually, Peter denied Jesus, rather than “betrayed” him, but close enough for Catholic-lite Massachusetts. And if Moses having a temper never led him to leave some gal at the bottom of the Red Sea, well, let’s face it, he doesn’t have Ted’s tremendous legislative legacy, does he? Perhaps it’s kinder simply to airbrush out of the record the name of the unfortunate complicating factor on the receiving end of that moment of “tremendous moral collapse.” When Kennedy cheerleaders do get around to mentioning her, it’s usually to add insult to fatal injury. As Teddy’s biographer Adam Clymer wrote, Edward Kennedy’s “achievements as a senator have towered over his time, changing the lives of far more Americans than remember the name Mary Jo Kopechne.”

You can’t make an omelet without breaking chicks, right? I don’t know how many lives the senator changed – he certainly changed Mary Jo’s – but you’re struck less by the precise arithmetic than by the basic equation: How many changed lives justify leaving a human being struggling for breath for up to five hours pressed up against the window in a small, shrinking air pocket in Teddy’s Oldsmobile? If the senator had managed to change the lives of even more Americans, would it have been OK to leave a couple more broads down there? Hey, why not? At the Huffington Post, Melissa Lafsky mused on what Mary Jo “would have thought about arguably being a catalyst for the most successful Senate career in history … Who knows – maybe she’d feel it was worth it.” What true-believing liberal lass wouldn’t be honored to be dispatched by that death panel?

We are all flawed, and most of us are weak, and in hellish moments, at a split-second’s notice, confronting the choice that will define us ever after, many of us will fail the test. Perhaps Mary Jo could have been saved; perhaps she would have died anyway. What is true is that Edward Kennedy made her death a certainty. When a man (if you’ll forgive the expression) confronts the truth of what he has done, what does honor require? Six years before Chappaquiddick, in the wake of Britain’s comparatively very minor “Profumo scandal,” the eponymous John Profumo, Her Majesty’s Secretary of State for War, resigned from the House of Commons and the Queen’s Privy Council and disappeared amid the tenements of the East End to do good works washing dishes and helping with children’s playgroups, in anonymity, for the last 40 years of his life. With the exception of one newspaper article to mark the centenary of his charitable mission, he never uttered another word in public again.

Ted Kennedy went a different route. He got kitted out with a neck brace and went on TV and announced the invention of the “Kennedy curse,” a concept that yoked him to his murdered brothers as a fellow victim – and not, as Mary Jo perhaps realized in those final hours, the perpetrator. He dared us to call his bluff, and, when we didn’t, he made all of us complicit in what he’d done. We are all prey to human frailty, but few of us get to inflict ours on an entire nation.

His defenders would argue that he redeemed himself with his “progressive” agenda, up to and including health care “reform.” It was an odd kind of “redemption”: In a cooing paean to the senator on a cringe-makingly obsequious edition of NPR’s “Diane Rehm Show,” Edward Klein of Newsweek fondly recalled that one of Ted’s “favorite topics of humor was, indeed, Chappaquiddick itself. He would ask people, ‘Have you heard any new jokes about Chappaquiddick?'”

Terrific! Who was that lady I saw you with last night?

Beats me!

Why did the Last Lion cross the road?

To sleep it off!

What do you call 200 Kennedy sycophants at the bottom of a Chappaquiddick pond? A great start, but bad news for NPR guest-bookers! “He was a guy’s guy,” chortled Edward Klein. Which is one way of putting it.

When a man is capable of what Ted Kennedy did that night in 1969 and in the weeks afterward, what else is he capable of? An NPR listener said the senator’s passing marked “the end of civility in the U.S. Congress.” Yes, indeed. Who among us does not mourn the lost “civility” of the 1987 Supreme Court hearings? Considering the nomination of Judge Bork, Ted Kennedy rose on the Senate floor and announced that “Robert Bork’s America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit down at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens’ doors in midnight raids, schoolchildren could not be taught about evolution.”

Whoa! “Liberals” (in the debased contemporary American sense of the term) would have reason to find Borkian jurisprudence uncongenial but to suggest the judge and former solicitor-general favored resegregation of lunch counters is a slander not merely vile but so preposterous that, like his explanation for Chappaquiddick, only a Kennedy could get away with it. If you had to identify a single speech that marked “the end of civility” in American politics, that’s a shoo-in.

If a towering giant cares so much about humanity in general, why get hung up on his carelessness with humans in particular? …

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