Author’s Note: This is the first of three articles for The Objective Standard dealing with military history and its lessons for the modern day. The articles are adapted from my book in progress, Nothing Less than Victory: Military Offense and the Lessons of History. The second article will consider the British appeasement of Germans in the late 1930s, and the ideas that disarmed the British and prevented them from stopping Hitler when they could have. The third will consider the lessons of the victory over Japan in World War II.
The response of Americans to September 11, 2001, was of an entirely different caliber than their response to December 7, 1941. In contrast to “the Greatest Generation,” Americans of the third millennium made no formal declaration of war, and did not unleash their weapons against those governments that had openly incited, financed, and celebrated fifty years of similar attacks. The American military offensive trained diplomatic envoys rather than missiles at the ideological, financial, and military center of the militant totalitarian Islamists. The political centerpiece of worldwide jihad—the Islamic Republic of Iran—remains untouched and is capitalizing on the vacuum in Iraq to bolster its power. This is not a situation forced upon us—it has been chosen. If Americans have not directed their forces toward the heart of the threats facing them, it is not because they cannot do so. It is because they think they should not do so.
History tells us that it need not be this way. Since time immemorial people have faced military attacks by motivated foes, and have had to choose between marching into an enemy’s own territory or retreating into defensive maneuvers. One case in point may be found at a turning point in our own nation’s history—the American Civil War—in which an ideology of slavery led to a deadly rebellion against the U.S. Constitution. Next to Iran, of course, the Confederacy was a paradise of rationality; the parallels between the two cultures do not extend to the death-worship emanating from Tehran. But the Civil War does offer a powerful lesson about how to win a war: by destroying the psychological and material foundations of an enemy’s will to fight.
The first shots in the war were fired by southern gunners against a Union garrison on April 12, 1861. For three years armies marched and countermarched between horrific battles, which slaughtered thousands but allowed neither side to prevail. A conflict that many thought would be settled quickly grew into a nightmare that butchered more than 600,000 young men. To restore the constitutional authority of the federal government, the North needed an integrated understanding of means and ends—of a military goal to be attained and a strategy to attain it—pursued with vigor against the heart of the South. For three years President Lincoln sought a general who could understand this—and do it. He found that man in General Ulysses S. Grant, who formulated a successful strategic vision and empowered the Union armies to use it. But it was Grant’s southern commander, General William Tecumseh Sherman, who thrust a dagger into the heartland of the South and brought the Union to victory.
By 1864 the northern Army in Virginia had failed to break the deadlock with the Confederates under Robert E. Lee. But Grant and Sherman, commanding the armies to the west, had taken control of the Mississippi River, and had cleared a path into the South. When Grant assumed command of all the Union armies in March of 1864, and proceeded to tie Lee down in Virginia, Sherman marched into the South. He moved from Tennessee into Atlanta (September 1), across Georgia to Savannah (November 12 through December 22), and then northward through the Carolinas (beginning February 1, 1865). He tore up rail lines, burned plantations, and utterly destroyed the material and psychological foundations of the southern war effort. By April—five months after leaving Atlanta—the war was over.
Sherman’s march demonstrates how a forthright, confident, singular offense, directed against the center of the aggressor’s power—and armed with moral certainty in one’s own cause—can extinguish the fire behind the war. Sherman understood an important truth: that to return the nation to constitutional government, freedom, and peace, the North had to break the southern will to fight by bringing the consequences of war into the South. The southern slave society had to be shocked to its roots, its material ability to support the army destroyed, its claim to virtue and honor unveiled as a fraud, and the bankruptcy of the southern aristocracy made undeniable.
This is a lesson of timeless importance. As we today face attacks by a highly motivated, worldwide movement of suicidal warriors, we urgently need to reconsider our goals and our strategy for attaining them. To do this, we must reexamine the nature of the conflict, the nature of our goals, and the nature of our enemy. This process is essential to waging the right war in the right way against the right regime—and winning it. In this regard, there is no better example than that set by Sherman. . . .