Marvin Olasky

"War is cruelty. You cannot refine it." That's what Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman told Atlanta officials in 1864. But the U.S. armed forces during the past month routed both Iraq's army and nearly 140 years of military doctrine.

Sherman was a military innovator, consciously going against the tradition of not waging war on civilians. During 1863, his forces in Mississippi pillaged and burned towns. In 1864 in Georgia, he ordered his men to "burn 10 or 12 houses of known secessionists, kill a few at random, and let them know it will be repeated every time a train is fired upon." In 1865, even one of Sherman's majors complained to his wife of "the frightful devastation our army was spreading" in South Carolina: "Women, children and old men turned out into the mud and rain, and their houses and furniture first plundered and then burned."

Sherman's doctrine produced victory in the short run. Had his army not taken Atlanta, a war-weary, disunited Union might well have elected Democratic candidate George McClellan rather than re-electing Abraham Lincoln. McClellan probably would have agreed to negotiations concerning Southern independence. Had Sherman not shown a willingness to wage war on civilians, the surrender of Robert E. Lee might have been followed by years of guerrilla warfare. But Sherman's success came at a price that went beyond individual suffering: for decades afterward, resentment and sometimes hatred of Yankees prevailed in parts of the South.

The American Civil War was a precursor in many ways to the wars of the 20th century. The machine guns that first emerged during the Civil War became central to the trench slaughter of World War I. Not until World War II, though, was the Sherman Doctrine taken to its extreme. Hitler's Germans tried to break British will by bombing the civilian populations of London and other cities. Children were just part of the body count. German troops in other countries replied to snipers by lining up civilians and shooting them.

Then came the counterattack. Allies dropped dumb bombs on German cities, pointing to military targets and factories but bringing huge "collateral damage." Later, American and British forces tried to break the German (and then the Japanese) will by going after civilian populations, as well. Regrettable, they acknowledged, but what was the alternative? "War is cruelty. You cannot refine it."

Marvin Olasky

Marvin Olasky is editor-in-chief of the national news magazine World. For additional commentary by Marvin Olasky, visit
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