From George W. Bush to William Tecumseh Sherman

Posted: Mar 08, 2007 12:00 AM

I thought the war that's now almost four years old could be different. With "smart bombs" we would destroy military targets and leave adjacent civilian structures unharmed. With smart rules of engagement we could minimize Iraqi civilian discomfort. In a sense, George W. Bush's war would be a compassionate conservative war.

Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman would have scoffed at such a campaign. His doctrine was, "War is cruelty. You cannot refine it." He ravaged Georgia and South Carolina in 1864 and 1865, but had he not shown how devastating total war was, the surrender of Robert E. Lee might have been followed by years of guerrilla warfare.

Technological developments over the next 80 years made war even more hellish. Machine guns led to the trench slaughter of World War I. Air power led to the bombing of civilians in London and then in German cities. Two nuclear bombs ended the U.S. war against Japan. Regrettable, the Allies acknowledged, but what was the alternative? "War is cruelty. You cannot refine it."

The Bush attempt in Iraq was to refine war. Speed, mobility, and flexibility allowed the United States to advance to Baghdad in record time. I did not cheer the advent of war in 2003 -- the headline on one of my columns was "Evil Times" -- but I thought the Bush doctrine could replace the Sherman doctrine.

It turns out that Sherman was right: When an army gains an advantage, it has to pound away, not let up. My early misassumption -- and far more important, the Bush administration's -- became evident quickly: On May 15, 2004, the cover headline in World, the magazine I edit, was "WHAT A MESS: U.S. mishandling of postwar Iraq is a recipe for civil war."

We quoted Ali Allawi, then Iraq's minister of defense, saying of the American debacle in Fallujah, "with the imperative of reducing civilian casualties that seems to govern the military doctrine the core of the fighters will get up and reassemble elsewhere and create mayhem at a later date." That's what happened.

Reducing civilian casualties by letting terrorists escape seemed right for both humanitarian and political reasons, but we were dealing with a culture that interprets compassion as a lack of seriousness. Muhammad and his successors spread their faith not by being nice but by wielding the sword. Following the smashing American victory in 2003, we had the opportunity to impress upon Iraqis who wanted to be winners the idea that terrorism is for losers. We missed that opportunity.

Losing in a Christian culture is not fatal, because many of us grow up believing that seemingly lost causes are the ones worth fighting for. Jesus and the apostles, and their disciples, spread Christianity by losing in worldly terms, even to the point of crucifixion. But Islam does not have a theology of losing. Muslim terrorists require momentum.

Just as 19th Century poverty fighters thought they had to be tough to produce results, so Sherman believed his cause was right and his harshness in war compassionate over the long term: Opponents would see that guerrilla warfare was useless. Were our recent rules of engagement really compassionate, when they gave terrorists new life and led to thousands of civilian deaths in terrorist bombings?

By being over-confident and going easy during the first year after taking Baghdad, we fell behind. Now General David Petraeus and his forces are playing catch-up. Will the U.S. surge succeed? Let's hope and pray so, because an American defeat will lead to wider war. "War is hell," Sherman said, and if we don't make it hellish for 10-15,000 terrorists, they will murder even more of their innocent countrymen, like the 120 killed in Hillah (60 miles south of Baghdad) on Tuesday alone in two suicide bombings.

And not only the peace of Iraq is at stake. If they succeed there, terrorists will make 9/11 seem like only the front hallway to hell.

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