"War," said General William Tecumseh Sherman, "is Hell." He knew what he was talking about. Sherman's march through Georgia and into South Carolina at the end of the Civil War helped end the Civil War while destroying a lot of civilian homes, farms, and towns.
His strategy was to inflict such terrible punishment on the South that it would surrender faster, thus saving lives. His men did things shocking to Americans even after such a bloody conflict, burning plantations and destroying everything in their wake. Ironically, though, even Sherman's deeds have been exaggerated.
But Sherman was no mere brute. He was so depressed by the prospect of the Civil War-being among the few who understood how long and bloody it would be-that he had a nervous breakdown at its onset and tried to escape the responsibility of service that he ultimately knew would be impossible for him to avoid. Like other Western generals of his time, and almost up to the present day--but no longer--he simply believed, in his words, "I will ever conduct war with a view to perfect and early [that is, complete and quick] success."
After the war, Sherman became commander of the U.S. army and about 1870, regarding the Franco-Prussian War but it applies generally:
How are wars won? The preferred way is for one side to see that its own victory is impossible and that it will face much heavier costs by continuing than by surrendering or making peace. By making a deal sooner, the side that's losing often reasons that it can get better terms.
What do you do, though, if the other side isn't going to give up? Here's what Sherman said about the French-German conflict but which also applies to America's Civil War and many other conflicts as well:
"The proper strategy consists in inflicting as telling blows as possible on the enemy's army, and then in using the inhabitants so much suffering that they must long for peace, and force the government to demand it. The people must be left nothing but their eyes to weep with over the war."
That's pretty terrible. Remember, though, that Sherman did say war was Hell. When it became clear that Japan was not going to surrender in World War Two, requiring a full-scale U.S. invasion of that country's homeland that would have left millions dead, President Harry Truman dropped two atomic bombs on Japan. He was right to do so. The results were horrendous, heart-breaking. Yet if Truman had not taken that tough decision far more Japanese and Americans would be dead. The damage to Japan would have been so great that the country would not have recovered, if at all, until many decades passed.
Consider Sherman's analysis in a contemporary context. Western democracies, including the United States and Israel, have no desire to pursue such a strategy. If the governments did, the democratic institutions and public opinion would never stand for it. This creates a paradox: if the other side doesn't surrender, victory is impossible because that other side will not be crushed or so credibly threatened with destruction that its leaders will give in.
This is one side-the other is the nature and ideology of the enemies themselves-of asymmetric warfare. By refusing to surrender, by offering up their own civilians as casualties, by courting massive destruction, by keeping the battle going and inflicting casualties on the democratic combatants, the weaker side hopes to win. True, the radicals believe that their ideology and determination makes them stronger but there's one more factor: they count on the squeamishness of their would-be victims as being too soft, in effect too democratic.
The radicals using asymmetric warfare are wrong in thinking they can win but they are right in thinking they can't lose. The battle goes on as long as they choose, even if the democratic side doesn't give up. And sometimes it does, or at least they can still hope that it will and use that hope to inspire more sacrifice from its own people.
Consider Israel in this context. The above explains why Israel can never "win" the conflict with the Palestinians or with the neighboring Arabs or Muslims for that matter. "Win" here means to gain such a triumph that the conflict will come to an end. But Israel can "win" by reducing the cost of the conflict to itself, going on with its national life, and reducing conflict to a minimum in terms of disruptions and casualties.
Equally, the radicals can gain international sympathy and criticisms of Israel but that will never bring them actual victory, only allow them to extend the conflict indefinitely. And so, there is no peace but Israel remains the closest thing to a winner, as long as it is willing to pay a certain price, while trying to reduce that price to the lowest possible level.
I am not advocating a Sherman-like policy. No one in any position of power in Israel is doing so or has ever really done so. Aside from the moral issue, the effect on Israel's own society, and the impact on its international standing, such a step simply isn't necessary.
Compare the Israeli view to that of the creator and commander of the German army, not in World War Two under the Nazis, not even in World War One, but in the 1870 Franco-Prussian war. The Germans had won but the French were waging war for a time through guerrilla forces.
General Moltke ordered all French guerrillas to be shot and anyone helping them be severely punished. "Experience has established that the most effective way of dealing with this situation is to destroy the premises concerned-or, where participation has been more general, the entire village...."
A German officer wrote in 1870: "We are learning to hate them more every day....Atrocious attacks are avenged by atrocities which remind one of the Thirty Years War."
Does this have anything to do with Israeli tactics on the West Bank or Gaza Strip? Of course not, though nothing would be easier for Israel to do in terms of capability. After 50 years of conflict, Israeli soldiers don't respond the way those Germans did after five months. That's why not a single real atrocity or massacre can be found by Israel's enemies despite massive and desperate attempts to do so over many years; even despite the fact that there have been many completely documented and deliberately planned massacres of Israeli civilians by Palestinian terrorists.
And this remains true despite the fact that the "atrocious attacks" Israel faces, in terms of anti-civilian terrorism, is far beyond what that German officer in 1870 could ever have dreamed possible. Remember, too, by the way that under British rule in mandatory Palestine the mere possession of a gun was punishable by death. The British executed more Jews in two years during the 1940s than Israel has hung Palestinians who killed civilians in 50 years. In fact, Israel has not executed a single Palestinian during its existence.
Fortunately, back in 1871, the French government, realizing the hopelessness of the situation, made a deal, giving up one and a half provinces and paying reparations in order to end the war. Even this did not terminate the friction between the two countries which later resulted in two world wars, though that particular peace agreement held for almost 45 years.
Still, the Franco-Prussian war example shows that even a "total victory" might be less satisfactory ultimately than what for Israel is largely a victory for all practical purposes, including at least formal peace with two of its neighbors and a de facto peace-though not necessarily a permanent one of course, with the Palestinian Authority.
Two points to conclude. First, there is nothing harder than to explain the above to a Western audience. They identify a good outcome only with a full and formal peace ending the conflict. This is, of course, preferable. But if it is impossible-and it is in an asymmetric conflict when international sympathy for the aggressive "underdog" allows it to go on getting its people killed and territory damaged for decades-than a practical "victory" is the next best thing.
Second, it is rather ridiculous to slander Israel as a "war criminal" or bully or aggressor or the factor blocking peace when the opposite is true. If the weaker side insists on being the attacker and rejecting a reasonable peaceful solution, then that supposed "David" becomes in fact the actual "Goliath."
Moreover, compared to the wars of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries there have been no massacres, summary executions, wholesale destruction of cities, large-scale looting, or anything comparable to such things.
In the attempt to smear Israel, we are now down to debating whether it was right for Israeli soldiers to shoot back at enemy combatants trying to kill them who were firing from a specific building or which ammunition should have been used in doing so. And this in a situation where the other side is subject to no limits whatsoever, indeed can be expected to target civilians on purpose and execute prisoners.
Defiinitely, there has been a great deal of success for groups with a long history of deliberate terrorism in lying about Israeli actions and spreading the general impression that some kind of war crimes were committed. Yet the fabrications and irresponsibility of Western institutions in doing so are far more shocking than anything that actually happened.
And finally, Israel has rejected the Sherman strategy. It is the Palestinian side, along with Iran, Syria, Hizballah, and others that have embraced it. They just lack the competence to pull it off.
In Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, the United States is facing parallel issues, and this will happen even more in the future. It is understandable that democratic countries have generally abandoned the Sherman approach but there is a price to be paid for doing so. What is completely unacceptable is to pay the price for restraint and then be falsely accused of acting otherwise.
At the end of the Civil War, Sherman wrote, speaking words that all democratic societies truly feel:
"I confess, without shame, I am sick and tired of fighting-its glory is all moonshine; even success the most brilliant is over dead and mangled bodies, with the anguish and lamentations of distant families, appealing to me for sons, husbands and fathers....It is only those who have never heard a shot, never heard the shriek and groans of the wounded and lacerated ...that cry aloud for more blood, more vengeance, more desolation."
Yet Sherman did not live to see the age of ideological warfare, no matter what the cost to their own people the radicals and Islamists do indeed call for "more blood, more vengeance, more desolution." They do so in the hope that their enemies are "sick and tired of fighting," will do anything to avoid casualties and the "anguish and lamentations," from citizens, and that fools in the enemies' camp blame the continued warfare and suffering on their own side.