Matthew Carr’s new book, Sherman’s Ghosts: Soldiers, Civilians, and the American Way of War, is presented as “an antimilitarist military history” — that is, half of it is a history of General William Tecumseh Sherman’s conduct during the U.S. Civil War, and half of it is an attempt to trace echoes of Sherman through major U.S. wars up to the present, but without any romance or glorification of murder or any infatuation with technology or tactics. Just as histories of slavery are written nowadays without any particular love for slavery, histories of war ought to be written, like this one, from a perspective that has outgrown it, even if U.S. public policy is not conducted from that perspective yet.
What strikes me most about this history relies on a fact that goes unmentioned: the former South today provides the strongest popular support for U.S. wars. The South has long wanted and still wants done to foreign lands what was — in a much lesser degree — done to it by General Sherman.
What disturbs me most about the way this history is presented is the fact that every cruelty inflicted on the South by Sherman was inflicted ten-fold before and after on the Native Americans. Carr falsely suggests that genocidal raids were a feature of Native American wars before the Europeans came, when in fact total war with total destruction was a colonial creation. Carr traces concentration camps to Spanish Cuba, not the U.S. Southwest, and he describes the war on the Philippines as the first U.S. war after the Civil War, following the convention that wars on Native Americans just don’t count (not to mention calling Antietam “the single most catastrophic day in all U.S. wars” in a book that includes Hiroshima). But it is, I think, the echo of that belief that natives don’t count that leads us to the focus on Sherman’s march to the sea, even as Iraq, Afghanistan, and Gaza are destroyed with weapons named for Indian tribes. Sherman not only attacked the general population of Georgia and the Carolinas on his way to Goldsboro — a spot where the U.S. military would later drop nuclear bombs (that very fortunately didn’t explode) — but he provided articulate justifications in writing, something that had become expected of a general attacking white folks.
What intrigues me most is the possibility that the South today could come to oppose war by recognizing Sherman’s victims in the victims of U.S. wars and occupations. It was in the North’s occupation of the South that the U.S. military first sought to win hearts and minds, first faced IEDs in the form of mines buried in roads, first gave up on distinguishing combatants from noncombatants, first began widely and officially (in the Lieber Code) claiming that greater cruelty was actually kindness as it would end the war more quickly, and first defended itself against charges of war crimes using language that it (the North) found entirely convincing but its victims (the South) found depraved and sociopathic. Sherman employed collective punishment and the assaults on morale that we think of as “shock and awe.” Sherman’s assurances to the Mayor of Atlanta that he meant well and was justified in all he did convinced the North but not the South. U.S. explanations of the destruction of Iraq persuade Americans and nobody else.
Read the rest via Exporting Sherman’s March | Let’s Try Democracy.