If Sherman Could See Us Now
By Patrick F. Cannon
“I am sick and tired of war. Its glory is all moonshine. It is only those
who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the
wounded who cry out for blood, for vengeance, for desolation. War is
General William Tecumseh Sherman wrote those words about the Civil War, and he wrote from experience. He was the first military leader who dared to admit that he intended to take the war to the civilians who supported his enemies, in this case the plantation owners and slaveholders of Georgia who supported the Confederate rebellion. While he was careful not to order his soldiers to murder civilians, he did encourage them to burn the crops and houses of those who opposed them. His famous “March” through Georgia did much to bring the war to an end by the following spring.
Civilians have always been victims of war. At the least, they have been a target of foraging armies; at worst, the victims of murder and rape. With the exception of sieges, land battles were fought outside of cities, on ground appropriate for the deployment of armies. Most of the civilians in these areas would have fled to safety before the battle was fought. Sieges were an exception. If the besieged city did not surrender, but forced the besieging army to take it by storm, civilians were considered fair game for slaughter, as having participated in defending the city or town.
Compared to later wars, World War I saw relatively few civilian casualties. While the Germans were inclined to execute suspected civilian “fifth columnists” in their march through Belgium and Northern France during the war’s initial battles, once the opponents settled into prolonged trench warfare, most civilians had long since been evacuated. Later in the war came ominous portents. Germany used Zeppelin air ships and later airplanes to bomb London, causing 1,413 deaths in London by the end of the war. During the Second World War, more than 60,000 Londoners were killed by German bombs. Although the numbers are open to question, approximately 600,000 Germans were killed by British bombs alone. In one raid, 45,000 Germans were killed when bombs caused a fire storm in Hamburg.
The British and then the Americans bombed Germany continuously from the fall of 1940 to nearly the end of the war in May, 1945. In the year or so that the Americans bombed the Japanese home islands, 333,000 civilians were killed, including the victims of the atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
While these numbers pale in relation to the 70 million people who died during the war – of whom 60 percent were civilians – they do suggest the increasing ability of aerial bombardment to bring the war to non-combatants. Air power theorists had originally believed that bombing would be accurate enough to limit damage largely to industrial and military targets, In practice, they soon discovered that true accuracy was a pipedream.
The relentless bombing of German cities by the British was retaliatory. Early German raids on London targeted the docklands and other presumed military targets. Predictably, many of the bombs missed and hit residential areas. The British then sent bombers to Berlin to retaliate, whereupon the Germans decided to bomb London indiscriminately. Whereupon…well, you get the idea.
Fast forward to today. With current technology, largely developed by the United States, it is now possible to place bombs and other airborne munitions with great accuracy. In Syria, for example, care has been taken by US and coalition air forces to avoid civilian casualties. As in all wars, however, mistakes in targeting take place. Such a case came to light recently, for which the US apologized. It also came to light that ISIS has forced civilians, including women and children, at gunpoint into areas from which they then launch attacks. When these areas are then attacked by coalition forces in turn, civilians once again become the cynical victims.
By the way, the Syrian government and its Russian allies have no qualms about killing civilians. In the last few days alone, they have dropped more of the infamous barrel bombs on civilian areas, and have apparently resumed the use of chemical weapons, once again crossing the red line famously drawn by the former United States administration.
Unlike Sherman, it’s clear that not everyone is “sick and tired of war.”
Copyright 2017, Patrick F. Cannon