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Sherman’s Hard Truths About War Ring True Today 
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Sherman’s Hard Truths About War Ring True Today 

The Civil War general’s experiences offer important lessons for critics of Israel’s military tactics.

(Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

In September 1864, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman occupied Atlanta and warned citizens to evacuate before he burned the town. The mayor and city council implored him to rescind the evacuation order, but Sherman—then commanding the Union’s Army of the West—politely refused and explained why. His response is worth revisiting today given the debate regarding Israeli operations in Gaza after Hamas terrorists sadistically massacred 1,400 Jews, and took 240 others hostage—several dozen of them United States citizens—on October 7.  

In the letter,  Sherman laid out the reasons for his occupation of Atlanta and forthcoming actions against the Confederate army. He wished no harm to the occupants of the city and offered to “make their exodus in any direction as easy and comfortable as possible.” Sherman wrote those words nearly 160 years ago, but they remain relevant for their insight into the necessity of effective force—as Sherman would go on to say years later, “War is hell”—as Israel seeks to eradicate the terrorists who made life miserable for both Israelis and Palestinians. 

To have peace in all of America, Sherman explained, the Union Army must defeat the Confederate army wherever it stood, and destroy its ability to arm and sustain itself. Atlanta had been used for “warlike purposes … inconsistent with its character as a home for families.”  Similarly, Israel cannot be at peace unless Hamas is destroyed. Gaza is the forward headquarters, and logistical and manpower base, of that organization. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) therefore reasonably ordered Palestinian civilians to evacuate much of Gaza.

Sherman continued, “You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out.” Gaza’s civilians are now essentially held captive by Hamas, but just as Southerners elected secessionist governments in 1860, Palestinians in Gaza knowingly elected Hamas in 2006 despite—or perhaps because of—its history of terror attacks. 

The general advised Atlantans, “I know that a few individuals cannot resist a torrent of error and passion, such as swept the South into rebellion, but you can point out, so that we may know those who desire a government, and those who insist on war and its desolation.” While it would undeniably take bravery and present great risk, Gazans could do the same by identifying Hamas members and the locations of hostages held in their midst to the IDF.

Sherman observed, “You might as well appeal against the thunder-storm as against these terrible hardships of war. They are inevitable, and the only way the people of Atlanta can hope once more to live in peace and quiet at home, is to stop the war, which can only be done by admitting that it began in error and is perpetuated in pride.” Gazans can do the same, forswearing support for groups such Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and further afield, their ally Hezbollah.

The general concluded, “dear sirs, when peace does come, you may call on me for anything. Then will I share with you the last cracker.” Likewise Israel, the United States, and a host of European and Arab countries are standing by to rebuild and aid Gaza after hostilities cease.

Burning Atlanta, and Sherman’s subsequent March to the Sea, remain controversial. They devastated the Deep South and caused great suffering; many white Southerners still hate Sherman. But he went on to serve as the senior officer of the U.S. Army and acting secretary of war, and he was repeatedly asked to run for president, an office he’d likely have won. Why? Because most Americans understood the high stakes faced by the Republic in 1864.

Absent Sherman’s timely autumn victories, Lincoln would probably have lost reelection to Major Gen. George McClellan, a Democrat prepared to let the Confederacy secede. This would have perpetuated the horrible evil of slavery for several decades and led to the eventual dissolution of the Union as European powers such as the British, French, and Spanish empires divided the remains of North America among themselves. Furthermore, ending the Civil War as quickly as possible was absolutely imperative: As many as 850,000 soldiers were killed or died from disease from 1861 to 1865, with many more captured or wounded, in a country just one-tenth of the size in population as America in 2023. Casualties on this level are, thankfully, incomprehensible to us today.

By the same token, Israel is a country just a bit bigger in population than New York City proper. It cannot take 1,640 mostly civilian casualties from an enemy that is already publicly committed to attacking it repeatedly. The campaign against Hamas in Gaza is an existential fight for Israel’s survival. When the United States’ back has been similarly pressed against the wall, we’ve quite rightly fought as hard as necessary to win, and not just in the Civil War.

The later years of the Revolutionary War in the South, featuring guerrilla warfare between patriot partisans and loyalist militias, were not pretty.  A U.S. army under Major Gen. Andrew Jackson destroyed a British army at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815; there were 62 American casualties to 2,034 British, with the enemy commander among the dead. Our Air Corps’ strategic bombing campaigns in World War II unfortunately killed many civilians: 25,000 in Dresden and 100,000 in Tokyo alone on single nights in 1945. Our soldiers and Marines took few Imperial Japanese army or Waffen-SS prisoners after American POWs suffered atrocities at those forces’ hands at Bataan in the Philippines in 1942 and Malmedy in Belgium in 1944.  Widely admired Gen. George Patton refused to court-martial enraged American GIs who summarily executed smirking Nazi death camp guards.

Yet we remain justifiably very proud of our military for establishing and maintaining our independence, preserving the Union and freeing the slaves, and defeating genocidal fascism. We are grateful our armed forces later did whatever was necessary to deter the Soviet Union from world conquest in the name of international communism, including maintaining a credible threat of the nuclear annihilation of the USSR, and to defeat al-Qaeda to prevent any repetition of 9/11.

Career IDF soldiers are solid professionals. They will do their best to exercise target discrimination, use force proportionately, and respect the privileges of combatants and the rights of noncombatants and prisoners. On the basis of past experience, the few Israeli conscripts who predictably break under the moral, physical and psychological pressure of urban combat against an irregular enemy, violate orders, and commit war crimes will be prosecuted by their country’s government.

The reality is that civilian casualties are inevitable when fighting cowardly, perfidious, and unchivalrous enemies who—like the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and Iranian proxy forces my comrades and I fought in Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen—do not wear uniforms, hide among women and children, and abuse the quarter given to hospitals and houses of worship. The mortal sins of those civilian deaths are borne by the condemned souls of Hamas terrorists, not those of IDF soldiers.

Taking as sobering templates modern U.S. operations in urban environments such as Mosul in 2016 and 2017, Fallujah in 2004, Hue in 1968, Seoul in 1950, Aachen and Manila in 1945, the death toll to come in Gaza may be shocking to American civilians. As casualties on all sides mount in Gaza, we ought to refrain from asking from the comfort of a safe distance for more restraint by the IDF, than we ask of our own military in similarly dire situations. William Tecumseh Sherman understood the hard truths about war in the American South in 1864, and he’d embrace them in Gaza today.

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Kevin Carroll

Kevin Carroll served as senior counsel to Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly (2017-18) and House Homeland Security Committee chairman Peter King (2011-13), and as a CIA and Army officer.