I have to take issue with Rush Limbaugh regarding the subject of war. He said: “It used to be back in the days when we fought wars to win them that civilian deaths were the object. It was folks, as hard as that may be to hear.”
Now, I know he’s right in one thing. Our current rules of engagement are making it harder for our troops in Afghanistan, putting them at greater risk. So, it’s right to loosen these restrictions as Rush contends.
But he is wrong to say that civilian deaths were, or should be, the object of war. That gives ammunition to purist libertarians and neo-confederates, who respectively use it to attack our military and Lincoln.
First of all, it may be true as a factual matter that wars go after civilians, but that’s not the same as saying that’s the way it ought to be. Moralists squabble a lot, but most agree you can’t go from an “is” to an “ought.”
Rush defends his thesis by citing Lincoln, Sherman and the bombing of Atlanta. He also mentions the bombing of Dresden and Berlin, and the atomic bombings of Japan.
Shame on Rush. He ought to know better.
Sherman bombed Atlanta because Confederate troops were holed up there. Most of the civilians had already left the city, or they stayed in bunkers, and the number of civilians killed amounted to about 20.
That’s hardly wholesale slaughter.
Sherman was a realist. In a letter of June 6, 1862, he complained to his wife that the newspapers and editorialists were the real cause of the war. (See Sherman’s Home Letters):
They kept fanning the flames of hatred between Southerners and Northerners. In addition, they complained about General Grant for the defeat at Shiloh. Sherman did not think Northern editorialists understood the grim cost of war.
This was all long before the terrible battles at Antietam, Chancellorsville, or Gettysburg, and Sherman’s words show just how accurate his realism would prove to be:
“The very object of war,” he said, “is to produce results by death and slaughter, but the moment a battle occurs the newspapers make the leader responsible for the death and misery, whether of victory or defeat.”
Sherman did not say that the death and slaughter of civilians was the object of war. He is complaining that editorial writers did not understand the real, physical object of war, which is to kill the enemy.
In a letter of July 31, 1862, Sherman predicted that the war in the near future will be “very bloody,” and he complained that Northern merchants were doing business with Southerners. His early critics, who believed the Civil War would be a cakewalk, thought him insane.
Because of their greed, the North was providing the South with the wherewithal to conduct the war, including ammunition. “Of course our lives are nothing in the scales of profit with our commercial people.”
Sherman then goes on to describe his camp as pleasant, though he is surrounded by secessionists (“Secesh”) and that “they prefer the South to the North, and that they hope and pray that the Southern army will in due time destroy us.”
He ends up by saying, “We are in our enemy’s country and I act accordingly. The North may fall into bankruptcy and anarchy first, but if they can hold on the war will soon assume a turn to extermination, not of soldiers alone, that is the least part of the trouble, but the people.”
This is the quotation Rush uses to prove that Sherman believed in killing civilians.
However, the context of the prior letter and the following letter of August 10, 1862 shows that Sherman was upset because the North was not taking the war seriously. They were still trying to make peace. They were selling out the Northern army by doing business with the South. They were in fact prolonging the war.
He says, “Well, at last I hope the fact is clear to their minds that if the North design to conquer the South, we must begin at Kentucky and reconquer the country from there as we did from the Indians.”
In other words, the only way to win the war against the South was through hard war. This was something the North had to learn as much as the South.
Hard war is another name for strategic warfare. It means not only going after military targets, but also the infrastructure that supports a nation’s military. This is what Sherman did in his march to Atlanta. He had to clear out Confederate guerrilla fighters and snipers, so he began destroying their civilian support.
Sherman ruined the South’s ability to supply its army with staples or ammunition. That only meant destroying civilian infrastructure. It did not mean killing civilians.
In WW2, we (Americans) did not bomb civilians as a first objective. We engaged in strategic warfare. We bombed the infrastructure that fed the German war machine.
The bombing of Dresden is usually cited as “total war” and Rush implies that we deliberately attacked civilians to make them want to give up. In fact the railway yards were the real target, for they aided German troop movement.
Both British and American air forces bombed the city. The fires from the bombing turned the city into an inferno which killed about twenty thousand. It wasn’t the worst ever seen in Germany during WWII, but the failure of the mayor to prepare his city, plus the wooden-frame structures, created a firestorm.
The bombing of Berlin was in order to target war industries, railroads, communications, and the Luftwaffe.
It’s obvious that many civilians are killed in such carpet bombing attacks, but they did not have smart bombs in those days. Smart bombs have spoiled us, and we have a tendency to judge wars of the past by the technological standards of today.
The bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were terrible and killed many civilians. The death and destruction was so great as to almost guarantee that nations would not use such devices again.
At the time, however, people were sick of war and tired of Japanese brutality and fanaticism. In addition, the kamikazi runs on Pacific ships reinforced the idea that Japan would not surrender, and the Allies would suffer tremendously in an invasion of the Japanese homeland.
So the decision was made to go ahead with the atomic bombs. Hiroshima was the headquarters of Japan’s Second Army, and both cities had industrial and military importance. Also, it was presumed that no POWs were in those cities (though it turned out some were).
In any case, our (American) strategic warfare of the past did not deliberately target civilians, and even in the case of the atomic bombs, the cities were chosen for their military and industrial value.
Rush is obviously right that war cannot be fought without civilian losses. An atomic bomb, of course, would make it a certainty. “War is all hell,” Sherman said, and it’s hell for everybody, not just for soldiers.
But that’s different from saying we deliberately target civilians. If that were the case, we’d be hardly different from terrorists or Islamo-fanatics.
We must fight hard against military and industrial targets, and in worst cases against residential infrastructure (where guerrillas hide out). But, contrary to Rush, we should not deliberately kill or maim civilians.
Leave that to the fanatical hordes.