David Hume, William Tecumseh Sherman, and Vlad Putin

  • by Pete O'Brien
  • 08-15-2022

William Tecumseh Sherman was a fascinating guy, and with his friend and boss US Grant, was one of the most talented practitioners of modern, total war. We probably spend too little time studying what he said about war, despite everyone quoting him. The fact is, he has a lot to say that is terrifyingly relevant. And he had a lot to say; Sherman was never at a loss for words, about nearly anything and everything, and it was usually completely unfiltered. If it hadn’t been for Grant, he might never have risen to command.

Sherman came to mind the other day when considering the war in Ukraine and trying to answer the simple question: what would need to be done to end it?

Sherman’s oft quoted line is: "war is hell." He said it many times in many different ways; one of the more commonly quoted is: I am tired and sick 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 aloud for blood, for vengeance, for desolation. War is hell.”  

But the line needs to be understood from the perspective that when he was trying to end the civil war he recognized a truth about humans: most don’t surrender easily. Sherman recognized that the only way to force the South to surrender was to cause great pain, great loss; pain and loss so great that they would not keep fighting. And so his plan - brilliantly executed - to take his army, disconnect from any supply train, and drive into the South and cut a giant swath through the heart of the South and destroy it. It was, in a word, hellish. And by the time he was finished he had marched through Georgia, burned huge areas of that state, reached the sea, and then turned north and tore through the Carolinas headed for Virginia and Richmond, to meet up with General Grant. As Sherman noted: “We can make war so terrible and make them so sick of war that generations pass away before they again appeal to it."

Said differently, the key to winning that war, and winning wars in general, is violence, extreme violence. Unfortunately, that is in direct conflict with the antiseptic wars that policy makers in Washington and the capitals of Europe wish to fight. Clausewitz, like Sherman, had something today about that:
Kind-hearted people might of course think there was some ingenious way to disarm or defeat an enemy without too much bloodshed, and might imagine this is the true goal of the art of war. Pleasant as it sounds, it is a fallacy that must be exposed: war is such a dangerous business that the mistakes which come from kindness are the very worst. The maximum use of force is in no way incompatible with the simultaneous use of the intellect. If one side uses force without compunction, undeterred by the bloodshed it involves, while the other side refrains, the first will gain the upper hand. That side will force the other to follow suit; each will drive its opponent toward extremes, and the only limiting factors are the counterpoises inherent in war.

Said differently, never get into a war if you can avoid it. But once in it, you need to understand that violence is the real “coin of the realm.”

And so, about Ukraine.
It is possible that there are people in the power structure in Moscow who will grow (perhaps already have grown) tired of the war and all that it means in lives lost, men maimed, economies ruined, etc., and they will force Putin out. But before we lose ourselves in revelry over that idea, remember that Putin has been in power, one way or the other, for nearly a quarter of a century. Everyone in any position of power in Russia is there because Tsar Vlad put him there. Even if Vlad were to fall over dead tomorrow from one of the dozens of diseases from which he supposedly suffers, the fellow who replaced him would probably look and act a good deal like Vlad. Not that we should expect Vlad to drop over; the fact that several intelligence agencies in the US and NATO came out and said he may be ill virtually guarantees he will live at least another 5 years. It’s like black magic: MI-6, CIA, DGSE, et al, say that Tito is on his death bed! He lived another 10 years… Franco, Usama bin Laden, Castro, etc. It’s a long list…

This is why David Hume is relevant. Hume, the Scottish philosopher of the 1700s, noted that in fact all governments are, in one way or another, the ones that the people are willing to accept. Too oppressive and the people have every right, and eventually the numbers, to overthrow it. Even very oppressive dictatorships are, at least initially, accepted by their people. When the oppression becomes so severe, and the living conditions so horrible that they’re literally intolerable, the bulk of the citizens will act to change the government. And if you want to understand how horrible it can get, look at North Korea.

In Putin’s case, despite the bad press he receives in Europe and the US, he is still strongly supported in Russia, and in fact in much of the world. Hoping that will change is not a good plan.

So, how can we bring this war to an end? How do we bend the Russian will to our desires? What must be done so that the average Russian reaches a point that the benefit of peace outweighs all the costs of surrender? Well, one way is found in Sherman: create such a horror that the ground swell of the people becomes so extreme that peace is sought. How? The war has to become hellish. That translates into  killing. Lots and lots of killing.

It is at this point that someone will balk and say: you can’t fight war like that any more. That, of course, is quite incorrect. What is true is you can fight a war like that as long as you don’t really expect to win. You may, but only if the enemy is weak of will. Because war is about will, bending the enemy to your will.

A war in which the violence is much more careful, where targeting is finely tuned and only bad guys with guns in hand get killed, where we don’t even need to blow up their house, we just shoot a missile that slices him in two, and no one not directly involved need worry about the violence of war - that sounds quite nice to folks inside the halls of power in various capitals. But it is a flight of fancy. If you want to win the war, you need to bend the enemy to your will. And 99 times out of 100 that means a lot of violence.

To the folks who say that fighting such a war, a war as Sherman implies, is too horrible, the answer is pretty much what Sherman said: That is why you avoid wars. You don’t fight wars for light or transient causes. 

And bending a nation to your will isn’t easy. History has shown that most countries don’t quit easily. If you kill a fair bunch of their people - wipe out one of its armies, they will respond by getting very angry and then raise another army. The war becomes visceral. The real reason for the war is lost, replaced with anger, with rage, that “they” (whoever “they” are) just killed 30,000 of our men. The stakes get higher. Once two countries get on that particular cycle it gets very difficult to stop the war. If you are lucky there is a Bismarck around who ends the war because he still has clarity as to what he wanted to achieve and having gained it, he manages to end the war. But that is rare.

The Ukrainians did not start this war. But they are now in it. They want to win it, which they have defined as recovering all their terrain. All well and good.

But they need to understand that this is going to require a great deal of killing. I think at least President Zelenskyy understands. The other day he said:
‘This is a question that worries absolutely everyone: when will the war end? Someone says – months, someone – a year, someone – even more. But the question of time actually directly depends on the question of the losses that Russia will suffer. The more losses the occupiers suffer, the sooner we will be able to liberate our land and guarantee Ukraine’s security. This is what everyone who defends our state and helps Ukraine should think about: how to inflict the greatest possible losses on the occupiers so that the time of the war gets shorter.’

But everyone who supports them needs to understand this: this war is far from over. And before it is over there is going to be a great deal more killing. That is the true nature of war.