Friday, April 15, 2011

Was W.T. Sherman a terrorist?

I picked up a book at the local thrift store, published in the wake of the 9-11 attacks, called “The Lessons of Terror.” The gist of the book is that warfare deliberately aimed at civilians with the intent to break their will to fight (or support the fighting) is nothing new, and it is generally counterproductive. Not only that, all warfare deliberately aimed at civilians (with the said intent to break will) is on a level morally. While the first claim is obviously true, I think the second is debatable, and the last is unbelievable.

On the last two questions a case in point treated at some length in the book is General Sherman (Ah, one of my hobby-horses): So, let’s take off with that, and compare and contrast two paradigmatic cases of 'deliberate warfare aimed at civilians’. Let’s ask ‘are these morally on a level?’ (Along the way we’ll also answer the counterproductivity charge.)

1. The 9/11 attacks

2. W.T. Sherman’s evacuation and burning of Atlanta (letting alone for now the March to the Sea, just to keep things simple. I think what I have to say in regard to the Atlanta evacuation applies to the MTS as well)

Question: are these two cases of “deliberate warfare aimed at civilians with intent to break will” on a level morally? One way to approach answering this question is to take account of the intent of the people attacking. Another is to take account of the likely consequences of their actions, when taken holistically (that is, the particular attacks in question, married up with follow on actions, or corollary actions taken at the same time). When you carry out this sort of analysis, I think it becomes rather obvious that these two examples are not morally equivalent.


Ferreting out intention of actors involves taking into account the moral aspects of the strategic thought of those that ordered the action (the morality of the grand strategy it serves, i.e., the goal of the warfare) and the morality of the tactical considerations (how it is the particular action will be implemented).

In the first case, the grand strategy is subjugation of the world in some sort of totalitarian Islamist state, with all the moral repugnancy that this implies. At the more tactical level the intent in hitting the World Trade Center and Washington was to cripple the material ability of the U.S. Extirpation of the will to fight was also deemed essential. So, in order to carry out this plan it was no accident that they targeted the WTC, a building full of civilians. Generally speaking, the historical evidence makes obvious that AQ chooses as its first line of attack, as its standard modus operandi, targeting of civilians for lethal force, this in order to sow terror. It is sometimes argued that asymmetries of power give moral allowance for them to do this. However, empirical evidence suggests that when AQ and other similar Islamist groups have power, and are not significantly threatened in that power, they persist in sowing terror as a basic element of their practices in retaining power. Be that as it may, civilians do not die as ‘accidental’ or ‘collateral’ fatalities of pursuit of military objectives. No, AQ fully intend to kill civilians AND carry out their military pursuits. These are two aspects of their unified strategy. So, in summation, this is an instance of “warfare deliberately aimed at civilians with intent to break will” that is very strongly immoral.

In the second case, the grand strategy that Sherman served was preservation of the Union, and the ideals of the American Republic, among them being, each human beings’ ownership of his own person. More broadly, the war served to defend and further the ideals of the Constitution, which include a bill of rights deemed universal in scope, applying to all human beings. The broad world view being defended, involving a democratic republican ideal of civil society that is anything but the totalitarian state envisioned by AQ.

At the tactical level, the intent in taking, evacuating and burning portions of Atlanta was to cripple the ability of the Confederacy to fund and supply its war effort. At the same time, Sherman did intend to severely inconvenience the inhabitants by kicking them out. This would not only affect Atlantans’ will to continue in support of the Confederacy, but would no doubt, via the media of the day, sow seeds of anxiety across the South. Sherman, utilizing a well thought out propaganda campaign fed the image of his army as an avenging force, even as he was careful to order that they NOT target civilians with lethal force. His army was to destroy property, rail lines, telegraphy infrastructure, NOT non-combatants. Even on the March to the Sea, civilian property was targeted, not the civilians themselves. There was no widespread killing.

Now, one may, as Carr suggests, hold Sherman responsible for tolerating departures from his orders, but it does no good to exaggerate the extent of such departures. They were minimal. What is more, one has to ask, as Carr to his credit does, what General Sherman’s intent was in razing. In short, it was his (and Grant’s) intent to break the fighting will with a minimum of Southern fatalities. Grant’s stand against Lee in Virginia was to act as a sort of holding action, while Sherman swept through the South, deliberately avoiding full on costly battles, destroying morale, material and infrastructure as he went. He did this avoiding casualties, even as he undeniably destroyed civilian housing, farms and created refugees. (Damn it, I thought I wasn’t going to go on about the MTS).

It was Lincoln’s intent to cripple the south and then show great mercy, while indulging in extensive reconstruction. He believed this would have profound psychological effect, rendering even the thought of secession nigh on inconceivable in the future. As it turned out, Lincoln was correct.

(As a side note here, Carr suggests that Sherman’s actions led to resentment, and reactions in the form of terror aimed at blacks by ex Confederate types that formed groups like the KKK. This in turn led to a longer course of reconciliation of the southern states with the Union than would otherwise have been the case. Now, perhaps there is a direct connection between the length of time for reconciliation and for resentments to cool, it nevertheless seems hard to confidently make the causal claims here boldly made. Do we really think that these resentments would not have existed absent Sherman’s actions? The racist outlook was deeply rooted, and should the Union have won the war absent a Sherman (a questionable assumption in itself) I think it quite likely that these men and groups would have still formed, and still carried out their campaigns of terror. It still seems quite likely that the reconciliation would have taken decades. All of this is highly speculative no matter what position you take.)

What is not speculative though, is that there is a very wide gap, morally speaking between the acts of Sherman and the acts of AQ. As should be apparent, carnage was not foremost in Sherman’s mind. In fact he avoided it. AQ favors carnage, and, more to the point, carnage of non-combatant citizens.

Now, it just seems obvious, that intrinsically, these two instances are NOT morally on a plane. So, perhaps, Carr means to argue that, due to the inherent counterproductivity of military actions against civilians, they are on a level as immoral choices due to the fact that responsible military and civilians leaders who knowingly make such decisions also are knowingly indulging in acts that prolong war or unrest.


This gets to the point of Carr's ‘counterproductivity thesis’. Are all instances of deliberate acts of war aimed at civilians with intent to break will ultimately counterproductive of the ends they serve? Is this a necessary truth? Is it something that is borne out by empirical evidence? The sheer universality of the claim should be cause for suspicion.

In the case of Sherman, we have seen that the argument is at best speculative, because it would have us deal in difficult to ascertain counterfactual possible- world theorizing. This is notoriously difficult and notoriously inconclusive business. On the supporting side, Carr cites resentment in the South, and the formation of the KKK. Against this position, we can cite the fact that the South did not “rise again”, and indeed the Union became stronger, not weaker, as a result of the post bellum Lincoln strategy, this despite residual resentments.

But, we needn’t indulge in counterfactual speculations to make the case that war making against civilians needn’t always be counterproductive. One need only cite the cases of Japan and Germany as counterexamples to the claim. Allies bombed Germany. The U.S. firebombed Tokyo, and dropped atomic weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Yet, coupled with generous post bellum treatment, both countries did indeed lose the will to fight, and not only that, became fast friends of the U.S. Significant cultural change occurred, and quite rapidly. So, one COULD make the case that such treatment is in fact counter-counter-productive (two negatives make a positive) i.e., positively productive of the aims toward which they serve. At best, we can say that warfare aimed at civilians is ambiguously connected with success in war aims. Coupled with the right concomitant and consequent actions, so the argument goes, it could be permissible. That’s just a fancy way of saying “it all depends.”

This brings me to my last point and the reason for the post title. There is something conceptually obtuse about the whole of the Carr book. In a way that I think is objectionable it indiscriminately uses the term “terrorism” in a way that ignores established usage of the term. This causes the work to obfuscate legitimate moral distinctions I’ve already touched upon. Let me see if I can 'splain myself: Consider these two definitions of “terrorism”

1. Military action aimed at civilian non-combatants with intent to extirpate the will to fight, or support the fighting of combatants with which they are some way importantly connected.

2. Use of lethal force aimed at civilian non-combatants with intent to etc…

First, a snarky point: Neither of these mentions the infliction of the emotional visceral reaction we denote using the word “terror”. OK? But, that should not prevent us from seeing something rather obvious: Actions covered under definition #1 can be rather broadly arrayed. Certainly Sherman’s actions fall under #1. Just as certainly, they do not fall under #2. To look elsewhere in history, attacks on Iraq’s communications infrastructure in the initial phases of OIF fall under #1. They do not fall under #2. Yet, if we adopt #1 as our definition of terrorism, we have to call these actions, and many more besides, terroristic, where intuitively, we probably would not. This muddies the conceptual waters when it comes to making moral judgments. This definition is not fine grained enough to catch an obvious moral distinction.

Now, there are further questions about these definitions that will not detain (as with all definitions they rely on ambiguous and vague terms; such is the curse and blessing of language): What constitutes “military action”? Who is a “non-combatant”? Who is a “combatant”? What counts as “fighting”?

I’m just passing these questions right on by to make what I hope is a simpler and final point:

What should we say about the moral status of the actions described in definitions #1 and #2 when we add in intent to cause the emotional/visceral reaction of terror? If infliction of terror is intended to serve the purpose of ending the will to fight (or support), then in a moral argument in favor of using such means, a case needs to be made that it is indeed necessary to that end and efficacious. If, on the other hand it is deemed unnecessary and inefficacious to that end then it cannot be morally defended.

Answering these challenges engages all the same sorts of difficulties and speculations that were engaged before in the discussion of the alleged counterproductivity of actions against civilians, and should be undertaken with a similar level of intellectual humility and caution.

So, was Sherman a terrorist? Aside from the barren semantic issue, we can say with certainty that he did intentionally target civilian infrastructure, and the will to support the Confederacy. He did intend to inflict the emotion, or sap will and create a sense of hopelessness and despondency with regard to the prospects of the Confederacy, to say the very least. He makes that quite clear in his Memoirs.

Was he morally blameworthy for doing this? That is a much more difficult case to make, and one that I believe would ultimately fail.