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War Is Hell: Sherman and Hap Arnold

One of the most famous quotes on warfare, "War is Hell." is attributed to one of America's most well-known generals. William Tecumseh Sherman was vilified in the South after the war, and lionized in the North. He was even asked to run for president on the Republican ticket. After having seen his friend Grant torn apart in the White House, he rejected the honor he deemed dubious, stating, "If nominated, I will not accept; if drafted, I will not run; if elected, I will not serve." Sherman was a prescient man, and a canny general. He understood that wars are won by destroying an enemy's will to resist. It was from this understanding that he said, "War is cruel, and you cannot refine it." There is no actual evidence that he used "War is hell" in his writings. Although there are many reports of his having spoken the words in public1.

William Tecumseh Sherman Photo

In spite of his many grumblings about war, Sherman was a humane man. Yes, in his public statements he said that you "can not refine it". Yet he ameliorated the damage from his campaigns as much as he reasonably could. He had ordered assaults of fortified positions during the war and did not like the butchery that was the result. He had concluded that a war of maneuver calculated to crush Southern resistance was the ideal way to fight the American Civil War (1860-1865). In his book "Sherman, a Soldier's Passion for Order", John F. Marszalek makes the observation, "After the war, he cited Napoleon...the fundamental maxim for successful war is to converge a superior force on the critical point at the critical time. He went beyond [Napoleon] in breaking the will of the civilian population and psychologically outflanking his opposing army." Marszalek points out that Sherman's march to the sea was carried out to destroy the will of the South through the destruction of its property. He wished to save lives. "Sherman was pleased with his successful march because the devastation had brought the war closer to completion and made less necessary the killing of people he knew and liked. He had achieved military success without excessive casualties."2

In William Tecumseh Sherman as in other great American generals, there was the realization that there must be a practical application of force in order to achieve positive political and social ends. Sherman regretted its application, but understood just how much was enough. He did make "Georgia howl". But at least the people were alive to howl, and not so resentful of Northern power that they could not come back into the Union.

USAF General Hap Arnold

Another great general that would ultimately achieve 5 star status, but never achieved the historical fame and notoriety of Sherman was General Henry Harly "Hap" Arnold of the United States Air Force. Hap Arnold had been trained at West Point and spent an early tour of duty in the Philippines. In 1911 after having been rejected by the Ordnance Department of the Army, he applied for and joined the signal corp, and learned how to fly an airplane from two very famous flyer's Orville and Wilbur Wright who were under contract at the time with the Army.3 He was convinced of the power of an air force to win wars. About the fire-bombing of Dresden in World War II, he wrote, "We must not get soft. War must be destructive and to a certain extent inhuman and ruthless."

Hap Arnold understood that it was not enough to merely defeat an enemy in the field, or in the air. The will of the population fielding the army also had to be broken. Or at least that population had to be convinced of the futility of resisting. Yet Arnold's techniques of heavy aerial bombardment of civilian targets seems a bit heavy handed today. Modern U.S. weaponry has become supremely precise, allowing for pinpoint accuracy in the destruction of military targets, so much so that "collateral damage" has become unacceptable. For this reason, the U.S. now has the capability of defeating its enemies in the field, air, and sea, without making the civilian population feel the pain of defeat. This is undoubtedly a more humane way to make war. But it has also created another problem; defeated nations no longer "feel" defeated. (To understand the effect of this, the German population never came to grips with the idea that its army in the field had been defeated in World War I, because none of the fighting had occurred in Germany. The people were anxious to make another trial of arms within a generation.)

Does this mean that the U.S. military should make wanton destruction a part of the planned program of warmaking? Certainly not. The United States as a nation would not accept conscious, willful, destruction of human lives. However, the United States military must demonstrate U.S. power, while at the same time conserving lives. The whole "shock and awe" campaign that opened the Iraq War certainly had this partly in mind. Perhaps Sherman put together the ideal approach. Destroy the enemy's base of operations. Let the enemy understand that America is resolved to prosecute the war to unconditional surrender. Then offer an olive branch.


  1. Origins of War Is Hell
  2. "Sherman: A Soldier's Passion for Order", by John F. Marszalek, The Free Press, 1993, p331 - Available at Amazon.com
  3. American Airpower Comes of Age General Henry H. “Hap” Arnold’s World War II Diaries, Air University Press, 2002, pp 1-10


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