Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Sherman's Lessons Lost

And so, finally, the use of ground troops in Kosovo is being spoken of as not a possibility but a probability, perhaps an inevitability.

Barring a dramatic diplomatic breakthrough (in all likelihood bartered by the Russians), NATO and the United States will not be able to achieve their stated objectives of returning the ethnic Albanian Kosovars to their homes and ensuring they live there in safety without conventional action on the ground. The air campaign, like all long-range, high-explosive bombardments, has only stiffened the enemy's resolve, caused death and suffering among civilians, including some we are supposed to be aiding, and worsened an already bitter conflict.

Pentagon officials began this sorry affair by asserting the objective could be achieved by air, and most politicians believed them. It was left to a few brave legislators, as well as the odd military historian, to shake their heads and see in such thinking classic military hubris and, further, the possibility that Kosovo could become the ugliest, most prolonged European conflict since World War II.

Naturally, U.S. commanders didn't listen to any such military progressives: They never have. Ghostly precedents have pervaded this story from the start: the unhappy examples of Vietnam, and the Nazi blitz of Britain and Allied "strategic'' bombing of Germany during World War II, all of which only toughened enemy resistance, have been discussed at length. But perhaps the most pertinent parallel to the use of ground forces in Kosovo is that of the man who was, by general consensus, the father of modern "total war'': William Tecumseh Sherman, the great Union general of the Civil War.

There was no shortage of fruitless, long-range artillery bombardments (the 19th-century counterpart of air campaigns) during our savage internecine struggle from 1861-1865. In fact, General Ulysses S. Grant stands as the supreme exponent of the belief that slow, grinding, merciless attacks on cities, as well as armies, would bring victory. In pursuing this course, Grant made a genius of General Robert E. Lee, a military engineer who determined, early on, that he could build defensive fortifications that would withstand any long-range bombardment, and, so long as his people had food and his soldiers ammunition, such Union tactics would only strengthen the Southern revolve to resist.

But Sherman, the greatest military genius to emerge from the Civil War, was a different case: He knew long-range bombardment of nonmilitary installations in the South would have to be accompanied by carefully orchestrated ground campaigns against key Confederate military units and, even more important, their supply routes. In fact, Sherman never hesitated to admit that only about 20 percent of the work his army did - the 20 percent aimed at military targets - was of real use in winning the war. It was that 20 percent - and not his men's rape of the Southern countryside or Grant's relentless hammering of cities such as Richmond - that deprived Lee's army of food and supplies, and thereby forced the Gray Fox to surrender.

But we, as a military culture, have not enshrined the crucial 20 percent of Sherman's thinking that led to victory. We have, instead, made legend of the remaining 80 percent. We focused on the civilian destruction wrought by his troops, creating a false conception of the "March to the Sea,'' and thereby coming to believe Sherman succeeded because he was, in his own words, willing to make "warwith every man, woman and child'' in the South.

This is what we did in Vietnam and, again, what we did in Iraq - all hype about wonder weapons and dismissals of "collateral damage'' (surely one of the most obscene phrases ever devised by the military mind) notwithstanding.

It is what we are doing in Yugoslavia. The units whose destruction are most crucial to ending Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's reign of terror - his well-trained, hard-fighting and well-equipped ground troops in Kosovo - have thus far largely been spared. The only potent weapon we have been willing to consider using to hunt them down - Apache helicopters - took weeks to reach the combat theater, and even managed an embarrassing training-mission crash once there, thus again dimming any hope that the United States will develop what it needs most: an effective, rapid-deployment conventional force to deal with precisely the kind of conflict we are bogged down in. Meanwhile, Belgrade and other Yugoslav cities are targeted by "strategic'' bombs, more powerful than those used in the Civil War but no more effective.

We revel - guiltily, perhaps, but with persistence - in the theatrically stunning precision bombing of Belgrade and other cities. Sherman, however, despised the siege and bombardment of Atlanta, the phase of his campaign analogous to our current activities.

If NATO wishes to bend Milosevic to its will, it will do so only when its ground troops, supported from the air, cut his units off from their sources of supply and then engage them. Of course, Pentagon and White House officials can answer that their goal thus far has been to weaken support for Milosevic and for the war inside Yugoslavia, in imitation of Sherman's campaign in Georgia and the Carolinas. But such a comparison is, first of all, fallacious, because the civilian destruction wrought by Sherman's army brought only generations of resentment, and meant little to the war effort, as he himself admitted. Second, it is pernicious: promising a quick end to civilian suffering when all it will do is prolong misery and terror.

Caleb Carr, a contributing editor to MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History, is author of "The Alienist.'' He contributed this comment to The Los Angeles Times.