Lessons of History

Dmitri Rotov posts an article and complains about the “profoundly nihilistic use of history” in an Army staff ride. As a Vietnam vet it brings back a lot of memories to me as well.

Now just about everyone – layman and historian alike – would probably agree that we should heed the lessons of history. The problem is, no can agree on exactly what those lessons are or how just to apply them. Thus Dmitri’s conclusion that they are observed mostly in the negative is well taken.

What should we conclude that the lessons of Vietnam were? Don’t get involved in a land war in Asia? That defeat was the wage of imperial hubris? That guerrillas are invincible? Take your pick.

Another lesson currently making the rounds in the military is that the French lost in Algeria because they used torture. Yet the Algerian rebels used it freely, and won. How does that affect the lesson? Does it apply only to the French (or Americans?).

“If you want to hurt the guerrillas, you have to win the hearts and minds of the populace. That’s lesson number one.”

Hmm, now where have I heard that phrase before? A couple of paragraphs up, the writer admits that “the state was divided from the start and during the war neither side was able to control the countryside, leaving the civilian population outside of a few garrison towns at the mercy of armed bands who looted, punished and killed at whim.”

How, exactly, was the government – either Union or Confederate – supposed to win those hearts and minds? Just to cite one minor problem, how would the most devoted citizen resist an armed band determined to kill him? Probably by forming an armed band of his own, which was exactly what happened.

That’s the big problem I have with pat solutions like this. It often gets reduced to solutions more appropriate to kindergarten – if we’re nice to them they’ll be nice to us.

Let’s jump over to the Shenandoah in 1864. Although there were pockets of Union sympathy in the lower Valley (e.g. Martinsburg), for the most part it was solidly Confederate. A number of guerilla and partisan units (partisans, like Mosby, wore uniforms and observed the rules of war) operated in the Valley until the end of the war, and the Federals were never able to completely suppress them.

What could Phil Sheridan have done to “win the hearts and minds” of the people of the Valley so they would have stopped supporting the guerrillas? What if he had concluded, per John Murtha, that his own army was the problem? Organized some sort of social action program? Withdraw his army and trust to local militias?

In fact, Sheridan treated both civilians and raiders harshly, and suspected spies were hanged with very little of what we would consider due process. Thus the Burning in the Shenandoah and Sherman’s campaigns in Georgia and the Carolinas were done not to win over the populace, which was basically a waste of time, but to convince them that resistance was futile.

Sherman said:

…we are not only fighting hostile armies, but a hostile people, and must make old and young, rich and poor, feel the hard hand of war, as well as their organized armies. I know that this recent movement of mine through Georgia has had a wonderful effect in this respect. Thousands who had been deceived by their lying newspapers to believe that we were being whipped all the time now realize the truth, and have no appetite for a repetition of the same experience…

Is this not a lesson of history also? Who won?





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