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Defining victory in Afghanistan

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Thursday, Dec. 27, 2001

''I fear the world will jump to the wrong conclusion that because I am in Atlanta the work is done. Far from it. We must kill three hundred thousand I have told you of so often, and the further they run the harder for us to get them.'' - Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, 1864


America's Civil War provides many analogies by which we measure - and sometimes misunderstand - today's military developments and American ways of waging war.

Because facets of the Afghanistan operations - real-time intelligence, stealthy aircraft, precision munitions - are so modern, we miss the fact that the war requires an American tradition of war-making that has a 19th-century pedigree. And the bloody uprisings by fanatical Taliban and al-Qaida prisoners underscore the pertinence of Sherman's understanding of how to define victory over an intensely motivated enemy.

When military operations in Afghanistan began, just four weeks after Sept. 11 and three weeks after Gen. Tommy Franks was told to begin planning attacks, some critics were quick to say the operations did not begin quickly enough. Then they said the tempo of operations was too torpid. Critics compared Franks - and Colin Powell, ever mindful of allies' sensibilities - to Gen. George McClellan. Those were fighting words, because McClellan was a reluctant fighter.


One of President Lincoln's commanders, McClellan was notoriously reluctant to close with Confederate forces, the strength of which he consistently overestimated. This drove Lincoln to distraction, and to sarcasm about hoping to ''borrow'' the Army if McClellan was not using it.

Sherman, an energetic user of the Army, believed its principal use against the Confederacy was not to occupy territory but to destroy enemy personnel. His reason for believing this has contemporary resonance during a war against fanatics, many of whom come from the privileged strata of corrupt and exploitative societies.

Long before secession, Sherman despised the South for its caste and class systems. In 1843, when stationed in South Carolina, he wrote: ''This state, their aristocracy ... their patriarchal chivalry and glory - all trash. No people in America are so poor in reality, no people so poorly provided with the comforts of life.''

So why did the Confederate army, composed mostly of poor whites, fight for a social system beneficial only to a tiny landed minority• Partly because of the elan of its martial elite, those whom Sherman called ''young bloods'' who were ''brave, fine riders, bold to rashness and dangerous in every sense.''

Sherman, writes professor Victor Davis Hanson in his book ''The Soul of Battle,'' considered the Confederacy ''a motley conglomeration of distrustful factions.'' Sherman thought the really dangerous faction - dangerous during the war, and potentially afterward - consisted of what Hanson calls ''young zealots, men between 18 and 40 who often formed the cavalry of the South and were led by rabid knights like Nathan Bedford Forrest, Joseph Wheeler and Jeb Stuart. These fanatics ... were the children of the wealthy, excellent horsemen, full of youthful vigor and insolence.''

The South, although militarily weak, ''fielded,'' Hanson says, ''individual warriors who were among the most gallant and deadly in the entire history of warfare.'' Hence what Sherman called ''the awful fact'': Victory required ''that the present class of men who rule the South must be killed outright.''


Donald Rumsfeld says his preference is for al-Qaida fighters to surrender rather than fight to the death: ''It ends it faster. It's less expensive.'' Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, says: ''This is not a war of extermination.'' Such statements are perhaps obligatory and even sincere.

However, is surrender really less expensive in the long run• It is a reasonable surmise that a reformed terrorist is a very rare terrorist and that the rate of recidivism will be high among terrorists who are forced to surrender but continue to believe they are doing God's will when they commit mass murder of infidels. So, as far as is consistent with the rules of war and the husbanding of the lives of U.S. military personnel, U.S. strategy should maximize fatalities among the enemy rather than expedite the quickest possible cessation of hostilities.

Many Americans will vehemently reject any analogy between Confederate and al-Qaida elites. But Sherman might have felt vindicated by a postwar letter from one former Confederate general to another, D.H. Hill to Jubal Early:

''Why has the South become so toadyish & sycophantic• I think it is because the best and noblest were killed off during the war.''

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