War Is Indeed Hell

I began the day commemorating Sherman’s conquest of Savannah, ending a March to the Sea that probably did more to crush the Confederacy than Grant’s brutal battles of attrition in Virginia. But after reading Paul Krugman’s angry reminder today of the folly of military conquest prompted by Vladimir Putin’s disastrous course of action, I am reminded of Sherman’s most famous quote:

It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, more vengeance, more desolation. War is hell.

That’s a more eloquent condemnation of chicken hawks than any we have heard since. But it’s Sherman who is remembered as a bloody warrior, particularly by the political and spiritual descendents of the idiot southern politicians who touched off the Civil War out of pique that the federal government might not perpetually promote The Slave Power (and whom Sherman, in his own act of hubris, punished in absentia via the Sack of Columbia not long after his peaceful treatment of Savannah).

In all but the rarest of circumstances, “wars of choice,” such as the War for Southern Independence or the Iraq War, are acts of hubris and folly. As Krugman says:

The truth, however, is that war really, really doesn’t pay. The Iraq venture clearly ended up weakening the U.S. position in the world, while costing more than $800 billion in direct spending and much more in indirect ways. America is a true superpower, so we can handle such losses — although one shudders to think of what might have happened if the “real men” had been given a chance to move on to other targets. But a financially fragile petroeconomy like Russia doesn’t have the same ability to roll with its mistakes.

It’s a grim confirmation of American Exceptionalism that we are the unusual society that can afford stupid wars now and then. But not forever.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.