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« Wednesday Caption Contest: Part 40. | WILLisms.com | Boo Hoo »

American Prophets of Total War

If you are an uninformed Leftist (redundant?) who thinks President Bush is America's most bloodthirsty warmonger, man, you have a lot of catching up to do.

Bush is a kindergarten teacher compared to some of the patriots who have defended this nation in the past.


Take Curtis LeMay, for example.

As an Air Force general during World War II, he directed B-29's to bomb Tokyo, a city built of wood and paper, with incendiary devices - basically, napalm. The ensuing firestorm killed 100,000 civilians, roughly equivalent to the casualties suffered during the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima. Many other Japanese cities were bombed in a similar way under LeMay's command, resulting in as many as 500,000 civilian deaths.

What did LeMay have to say about this? "There are no innocent civilians, so it doesn't bother me so much to be killing innocent bystanders." He also understood the horror he had wrought, stating that if America lost the war he fully expected to be tried as a war criminal.

He is also reputed to have recommended bombing the Vietnamese "back into the stone age".

If LeMay seems like am evil warmonger, please remember that he acted under the direction of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry S Truman, who between them interred Japanese-Americans in concentration camps, firebombed Dresden and Hamburg resulting in hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths, and nuked Hiroshima and Nagasaki. LeMay did not operate in a vacuum.

During the Civil War, Phil Sheridan recommened a scorched earth policy against the Shenandoah Valley, blackening the earth of the south's breadbasket such that "If a crow wants to fly down the Shenandoah, he must carry his provisions with him."

William Tecumseh Sherman was the original prophet of total war - the concept that the enemy's population, infrastructure, and industry are all fair game as military targets. He put the total war concept into practice in his famous March to the Sea, cutting a swath of destruction one hundred miles wide through Georgia, ending in the levelling of Savannah, and the burning of Columbia, South Carolina (it is questionable whether this city was intentionally burned or not, but if it was accidental I doubt Sherman lost much sleep over it).

It is an ancient principle of war, that wars should be as short and decisive as possible. Sun Zi advocated this, for example, saying "there is no instance of a country having benefited from prolonged warfare." Long wars are ruinous and murderous, often as damaging to the victor as it is to the vanquished. Thus, while on the surface the total war concept sounds barbarous and manifestly evil, in fact it is neither: barbarians seek to destroy civilization, the civilized total warrior actually seeks to preserve it. Nor is total war evil: it is in fact humane, as it spares humanity from the far greater inhumane conditions of protracted, indecisive conflict.

P.S. Commenter Thomas mentioned The Fog of War, a documentary about Robert Strange McNamara, who goes into great depth about the total war calculus. It is must see t.v., go get a DVD and watch it if you can, it is fascinating.

Posted by Ken McCracken · 25 January 2006 08:31 PM


I met Gen. LeMay when I was about 10 years old!... My Dad and he were friends. We met him at an airport in Las Vegas and I don't think it was the Las Vegas Airport. It was like a military base. Isn't that funny?...I remember my Dad telling me I had to wear a dress. He was very nice.

Posted by: Zsa Zsa at January 25, 2006 09:30 PM

Wow Zsa Zsa, how cool is that! It is interesting to meet important people in history.

Posted by: Ken McCracken at January 25, 2006 10:10 PM

I remember my Dad saying what a great honor it was for him to meet with us. If I had known that someday he would have been the topic of a WILLisms.com post I would have asked him more questions! He was very nice to me and I didn't have any idea he was such an important American figure! I had my chance and I goofed. Sorry guys...

Posted by: Zsa Zsa at January 25, 2006 11:08 PM

Heh, this is kinda weird. When I was about 10 also, I rode with my mom in the Senate elevator on a family trip to DC. My mom was pointing at this guy behind his back, and she was stage whispering behind his back that he was "John Lennon!"

I thought to myself, "mom, that is not John Lennon."

She meant John Glenn actually, which I later figured out was equally, if not more cool, than to have been standing next to John Lennon.

It was weird because later at the tail end of the Soviet Union, I travelled to Leningrad and happened to stay one night as a guest of Yuri Gagarin's sister. I had met her husband on the train the night before, heh, where I beat a drunk KGB agent in an armwresting match. I also met a Aghani war veteran with a melted face. Very weird.

So, there you have my entire opus of astronaut-related famous people personal stories, and Zsa Zsa I had no idea who the guy was at the time either.

Posted by: Ken McCracken at January 26, 2006 12:00 AM

Thus, while on the surface the total war concept sounds barbarous and manifestly evil, in fact it is neither: barbarians seek to destroy civilization, the civilized total warrior actually seeks to preserve it. Nor is total war evil: it is in fact humane, as it spares humanity from the far greater inhumane conditions of protracted, indecisive conflict.

Well, fact is fact, no arguing with that. Chingis Khan was actually out to preserve his version of civilization too when he catapaulted the diseased corpseso f the fallen enemy into the European cities he sieged. A lot of people do not give him credit for this. i would like to recommend a movie and a book. The Fog of War, sure you have heard of it but have you seen it? Very interesting. McNamara was very much a part of the fire bombing of Japan. And SlaughterHouse Five. However the factual statement above completely absolve any American from worrying about commiting war crimes by having civilians in free fire zones. I guess those Swift Boat Vets were right. We should nuke the entire middle east.

Posted by: thomas at January 26, 2006 11:05 AM

"William Tecumseh Sherman was the original prophet of total war - the concept that the enemy's population, infrastructure, and industry are all fair game as military targets."

To make sure the record is clear; Sherman did not go around killing civilians. For the first couple years of the Civil War the Southern leaders had been sending the young sons of the middle and lower classes off to fight the war. What Sherman did was to go and destroy the plantations of the rich. The Southern leaders no longer felt comfortable sitting back at their homes while other died.

In some ways it is kind of funny. Many in the South were OK with tens of thousands of young men dying at the at the hands of Grant. This was some how noble. But Sherman did a great evil because he destroyed their property.

Posted by: Henry Cate at January 26, 2006 11:13 AM

I think LeMay also oversaw the bombing of Dresden. Yet early in WWII, while in the Eighth Air Force, I read he did not favor bombing pure civilian targets - only infrastructure like factories and railroads. It was the British and Europeans that favored bombing civilian targets. At that time, LeMay argued it would only strengthen resolve and do nothing to reduce the ability of Germany to wage war. I always wondered what happened to change his opinion on civilian targets. No links to offer but I was looking for the number of civilian deaths for Dresden versus Hiroshima at the time.

Posted by: JG at January 26, 2006 11:33 AM

The Fog of War was great. If you have any interest in History that movie will lock you in for the duration.

Posted by: Rob B. at January 26, 2006 11:39 AM

Ken... If we had only known how cool these people were??? ... By the way I think John would have been more awe-inspiring!...

Guess where I am? AND... Who I am with?

Posted by: Zsa Zsa at January 26, 2006 12:17 PM

Uh, Zsa Zsa, I am guessing you are with John Kerry on a swiftboat in Cambodia!

Posted by: Ken McCracken at January 26, 2006 02:46 PM

JG - the thing that changed LeMay's mind about bombing civilian targets was the unfortunate fact that that was all he could hit. It wasn't until the Vietnam War and the advent of laser-guided munitions that anything like accurate bombing came about. Hitler had buried most of Germany's important industrial operations underground anyway, and so the allies were left with nothing to go after except large cities.

Posted by: Ken McCracken at January 26, 2006 02:50 PM

And Thomas, total war does not automatically absolve anyone who uses if of anything. Hitler practiced it too, that hardly justified it.

Total war should only be practiced as the lesser of two evils, not in the furtherance of evil itself.

Posted by: Ken McCracken at January 26, 2006 02:57 PM

Uh, Ken? ... I wouldn't go across the street with John Kerry let alone on a swiftboat in Cambodia!... At least John Lennon and I could have made up some songs together. I cried when he died !! I had real hopes that the Beatles would get back together until his death! John Lennon at least you know where he is coming from! BUT John Kerry he is just so wishy-washy! And he has no charima Ug...Ick...blaaaaaaaagh! Sorry I got sick!

Posted by: Zsa Zsa at January 26, 2006 03:11 PM

My point being that everything I have read about Dresden, my interest being piqued from reading SlaughterHouse 5, was that it served no purpose. The German war machine was all but broken, the war close to being won. The major justification was punishment of an untouched city. Just because the good guys did it, doesn't mean it was not wrong.

Posted by: thomas at January 26, 2006 03:16 PM

Ken... I went to Austin to see Mr. WILLisms.com himself. Austin sure is beautiful...

Posted by: Zsa Zsa at January 26, 2006 08:51 PM

There is a quote that is attributed to LeMay.

During preparation for appropriation hearings before Congress, one of LeMay's staff officers made a remark about getting enough funds to defeat the enemy - the Soviets.

LeMay told the young man that he had his priorities wrong when he said "The Russians are our adversary, the Navy is our enemy."

Posted by: Poole at January 26, 2006 09:36 PM

LeMay was practical. He would bomb in whatever manner worked, and aiming at factories didn't work well. Aiming at entire cities did.

The fact that Germany was near collapse and well past the point when a sensible government would ask for terms doesn't matter.

Millions were starving in Europe, thousands died daily (or were murdered) in concentration camps, and every day spent fighting Germany meant less force available against Japan. In Asia and in the Pacific conditions were roughly as miserable.

Yes, it might of been nice to only aim when everything was known about targets. Let the innocent non-Germans suffer and die while the war is prolonged.

There was utterly no evidence that Germany or Japan would surrender until crushed. And overall lives were saved by getting past fighting in order to bring relief to several hundred million.

Posted by: K at January 27, 2006 03:24 AM