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When Considering Ground Troops in Kosovo, Remember Sherman

May 02, 1999|Caleb Carr | Caleb Carr is a contributing editor to MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History and the author of "The Alienist" and "The Angel of Darkness."

NEW YORK — 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), the North Atlantic Treaty Organization 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 five-week-old 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 now 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, Gen. 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 Gen. 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 failed to recognize it was this second part of his two-stage attack that was key: While he allowed his men to ravage the Southern states they passed through, creating generations of bitterness among the residents, he never hesitated to admit that only about 20% of the work his army did--the 20% aimed at military targets--was of real use in winning the war. It was that 20%--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 Grey Fox to surrender.

But we, as a military culture, have not enshrined the crucial 20% of Sherman's thinking that led to victory. We have, instead, made legend of the remaining 80%. 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 "war with 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 now 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 currently bogged down in. Meanwhile, Belgrade and other Yugoslav cities are targeted by "strategic" bombs, more powerful than those used in the bombardments of the Civil War but no more effective.

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