View of street filled with destroyed Russian military vehicles

Insufficient Destruction is Why No One Wins Wars Anymore

“War is Hell”, William Tecumseh Sherman said in 1879, looking back on his years campaigning against the Confederacy during America’s Civil War. Sherman, that most notorious of Union generals, already knew in the second half of the 19th century just how much brutality and effort it takes to subdue a peer enemy in the industrial age.

His famed 1864 scorched-earth-style “March to the Sea,” reminiscent of medieval chevauchées, cut a large swathe of sheer destruction through Georgia on the way to the port city of Savannah. It dealt a major (some say critical) blow to the Confederate economy, logistics and war-making potential, quite apart from its significance in strictly military-operational terms.

Sherman’s forces devastated all infrastructure (civilian and military) in its path, transport networks, industrial facilities, and pretty much anything else with economic value that was possible to burn or blow up.

It is the unrelenting pursuit of destruction of everything that is in reach of one’s military power – rather than just focusing on the enemy’s field forces or strongholds – that unites, across time, the Black Prince’s mounted raid through Gascony in 1355 during the Hundred Years’ War, with Wallenstein’s Silesian campaign in 1627 during the Thirty Years’ War, or with the strategic bombing of Germany in the Second World War.

Sherman’s Savannah Campaign sits well within this military tradition. Historians see in the “March to the Sea” a precursor of what in the next century was called Total War, and which culminated with the greatest single twin-act of destruction ever performed by man: the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.

In short, physical and comprehensive devastation of the opponent’s territory, of the kind now attempted by Russia in Ukraine for example, is not new – and, as the record shows, unfortunately it works.

Quite apart from ensuring the military conditions for it – i.e. rendering the enemy helpless in protecting his own lands and cities – the main problem is having the material capacity to enact destruction to the degree and in the timeframe required. It takes significant amounts of explosives and, if done remotely (e.g. through air, sea or land bombardment), of ordinance, to level built-up environments and infrastructures.

During the Crimean War, for example, the Royal Engineers spent months blowing up the Russian naval base and dockyard complex after the fall of Sevastopol to Anglo-French forces in 1855. And the Russians themselves spent several months pulverising Grozny in the Second Chechen War at the turn of the 21st century, to the point where the UN declared it “the most destroyed city on earth”.

So, apart from being hell, war is also hard – and modern war is even harder, for both material and “strategic” reasons. The fundamental problem is scale. The amount of material resources of all kinds – at home and at the front –  required to wage major military operations, the number of people involved, the vast geographic size and complexity of the battlespace in large-scale campaigns: all these function at a scale so outside normal human and societal experience that they are extremely hard to comprehend.

Read the rest at Brussels Signal.

Gabriel Elefteriu is a Fellow at Yorktown Institute and the deputy director at the Council on Geostrategy in London.

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