‘I intend to make [Gaza] howl’: Victor Davis Hanson’s thirst for ‘humiliation’

There’s that great Faulkner quote about every Southern boy being able to imagine himself at will into Pickett’s charge:

For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two oclock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun yet, it not only hasn’t begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances which made more men than Garnett and Kemper and Armstead and Wilcox look grave yet it’s going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn’t need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose and all this much to gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory the desperate gamble, the cast made two years ago…

By contrast a neoconservative columnist is able to, in similar fashion, imagine himself torching homes in Columbia with General Sherman.

*****

On November 9 2012, news broke of the Paula Broadwell/David Petraeus affair, ending the career of America’s top celebrity-general and immediately putting a stop to rumors regarding his plans to run for office, possibly on a presidential ticket in 2016. Our Caesar of counterinsurgency was not to be, and Victor Davis Hanson was so shocked he had trouble believing it. He wrote that Petraeus’ resignation was “bizarre” in his column that month, and asked the sort of questions that would get him called a fifth columnist or truther if he’d been asking them about 9/11 or the Iraq war: “How and why did the FBI investigate the Petraeus matter? To whom and when did it report its findings? And what was the administration reaction?”

The next month he wrote a “short history of amorous generals” to make sure we knew that it’s OK, because lots of generals do this kind of thing.

Finding out one of one’s saviors is a philanderer is understandably shocking; and as of November 8, Hanson, reportedly one of Dick Cheney’s favorite dinner guests, had already decided to include Petraeus as one of the five “Savior Generals” covered in his book by the same name, which would appear in May 2013. He first applied the term to Petraeus in 2009, calling him the “maverick savior of Iraq,” and despite the failures of his COIN strategy and the chaos engulfing the north of the benighted country today, the Petraeus myth remains key to the conservative argument that everything was going fine in Iraq until perfidious Obama withdrew. Needless to say, Sherman is another one of Hanson’s saviors (and is also treated here).

*****

To complete the tableau you need to know some things about the progression of his thought: After giving up his vineyard, he went on to write a book about how Sparta’s crop-torching wasn’t as disastrous as many historians assumed, but drawing a contrast between that and the vast destruction of modern wars.

In 2003, he wrote a piece in The American Enterprise the month American boots hit Iraqi soil, in which he praises General Sherman, the first modern general, as they say, for that most conservative of acts — smashing an aristocracy.

This demonstrates one of the corollaries of Bloom’s Law of Yankee Hagiography, which states that when movement conservatives remember Union figures, they are almost always enlisted in service of three contemporary political goals:

  • Cynical ‘Party of Lincoln’ racial appeals to blacks
  • Activist domestic government
  • Support for war

Sherman is a vessel into which someone like Hanson can pour all of his revenge fantasies, in much the same way Rich Lowry once proposed — jokingly, so he claims — nuking Mecca. For example, when our failed vineyard operator reflects on the “eerily Shermanesque” behavior of the IDF, he uses variations on the word “humiliate” seven times:

It is often alleged that Sherman was a terrorist, on the grounds that he favored collective punishment, or destroying the property of innocent civilians in order to make “war and individual ruin synonymous terms” both for those who had started the war and for those who supported it. Sherman certainly burned plantations, freed slaves, destroyed railways, tore down telegraph lines, and stripped the country bare of its post-harvest bounty. But the ruin he spread was not a Dresden or a Nagasaki. Instead, he made an effort to be selective, in that his two prime targets were Confederate government property — arsenals, public buildings, state factories — and the estates, businesses, and plantations of the very wealthy, who, as a tiny percentage of the southern population, owned the vast majority of its slaves. He was not so much a killer as an avatar of ruin and humiliation. …

The brutal Sherman way of war did not spare civilians from the general misery. Yet another purpose was to remind the southern populace that because they had largely followed their privileged leaders into a hopeless war against a far larger, more industrial, and wealthier Union, they too could not escape the collateral damage that followed from the targeting of plantations and Confederate property. …

The Israeli army was eerily Shermanesque when it went into Gaza. The IDF targeted the homes of the wealthy Hamas elite, the private sanctuaries of the tunnels, and the rocketry and other infrastructure of the Hamas terrorist state. The homes of civilians who did not have rockets in the backyard or tunnels in the basement were usually not hit, and that sent a telling Shermanesque lesson. Long after the international media’s cameras have left, Gazans will argue over why one man’s house was leveled and another’s was not, leading to the conclusion more often than not that one was being used by Hamas, either with or without its owner’s consent, while the other was not. But all Gazans suffered amid the selective targeting — as did all Georgians and Carolinians for their allegiance to a plantationist class whose own interests were not always the same as those of the non-slave-owning white poor. Fairly or not, the IDF was reminding the people of Gaza that while it tried to focus exclusively on Hamas, such selectivity was often impossible when Gazans followed such reckless leaders who deliberately shielded themselves among civilians. …

Sherman welcomed the hatred he earned from the South. He understood well the dictum of Machiavelli that men hate far more those who destroy their patrimonies than those who kill their fathers. He accepted that humiliating the South was a far graver sin than destroying its manhood, as Grant had done from May to September 1864 in northern Virginia. …

Sherman’s rhetoric was bellicose, indeed uncouth — even as he avoided killing as many southerners as he could. He left civilians as mad at their own leaders as at him. For all that and more, he remains a “terrorist,” while the bloodbaths at Cold Harbor and the Crater are not considered barbaric — and just as the world hates what the IDF did in Gaza far more than the abject butchery of the Islamic State, which at the same time was spreading savagery throughout Syria and Iraq, or than the Russians’ indiscriminate killing in Ukraine, or than what passes for an average day in the Congo.

Sherman got under our skin, and so does the IDF. Today we call not losing very many soldiers “disproportionate” warfare, and leaving an enemy’s territory a mess and yet without thousands of casualties “terrorism.” The lectures from the IDF about the cynical culpability of Hamas make the world as livid as did Sherman’s sermonizing about the cowardly pretensions of the plantationist class.

We tend to hate most deeply in war those who despoil us of our romance, especially when they humiliate rather than kill us — and teach us the lesson that the louder and more bellicose often prove the more craven and weak.

Because surely, what the Israel-Gaza conflict needs right now is an “avatar of ruin and humiliation.”

(Bonus: this classic from Chase Madar is hilarious)

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