The Weekly Standard has a timely piece out today, commemorating the 150th anniversary of Ulysses S. Grant’s appointment by President Lincoln to command the Union armies; as the story by Geoffrey Norman notes, Grant was only the third man in American history to attain the rank of Lieutenant General (three stars), after George Washington and (a brevet commission) Winfield Scott:
He arrived without ceremony. No pomp, no pageantry. It was as far in spirit from Caesar’s entry into Rome as it could possibly have been. He had come to Washington to be made only the third lieutenant general in the nation’s history (George Washington and Winfield Scott were the others) and to assume command of all the Union armies and, consequently, the direction of the war from Texas to Virginia. He was being asked—commanded, actually—by civilian leadership to save the Republic…The Republic was finally saved when Lincoln found Grant, the one man besides himself who understood that if the Union was to be preserved, then the only way to attain that end was through complete and total victory. Which led to the total warfare practiced by Grant and his able deputy, Sherman. The most merciful way to wage warfare is overwhelmingly, until the opponent’s means and will to fight are broken; the only acceptable exit strategy is the unconditional surrender of the enemy. Assuming that you can actually bring yourself to name the enemy and treat him as such.
Grant may not have come face to face with Lee, but he had learned, much earlier in the war, not to worry too much about the man on the other side of the hill, whoever he was. That man was sure to have his own problems. He learned this lesson after his first action in the war and recalled that the enemy commander “had been as much afraid of me as I had been of him . . . a view of the question I had never taken before but it was one I never forgot afterwards. . . . Even to the close of the war, I never experienced trepidation upon confronting an enemy, though I always felt more or less anxiety. I never forgot that he had as much reason to fear my forces as I had his.” The lesson was valuable.
Stonewall Jackson had once said much the same thing, in fewer words, to an excited subordinate: “Do not take counsel of your fears.”
There was a time when the U.S. used to fight that way, culminating in the total victory of World War II over the Germans (with considerable Russian help) and the Japanese. In the 73 years since the attack on Pearl Harbor, however, that lesson, so hard won, has been largely forgotten. The bogus “virtue” of compassion and the military insanity of “proportionate response” have been allowed to infect command decision-making, with the sorry result that the wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan were allowed to drag on for a decade or more, to no good result. Vietnam was lost the day Congress pulled the plug on the South Vietnamese during the weak Ford Administration, and as for Iraq — left unfinished by Bush I, needlessly re-prosecuted by Bush II and botched by Obama — and Afghanistan, the less said the better. So much heroism to so little effect. Grant would have known how to finish all three of those wars, and saved countless American and foreign lives in the process.