As Americans, we eventually knock people down when we think they deserve it, but we refuse to humiliate them. Unfortunately, military historians tell us that complete defeat of one side is necessary for complete victory of the other. Otherwise, it just sort of drags on angrily. I hate to think that’s true. I hope that past wisdom turns out to be too simple, and America can bring forth a new form of conflict that doesn’t require the humiliation of the losing side.
But I wouldn’t count on it. I would place only small bets of that number coming up at present.
Sherman’s march through Georgia may have been necessary, but it seems unamerican. We don’t do that. We don’t kick people when they’re down. Hiroshima and Dresden were similarly necessary and wise, but it still goes against our grain. There is a strong feeling in America that we want to win some other way. We like the part where we knock down the bully and say “Have you had enough?” and the bully nods and slinks off, never to cause any trouble again. Maybe he even reforms. That’s how it’s supposed to go. That’s the spirit of Frank Merriwell at Yale, of Superman, Batman, and Chip Hilton. We got it from the Brits, I suppose.
We were pleased enough with giving the Kaiser a good licking, and participated as little as possible in Germany’s subsequent humiliation. Maybe that was better. Perhaps if Europe had done the same the Germans would not have felt the need to thrust off their humiliation. But another view of the conflict considers WWII to be a mere continuation of WWI, a war incomplete until defeat was entire.
We don’t have the stomach for it. Not we, our military, but we, the civilians. Only when weariness of war compels us to act hugely to make it stop do we allow our military to go there. We won Vietnam when we repulsed the Tet Offensive, but we were unwilling to play out the hand, letting it drag on until we just got sick of it and left.
We should know that about ourselves when we go to war.