Justice in the Hell That Is War


The Society gathered for its eleventh and its last Merrick season debate in Riggs library to consider: Resolved: Sherman’s March to the Sea was justified. Speaking on the affirmation were Ms. Abigail Grace (SFS ’16) of Mississippi and making his induction, Mr. Anton Smaliak (COL ’18) of New York. Speaking on the negation were Ms. Julia Christensen (COL ’15) of Oregon and making her induction, Ms. Alexandra Weissman (SFS ’18) of New York.

Mr. Smaliak started off answering the question “What is war?” in Sherman’s words: “War is hell.” Having laid out the facts of Sherman’s March to the Sea, Mr. Smaliak examined it in terms of discrimination and proportionality through Just War Theory. Sherman not just regulated the conduct of his foragers towards non-combatants but also directed his force to minimize overall suffering, freeing slaves and shortening the war. Sherman’s campaign was not a revenge against successions, but rather a prevention of another Gettysburg, a resolution to “anything but spill more blood.”

Ms. Weissman also opened with Sherman’s quote, “I will make Georgia Howl.” While the burning of Atlanta could be justified for destroying Southern ammunition and reelecting Lincoln, Sherman’s March to the Sea was decidedly unjustified in its single objective to break Southern spirit.  By targeting women and children in unarmed homes, Sherman’s campaign placed union above the mind and spirit of the South. Sherman’s little effort to restrain his army showed pure vengeance and his “campaign of terror” was opposed to the ideal of reunification. Hailing President Lincoln’s “union unbroken”, Ms. Weissman also questioned the campaign’s blatant violation of constitutional rights.

Ms. Grace stood up to justify the burning of her homeland in defense of her ancestor’s honor. She argued that Southern civilians could easily join the depleted confederacy army, thus blurring the line between combatants and non-combatants. Citing Sun Tzu and Clausewitz, she further demonstrated Sherman’s military obligation to wage an effective war and political obligation to end slavery. Sherman’s land distribution to freed slaves constituted a psychological warfare in line with the Civil War’s political objective. He showed that “fear is the beginning of wisdom.”

Ms. Christensen sympathized with Sherman’s human flaws in distancing himself from the horror of his March but found none of his quotes convincing justification. She questioned if Sherman’s campaign really ended the war because even the larger scale morale bombing in World War II failed to do so. Sherman’s strategy shortened the Civil War only because the South was profoundly weak, too weak to fight despite their strengthened resolve. Sherman’s March was also morally culpable for killing civilians who posed no threat to army and terrorizing women who were not even full citizens. What’s worse, the scars of the Civil War lasted till this day in the hostility of the South.

Mr. Fletcher invoked Machiavellian to justify Sherman’s means by his ends “when the state is at stake.” Any concession would support the confederacy’s claim of legitimacy and only unconditional surrender could end Civil War once and for all. But Mr. Perez-Reyes, having imagined himself at Georgia in 1864, questioned, “War, what is it good for?” According to him, killing is never justified and “war is never the answer.” Mr. Mellon distinguished between the spirit and the letter of the law and called the South “its own separate country” in spirit. Mr. Naft argued that “a particular end justifies a particular means” and found the March unjustified as a Total War without the corresponding technology. He also warned against demonizing and generalizing our countrymen in the South.

“Our military theory is confused,” Sgt. Willis observed and reiterated the principle of proportionality. Because the North has the most extensive goal to reintegrate the South back into the Union, they needed the most extensive means of “total subjugation.” But Vice President Thanki reminded us of the end goal of reunification. Sherman’s March, based on a personal prejudice against Southern environment, left behind a collective memory of destroyed psyche and created an “Other.” Before doing away with an “Other,” Mr. Kendrick pointed out the prerequisite of unconditional surrender. He regarded the lives of union soldiers as Sherman’s first obligation and commended Sherman’s March as proportional defense.

Ms. Mallory Vial (COL ’18) reflected upon her classmates’ regrets on a Civil War class in the South, “Darn, we will get it next time.” Sherman earned their disdain because he violated President Lincoln’s non-punitive plan for the South. Ms. Jessica Scoratow (SFS ’18), however, called Sherman’s March “cruelty well-used” in Machiavelli’s words because it abided by Lieber Code and used a bare minimum of actions. Mr. Mouch subsequently questioned whether the genocide of the entire South would be justifiable if necessary. Reminding us of “blue and grey,” he quoted Sherman to assert that the March to the Sea inflicted unnecessary pain and suffering on fellow Americans.

Mr. William Downes (COL ’11) passionately rebuked that “I shall not apologize” and questioned what insult could cotton and sweet potatoes do to “our beloved Dixie’s.” Hailing “God bless America”, he called Sherman’s March “the gravestone and funerary incense of slave power.” Ms. Hernick checked his passion by acknowledging Southern patriotism. She emphasized the link between politics and cities and further argued that women and children should not be held responsible.

Mr. Young challenged the negation to unify their arguments and argued that Sherman justly valued the lives of soldiers over the property of civilians in a larger strategy of the union. He asked us to “stand on the side of the righteousness” and reject the slightest possibility of a Northern defeat.

Ms. Kurek could not hold back her laughter stressing the importance of “sending a message” with Sitcom plot. Asserting that the North has already won, she analogized Southern resentment to the Polish animosity towards Russians. Mr. Edgar rebuked with Sherman’s reply to protesting Southerners, “you burned down your city.” A brilliant strategist, Sherman shortened the war and sent a message of freedom to the missed-out slaves. Ms. Egan reminded us of the Irish immigrants who actually fought the war against their will because “only some of us are guilty” of the crimes of slavery but “all of us are responsible” for ending systems of injustice. Despite limited data, it is certain that “not all of us are guilty enough to be punished.”

Mr. Wilson reiterated that “war could never be just” when humanity becomes mere means to the machinery of war. What Sherman adopted was an experiment to end this horrific, incomprehensible thing of war. Mr. Kim wondered if we just “happen to be living on the winning side of history” because each U.S. president after WWII would be hanged according to the standard of the Tokyo Trial. Saving lives would be the only justification for Sherman’s warfare. Ms. Coccia rejected euphemisms and tackled the slavery issue as an “utter subjugation of an entire race of people.” With even Southern women and children part of the oppressive system, Sherman’s March met the officially stated goal of emancipation.

Ms. Christensen questioned the affirmation if the end of shortening a war could justify the means of crucifixion because we give up judgment “the minute we give up on the goal of a slightest bit more morality.” She further questioned if ending the war means meeting the goal. With the history of reconstruction and the ever-existing Southern aristocracy, Sherman’s March did not result in true equality. It neither disassembled confederacy soldiers, who already suffered from starvation, nor introduced war to the Southern women, who already lost their way of life. Instead, it starved newly-freed slaves to death, created disinclination for surrender and passed down powerful images of improper defeat and cheating to this day.

Ms. Grace interpreted this painful collective memory as resentment for “the way of life taken away from them.” In this way of life, not of Southerners but of Southern aristocracy, each person was part of a larger machine subjugating slaves. Sherman’s psychological warfare was fitting to combat such racist ideology. Ms. Grace also reflected on her neighbors’ segregating view towards public school system and concluded that the South was not angry about cotton, but about being ripped of their privilege and seeing others as equal. In this sense, Sherman showed resolve behind his policy of true equality.

Ms. Weissman sensed Northern biases permeating the room because “not everyone on the union side stand for equality” and “not everyone is equal after the war.” Indeed, Georgia’s spirit of privilege was broken, but the 40 acres of land allocated to slaves did not pay off in the end. Leaving behind ruined Southern spirit and Southern economy, Sherman’s March created a union of strife that held no appeal. Mr. Smaliak pushed back against the notion of a war being just and claimed that Sherman ended war and ultimately supported the end of slavery. He left us with an extortion, “never think that war is not a crime.”

The Society then voted to award Merrick points to the five most eloquent speakers that night:

  • Ms. Grace – 1 point
  • Mr. Wilson – 2 points
  • Mr. Edgar – 3 points
  • Mr. Young – 4 points
  • Ms. Christensen – 5 points

With that the Merrick Season drew to an end with the final results:

  1. Ms. Coccia – 31 points
  2. Mr. Edgar – 20 points
  3. Mr. Wilson – 19 points
  4. Ms. Christensen – 18 points
  5. Mr. Young – 17 points
  6. Ms. Egan – 8 points
  7. Mr. Dinneen & Mr. Mouch – 5 points
  8. Mr. Ahmed – 4 points
  9. Mr. Kendrick & Mr. Mazzara & Mr. Perez-Reyes & Mr. Vishwanathan – 3 points
  10. Mr. Patrick Musgrave & Ms. Spira – 2 points
  11. Ms. Grace & Ms. Landau – 1 point

With a vote of 58-24, this resolution was affirmed. Congratulations to the four wonderful keynoters of this year’s Merrick Debate: Ms. Coccia, Mr. Edgar, Mr. Wilson and Ms. Christensen and Congratulations to Mr. Smaliak and Ms. Weissman for their induction! Huzzah for another historical debate!


Xinlan Hu

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