How to Win Wars

Barb Wire

Once, during Stonewall Jackson’s famous 1862 campaign in the Shenandoah Valley, some Union cavalry charged the rear guard of Jackson’s column and were nearly annihilated by a deadly volley of infantry fire. The officer who reported this action to Jackson was Col. John Mercer Patton (an ancestor of the famed WWII General George S. Patton). In conveying his report to Jackson, the colonel expressed “regret” at the enemy’s heavy losses. After he had finished hearing Patton’s report, Jackson asked him: “Colonel, why do you say you saw those Federal soldiers fall with regret?”

The colonel said he admired the courage and vigor the foe had shown, and felt a natural sympathy for such brave soldiers.

“No, shoot them all,” Jackson replied. “I do not wish them to be brave.”

That story, from R.L. Dabney’s famous biography of Jackson, came to mind today when I saw a story in the New York Times:

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Maj. Gen. Michael K. Nagata, commander of American Special Operations forces in the Middle East, sought help this summer in solving an urgent problem for the American military: What makes the Islamic State so dangerous?

Trying to decipher this complex enemy — a hybrid terrorist organization and a conventional army — is such a conundrum that General Nagata assembled an unofficial brain trust outside the traditional realms of expertise within the Pentagon, State Department and intelligence agencies, in search of fresh ideas and inspiration. . . .

“We do not understand the movement, and until we do, we are not going to defeat it,” he said, according to the confidential minutes of a conference call he held with the experts. “We have not defeated the idea. We do not even understand the idea.” . . .

This month, Lisa Monaco, Mr. Obama’s counterterrorism and homeland security adviser, said the increasing effort by the Islamic State to branch out to countries like Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Lebanon and Libya “is a huge area of concern.” About 1,000 foreign fighters flock to Iraq and Syria every month, American intelligence officials say, most to join arms with ISIS. . . .

Good! Let every jihadi son of a bitch on the planet join ISIS, so that we can give every one of them a one-way ticket to Hell.

It has never been the case that the United States lacked the weaponry or manpower necessary to destroy our enemies. The problem in regard to Islamic terrorism has been (a) locating the enemy, and (b) maintaining the political will to keep fighting the enemy until he is defeated. Whatever the number of bloodthirsty fanatics in the Islamic world, the number is not infinite. If we kill every one of them we find, eventually the enemy will run out of volunteers for martyrdom.

Do these generals not study our own history? The Union was in peril of losing the Civil War until Lincoln put U.S. Grant in charge, because Grant understood war in the same simple terms as Stonewall Jackson and every other great commander in history. There is no such thing as an enemy who cannot be defeated, if you have able leadership, adequate resources and a determination to keep fighting until the enemy is destroyed.

All of us remember that chart from our grade-school history book, where the resources of the Union and Confederacy were compared — population, industrial capacity, railroad mileage, etc. Yet none of the North’s advantages seemed to make much difference for the first couple of years of the war, as the South won a stunning series of victories in the Virginia theater that seemed to offset the Union’s victories in the West. Even after Grant took Vicksburg and the South suffered a bloody defeat at Gettysburg, Robert E. Lee was still able to detach one of his army corps, sending Longstreet to reinforce Bragg in Georgia to defeat Rosencrans at Chickamauga in September 1863.

Despite the North’s advantages, after more than two years of war it was still by no means certain that the South could be defeated, until Lincoln made the decision to put Grant in overall command — and that made all the difference in the world.  Grant appointed W.T. Sherman to take over in the West, where Confederate Gen. Joseph Johnston’s army in North Georgia defended the key city of Atlanta, while Grant himself went East to supervise the campaign against Lee’s army in Virginia. Grant and Sherman met at a hotel in Cincinnati to coordinate their strategy in March 1864, and Sherman later summarized the result of that meeting simply: “We finally settled on a plan. He was to go for Lee, and I was to go for Joe Johnston. That was his plan.”

Very simple, and yet from the moment that meeting ended, only 13 months elapsed before Lee surrendered at Appomattox.

Here we are, 150 years later, and our generals believe that the key to defeating ISIS is to “understand the idea” behind ISIS?

Let me suggest instead that we make ISIS understand our idea: We’re going to start killing those sons of bitches, and we will keep killing them until there aren’t any more sons of bitches left to kill.

Problem solved.

First published at

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Barb Wire.

Robert Stacy McCain
Robert Stacy McCain is an award-winning journalist with more than 25 years of experience in the news business. He is a correspondent for The American Spectator, editor-in-chief at Viral Read and blogs at

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