The phrase "collective responsibility" is rather pleasant sounding, with its implication that, perhaps, we should all collectively take responsibility for our own actions. What parents should not teach their children such things? But for at least the past 150 years "collective responsibility" also has a specific meaning with regard to U.S. military policy. In the military context, "collective responsibility" is a euphemism for the mass murder of innocent civilians. It is a phrase that was used by General William Tecumseh Sherman himself, long preceding today's nonchalant dismissal of the murder of civilians in foreign countries as "collateral damage."
The idea is that if the U.S is at war with another nation it is not only the combatants who are legitimate "targets" but all inhabitants of the "enemy nation," women, children, the disabled, everyone. As such, it is the primary cause of "blowback," or retaliation for the intentional murder of noncombatants by the U.S. military. It is common sense to expect the people of other countries to retaliate for such atrocities, even committing acts of terrorism against us. But most Americans seem to be so brainwashed in the lies and propaganda of "American Exceptionalism" (the idea that whatever foreign policy the U.S. pursues is virtuous by virtue of the fact that it is the U.S. foreign policy) that they simply cannot imagine why anyone from any foreign country would want to harm us. In their ignorance they are prone to believe such fantasies and absurdities as the theory that Middle East terrorists attacked us on 9/11 because they hate the idea of freedom.
William Tecumseh Sherman was indeed the founding father of terrorism perpetrated by the U.S. government and disquised by the language of "collective security." Sherman biographer William Fellman (author of Citizen Sherman) quotes Sherman as saying this about his fellow American citizens from the Southern states: "To the petulant and persistent secessionists, why death is mercy, and the quicker he or she is disposed of the better . . . . Until we can repopulate Georgia, it is useless to occupy it, but the utter destruction of its roads, houses, and people will cripple their military resources" (emphasis added). Sherman was referring here to his plans for the civilian population of Georgia after the Confederate Army had left the state.
Referring to his plans for the civilian population of Northern Alabama, Fellman quotes Sherman as saying that the "Government of the United States" had the "right" to "take their lives, their homes, their lands, their everything . . . . We will take every life, every acre of land, every particle of property . . . " And he was not referring to slaves when he used the word "property."
In a July 31, 1862 letter to his wife Sherman wrote that "the war will soon assume a turn to extermination not of soldiers alone, that is the least part of the trouble, but the people . . . . There is a class of people, men, women, and children, who must be killed . . ." (emphasis added).
In the autumn of 1862 Confederate snipers were firing at U.S. Navy gunboats on the Mississippi River. Unable to apprehend the combatants, Sherman took revenge on the civilian population by burning the entire town of Randolph, Tennessee to the ground. In the spring of 1863, after the Confederate Army had evacuated, Sherman ordered the destruction of Jackson, Mississippi. Afterwards, in a letter to Grant Sherman boasted that "The inhabitants are subjugated. They cry aloud for mercy. The land is devastated for 30 miles around."
Sherman's troops also destroyed Meridian, Mississippi after Confederate troops were driven out, after which Sherman wrote to Grant: "For five days, ten thousand of our men worked hard and with a will, in that work of destruction, with axes, sledges, crowbars, clawbars, and with fire, and I have no hesitation in pronouncing the work well done. Meridian . . . no longer exists."
When Sherman's chief military engineer, Captain O.M. Poe, advised that the bombing of Atlanta after the Confederates had fled was of no military significance, Sherman ignored him and declared that the corpses of women and children in the streets was "a beautiful sight," as Fellman writes in Citizen Sherman.
In October of 1864 Sherman ordered the murder of randomly-chosen citizens in retaliation for Confederate Army attacks on his army. He wrote to General Louis Watkins: "Cannot you send over about Fairmount and Adairsville, burn ten or twelve houses . . . , kill a few at random, and let them know that it will be repeated every time a [military] train is fired upon . . . " (See John B. Walters, Merchant of Terror: General Sherman and Total War, p. 137).
Two months after the formal end of the war, Sherman was placed in charge of the Military District of the Missouri, which was all land west of the Mississippi. His assignment was to commence a war of genocide against the Plains Indians, primarily to make way for the government-subsidized transcontinental railroads. Lincoln's personal friend, General Grenville Dodge, was the chief engineer of the project and recommended that slaves be made of the Indians, who could then be forced to dig the railroad beds from Iowa to California. Government policy was to attempt to murder as many of the Plains Indians instead, women and children included, and Sherman was the natural choice as the director of such an enterprise.
Fellman quotes Sherman's marching orders as the following (p. 26): "We must act with vindictive earnestness against the Sioux, even to the extermination, men, women and children" (emphasis added). Fellman writes that Sherman "had given [General] Sheridan prior authorization to slaughter as many women and children as well as men Sheridan or his subordinates felt was necessary." "The more Indians we can kill this year, the less will have to be killed next year," Sherman wrote to Sheridan. By 1890 the U.S. Army murdered as many as 60,000 Indians, placing the survivors in concentration camps known as "reservations."
As Murray Rothbard once wrote, all government power rests ultimately on a series of myths and superstitions about the alleged magnificence of the state and its leaders and henchmen (and of corollary myths about the "evils" of the civil society). Americans will continue to be duped into supporting unconstitutional wars of aggression — and to be the victims of blowback — as long as they are conned into believing that such monsters and psychopathic killers as William Tecumseh Sherman are secular saints and heroes.
Thomas J. DiLorenzo [send him mail] is professor of economics at Loyola College in Maryland and the author of The Real Lincoln; Lincoln Unmasked: What You're Not Supposed To Know about Dishonest Abe and How Capitalism Saved America. His latest book is Hamilton's Curse: How Jefferson's Archenemy Betrayed the American Revolution — And What It Means for America Today.