Saturday, July 7, 2007

A Little History Goes a Long Way

I'm coming to this story a bit late, the result of being stranded in the news vacuum that defines my parent's home, but it seems to me that the Chimperor's remarks made on Independence Day were the worst sort of canned American hash; a nauseating mixture of scraps, corn, and fat that 26% of the country is still willing to eat. As usual, the history lesson offered is terribly skewed.

Our first Independence Day celebration took place in a midst of a war -- a bloody and difficult struggle that would not end for six more years before America finally secured her freedom. More than two decades [sic] later, it is hard to imagine the Revolutionary War coming out any other way -- but at the time, America's victory was far from certain. In other words, when we celebrated the first 4th of July celebration, our struggle for independence was far from certain. Citizens had to struggle for six more years to finally determine the outcome of the Revolutionary War.

We were a small band of freedom-loving patriots taking on the most powerful empire in the world. And one of those patriots was the founder of Martinsburg, West Virginia -- Major General Adam Stephen. Of course, it wasn't West Virginia then, but it was Martinsburg. (Laughter.) He crossed the Delaware with Washington. He helped secure America's victory at the Battle of Trenton -- and he later went -- and later, when our liberty was won, delivered stirring remarks in the Virginia House of Delegates that helped secure ratification of our Constitution.

On Independence Day we give thanks, we give thanks for our Founders, we give thanks for all the brave citizen-soldiers of our Continental Army who dropped pitchforks and took up muskets to fight for our freedom and liberty and independence.

You're the successors of those brave men. Those who wear the uniform are the successors of those who dropped their pitchforks and picked up their muskets to fight for liberty. Like those early patriots, you're fighting a new and unprecedented war -- pledging your lives and honor to defend our freedom and way of life. In this war, the weapons have changed, and so have our enemies, but one thing remains the same: The men and women of the Guard stand ready to put on the uniform and fight for America.

Well, if you prefer your history written on the back of a box of Corn Flakes, there is it. A more instructive perspective on the comparisons between the American Revolution and the disaster in Iraq can be found in Michael Rose's excellent piece in the New York Times.

Of course, George III’s strategic assessment on the outcome of the defeat at Yorktown — like everything else that he had been responsible for during the War of Independence — was entirely wrong. It was by finally accepting defeat in what at that time was a relatively unimportant part of the world that Britain was able to focus on what really mattered — continuing to build its influence and empire across the globe.

If the Whig opposition, led by Lord Rockingham, had not had the moral courage and vision to accept defeat by the American colonists, and had not been able to persuade the king and his ministers to do likewise, Britain would likely have lost its position in the world, and today the people of the largest democracy in the world, India, would be speaking either French or Portuguese. By ending the unnecessary war in North America, Britain was able rapidly to rebuild its army and navy, eventually take on and defeat Napoleon, and become the unquestioned pre-eminent global power.

Few saw this in 1781. During the cruel years of the war, George III had followed a hopelessly flawed strategy and had failed to commit adequate resources to the mission. He had never understood the character or nature of the American people and he had greatly underestimated their determination to throw off the yoke of British rule. The War of Independence had never just been about “taxation without representation.” It had been about the freedom for Americans to develop their own society in the way that they wished.


George III was oblivious to the changed mindset in the colonies, and through a combination of hubris and a conviction that as the leader of the world’s premier military power he could bear no challenge to his authority, he had determined in 1775 to teach a sharp lesson to the radicals in North America: “Blows must decide.”

Unfortunately for Britain, he attempted to fight a conventional war against insurgents, and sent far too few troops across the Atlantic to accomplish the mission. Although they initially took New York and Philadelphia, the British subsequently failed to adjust to a counterinsurgency strategy against the “war of the posts” that George Washington adopted after his defeat at Germantown, Pa., in October 1777.

Instead of trying to isolate the rebels and gain the support of the loyalist and uncommitted colonials, the British spent much of their time defending their bases and maintaining their supply lines, only occasionally venturing out on punitive expeditions. They never succeeded in cutting off the heartland of rebel resistance in New England by taking control of the Hudson River Valley. Nor was the British Army — the finest in the world — ever able to establish sufficient security in the countryside or counter rebel propaganda. It soon came to be regarded as foreign occupation force.

Indeed, sometimes it is necessary to state the obvious. When the proponents of this war were drawing up the plans, most likely in the secret energy task force meetings held in the office of the Vice-President, they believed they could fabricate a flawless strategy of easy gain with little loss, conveniently ignoring the possibility that the population of Iraq might not be so willing to remain passive bystanders while corporate greed trumped the bogus claims of fostering a young democracy. Now Sunni clerics in Iraq have issued a fatwa against the proposed oil bill, which would provide massive profits to foreign oil companies, reflecting public consciousness there as to the true motivations behind the invasion. As occupations go, historical parallels are in no short supply. But the most useful ones cannot be contained on a 3 by 5 index card.

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