Sunday, December 23, 2007

More on the Revolutionary War

The other day I posted some thoughts on 1776, the book by David McCullough. Today the Washington Post has an opinion piece by Joseph Ellis, a professor at Mt. Holyoke, suggesting that the question of what our founding fathers would do today (in Iraq) was pretty meaningless, since they would not understand the question, and are centuries dead so we can't ask it of them. He substitutes the question of what studying them leads him to believe about the present situation. Good point!

He also says:
Washington eventually realized -- and it took him three years to have this epiphany -- that the only way he could lose the Revolutionary War was to try to win it. The British army and navy could win all the major battles, and with a few exceptions they did; but they faced the intractable problem of trying to establish control over a vast continent whose population resented and resisted military occupation. As the old counterinsurgency mantra goes, Washington won by not losing, and the British lost by not winning. Our dilemma in Iraq is analogous to the British dilemma in North America -- and is likely to yield the same outcome.
Comment: Well said. Of course, with a couple of centuries more experience, it is easier for us to see the nature of anti-colonial insurgency, so the few years it took for Washington to realize the nature of the war he was fighting should not be held against him.

However, I think Ellis' extrapolation to Iraq may be wrong on one point. The English could not hold the colonies by force because they could not afford to do so, and were they seriously to have tried the French would probably have "eaten their lunch". The United States will not hold Iraq by force because our governmental process will not choose to do so. In part, the difference is one between a colonial power and an anti-colonial power. On the other hand, it is also due to the fact that the citizens, voters, and power structure of this country don't care enough about Iraq to spend the money and lives that it would take to do so, and the public would eventually be sickened by the television coverage of the violence needed to hold captive an foreign people.

Still, the Ellis' basic point is important. It is very difficult and expensive to hold subject a people who don't want to be controlled at a distance of thousands of miles.

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