Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Comment on the The War That Made America

This is a short and interesting book. It was written to accompany a television show that screened on PBS several years ago, and as such is relatively brief and perhaps focuses on portions of the war leaving out others that a more academic history would discuss. It makes the case well that the experience of the British colonists in the French and Indian War in the 1750s strongly influenced the events which led to the revolution a few decades later. The book includes the Native American tribes as political and military players in the war in a way that is seldom if ever taught in American schools, but which strikes me as quite realistic. The French and Indian War, the American theater of the Seven Year War, took place largely in areas inhabited by Native Americans rather than British or French colonists and the Five Nations were still sufficiently organized to play a diplomatic role as well as a military role.

I found myself wondering how the leaders of the Native American tribes must have felt during the war. The Native American population had been ravaged by epidemics of diseases for centuries that had so reduced the population density that it must have radically disrupted their economic and political organization. Many tribes were trying to adapt to the new locations where they had been driven by the influx of European settlers. The Native Americans must have been very confused by the differences among European groups with which they were interacting, not only between the French Catholics and the British Protestants, but between the peoples settling in New England, Virginia and Pennsylvania. Few if any of these leaders would have been to Europe and they must have had great difficulty understanding why the metropolitan powers were sending so many people to America and why they were sending troops to fight a war on what the Native Americans regarded as their own lands. Making decisions on which side to support and how best to support that side must have been a nightmare.

I got into a brief discussion on the blog of Rob Cosgrave on the education for military leaders. I thought about the topic again reading this book. Of course, both the British and the French at the time of the war appointed their senior officers from the aristocracy, often selling the commissions. In both cases they sent troops from Europe to fight in America and especially they sent the senior officers from Europe. Often the aristocratic senior officers know little and thought less of the colonists and less of the Native Americans. They knew little of the terrain and cared little for the tactics that had evolved here. As a result they made huge and costly errors. Edward Braddock, the first British commander during the war, for example, quickly after starting his first campaign led his forces into an ambush by the French and Indians where the British forces were routed and Braddock was killed. Compare Braddock with David Petraeus in Afghanistan who knows that he has to understand Afghani culture and society to successfully lead the allied forces in the war, and who has not only studied the tactics used in insurgencies in the past but has literally written the book on them. While the outcome of the war in Afghanistan has not yet been determined, I do not for a moment imagine that Petraeus will make stupid blunders such as some of those made by Braddock and his contemporaries in the French and Indian War.

The book provides a perspective on George Washington that was new to me. For example, it pointed out that he had some 45,000 acres of land expropriated by the British just before the Revolution, suggesting that he may have had some personal anger driving his fight against the English. I also wonder whether his experience in the French and Indian War did not influence his sending of a punitive expedition against the Native Americans during the Revolution, an expedition that set precedents for the ethnic cleansing of Native Americans from the eastern United States in the first decades of the nation's history.

In any case, I recommend the book as a brief, readable history that may change your view of American history in the 1750s.

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