A his­tory of the Amer­i­can mil­i­tary and its fight­ing men

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. -

War marks a defin­ing theme in Amer­i­can his­tory from colo­nial days. If some ob­servers see the United States as a com­mer­cial repub­lic or that “city on a hill” pro­vid­ing an ex­am­ple of lib­erty and self-gov­ern­ment, even a cur­sory glance also re­veals a dis­tin­guished mar­tial tra­di­tion that shaped the coun­try’s iden­tity. Pub­lic me­mory fo­cuses on great bat­tles and the com­man­ders who won them, pri­mar­ily dur­ing the Civil War and World War II.

On a more so­phis­ti­cated level, mil­i­tary his­to­ri­ans fol­low­ing the late Rus­sell Wei­gley de­scribe an Amer­i­can way of war in which a com­bi­na­tion of mass and mo­bil­ity backed by lim­it­less in­dus­trial ca­pac­ity se­curesto­talvic­tory.Suchanap­proach fo­cus­ing on part of the story, how­ever im­por­tant, leaves aside what­ever is be­yond its pa­ram­e­ters and gives a mis­lead­ing per­spec­tive on what ac­tu­ally hap­pened.

“Don’t Tread on Me” tells a familiar story from a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive that fills gaps left by the grand nar­ra­tive of Amer­i­can mil­i­tary his­tory. H.W. Crocker takes the ex­pe­ri­ence of fight­ing men as a start­ing point for wider ob­ser­va­tions about his­tory and in­sti­tu­tions.

Amer­i­cans, to bor­row the ti­tle of James Webb’s book on the ScotchIr­ish,were“born­fight­ing.”Se­cur­ing land and lib­erty from the ear­li­est colo­nial set­tle­ments drew Amer­i­cans into com­bat, and their re­sponses to the chal­lenge of war at dif­fer­ent times in­flu­enced other as­pects of life. Lib­erty in Amer­ica meant the free­dom to ac­quire land and wealth, and the con­se­quent dy­nam­i­cof­ex­pan­sion­set­colonist­sand their de­scen­dants onto a col­li­sion course with any­thing in their way. War be­came an in­escapable part of na­tional de­vel­op­ment.

In­dian fight­ing set the pat­tern for Amer­i­can fight­ing men from the early 17th cen­tury. Wars in New Eng­lan­dan­da­longth­eVir­gini­afron­tier kept colonists on the met­tle while forc­ing them to adapt Euro­pean tech­niques to lo­cal con­di­tions. Indige­nous­peo­plesintheAmer­i­cas hada­dy­namic,com­pet­i­tive­po­lit­i­cal sys­tem of their own with dif­fer­ent poli­ties strug­gling for dom­i­nance. Their cul­ture prized brav­ery and mar­tial skill, an out­look that earned re­spect from Euro­peans.

Con­flict with In­di­ans re­bounded into the colonies them­selves, as Mr. Crocker’s dis­cus­sion of Ba­con’s Re­bel­lion in Vir­ginia demon­strates. While Sir William Berke­ley sought to min­i­mize con­flict with In­di­ans as the­colony­grew,his­cous­inNathaniel Ba­con­de­mandedanag­gres­sive­pol­icy and ral­lied land­less set­tlers be­hind him. English in­ter­ven­tion ended a quarrel that had set pru­dence against am­bi­tion and il­lu­mi­nated the work­ings of colo­nial self­gov­ern­ment that would be­come more im­por­tant over time.

Ri­valry be­tween Bri­tain and France made North Amer­ica a theatre of war that pit­ted colonists against the French and their In­dian al­lies. The wars mainly in­volved small groups op­er­at­ing over great dis­tances, as in Ed­ward Brad­dock’s abortive cam­paign in the Ohio Val­ley. Brad­dock de­clared as he died, “an­other time we shall know how bet­ter to deal with them,” and Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton who led a Vir­ginia con­tin­gent took to heart the lessons of fron­tier war in Amer­ica.

Lack­ing their own In­dian al­lies, colonist­slearned­tomatchtheir­field craft and formed ranger units. Mr. Crock­er­ar­guesthrough­out­the­book that Amer­i­cans al­ways ex­celled at small unit op­er­a­tions, and the ethos oftherangersspreada­mongst­fight­ing­men­gener­ally.Au­dac­i­ty­of­fered a po­tent force mul­ti­plier un­der a whole range of con­di­tions that served Amer­i­cans well. Gen­eral Thomas Gage would ob­serve af­ter the bat­tle of Bunker Hill that “the rebels are not the de­spi­ca­ble rab­ble toomany­havesup­posedthem­tobe,” an­dun­der­es­ti­mat­ingth­eop­po­si­tion be­came a fa­tal er­ror for the Bri­tish.

Strug­gles for land, con­flicts with In­di­ansandques­tion­sin­volv­ing­self­gov­ern­ment all lay be­hind the Amer­i­can War for In­de­pen­dence. Colonists who had fought un­der the Crown now faced Bri­tish reg­u­lars, and Mr. Crocker con­trasts Amer­i­can dar­ing with Bri­tish cau­tion.

Wash­ing­ton showed courage at Prince­ton and Tren­ton, but he re­al­ized the need for dis­ci­pline and trans­form­ing vol­un­teers into the Con­ti­nen­tal Army may have been his great­est suc­cess. By avoid­ing de­feat in the field, Wash­ing­ton pre­vented the Bri­tish from im­pos­ing their will on the Amer­i­cans or hold­ing ter­ri­tory.

Through­out the book, Mr. Crocker em­pha­sizes the po­lit­i­cal as­pect of war that in­volves com­pelling an ad­ver­sary to ac­cept de­feat. Wash­ing­ton’s ap­pre­ci­a­tion of that fact made him a greater gen­eral than oth­ers with far more tac­ti­cal skill.

IfWash­ing­ton­se­curedthe­civil­ian essence of the United States by de­fus­ing the prospect of a coup by the Con­ti­nen­tal Army, he also un­der­stood that force pro­vided an essen- tial ad­junct to diplo­macy. In deal­ing with other na­tions, the repub­lic needed a mil­i­tary ca­pa­ble “of ex­act­ing from them the ful­fill­ment of their du­ties to­ward us.”

What­ev­er­sup­port­might­be­found for an army and navy, rais­ing taxes to pay for them al­ways faced re­sis­tance. The ten­sion be­tween Amer­i­can bel­li­cos­ity and the pub­lic’s will­ing­nesstoin­vest­moneyre­curred­for the next 200 years, and Mr. Crocker re­counts var­i­ous in­stances where a gap emerged be­tween the ex­pan­sion­ist am­bi­tions or grand cru­sades to sup­port ide­al­is­tic prin­ci­ples and anin­stinc­tivepar­si­mony.Amer­i­can fight­ing men, he in­sists, were left to square the re­sult­ing cir­cle.

The War of 1812 pro­vided a case in­point­that­found­latere­choesinthe 20th cen­tury. Con­gres­sional War Hawks ea­ger for west­ern lands and ou­traged by Bri­tish vi­o­la­tions of Amer­i­can neu­tral­ity dur­ing the Napoleon­icWar­s­pushedtheUnited States into a con­flict for which it had not pre­pared. Wash­ing­ton had han­dled ear­lier ten­sions with Revo­lu­tion­ary France through a deft com­bi­na­tionof­force­and­diplo­macy, but his suc­ces­sors re­lied on rhetoric with­out the mil­i­tary to carry through.

Afew spec­tac­u­lar naval vic­to­ries won by courage and su­pe­rior tech­nol­o­gy­could­notoutweigha­gen­eral lack of prepa­ra­tion. New Eng­lan­ders de­pen­dent on trade con­tem­plated se­ces­sion, and only mu­tual ex­haus­tion­brought­terms­both­sides could have had with­out war.

Mr. Crocker’s themes carry through his dis­cus­sion of the Civil War and later con­flicts of the 20th cen­tury. The Union army un­der Ge­orge McClel­lan was the largest force yet as­sem­bled in North Amer­ica, but skill, de­ter­mi­na­tion and pa­tri­o­tism en­abled the Con­fed­er­acy not only to re­sist but also score strik­ing vic­to­ries.

Both sides re­lied on trained pro­fes­sion­als, but self-taught men like Nathan Bedford For­rest, whom Lee ad­mired, be­came among the most ef­fec­tive com­man­ders. As with the Bri­tish in the 1770s, pro­fes­sion­al­ism of­ten brought a dead­en­ing cau­tion, while adapt­abil­ity car­ried the day.

Mr. Crocker em­pha­sizes how seiz­ing the ini­tia­tive be­came a stan­dard part of Amer­i­can strat­egy in World War II and Korea, along with small­er­wars­fromthe19th­cen­tury. Los­ing the ini­tia­tive, how­ever, and a lack of clar­ity pre­saged dis­as­ter ratherthansuc­cess.Viet­nam,where po­lit­i­cal aims never gave a clear lead to mil­i­tary strat­egy and tac­tics, be­camea­cau­tion­ary­tale­whe­re­av­i­cious­cy­clesnatchedthe­p­rospectof vic­tory away.

Cal­i­brat­ing ends and means sets the po­lit­i­cal coun­ter­point to the courage and re­source­ful­ness Mr. Crocker sets at the cen­ter of his story. All too of­ten, fight­ing men have saved politi­cians from their own mis­takes, but do­ing so ex­acts a high price. Re­al­ism, as Wash­ing­ton un­der­stood,canavoid­such­sac­ri­fice by match­ing ends and means. The bel­li­cos­ity of “cheap hawks,” as Mr. Crock­er­writes,pro­duces­dis­as­terno less than naive paci­fism.

Mr. Crocker ap­plies a dry wit to hissub­ject,usin­ganec­dote­sand­per­son­al­i­ties to il­lus­trate his ar­gu­ment. A lively pop­u­lar his­tory of Amer­i­cans at war, “Don’t Tread on Me” presents a nu­anced ac­count that stu­dents of pol­i­tics and diplo­macy might read to their profit.

William An­thony Hay, an his­to­rian at Mis­sis­sippi State Univer­sity and se­nior fel­low with the For­eign Pol­icy Re­search In­sti­tute, is au­thor of “The Whig Re­vival, 1808-1830.”

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