A history of the American military and its fighting men
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.”