Thinking About Historical Parallels

I read all of Joseph Ellis’ books except his most recent one, “American Creation”, which I am reading now, so I enthusiastically read his applied history article in the Washington Post about what George Washington would do in modern situations, including Iraq. Since much of what I know about the founding fathers comes from him, I assume Ellis knows more about that subject than I do. But I think he misses the boat on Iraq, where I might have the edge from being closer to the situation.

Whenever I find that someone whose opinion I respect has an opinon that differs from mine, I reexamine my own opinion. I have been thinking about this one all day. I believe Ellis made a false analogy, framed the question in an inaccurate way, which led to an (IMO) inaccurate conclusion, and it occurs to me that this framing issue is at the root of much reasonable disagreement about our current situation in Iraq.

Ellis compares the situation in Iraq to the war of American independence and puts us in the role of the British. “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,” he says. This is true, but it does not apply closely to what we are doing in Iraq.First let me address technical objections. The British were in fact defeated in a major battle with the help of the French. While they could certainly have renewed the fight, it was Yorktown that ended it. There is no conceivable scenario where Iraqi insurgents could trap & defeat an American army in the Yorktown fashion. Beyond that, Iraq is not as vast as the American colonies, especially given distance shrinking technologies available today and most of Iraq is essentially uninhabited. You really are concerned only with narrow bands of territory near the rivers or at a few desert oases. The part of Iraq that is not like this – Kurdistan – is the place where we never faced significant local resistance, which leads me to the second and more important point: the nature of the enemy. The Iraqi people are not the enemy and most of them are not resisting coalition forces. The biggest challenge is not that they are loyal to an insurgency but rather that they are not committed to any side in the conflict. Most people – logically – simply prefer not to be involved at all. They will passively support anybody who seems to be able to provide security and remain sitting on the fence until they have a better idea which side will prevail. In “American Creation”, Ellis himself mentions the analogous situation in Pennsylvania when Washington’s army was freezing & starving in Valley Forge in the middle of one of the most productive agricultural areas in America, while the British were living fat and happy in neighboring Philadelphia easily buying supplies from local farmers who preferred pound sterling to Continental script. He admits the possibly that the British could have won, since most of the countryside had mixed loyalties. It is a less sweeping analogy and perhaps one that could better inform decision on Iraq. Ellis never compares Washington to the terrorists who operate in Iraq, but I feel it is important to address this other incredibly obvious difference. Insurgents in Iraq target civilian populations – ostensibly their own people – even when, especially when, they have no military significance. In other words, for the insurgents civilian deaths are a goal, not an unfortunate side effect or regrettable necessity. A legitimate resistance does not do this. Washington did nothing like this, specifically refusing to destroy American towns even when they were “Tory”. The British also, BTW, did not engage in such acts, Mel Gibson’s “The Patriot” not withstanding. Civilians are killed in any war, but only terrorists make them the unambiguous target. Although most Americans live fairly conformist lives, almost all 300 million of us like to think of ourselves as rebels and dissenters. We view our history as a struggle or of “us” rebels again “them” in the establishment. I will not be able to dispel that myth, but I would point out that 300 million people cannot all be rebels (who are they rebelling against?) and that our constitution was created in 1787 and remains in force today, making it the oldest such living document in the world. Our government is the second oldest continuously functioning government (second only to our British cousins). These are not outcomes you would naturally expect in a country of rebels.

The paradox, the genius of America, BTW, is our ability simultaneously to embrace both change and order. No matter what the reality, our popular culture is sympathetic to rebels and underdogs and some people falsely view insurgents as falling into the same categories we reserve for some of our most revered heroes, although maybe a little tarnished. In fact, insurgents in Iraq are not rebelling against an establishment or an occupation. Rather they are trying to use force, murder and intimidation to dominate and control the people around them. The true rebels, the ones seeking real change, are those brave enough to stand up to the insurgents. They are the ones we should support and they are the ones we are supporting. Ellis implies and I want to say explicitly that somebody like Washington would never be involved with the kind of insurgency we have in Iraq. More to the practical point, there is no insurgency in Iraq that is in any way comparable to Continental Army. For all its fractiousness, there was ONE American’s independence movement, not dozens of little competing ones as in Iraq. While Ellis is one of my favorite historians and I certainly agree with his premise that we can and should use history to inform today’s decisions, I do not believe he has correctly applied it in this particular case. I hope you all read the linked article and will read some of his other books, but in the case of Iraq & the American war of independence we are finding more contrasts than comparisons.

Sorry to diverge from the style of the blog.  I am a former history major and I just cannot resist writing the occasional essay.  I will return to true action writing tomorrow.   BTW – I saw “Live Free or Die Hard” today.  Like all such movies, it strains credulity, but is worth watching if you like action.  As you probably know, “Live Free or Die” is the New Hampshire motto.  I wanted to live up there just so I could have that on my license plate.