Wednesday, August 16, 2006

deva ju all over again . . . ?

How did the colonies win the war?

Does this sound familiar? The world's most powerful nation is caught up in a war against a small guerrilla army. This superpower must resupply its troops from thousands of miles away, a costly endeavor, and support for the war at home is tentative, dividing the nation's people and leadership. The rebels also receive financial and military support from the superpower's chief military and political antagonist. As the war drags on and casualties mount, generals are disgraced, and the rebels gain momentum, even in defeat.

The United States in Vietnam? It could be. But it is also the story of the British loss of the American colonies. There are numerous parallels between the two conflicts. For the United States, substitute England under George III, the dominant world power of the day, but caught up in a draining colonial conflict that stretches its resources. For the Vietcong, substitute the colonial army under Washington, a ragtag collection if ever there was one, who used such unheard-of tactics as disguising themselves in British uniforms and attacking from the rear. British generals, accustomed to precisely drawn battle formations, were completely taken aback, just as American commanders schooled in the tank warfare of World War II were unprepared for the jungles of Vietnam. For foreign support, substitute England's chief European adversary, France (as well as Spain and the Netherlands) for the Soviet (and the Red Chinese) supplying the Vietcong.

There can be no question that without France's armies, money, and supplies (as much as 90% of the American gunpowder used in the war came from France), the American forces could not have won. Why did the French do it? Certainly King Louis XVI and his charming wife, Marie Antoinette, had no particular sympathy for anti-monarchist, democratic rabble. Their motive, actually the strategy of a pro-American minister, the Comte de Vergennes, was simple: to bloody England's nose in any way they could and perhaps even win back some of the territory lost after the Seven Years War. Had the monarchy and aristocracy of France known that their own subjects would be greatly inspired by the American Revolution a few years later, the French royalty might have thought the matter over a bit longer. An American loss might have saved their necks. C'est la vie!

Equally important to America's victory was the consistent bungling of the British high command, which treated the war as an intolerable inconvenience. At any number of points in the fighting, particularly in the early years, before France was fully committed, aggressive generalship from various British commanders might have turned the tide.

If Washington's army had been destroyed after Long Island or Germantown . . .

If Congress had been captured and shipped off to England for trial -- and most likely the noose . . .

And what if England had "won"? Could it possibly have maintained sovereignty over a large, prosperous, diverse, and expanding America, a vast territory far richer in resources than England? It is unlikely. Independence was a historical inevitability, in one form or another. It was simply an idea whose (sic) time had come, and America was not alone, as the revolutions that followed in Europe would prove.

The British had to weigh the costs of maintaining their dominance against its returns. They would have seen, as America did in Vietnam, and as the Soviets did more recently in Afghanistan, that the cost of such wars of colonial domination are usually more than a nation is willing or able to bear.

It's a pity that America's military and political leaders never learned a lesson from our own past, a fact that speaks volumes about the arrogance of power.

The preceding paragraphs comprise the closing section of the chapter on the American Revolution in Kenneth C. Davis' Don't Know Much About History: Everything you need to learn about American history but never learned.

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