September 1, 2006  

Lessons from the last long wars

In America’s past, America’s future?

Our collective understanding of irregular warfare, while far better than it was at the time of the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, is not what it might be. This is less true for soldiers in the fight — whose immediate needs are, of course, for tactical lessons and thus inherently evanescent — than for strategists at home. Washington remains particularly a prisoner of Vietnam analogies and cries out for a larger historical frame of reference.

Staying simply within the American experience, more attention might be paid to Brian Linn’s works on the Philippine insurrection or to the study of generals George Crook and Nelson Miles and their campaigns against the Plains Indians. But for a fresh perspective on today’s troubles, I have returned repeatedly in recent years to two books that look deeper into the past, to two magisterial histories of 18th-century conflicts. One is Fred Anderson’s “Crucible of War,” the story of the Seven Years’ War or, as known in North America, the French and Indian War; the second, Piers Mackesy’s “The War for America.”

The contests for North America are inseparable from the global competition among the European great powers: centrally France, Great Britain and their shifting allies. From a strategic perspective, we see the small war most clearly when we view it through the lens of the big war.

“Crucible of War” tackles a very big war, indeed. The Seven Years’ War of 1754-66 was the decisive contest in a long series of French and Indian wars waged over the course of the century; from the time that English settlers along the Atlantic seaboard and French Canadians began to come in contact, they fought, for reasons both local and imperial. But there was also a third party to the conflict, often holding the balance of power and always pursuing its own interests: the American Indian tribes, and most centrally the Iroquois Confederacy, which occupied the crucial buffer zone that separated New France from New England and the other British colonies.

Although naval engagements, conventional set-piece battles and sieges had their places in this long war, Anderson makes a strong case that the decisive struggle was the irregular frontier war, in which the Indians, particularly the Iroquois, played such an important role. Thus, whichever Europeans could best cajole, rally or manage their indigenous partners enjoyed a nearly insuperable advantage. But, as Anderson observes, “The Iroquois chiefs’ ‘aggressive neutrality’ enabled them to manipulate both French and British imperial authorities.”

In this contest, the French held an initial edge. New France was a colony of soldiers, trappers and backwoodsmen — “coureurs de bois” — whose interests and way of life were very much complementary to Native American culture. The government in Quebec was essentially a military establishment, giving the Canadians a central strategic direction. But the colony was not really New France, simply an outpost of old France. Thus, New France’s governors, lacking manpower and resources, naturally fell in with the Native American irregular way of war.

By contrast, English colonists came to settle, to farm and to expand a New Jerusalem. The colonies were fractiously independent and initially unsuited to strategic cooperation among themselves or with Indian allies. Nonetheless, a certain number of English colonial leaders and commanders learned enough to coordinate their interests with Indian interests. Their experiences served them well when they broke with the mother country.

In “The War for America,” originally published in 1964, Mackesy tells the story of the American Revolution from the British side of the hill. It’s a bracing perspective to a New World mind and a carefully crafted portrait of a great power juggling its global interests, as well as a military bureaucracy struggling to make disparate strategic ends meet. It’s a portrait that bears more than a passing resemblance to the U.S. today.

“Yet though it may be that Britain never evolved a constructive political plan,” Mackesy concludes, “her military effort was based on a better-reasoned concept than mere reconquest and policing by her handful of regular troops. She relied … on helping the good Americans to overcome the bad: The British Army would break the power of the rebels, and organize and support the loyalists who would police the country.”

It wasn’t a bad plan, argues Mackesey, and the failures were not so much of the British Army — although he suggests British troop levels were perhaps too low and that “with another 10,000 men and the assured command of American waters even [Gen. George] Clinton should have been able to destroy or paralyze Washington’s army.” Rather, Mackesy says, the decisive failure was that of the Royal Navy, which could not cut off French resupply.

The “War for America” is also a superb case study in the arts of high command — or, in this case, the lack thereof. Mackesy is devastating and detailed in his critique of both the British political and military leadership. Lord North, the prime minister, was excessively cautious, lacked popular support and was nervous of his parliamentary majority. At the very top, there was petrification. While American commanders were products of a revolutionary situation in which timid men did not rise, British generals Howe and Clinton were members of a stable political community who had only to play the game safely to draw their emoluments and retain their positions.

Historical parallels are dangerously weak structures. Yet Americans wrestling with the challenge of preserving a global order and wondering how to balance the claims of diverse and distant theaters of war could do far worse than contemplate the mix of imperial and irregular conflicts — the long wars — from which the U.S. emerged.