By Thomas E. Ricks
Sunday, March 16, 2008
Five years into their war to retain control of America, the British thought they were winning.
As Piers Mackesy relates in his brilliant, classic history of the American Revolution, The War for America, 1775-1783, the British cabinet believed the rebel cause was disintegrating by 1780. One of the best American generals, Benedict Arnold, had changed sides. Rebel finances were weak. Morale in George Washington's army appeared to be plummeting, and there was talk of mutiny in the rebel camp. The British army had landed in the South and was chewing up American forces there. The intervention of the French on behalf of the rebels, so worrisome at first, had made surprisingly little difference in the course of the war. More Americans were fighting on the side of King George III, one British official noted, than had joined Washington's army.
Yet a year later Gen. Charles Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown, and the war was all but lost. And thereby lie some cautionary thoughts for the U.S. military, government and public as we end our fifth year of war in Iraq. The two conflicts are very different. But in one area -- the seemingly more powerful side's inability to understand the nature of the war it is fighting -- there are some illuminating parallels.
At the outset, the British allowed unjustifiable optimism to undercut their planning. There were only a few serious rebels, it was thought, leading a motley army disproportionately filled out by Irishmen and other recent immigrants. Nor did British leaders understand the intensity and vitality of the rebel cause. "I may safely assert that the insurgents are very few, in comparison with the whole of the people," Gen. Sir William Howe wrote in 1775, about the time he became the British commander-in-chief of the war. His brother, the naval commander in the area, wrote feelingly of achieving "reconciliation" with the Americans, presumably after a swift victory.
In another phrase that rings familiar to anyone who tracked U.S. strategy in Iraq from 2003 to early 2007, a senior British officer, Gen. James Robertson, explained that his mission in the "war for America" was to help local security forces put down the rebellion. "I never had an idea of subduing the Americans," he said later. "I meant to assist the good Americans to subdue the bad."
Mackesy, a longtime Oxford University military historian, emphasizes the decisive role that French maritime power played in the war. When le Comte de Grasse, the French admiral, abandoned caution and moved all his ships north from the Caribbean, he argues, the French swiftly achieved command of the sea. British garrisons that had been able to move freely up and down the coast from New York to Charleston instead became "marooned detachments," little more than isolated liabilities. Until 2007, American commanders in Iraq showed a caution similar to that of the British, rather than the audacity of Grasse.
An even more striking parallel is that the British consistently neglected their American loyalists. They would move into an area, identify local allies and then move out, abandoning their supporters to the enemy. For several years in Iraq, U.S. forces made the same mistake, putting allies in highly visible positions as mayors, police chiefs and governors, then failing to protect them adequately from the bullets and bombs of waiting insurgents. This failing really was addressed only when Generals David Petraeus and Raymond Odierno instituted a new strategy early in 2007 that made protecting the people the top priority of their soldiers. It remains to be seen whether that change came too late.
By the final years of the Revolutionary War, the British more or less came to understand what they should have been doing. Their generals needed to take more risks, they realized. More important, they needed to hold land that was cleared of rebel influence. Lord George Germain, the secretary of state for the American colonies, recommended early in 1781 a policy of securing gains "not by desultory enterprises, taking possession of places at one time, and abandoning them at another, which can never bring the war to a conclusion, or encourage the people to avow their loyalty."
Cornwallis's shocking surrender at Yorktown five months later, in October 1781, brought down the British government; it was replaced by the fiercely antiwar opposition. Lest any of today's antiwar Democrats take too much hope from that, they should also remember that the eventual peace settlement toppled the successor government.
I've covered the military for nearly two decades, so if I haven't read a classic in military history, I've usually heard of it. For example, I knew of Gen. William Slim's Defeat Into Victory (about Burma in World War II) and Sir Alistair Horne's A Savage War of Peace (about the French colonial war in Algeria) long before I picked them up. But I hadn't known about The War for America until earlier this year, when it was recommended by friends steeped in strategic thinking. I started reading it a few weeks ago on a flight to Baghdad.
Mackesy's book was first published in 1964 and is still in print in paperback. He calls it a "strategic history," which he describes as the no-man's-land between a diplomatic history of a war and a narrative history of its battles. It is the single best such work that I ever have encountered. *
Thomas E. Ricks, author of "Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq," is The Post's senior military correspondent.