THE MEN WHO LOST AMERICA
Reading and studying history as a life's avocation is not much different than watching one of those men who walk down a beach with large headphones on their heads that are connected to a metal finder. A huge percentage of their time is filled with the familiar noise of the machine and the waves but then it is all worth it when the ping of metal is heard and the unexpected awaits. That ping for the student of history is so often the rush that comes with an insight or a series of insights that alters his historical construct of the world that has been fashioned through years of study. O'Shaughnessy's book will leave any student of American History furiously editing his take on the War of American Independence and how we have sculpted its narrative over the years. By introducing the British perspective on the war through the eyes and lives of the ten men most responsible for prosecuting and thus "losing" the war for Britain, O'Shaughnessy not only rewrites the American story but provides us with a vivid analogy of the cost and trade-offs that come with empire - an analogy that provides a non-partisan, detached insight into post World War II America in a way only history can produce.
The title suggests a lot. The British never got over "losing" America as evidenced by Parliamentary inquiries, court-martials and a never-ending battle of memoirs all contributing to this "hot potato" of imperial shame. The fact that they could not get over "losing" America suggests that they could have won it to begin with. This is not very different from America's wars after World War II - a war won so thoroughly by the United States that all wars are measured against its success. This is not entirely unlike Britain's predicament at the time of the American Revolution. She had just won the world's first "world war", the Seven Years War, against France and had dominion over Canada, India, the Caribbean and much more. Her huge empire of the 19th century where the sun never set and one out six of the world's citizens woke up to the Union Jack had just begun to take shape. Though the Seven Years War barely marked the midpoint of her great eighty-year struggle with France, by 1763 her empire had begun to rapidly fall into place. An empire secured by a vast fleet, a modest but lethal army, rapacious and highly leveraged independent trading companies and an emerging but often precarious financial powerhouse in the City of London. To lose her American colonies, settled and populated by English citizens, operating under the rule of law grafted from England and prospering mightily within the benevolent system of imperial mercantilism seemed unimaginable for a whole host of reasons. These reasons are the stuff of misguided wars and imperial delusion. These reasons are the stuff of imperial hubris and overreach. These reasons should be all too familiar for any American old enough to have lived through Vietnam and Iraq.
Today there exists the feeling that America has lost her grip, that America needs to be "made great again." From a military perspective, many see a nation unable to "win" a real war, starting with Korea, most viscerally embodied in Vietnam and reawakened in Iraq and its on-going legacy of violence. There is little solace in the almost pathetic patriotic outburst when we ran over the island of Grenada, or when we bombed the Balkan War to its still uncertain conclusion or, in the first Gulf War, when we turned our one week torching of Saddam's paper tiger of an army into a post modern Normandy. None of those Top Gun moments could alleviate the doubts, stop the finger wagging and the huge social divide begun by Vietnam and renewed by Iraq. We forget that after Vietnam we won the Cold War. We forget that despite the horrors of the Middle East and the determination of a few to strike down the American Satan, our country's democratic model and her devotion to capitalism in all its forms, good and bad, have reshaped the world in less than two generations. We may have "lost" Vietnam but we "won" the world. Similarly, after losing the war of American Independence, the British would throw out their government and spin into years of self-incrimination only to defeat Napoleon, resist the revolutions of the 19th century and create an empire under Victoria that in scope and grandeur only ancient Rome could match. Vietnam remains a terrible mental block on the American imagination and our ability to see our true position in the world and in history. The mistakes of Vietnam were repeated in Iraq and now that war contributes to this terrible distortion of our place in the world. The true success, power and influence of modern America, of her very real but informal empire, have been falsely diminished by these "lost" wars. Though alleviated by her titanic struggle with Napoleon, Britain herself struggled to see the reality of her situation in the War of Independence sharing insecurity and confusion not dissimilar to that experienced by the United States almost two hundred years later and, in fact, to this very day. Delving into the lives and times of these 18th century British white males provides not only valuable historical perspective but also the warmth of insight that can give one comfort amidst the dire warnings and gloomy evaluations of the present.
Just as the United States fought a war in Vietnam within the greater context of a Cold War the British tried to win the war in America within an imperial context much greater than her colonies alone. All the while the British fought the colonists, they had two international priorities that singly, let alone together, trumped the importance of winning the war in America. Firstly, our revolution took place in the midst of a century long war with France and, to a lesser extent, Spain. From 1735 to 1815 there would be four wars with France, including the epic twenty-year struggle with Napoleon. Like the World Wars and the Cold War in the 20th century, these were world wars within the historical context of their times. Just as world order was at stake for the United States in World War I, World War II and the Cold War, imperial success or failure was at stake for 18th century Britain. The shots fired in Lexington were heard round a world that had quite suddenly become English. Canada, India, the West Indies, Ireland and innumerable ports and islands throughout the world were being stitched into the vast British Empire, all held intact by a large, vigilant but sorely extended and very expensive Royal Navy. The fortunes derived from the mother country's investments in her rapidly growing web of colonial labor and resources were only as secure as the sea-lanes through which this mercantile empire coursed. Her long war with France was over this very concrete reality. The Royal Navy and the British military always had her empire as a first priority and France, not the colonies, was the greatest threat to that. As such, despite enormous effort and expenditure, she, like the United States in Vietnam and later Iraq, always had a one military arm tied behind her back while waging a frighteningly unfamiliar guerilla war. The United States refused to "invade the North" in Vietnam for fear of igniting a greater Cold War threat and, as such, committed herself to a "limited" war that played into every strategic and tactical strength of her foe. While Iraq had no Cold War to prevent a full-scale invasion, the critics are unanimous that our "limited war" strategy guaranteed the chaos and terror that would shortly follow. Among the many competing contextual restraints of that "limited war" was the international priority placed on America as the world's only superpower, an enlightened superpower that may "liberate" a country but certainly would not "occupy" one.
To make things even more problematic, the priorities of empire didn't end with the wars with France. There was the issue of money. Our revolution was fought just north of the single greatest source of British wealth - the sugar producing islands of the West Indies and the enormous capital investment of slavery that made it all happen. What oil was to the United States in the 20th century, the profits from the West Indies were to Britain at the time of our revolution. London was never going to commit the naval resources, in particular, and military resources, in general, required to defeat the Americans if it meant leaving her West Indian possessions vulnerable to the French. It can be summed up most succinctly when France offered to withdraw her all-important support of the American colonists in return for just one of the sugar producing islands owned and operated by the British. London flatly refused the offer. Like LBJ balancing the ideals of his Great Society and the demands of a war on the other side of the globe, the British could only commit so much treasure to winning what seemed to be an increasingly unwinnable war.
The British commitment to the war was further handicapped by domestic discord. Though the pro-war faction, led most enthusiastically by the King and his party of political appointees and Tory "hawks", never lost control of Parliament until after the events of Yorktown sealed the British fate, there was a steady opposition to the war from its very beginning. Elements of both parties spoke openly against the war, consistently doubting whether it could be won on any of its fronts ranging from the military reality of controlling a continent thousands of miles away to the political reality of subduing fellow Englishmen with a set of very familiar and very English gripes. This political discord was reflected in the British public who, while never abandoning wholesale the King's efforts, never got comfortable with the idea of fighting fellow Englishmen. The King's ministers would send tens of thousands of Hessians to fight this war not just because of an overstretched imperial army but because the average British citizen was not keen on fighting this battle. The fact that such reluctance never surfaced in that terrible long war with Napoleon only underscores the depth of the doubts. An unpopular war was a dangerous thing to meddle with in late 18th century England. The social and economic strains that would tear France apart only five years after this war were evident in England itself. The Gordon Riots of 1780 required thousands of British troops to quell as angry mobs surrounded Parliament and torched parts of the city. England was not such a paragon of social stability that she could afford the strain of fully committing to a less than popular war. Clearly the same can be said for both Vietnam and Iraq. The first war was fought with a scandalous college deferment "out" for the affluent while the latter was prosecuted by a professional army mostly recruited from America's working and rural classes. Neither war would have survived the "all-in" reality of World War II. America, like England fighting her colonists while keeping an eye on the French and a restive domestic citizenry, tried to win each of these terrible wars on "the cheap", so to speak.
O'Shaunnessy's book then becomes a gripping study on how a nation convinces itself that it can win a war it is not prepared to commit itself wholly to. Much of what follows should sound all too familiar for any American born after World War II. Led by a dogged George III, his cabal of ministers and a decent majority of House Members and Lords, the British public and Parliament would be reassured of eventual victory because of each of the following arguments:
• the British soldier is the finest fighting machine on the globe and is the equal to half a dozen of the colonials in any 'organized" flight. This assumption colored the British strategy from day one and it was from day one that many in the military knew it to be so much "hogwash". That day one, of course, was the terrible Battle of Bunker Hill where they embraced a pyrrhic victory at the cost of thousands of men - all of whom died because these untrained, weak willed, ineffective colonials shot and killed with an accuracy that would haunt the British throughout the war. They also held up against the vaunted bayonet charge the British infantry were famous for, waiting, in fact, to see the "white" of the British eyes before inflicting the greatest one day loss of infantry the British Empire had yet to experience. While there would be days and battles that more than underscored British contempt for the colonial soldier, her leading officers soon realized that this was nothing if not an even fight. Over time, this comforting but lethal bias would withstand bloody first-hand evidence of numerous American victories and constant British frustration. Even the arrival of French arms, a French fleet, European officers and discipline and massive loans from France and the Dutch wasn't persuasive enough to prevent Cornwallis' fateful and fatal march through Virginia and into the British Dien Bien Phu of the war, Yorktown.
• the British would win the "hearts and minds" of the Americans based on the assumption that the majority of colonists were loyal to the Crown and considered it a privilege to be an English "subject". This is, of course, the true elixir of Western expansion in all its forms ranging from the civilizing influences of Victorian England to the idealism of Pax Americana. The British "hawks" were always waiting for the Americans to return to the fold, to stop being intimidated by the rebellious mob and come home to comfort and security of the Mother Country. They underestimated American disgust and anger from the first march to Lexington to the lethal but failed effort to secure the South. At the outbreak of the war, only one in ten Americans had ever had any contact with a British official or soldier. Americans had been self-governed for well over 100 years. The British were as dispensable and troublesome in most American eyes as they were indispensable and appreciated in their own. It was the fatal delusion that kept on persuading. Being nothing more than an article of faith, it like any such article, can be waved in the face of reality. Its shelf life would extend into the War of 1812 and would even suffer a brief renaissance in the Civil War as the Anglophile Confederacy courted her aid in her fight to defend her vision of a civilized world. , Just like in Vietnam and Iraq, this latent support among the native population had no real basis in truth to begin with. By most measurements, Tory sympathizers never approached more than a quarter of the population with any future conversions being dissuaded daily by the horrendous behavior of occupying British soldiers to a citizenry that was quickly dehumanized by a frustrated, frightened and increasingly cynical occupier. Like the Americans in Vietnam, the potent fallacy of a "hearts and minds" delusion quickly curdles into violent resentment for those, the soldiers, who have to experience the more frightening and disconcerting reality.
• With the help of the previous two articles of faith, the superior British soldier and the latent support of the native population, this war, fought across the ocean on a vast and mostly unchartered continent, could be won "on the cheap." Whether it is the "guns and butter" of Vietnam or the "shock and awe" of Iraq or even the conviction of a splendidly brief victory for "all" parties in World War I, the illusion of the quick war is the siren call to tragedy. With a supportive colonial population relieved to be rid of the rebellious minority, her Majesty's military would be able to forage, purchase and requisition ample stores and supplies to maintain her ever expanding strategic occupation of her colony. Given the local support, her navy would be free to protect her vital interests elsewhere and an already strapped sovereign balance sheet can avoid further "taxing" a reluctant and potentially volatile home front. The facts would prove to be so very different. The British Army lost a significant percentage of their troops on dangerous and mostly unsuccessful foraging missions into a local population that was at best indifferent and more likely hostile. The Royal Navy would have to supply every item of sustenance and support for the army further weakening imperial control elsewhere, further undermining the imperial commitment to the War of American Independence. At this point, it all comes full circle - in a hangman's noose. The strategic imperatives of empire, the limited domestic support, the fiscal realities combine with the hubris of everything British and you get a savage "unwinnable" war. Substitute "American" for "British" in the previous sentence and you have the by-line of our recent long and terribly costly "unwinnable" wars. This is a book of colorful personal narratives that in the end instruct us that history, of course, repeats and that much of the myth-making and shared narratives that we pass on from generation to generation only serves to obscure this truth. A truthful rendering of our War of Independence, one more focused on British folly than on American heroism (as real as it was), might have required sacrificing a bit of "exceptionalism" for real insight and, in the process, in terrible places like Iraq and Vietnam, helped save us from ourselves.