Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Lessons for empires and democracies

I just breezed through (by ear, read by the author) David McCullough's 1776. I'm not going to do one of my typical book posts. This is a pretty straightforward military history of the tough campaigns that newly-installed U.S. commander George Washington led, suffered through, and survived in the year of the thirteen colonies' Declaration of Independence. Somewhat to my surprise, I enjoyed it very much. Having spent some time driving about the east coast last summer, I was reminded of places -- battlefields and towns -- I'd forgotten in over 40 years residence on the west coast.

The book convinced me that even in the 18th century, it was already the case that an imperial power could not enforce its will on a faraway land whose inhabitants were determined not to ruled from abroad and who were fortunate enough to be reasonably well equipped and led. What Stephen Walt wrote recently about modern U.S. failures in counterinsurgency wars (Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq) is not really different from what the British were shocked to encounter on the American continent n 1776.

COIN is very hard because it requires local knowledge that U.S. forces invariably lack, and because a large foreign military presence triggers local resentments and produces a raft of unintended consequences.

Successful COIN also requires reliable local partners, who are usually absent (if the locals were competent and reliable, they wouldn’t need help).

Moreover, COIN is an expensive and time-consuming strategy that is normally conducted in places of modest strategic value. Because it is hard to justify big expenditures of blood or treasure for relatively small stakes, public support inevitably erodes over time. The insurgents know that Uncle Sam will eventually go home and that they can simply wait us out. Bottom line: The idea that the United States can or must master the art of counterinsurgency is absurd.

So the Brits learned despite their best efforts between 1775 and 1783. The war did cost the colonies the lives of one percent of their populations, something we easily forget at over 200 years distance.

I also was reminded by McCullough's narrative how fortunate the emerging American colonial project was that its political representatives put their trust in a general whose role model was the Roman dictator Cincinnatus. (Here I'm presenting my own thinking, not McCullough's in this book.) After leading the Romans to victory, Cincinnatus distinguished himself by resigning his authority and returning to his farm, thereby becoming the Roman ideal of virtuous leadership.

Whatever his other gifts (McCullough enumerates many) George Washington seems to have been extremely sensitive to keeping the good opinion of those he thought to be the right sort of people. And that meant he seems never to have considered using his unique national esteem to become a Napoleon. Our ancestors got very lucky.

No comments:

Related Posts with Thumbnails