I bought David Hackett Fischer's "Washington's Crossing" to read about a battle that figures in local lore in the part of the world where I grew up, but I ended up reading one of the most penetrating books I've yet found on military history, history in general, and what Thomas Jefferson called "human events."
When historians delve into military details, the result sometimes ends up being what James McPherson called "more and more about less and less." Not here. Fischer tells the military story in rich and human detail. British soldiers and especially their Hessian coalitionists emerge from the shadows and numbers and stand forth as full-fleshed people. But the book is more than regiments marching. Along the way, Fischer helps explain such puzzles as the fit of slave-owning into Washington's ideas of liberty, or the tension between Yankee town meeting democracy and Southern aristocracy in the colonial army.
And he does his best to revive something we've largely forgotten: What made the American Revolution so different.
Several times in reading Fischer's prose I recalled Michael Moore taunt that the Iraqi "insurgents" are not terrorists, but "minutemen." In other words, they are the moral equivalent to the American revolutionaries, and Moore predicted they will win and that they deserved to win, just as the American Revolutionaries did. Typically, Moore left it at that and never bothered to back up his assertion.
But it's not hard to see what he meant -- to the degree that he meant anything but to be a rankling nuisance. Like all Moore's deceptions, there's a dusting of truth on it. The indigenous revolt against the superpower army from abroad faces the same range of challenges, the same tactical choices. The insurgents inevitably will make some of the same choices, in any generation.
But Moore's comparison is superficial. The Iraqi insurgents are like the American Revolutionaries in the same way the death pilots of 9/11 were like the airline pilots they stabbed to death to commandeer the planes. Fischer's concluding chapter explains why:
In 1776, American leaders believed that it was not enough to win the war. They also had to win in a way that was consistent with the values of their society and the principles of their cause. One of their greatest achievements in the winter campaign of 1776-77 was to manage the war in a manner that was true to the expanding humanitarian ideals of the American Revolution. ... In Congress and the army, American leaders resolved that the War of Independence would be conducted with a respect for human rights, even of the enemy. This idea grew stronger during the campaign of 1776-77, not weaker as is commonly the case in war.
It had been a year of disasters. The British routed the Continental army from Long Island, then captured New York City along with many prisoners. The redcoats next pushed George Washington back through New Jersey, waging an increasingly savage campaign not just against the Continental army but against the whole "Levelling, underbred, Artfull, Race of people" they found in America.
Yet early in 1777, John Adams wrote to his wife, "I know of no policy, God is my witness, but this -- Piety, Humanity and Honesty are the best Policy. Blasphemy, Cruelty and Villainy have prevailed and may again. But they won't prevail against America, in this Contest, because I find the more of them are employed, the less they succeed."
What they fought for colored how they fought. And here, too, the comparison with modern Iraq is instructive. The American revolutionaries had woven into their flag not just stars and stripes, but ideals of liberty, whether it was the learned political theorizing of Madison, the commercial common sense of Franklin, the town meeting democracy of New England soldiers, or the stoic self-discipline of Washington. Educated or ignorant, they built their cause around this quality, learned from their experiences as British citizens, and it informed their decisions on the battlefield.
Not all American leaders agreed. Others in Adams's generation believed, as do many in our own time, that America should serve its own national self-interest, defined in terms of wealth and power, and seek it by any means. But most men of the American Enlightenment shared John Adams's way of thinking. In the critical period of 1776 and 1777, leaders of both the Continental army and the Congress adopted the policy of humanity. That choice was reinforced when they learned that some British leaders decided to act differently. Every report of wounded soldiers refused quarter, of starving captives mistreated in the prison hulks at New York, and of the plunder and rapine in New Jersey persuaded leaders in Congress and the army to go a different way, as an act of principle and enlightened self-interest.
There were no Geneva Conventions in the mid-18th century, but every soldier and officer understood the customs of war, which were binding on their sense of honor as warriors. A wounded or cornered enemy could ask "quarter" from the other side, and there were standards for accepting it, or rejecting it. Plundering was universal, but if a house was occupied, and the owners did not resist, the proper plunderer always left the family enough to live on, and he did not take personal items.
There was no international bureaucracy to threaten a violator with a lengthy trial in the Hague, of course, but his own officers could order him summarily shot, which does count as a sort of deterrent. Or the bad behavior could invite like reprisals from the other side. Officers of the two armies in the Revolution traded hot charges across the lines when the system broke down.
Americans, unlike the British, generally extended the right of quarter to their enemies, even as the Americans reacted with indignation as British slaughter of wounded and helpless Continental soldiers. After the Battle of Princeton, Washington put a trusted officer in charge of the 211 captured privates with these instructions: "Treat them with humanity, and Let them have no reason to Complain of our Copying the brutal example of the British army in their Treatment of our unfortunate brethren. ... Provide everything necessary for them on the road." Hessian prisoners were so well treated that, once they had got over the shock of it, they could be sent from one holding place to the next without an armed escort. After the war, almost a quarter of the Hessians remained in America. Their names still dot the phone book in Chester County, Pa., when I grew up there.
Any large army is going to have in its ranks men whose better natures will unhinge in the stress of war. Horror and brutality will happen every time an army marches to battle, as sure as innocent civilians will be killed. If you can't accept that, better to be a thoroughgoing pacifist. At least it's an honest position. Better than pretending you didn't know. The job of a nation and its leaders, military and civilian, is to ensure the horrors are as few as possible, and the war crimes are exceptions.
The fact that there were many exceptions to the American ideal of 1776 -- especially in the case of loyalist legions and runaway slaves -- does not change the essential fact that the American leaders attempted not just to win, but to fight a war they could look back on with pride, and that would be a fitting birth to the nation they sought to make. And they largely succeeded. "The moral choices in the War of Independence," Fischer writes, "enlarged the meaning of the American Revolution."
The Iraqi insurgents, too, have their ideals: a terrorized and repressed people, rule by the gun and the knife, Ba'athist fascism and Islamist fanaticism. They, too, make their moral choices based on their ideals. Does anyone, even Michael Moore, imagine that their "victory," should that nightmare come, would be followed by a replay of Philadelphia, 1787?
As Fischer writes in his concluding paragraph:
[American soldiers and civilians in 1776] set a high example, and we have much to learn from them. Much recent historical writing has served us ill in that respect. In the late twentieth century, too many scholars tried to make the American past into a record of crime and folly. Too many writers have told us that we are captives of our darker selves and helpless victims of our history. It isn't so, and never was. The story of Washington's Crossing tells us that Americans in an earlier generation were capable of acting in a higher spirit -- and so are we.
Some of Fischer's best work is crammed into the 8-point type back in the appendices. There he gives a brief, broad-brushed, but insightful tour of "Washington Crossing the Delaware" -- both Emanuel Leutze's famous 1851 painting and the crossing incident itself -- as seen through the evolving eyes of Americans in one generation after another. As you might expect, there's a pendulum effect, with each generation to some extent reacting against the view of the one before, but at one point comes a perfect storm of negative convergence. Guess when that happened?
After discussing the "debunking" mood of popular history writers around the time of the U.S. bicentennial, Fischer turns his attention to that generation of academics. Their view of U.S. history still matters, because these men and women are dominant forces in academe and because their bile has informed many Americans now politically active.
A similar mood spread among a troubled generation of academic historians who were born in the baby boom (ca. 1941-57). They came of age in the late sixties and early seventies, when a youth revolution was bright with the promise of a new age. It was a revolution that failed in the era of Vietnam, Watergate, burning cities, and blighted hopes. A conservative revival followed. Republicans moved to the right, liberal Democrats shifted toward the center, and many on the left sought sanctuary in American universities as internal exiles from a society that turned away from them.
In the 1980s some of these internal exiles rejected all politics. Others increasingly called themselves American Marxists and predicted the coming collapse of capitalism. Then came the unexpected collapse of the Soviet Union instead, and the failure of Marxism throughout the world, It was a double disaster for the American left. The result was an angry generation of academic iconoclasts, disillusioned by the failure of radical movements, alienated from American institutions, and filled with cultural despair. When the light of their revolution failed, some of them could see nothing but darkness.
More than a few became historians. Some ex-Marxists became historical relativists who beat their dialectal swords into epistemological ploughshares, and rejected ideals of objective and empirical inquiry. They judged other works mainly by ideological standards of political incorrectness such as racism, sexism, and elitism. Any work with a positive tone about the United States was condemned as "triumphalism." Their writings expressed intense hostility to American institutions and alienation from the main lines of American history.
As his artistic exemplar of this period, Fischer chooses "George Washington Crossing the Delaware" by the artist Peter Saul, of the faculty of University of Texas in Austin. "In vivid, clashing, Day-Glo acrylic colors, it shows a river crossing that has been reduced to chaos. Washington, his horse, and his men (all in tie wigs) tumble out of the boat into the river while American and British soldiers fire at each other in a battle on the ice. The values of Emanuel Leutze's painting are inverted as completely as the capsized boat."
Same medium, inverted values. Fallujah, during Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's reign, was no Philadelphia. On the whole, I'd rather be in Philadelphia.