The Making of a Disaster

Picture the following situation. The greatest power in the world is confronted with an insurgency thousands of miles away, which it expects to put down quickly and easily. It sends a large army to deal with the insurgents, but counts on many loyal supporters to flock to its standard. Recruiting soldiers, however, is difficult, and since the great power cannot enlist enough of its own troops to deal with the situation, it has to hire thousands of mercenaries. It occupies the remote land, sends increasing numbers of soldiers, spends enormous amounts of money, and suffers more and more casualties, all of which arouses a good deal of criticism at home. The hawkish cabinet minister in charge of the war remains confident and vainly tries to micromanage the war an ocean away. But finally the great power is unable to put an end to the insurgency. It carries on for many long years until its political will is sapped, and it is forced to abandon the distant country it invaded.

This could be the United States in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s, or it could be what might happen with America’s intervention in Iraq. But it is neither of these. Instead, it is the story of Great Britain’s attempt in the 1770s and 1780s to put down the rebellion of its colonists in North America. Of course, there are enormous differences between Britain’s experience with suppressing rebellion in its empire in the eighteenth century and America’s recent experiences abroad. Nevertheless, the parallels between the British experience in North America over two centuries ago with recent American interventions abroad, especially in Vietnam, are eerie.

In its efforts to suppress the rebellion in North America, Britain, like the United States in Vietnam or in Iraq, could not realistically envisage a simple military victory. Even if it won a military victory, that could be only the first step in the restoration of peaceful relations and stability. Britain’s ultimate goal had to be political, which is why the British shed, in Edmund Burke’s phrase, “iron tears” in their efforts to hold on to their colonies with bullets. Since Britain had to win the allegiance of the colonists in order to bring them back into the empire, the commanders in chief, General William Howe and his brother Admiral Richard, Lord Howe, believed they could not wage a simple war of conquest and terror. They could not bombard the ports and ravage the countryside as Marlborough had ravaged Bavaria earlier in the century. Believing they had to fight a peculiarly delicate kind of war, the Howe brothers saw themselves at the outset as conciliators as much as conquerors. This probably blunted their ability to suppress the rebellion at the outset when the opportunity was greatest. At any rate their hard-line superior in London eventually accused them of a “sentimental manner of making war.”

While the British objective was thus blurred, the rebels’ objective, like that of the North Vietnamese and Vietcong or the Iraqi insurgents today,…

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