J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, February 19, 2007

George W. Offers Encouragement to Insurgents

In observing Presidents’ Day at Mount Vernon today, George W. Bush said:

On the field of battle, Washington's forces were facing a mighty empire, and the odds against them were overwhelming. The ragged Continental Army lost more battles than it won, suffered waves of desertions, and stood on the brink of disaster many times. Yet George Washington's calm hand and determination kept the cause of independence and the principles of our Declaration alive. . . . In the end, General Washington understood that the Revolutionary War was a test of wills, and his will was unbreakable.
Obviously, he was trying to make a case for the Bush-Cheney administration’s own will/stubbornness. But he’s apparently so incapable of seeing the world from anyone else’s perspective that he didn’t notice that his historical analogy offers more encouragement for people who feel they’re “facing a mighty empire” in an uphill battle for their independence and principles today. In other words, the people fighting Bush.


Anonymous said...

And America is pulling out of Iraq for roughly the same reasons as the British withdrawal from America: Cost-Benefit Analysis.

For the British the Revolution was more costly economically than it was worth.

For Americans pushing for troop withdrawal, it's a cost of human lives. Maybe also economic. I would bet that's a big part of it, but I don't know for certain.

There is a difference between today's insurgents who fight democracy and the Continental Army. Today's insurgents strap bombs to their bodies and blow themselves up in the name of their cause. I have never heard a single story about American Revolutionaries strapping bombs to their bodies and blowing themselves up. You're more knowledgeable in the history of the Revolution than I ever will be. So please, correct me if I'm wrong, by drawing this glaring distinction.

Our Revolutionary War cost a lot of lives, in order that men should have the hope to live free of tyranny. Obviously society has evolved from then until now, and it is still in need of improvement. The point is, in our society there is at least a chance for improvement. Today's insurgents are clearly distinguishable. They cause a lot of casualties in order that men should live under tyranny.

Criticize Bush until you're blue in the face. At the end of the day, you can choose your side. I know which one I'm on.

J. L. Bell said...

Thank you for your anonymous comments. (I'm always more impressed with people who identify themselves in some way, even if it's just a pseudonymous handle.)

You're right that the British government eventually pulled out of the American war because its voting public found the conflict too long and costly. A new government was elected, a peace treaty signed. The British Empire continued to grow without its major North American colonies. Meanwhile, the new state also grew, and after many difficult decades became the most valuable ally of the old empire.

Of course there were no "bombs" in the 18th century of the sort that armies and terrorists can use now; the technology wasn't advanced enough. The most destructive weapon a person could then use against a large population was fire in a crowded city. And the most notable person to use that weapon was a Scottish painter who allied himself with the Americans, took money from U.S. diplomat Silas Deane, and tried to burn down a British shipyard and other sites. His alias was John the Painter, and Jessica Warner's book The Incendiary tells his story.

There are some similarities between the insurgency in America in 1774-83 and the insurgency in Iraq today. Most notably, both are aimed at armies from overseas. In the earlier case, that army was sent by the government that most of the population was loyal to before the conflict began. In the current case, that army was unquestionably invasive, making nationalistic opposition to a "mighty empire" more fervent.

There are obvious differences, too. In the earlier case, the insurgency was united and aimed for a greater degree of democracy than before (except for enslaved blacks). In today's case, the insurgents have a mix of goals; some are clearly theocratic while most seem motivated by nationalism and tribalism.

In the 1770s and 1780s there were two major sides to the conflict, clearly delineated. Today in Iraq there are at least three major coalitions in the fighting, and many smaller factions and groups, making both generalizations and strategies less tenable.

Today's attacks on the civilian population have no equivalent in the 18th century war, except in the western conflict between the U.S. and Native American allies of the Crown. (The tactic of suicide bombing isn't really the issue; if insurgents or terrorists could deliver explosives on the same target as accurately with missiles, they would gladly use those instead.)

In the 1770s, the "tyranny" before the war wasn't really that oppressive (except for enslaved blacks). In 2003, there was an obvious tyrant in Baghdad.

Unfortunately, in overthrowing that tyrant the U.S. government made several missteps that sapped its legitimacy for the rest of the world, and eventually for much its own population. The administration claimed it wished to spread democracy, but through a constitutional fluke had taken office without being democratically elected. It claimed to champion human rights, but abridged those rights domestically and overseas, both before and during the war. It claimed danger from specific weapons and terrorists, but held up faulty evidence. All those actions and policies made the already tough job of replacing another nation's government even harder. Nationalism is always a hardy force.

George W. Bush's remarks imply that he sees the crucial differences between the U.S. of A. (then and now) and its enemies as belief in universal principles and willpower. He doesn't seem to recognize that the U.S. of A.'s enemies also believe in universal principles, and are also dedicated.

What should really matter are what those principles are, and how well the nation adheres to them. I think the basic values of the U.S. of A.—natural/human rights, democracy, rule of law, etc.—are more desirable than Puritan theocracy and tribalism. But I don't see the Bush-Cheney administration upholding those values well, and neither does most of the world. I always want to choose the side of American values, and think it's a pity that this American government has not.

Another History Blog said...

"I always want to choose the side of American values, and think it's a pity that this American government has not."

Well said, J.L.

Robert S. Paul said...

Something else people seem to forget is that shedding your own blood for a cause gives it value. The independence and democracy in Iraq was handed to them by an outside force.

They don't care about liberty or freedom, because they didn't fight for it (much like many people who support things like the USAPATRIOT Act).

J. Jenikens said...


Maybe I don't get enough sleep. Maybe I'm just an early riser. I thought you would have posted the links I submitted last night. Then again, the hour was late, and as I write this, I realize that the hour is still early for many.

Is hindsight 20/20? Or could it be that American Values are more complex than can be captured in a phrase like "Rule of Law?" You say that you "want to choose the side of American values..." but American values are are a paradox. Paradox is not bad per se. But coming to grips with the paradox is a lot more difficult than marching in a parade and feeling good about it.

When people start to realize the paradox of American values, confronting the paradox, struggling with the paradox, and accepting the paradox, then they can wave a flag with a deeper sense of pride.

Being the tenacious curmudgeon that I am, here they are again. Maybe I should try to get more sleep.


U.S. Policy Toward Iraq

US Mideast Policy and the Syrian Occupation of Lebanon

Syria's Foreign Relations: Iraq

Iraq and the Palestinian Conflict

Syria's Foreign Relations: The Palestinian Authority

Confronting Syrian Support for Terrorist Groups

Explaining the Arab Democracy Deficit: Part I

Explaining the Arab Democracy Deficit, Part II: American Policy

J. L. Bell said...

J. Jenikens, I appreciate the links, but I don't want this blog to become a forum for debating Middle East policy. Comparisons between the Revolutionary period and today (or other times) fall within its scope.

Your first comment with links arrived in my emailbox past midnight last night, and the second with those and more links (posted above) shortly after 9:00 this morning. So I hope you got your eight hours of sleep in between.

I see that all the links you've provided come from the Middle East Intelligence Bulletin, described by Sourcewatch as "a free monthly publication jointly produced by the hardline Zionist Middle East Forum and the pro-Israel United States Committee for a Free Lebanon."

I looked at the top article, which features Saddam Hussein's defecting son-in-law Hussein Kamel. It says that he brought news that the Iraqi WMD program was more advanced than the West had thought. In fact, Kamel first told his debriefers that the WMD program was stagnant. I believe that only after it became clear that they weren't prepared to believe him and there was advantage in saying the opposite did he make the statements touted in this article. Of course that produced a confusing situation for intelligence analysts. Hindsight in this case is key to grasping the value of Kamel's information and the article based on it.

I agree that "coming to grips with the paradox [of American policy] is a lot more difficult than marching in a parade and feeling good about it." The Bush-Cheney administration, like many other governments in the U.S. of A. and elsewhere, would obviously prefer citizens to feel good about themselves rather than to wrestle with paradox. Hence Bush's recent invocation of George Washington's willpower, as if his story could carry only one message.