This week Naval War College seminars vault across two millennia of history, from the age of Pericles to the age of George Washington. This segment of our inquiry makes it manifestly clear that the Strategy & War Course is not a history course per se but a venture in applied history. It’s our effort to use strategic theory and certain grand themes to ransack history for insights into how to conduct competitive politics and strategy, and win. Few standard-issue history classes would essay such a leap across time, cultures, and technologies. But it works. The constants in human enterprises like politics and warfare span ephemeral differences, making our eclectic approach go.
Far be it from me to suggest that war is funny, but the jokes almost write themselves during War of American Independence week. Whatever Congress’s wisdom at directing Washington to hold New York City against British expeditionary forces, the Father of Our Country could have—and probably should have, except that the Almighty watches over fools, drunks, and the United States of America—lost his Continental Army to British arms in 1776. Washington first chose to make a stand on Long Island. Only nightfall and a freak storm provided cover for his overmatched army to board boats and escape to Manhattan. There again the British used their undisputed command of the sea to land forces at places of their choosing. That’s the advantage of maritime supremacy. So overpowering were the Redcoats, and so unsteady the colonial troops under fire, that Washington publicly despaired.
The Continental Army again managed to flee, crossing the Hudson River into New Jersey. Thus opened a heroic phase in the Revolution. As Washington withdrew farther into New Jersey, he had pamphleteer Thomas Paine to chronicle the campaign’s progress in epic prose and, occasionally, publicly needle British commanders like General William Howe. Meanwhile, British forces so offended New Jersey residents with their foraging practices that the populace rose against them. Royal troops stripped the countryside bare to feed and supply themselves. That spontaneous revolt conjures up images of the Jersey Shore crowd rising up to battle an invading horde … with insurgent commando Snooki toting an M-16!! Those would truly be times to try men’s souls.
Washington’s deeds during that first year of war occupy much the same place in America’s founding mythos that Mao Zedong’s Long March holds in Chinese Communist Party lore. Both rebel leaders oversaw armies that barely eluded encirclement-and-suppression campaigns; both bucked up morale so their followers could endure privation; both shepherded their beleaguered forces into relatively safe havens in the hinterland, there to regroup and regenerate combat power; both attained a strategic equilibrium with stronger foes before leading their revolutionary forces on to victory. Washington’s only mistake was failing to write up his strategy the way Mao transcribed his approach into On Protracted War and other works. Otherwise Washington might furnish our standard text on revolutionary warfare.
Such feats represent the groundwork on which nations are built, and the stuff of lasting fame for practitioners. (I mean Washington and Mao, not Snooki.) History rhymes.