James Holmes

Nathanael Greene: The American Insurgent

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James Holmes

Nathanael Greene: The American Insurgent

One hopes there are unorthodox leaders like Greene in the military today.

Best part of last month's Medal of Honor ceremony in Newport: just before the proceedings commenced, the rumble of engines announced the arrival of a patriotic biker gang. Thirty or so grizzled, tattooed, ponytail-wearing Harley riders paraded past Island Cemetery, around through the main gate, and up to Chief Brady's gravesite. They dismounted, listened, applauded. Afterward they saddled up and left as solemnly as they had come. Apparently a stately procession of this sort has become customary at such events. Long may it remain so. That's lump-in-the-throat-inducing stuff.

My black pug Chloe and I have been road dogs this week, wending our way from the New England homestead down to the shores of the Chesapeake Bay. Travelers from Providence to Dover and beyond have beheld the awesomeness of my 2002 Toyota Echo. Memorial Day came to mind yesterday while Chloe and I were rolling down I-95. Near Clinton, Connecticut we spied a band of Patriot Guard Riders — could've been the same cohort from Newport, for all I know — festooned with the Stars and Stripes and U.S. Army, Navy, and of course Marine flags.

A quick Google reveals that the Patriot Guards are a volunteer honor guard that pays its respects at veterans' funerals. They've also made headlines by rallying counter-demonstrations when it appears picketers from Westboro Baptist Church are going to show up at an event. Best I can tell, the fine folks from Westboro believe God is punishing America's sins when a soldier falls in battle, or when a natural disaster strikes to lethal effect. So they demonstrate. Hoo-boy. The good news is that bikers show up to form a human barrier, keeping the, er, faithful a decent distance from the services.

That's what you call deterrence. Ride on.

Speaking of patriots, one thing I like about the Boston-New York-New Jersey corridor (among the many things I loathe, like five-mile traffic backups) is that it takes you past Nathanael Greene's home. Greene is Coventry, Rhode Island's favorite son and an American original. A self-taught soldier — a fighting Quaker, no less — he learned the martial profession largely through studying the classics of Greek and Roman antiquity. His efforts presaged George C. Marshall's famous maxim that you can't comprehend strategy without reading Thucydides.

When Redcoat forces lay siege to Boston in May 1775, Greene found himself elevated from private to major general in the Rhode Island Army of Observation. How's that for upward mobility? But his promotion was well-earned. Greene became George Washington's most trusted lieutenant. After Horatio Gates lost his army in the South, Washington dispatched Greene with a small host to rekindle the revolutionary cause.

His army led Lord Cornwallis on a merry chase through the Carolinas. Greene never got the battlefield triumph any commander steeped in the classics craves. But he did end up holding the contested ground when Cornwallis quit the Carolinas for Virginia, and for eventual defeat at Yorktown. Greene thus helped turn the world upside down.

To me his finest trait was his unorthodoxy. It's commonplace to stereotype Western warfare as a sort of plodding, unimaginative, force-on-force affair. Not so for Greene, who admitted cheerfully that few generals had "run oftener, or more lustily than I have done." But he gave a preview of Mao by adding that "I have taken care not to run too far and commonly have run as fast forward as backward, to convince our enemy that we were like a crab, that could run either way."

One hopes the U.S. armed services still try to groom unconventional thinkers like that. If so, our future remains bright.

Mmm … crab.