James Holmes

3 Lessons From Saratoga

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James Holmes

3 Lessons From Saratoga

The Naval Diplomat’s guide to the Battle of Saratoga.

3 Lessons From Saratoga
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

This has been a geography-intensive two weeks, ranging from America’s island redoubt of Hawai’i to the rocky redoubts of Vermont and upstate New York. The Naval Diplomat returned from Honolulu only to re-embark immediately for a “staff ride” to Bennington, Vermont, and Saratoga, New York. Stripped to its basics, a staff ride means a group of people — in this case the fine young cannibals of our Strategy Department — takes the time to study some important campaign, then decamps to the site of that campaign for a few days to see how events unfolded in their actual setting and debate what the protagonists might have done better.

We southern New Englanders tend to look at the Revolutionary War through the lens of Boston in 1775-1776. But Bennington and Saratoga are the battlegrounds that decided the fate of Great Britain’s Hudson River campaign of 1777 — and in turn determined whether New England would be cut off from the rest of the colonies. British commanders’ idea was that controlling the Hudson River would seal off that troublesome region, isolating a hotbed of rebellion while simplifying the problem of pacifying the colonies. Using internal waters to bar internal transit made perfect sense for a sea power like Great Britain. East-west movement between New England and New York was hard at the best of times in those days before plentiful bridges.

Deploying military power could make it even harder. Accordingly, a land army under General Johnny Burgoyne would move south from Canada, moving by water when possible, marching overland when not. A second host under General William Howe was assigned to venture upriver from New York City. The two forces would join up at Albany, Britain would command the Hudson and lakes, and, if you were British or an American loyalist (booo…hiss!), all would be right with the world. To make a long story short, a hybrid force of Continental Army troops and militiamen commanded by General Horatio Gates obstructed Burgoyne’s passage near Saratoga, and the battle was on. Read the book.

With that thumbnail sketch of the history behind Saratoga, here are my major lessons learned, or relearned, from this week. One, the occasional attitude adjustment is helpful. We aren’t tacticians at the Naval War College. That being said, acquainting yourself with the realm of battles and engagements — or reacquainting yourself, in the case of one-time warfighters such as yours truly — is inseparable from what we do. Big thinkers at the political and strategic levels have a bad habit of writing checks that tacticians can’t cash. We shouldn’t unwittingly encourage them to do so by concentrating solely on politics and strategy. An unexecutable strategy is no strategy at all.

To take a pop-culture example, think about the emperor Commodus (Joachim Phoenix) in Gladiator, who informs General Aelius Maximus Decimus Meridius (Russell Crowe) that military life is simple: “you give your orders, the orders are obeyed, and the battle is won.” Nothing could be easier, right? Commodus’ is an easy habit of mind for us in the ivory tower — or, worse, in the halls of government, within earshot of talking heads but remote from the action — to fall into. Such complacency is important to combat.

Two, war has been absent from North America so long that we no longer think of our continent as potentially contested turf. War is a bad thing that happens elsewhere on the globe. The lakes of upstate New York are for water sports, right? Well, yes. But before that they were part of a strategic, mainly water route connecting New York City with Quebec. Once it chased off George Washington’s army and occupied New York City in 1776, Britain held both termini of that inland waterway. And it had fleets of merchantmen and warships that could ferry men and materiel upriver as far as Albany. That was a geostrategic advantage of major proportions.

Historical forgetfulness is a bad thing in our line of work. North America has been a theater of war and could be one again someday. Visiting sites like Saratoga in the company of land-warfare specialists helps us recover that long-lost sensibility.

Three, terrain matters. The geospatial dimension of soldiering is something that eludes naval and air practitioners unless we work at it. We don’t intuitively grasp how geographic features shape martial endeavors. That’s because we operate in different elements. The sea is a featureless plain except along the sea/shore interface. The sky is an undifferentiated battlespace except at low altitude. Vector mechanics rules for seamen and airmen. Ground-pounders see their lines of movement deflected by hills, defiles, forests, you name it.

And yet there are similarities among the land, sea, and aerial domains. On surveying the ground at Saratoga, it struck me that a knoll situated amid a plain — and, in 1777, topped by a Redcoat redoubt — resembles an island. Its value stems from its position near important routes or strategic features. If fortified, its defensibility depends on its natural conformation — height, steepness, ruggedness — and on whether it can be resupplied to withstand a siege. And much as the fleet and its bases are interdependent in sea combat — the fleet needs a haven, the seaport some at-sea protection — a land redoubt and mobile forces are interdependent in land combat.

So I hereby forgive Alfred Thayer Mahan — to a point — for spending his last major work examining land warfare in Europe, and drawing comparisons between sea and shore, rather than encapsulating his big thoughts about sea power. There’s some there.

And lastly, the combatants put a big theoretical proposition to the test during the Hudson campaign. Here the geospatial dimension comes up again. Namely, could British commanders really seal off a long, distended defense perimeter — the rivers and lakes, and the ground separating them — with the manpower and assets on hand? Think back to your freshman calculus. Integral calculus implies that to defend a long curve, you have to be strong at infinitely many points along that curve. If points along the perimeter remain unguarded, adversaries can slip through. If you manage to man the entire line but have to disperse manpower to do so, even a weaker antagonist can amass superior might at some point and punch through.

It’s hard to see how the Redcoats could have policed the entire Quebec-New York route with enough striking forces to spare to fight Washington. In short, perimeter defense is a taxing, exasperating enterprise with uncertain promise and steep opportunity costs.

Two days, four takeaways? Not bad.