On the night of December 25, 1776, with the winter wind whipsawing the water, with waves ripping across the bows of their leaky boats, and sheets of ice impeding their path, American soldiers rowed across the merciless river, from Pennsylvania to New Jersey. The city of Trenton was their objective. On the evening of December 25, 2005, American soldiers, like their Colonial-era predecessors, will traverse swift, unforgiving currents, but in a distant land. Victory in Operation Iraqi Freedom is their aim. Perhaps this Christmas, when Americans gather to exchange presents with their families and friends, they can take a moment to recall the heroism of those soldiers who helped to win our independence in 1776 by crossing the Delaware River, and pause to reflect on the courage of those soldiers who are preserving it for us in 2005 by crossing the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in Iraq. This simple act must be our gift to them.
FROM TRENTON TO IRAQ
The general outlines of the Continental Army’s striking victory at Trenton are well known. The vivid, often-stirring details are more obscure, but the acclaimed historian David Hackett Fischer has restored them to life in his magisterial book Washington’s Crossing. Published last year to widespread critical acclaim, it was subsequently awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Among its many achievements, the book dispels several myths. It conclusively demonstrates, for example, that the Hessian troops in Trenton were not suffering the after-effects of Christmas festivities when battle commenced. “The German responses to the American attack,” Fischer asserts, “were not those of intoxicated revelers.” This is revisionist history, albeit with a twist. Whereas typical revisionist retellings of the American past denigrate our Founding Fathers and our democratic traditions–Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States comes to mind–Fischer’s volume does not, like them, gratuitously critique George Washington, the men who served under him, or the leaders he answered to in Philadelphia. On the contrary, his book casts them in a more truthful light, with both their human and heroic qualities on full display, and much of their luster restored. Fischer thus revises the revisionists.
What is more, a close study of the Battle of Trenton reveals interesting parallels with Operation Iraqi Freedom–despite their obvious differences in scale. In both campaigns, for instance, the American military launched offensive operations to regain the initiative after a series of setbacks. In the months prior to Trenton, Washington, and his troops had forlornly retreated across New Jersey following their devastating defeat in New York City by a combined British naval and land force under the command of Admiral Richard Howe and his brother, General William Howe. This infamous, dark period in the Revolution elicited Thomas Paine’s rallying cry in pamphlet form, The American Crisis, published in December 1776. The American Army eventually secured a temporary foothold on the western shore of the Delaware River, but its situation remained precarious until Washington turned the tide on the night of December 25, 1776. The liberation of Iraq in 2003, likewise, was an offensive thrust into the Middle East following the horrific attacks of September 11, 2001. It marked the second stage, after Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, of President Bush’s “forward strategy of freedom,” which advocates robust force projection abroad to protect Americans at home.
There is another correlation between 1776 and 2003: In both years the initial entry into enemy territory involved a series of complex river crossings. What many people may not realize is that Washington and his troops traversed the Delaware River a second time, on December 29, and proceeded to win another engagement at Trenton and the Battle of Princeton in early January 1777. Both crossings entailed moving thousands of men and tons of supplies in the dead of winter and required the most sophisticated logistical planning and maneuver warfare of the era, all under the inspired direction of Washington’s staff officers and NCOs.
In the first three weeks of Operation Iraqi Freedom, United States forces crisscrossed the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers during their race to Baghdad. Various accounts record their lightening pace. In early April elements of the 3rd Infantry Division conducted an audacious river crossing over the Euphrates at Hindiyah, in the Karbala Gap, the gateway to the Iraqi capital. Under withering fire, Task Force 3-69 Armor pushed across a bridge in the city. Iraqi sappers detonated several explosives in an unsuccessful attempt to destroy the bridge, while American engineers raced to cut the wires to the remaining charges. Heroic scenes like this were repeated up and down the Tigris and Euphrates Valleys. On April 3, the 82nd Airborne Division seized several bridges over the Euphrates in the city of As Samawah, in South-central Iraq, while fighting off fedayeen Saddam troops. The “Screaming Eagles” of the 101st Airborne crossed the same river further North, at An Najaf. The First Marine Division sped toward Baghdad on the 3rd ID’s right flank. Its 1st Regimental Combat Team crossed the Euphrates at An Nasiriyah and laid down a pontoon bridge North of the city to establish a supply route. The 5th and 7TthH RCTs traversed the Euphrates early in the war, moved across the Tigris at An Numaniyah in early April, and marched on Baghdad from the Southeast.
A DEMOCRATIC APPROACH TO WAR
A third element integral to events in Trenton and Iraq is a hallowed American tradition: a democratic approach to waging war. General George Washington embodied this principle throughout the winter campaign of 1776-77. During the numerous councils of war that he convened, he maintained an open mind, solicited advice, and respected the opinions of his officers, all in contrast to the demeanor of his British counterpart in the field, General Charles Cornwallis. David Hackett Fischer describes a council held immediately following the victory at the second Battle of Trenton on December 29: “This American gathering was more open and mixed than Corwallis’s small aristocratic circle. Local citizens were invited to attend and speak freely. Nobody doubted that Washington was in charge. His officers respected him, but their conversation was not constrained by deference. The discussion was freewheeling, and its tone suggested that Washington wanted it that way.” The upshot of this meeting: the decision to strike out for Princeton, which was another American tactical success. By the same token, and in keeping with the democratic tenet of civilian authority over the military, Washington updated the Continental Congress with a steady stream of reports, dispatches and letters. On the morning of December 29, as his troops were preparing to return to New Jersey, Washington informed John Hancock, the president of the Continental Congress, that “I am just setting out, to attempt a second crossing of the Delaware … It will be attended with much fatigue and difficulty, on account of ice, which will neither allow us to cross on foot, or give us easy passage with boats.”
President George W. Bush, like all presidents since Washington, has abided by the touchstone of democratic accountability to the American people during wartime. He highlighted the issue of Iraq during the 2002 Congressional elections. In the autumn of 2002 he submitted a resolution to the House and Senate seeking authorization to depose Saddam Hussein’s regime, which was approved by a wide margin. Iraq was one of the primary issues during the 2004 presidential election. The Bush administration’s conduct of the war is subjected to constant media scrutiny. The president must answer to the American people at all times. At its best, this relentless democratic audit serves as a self-correcting mechanism in the prosecution of this and all wars, enabling the president and his military advisors to stay on course when their plan is succeeding and adjust fire when it runs into difficulty. It is also the modern expression of an ancient democratic tradition that stretches far back beyond George Washington, to ancient Athens, where the city-state’s democratic Assembly monitored the progress of battles large and small, as the historian Victor David Hanson illustrates in his recent study of the Peloponnesian War, A War Like No Other.
AN ETHIC OF WARFARE
There are still more parallels to consider. The Battle of Trenton and Operation Iraqi Freedom redressed the strategic balance in favor of the United States. On the vital issue of leadership, George Washington and George W. Bush displayed daring foresight. And, an American ethic of warfare born in the Revolution–which David Hackett Fischer describes at length in his book and which John Adams called a “policy of humanity”–inspires our conduct in Iraq, as the American Army repairs thousands of hospitals, clinics, schools, power plants, factories, sewers, canals and roads all over the country. In other words, the impulse of the American Revolution–liberation, not conquest–resounds in Iraq today. Nothing demonstrates this more clearly than the success of the recent democratic elections on December 15.
The American ethic of warfare applies to river crossings, too. As soon as the initial combat phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom came to a close, the U.S. Army shifted gears from wresting control of bridges to rebuilding them. When the 3rd Brigade Combat Team of the 3rd Infantry Division rolled up into its area of operations in Diyala province in February of 2005, it identified one of the key elements of the local infrastructure to be the As Sindiyah float bridge across the Tigris River, which connects Diyala to Salah ah Din province in the Sunni Triangle. Civilians in the region depend upon this crucial transportation link in many ways. It was, alas, in a state of disrepair. The bridge had been in the water since the early 1980s and several spans and pontoons had sunk to the Tigris River bottom. Lieutenant-Colonel Scott Spellmon, the commander of the 3-3 Brigade Troops Battalion, which manages several hundred reconstruction projects for the 3rd BCT, sprung into action. As he recounts the story: “This was one of the first projects the 3-3 BTB took from start to finish. And, although it was a relatively inexpensive project, it made a large impact for us and the As Sindiyah community early in our deployment. We worked with the Diyala Director-General of Roads and Bridges to find local welders and materials to repair the sunken pontoons, and we coordinated for U.S. divers to bring the pontoons up from the river bottom. All in all, the project took a month to complete, and it showed the civilian community Coalition engineers working side-by-side with local engineers and tradesman to repair a piece of infrastructure that was vital to them. I still recall the day the bridge reopened and traffic flowed again–the positive response and the gratitude of the As Sindiyah community were overwhelming.” Today, thanks to Lieutenant-Colonel Spellmon and his team of soldiers and engineers, hundreds of Iraqi men, women, and children are crossing the Tigris River every day.
One of the most powerful links between Trenton and Iraq that speaks to us this Christmas may be the immutable qualities of the American soldier: courage, resiliency, patriotism. In 1776 there was artillery Sergeant Joseph White, a New England Yankee who emerges as one of the heroes of David Hackett Fischer’s book. At the first Battle of Trenton, after his own cannon broke an axle, he joined several infantrymen from Virginia (commanded by Lieutenant James Monroe, who was severely wounded that day) to capture a Hessian battery, and then turned one of the guns around to fire on the retreating troops. At the second Battle of Trenton, on January 2, 1777, Sergeant White and his fellow soldiers fought off waves of advancing Hessian grenadiers and British infantry with canister shot and cannonade at a small stone bridge over Assunpink Creek, until the enemy retreated for the last time under the cover of nightfall. What motivated this patriot? David Hackett Fischer records Sergeant White’s own words: “I wanted victory complete.”
American soldiers, marines, sailors, and airmen seek the same goal in the Global War on Terrorism. In Operation Iraqi Freedom they have proved themselves worthy of Sergeant White’s legacy. U.S. and Coalition troops are carrying out countless missions alongside and over rivers in Iraq. They are crossing bridges in convoys of Humvees, guarding riverbanks in M-1 Abrams tanks, flying in Apache helicopter formations up and down the Tigris River to neutralize terrorist operations, and conducting riverine patrols on the Euphrates to interdict arms smuggling around Baghdad. American soldiers in Iraq are sustaining the spirit of December 25, 1776. This Christmas, let us remember them.
–Joseph Morrison Skelly, a college history professor in New York City and sergeant in the Army Reserves, recently completed a tour of duty in Operation Iraqi Freedom with the 411th Civil Affairs Battalion in support of the 3rd BCT of the 3rd ID. He crossed the Tigris River numerous times.