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School for Fighting

by Victor Davis Hanson

Conquered into Liberty: Two Centuries of Battles along the Great Warpath that Made the American Way of War, by Eliot A. Cohen (Free Press, 432 pp., $30)

What does the “Western Way of War” — or its subset the “American Way of War” — mean? Most have inferred from the phrase a dynamic military tradition of some 2,500 years that dates back to the dawn of the Greek city-state. Despite frequent detours and occasional dead-ends over the centuries, it bestowed on Europeans — including Alexander the Great, the Successors, Roman legions, Hernán Cortés, and the 19th-century British imperialists — innate advantages over their non-Western enemies.

On any given day, a greater commitment to decisive battle, discipline (as defined by drill and solidarity of rank), superior technology (made possible through devotion to the rational tradition), plentiful supply (which is a dividend of free markets), the more frequent civic audit of consensual government, and emphasis on freedom and individualism might, on the battlefield, trump even enemy advantages in manpower, logistics, location, and generalship.

Americans were late inheritors of that hallowed tradition. In their two centuries of warring, American youth have shown a special knack for mobility, speed, and reliance on equipment — usually attributed both to the uniquely vast spaces of the American continent and to the citizenry’s broad familiarity and comfort with industrial machines and, later, rails and cars. It was far easier for George S. Patton to race across France in the summer of 1944 in easily serviced and plentiful Sherman tanks and GM trucks because tens of thousands of hot rodders in his army had been tinkering with souped-up cars since their early teens. All that, at least, is the conventional picture of the genesis of the American way of war.

Cohen does not necessarily disagree. But he adds that there is more to the American military heritage than the U.S.’s conventional war-fighting and its European antecedents. We should expand the concept of “American” to include pre-revolutionary times, and so include nearly 200 years of frontier fighting, when the sustainability of an English-speaking New England was not guaranteed. In a careful examination of 18th-century warfare along the northeastern seaboard — in the rugged 200-mile corridor of mountains, forests, and lakes from Albany to Montreal dubbed the “Great Warpath” — Cohen sees two less-appreciated sources for the way Americans currently fight. First was the birth of a unique strain of raiding, ambushing, subversion, living off the land, ad hoc alliance-building with indigenous peoples, long-range reconnaissance, and patrolling behind enemy lines.

Second, writes Cohen, was the very fact that these non-traditional tactics were rooted in the distinctiveness of colonial society. They were not strictly mandated from on high by officers steeped in formal military science. Instead, most of the novel ways of defeating savage enemies arose from the ground up — among observant Vermont militiamen, New York tradesmen, New England farmers turned fighters, and local-community defense forces. These all formed the “middle” stratum of the military, which not only was in the best position to adapt to new challenges, but was also able to persuade both subordinates and superiors to follow its new military paradigm. In short, it soon became very American to draw new tactics up on the fly to fit an ever-changing war — and not to worry much about who had figured out what worked best.

Cohen believes that this legacy endures, with the result that, today, the U.S. military still puts great reliance on the folk wisdom accrued on the battlefield by its captains, majors, and colonels, especially in non-conventional theaters, where Special Forces and other light, but highly trained, contingents fight wars of insurgency not conducive to the use of traditional American artillery, armor, and infantry assets. He also argues that Americans did not inherit sacrosanct borders, but learned to protect themselves from all sorts of northern invaders, at first French and Indian, later Canadian and British. Our determination not to have others at any cost cross into our land is thus another artifact of mostly forgotten preemptive northeastern skirmishing.

Cohen provides an evolutionary narrative of the Great Warpath that, over two centuries, saw fighting become more vicious, lethal, and frequent. Britain may have landed more settlers in northeastern North America, but, during the later 17th century, the French absorbed Indian tactics and strategy better than the British did, and were more successful in enlisting indigenous tribes to keep English-speakers confined to the south and east. The resulting strife was horrific and best typified by Louis de Buade de Frontenac’s vicious Indian and French raiders, who swarmed the area around Schenectady killing and burning out English-speaking settlements.

Yet only a half century later, during the equally savage French and Indian War, the British and their American allies had become masters of irregular Last of the Mohicans frontier warfare, and they gradually pushed the French and their dwindling Indian partners ever farther northward. And while British firepower and supply finally overwhelmed the French, the Crown’s forces increasingly relied on a group led by Robert Rogers known as “rangers” (the forebears of our modern Army Rangers), and on other colonial regiments that had learned from the French and Indians how skilled skirmishers could stymie conventional columns.

By the time of the Revolutionary War, Ethan Allen, Richard Montgomery, Philip Schuyler, and Benedict Arnold had incorporated 150 years of colonial-frontier experience, and they quickly sought to win a war of subversion against their former British leaders. Cohen has an original revisionist portrait of a pre-traitorous Benedict Arnold, whose inspired leadership and often unconventional generalship proved as vital to the Americans as he was unappreciated by them. While the Revolutionary War was not won by skirmishing along the Great Warpath, American irregulars kept thousands of British tied down and ensured that New England would not be severed from the other colonies, given its vulnerable proximity to the British stronghold in Canada. And during the War of 1812, imaginative American freelancing officers once more fought the British with an intensity sometimes absent to the south; this not only resulted in the safety of New England, but almost led to the annexation of parts of Canada. Throughout the later 19th century, during periodic flare-ups with England, there was never much chance of British-inspired invasions of the northeastern American border, given the deterrence long established through centuries of savage non-conventional fighting.

Sometimes, in the final paragraphs of his chapters, Cohen makes wide leaps in comparing the Great Warpath to modern American military dynamism. These assertions are often too cursory and thus beg for more evidence of unambiguous continuity. How does one, after all, calibrate colonial skirmishing — in which relatively few fought and were killed — alongside the role of the Western heritage, the Industrial Revolution, the Civil War, and two World Wars in examining America’s military origins? But his larger point, that America had developed a tradition of irregular fighting, is surely convincing. Many of us have not fully appreciated the legacy of fighting Indians, Canadians, French, and British amid the woods of New England. Too frequently we forget that 1600 to 1776 was as long a period as was that between the Declaration of Independence and the Korean War.

Cohen has given an accessible but detailed narrative of a strangely forgotten chapter in American military history. But his chief purpose is didactic, as he warns how uninformed most criticism of the American way of war can become. We are accused of having become, all of a sudden, paranoid, juvenile, and excessively bellicose in responding to attacks on our homeland, and of lashing out like “cowboys and Indians.” Cohen agrees that our way of war is connected to Indian-fighting, but notes that this is not a deviant behavior on our part: It is an act of adherence to our military roots that gives us advantages sometimes not found in the conventional Western military tradition.

In short, Americans have always liked Rangers, and liked even more winning through unconventional means. Surging into Anbar Province required not only classical mastery of firepower, logistics, communications, and discipline, but also street smarts about outfoxing terrorists at close quarters and in shifting alliance with local militias — all best done ad hoc by American captains, majors, and colonels. Colonels, not generals, laid the groundwork for success in Iraq in 2007, when the top brass theretofore had not, and that is likewise typically American.

That Cohen, in the course of a traditional history of early colonial warfare, has advanced a new thesis about how our 18th-century forebears taught later Americans how to fight fire with fire is all the more to his credit. Or, as he puts it: “The American way of war remains a hybrid of European modes and something far more improvisational, far less rule-bound. When Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011, they took part in a tradition of ‘cross-border operations’ stretching back centuries.”

– Mr. Hanson is a military historian and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, and the author of the just-released The End of Sparta.

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