A History of the American Military and Its Fighting Men

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), December 31, 2006 | Go to article overview

A History of the American Military and Its Fighting Men


Byline: William Anthony Hay, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

War marks a defining theme in American history from colonial days. If some observers see the United States as a commercial republic or that "city on a hill" providing an example of liberty and self-government, even a cursory glance also reveals a distinguished martial tradition that shaped the country's identity. Public memory focuses on great battles and the commanders who won them, primarily during the Civil War and World War II.

On a more sophisticated level, military historians following the late Russell Weigley describe an American way of war in which a combination of mass and mobility backed by limitless industrial capacity secures total victory. Such an approach focusing on part of the story, however important, leaves aside whatever is beyond its parameters and gives a misleading perspective on what actually happened.

"Don't Tread on Me" tells a familiar story from a different perspective that fills gaps left by the grand narrative of American military history. H.W. Crocker takes the experience of fighting men as a starting point for wider observations about history and institutions.

Americans, to borrow the title of James Webb's book on the Scotch-Irish, were "born fighting." Securing land and liberty from the earliest colonial settlements drew Americans into combat, and their responses to the challenge of war at different times influenced other aspects of life. Liberty in America meant the freedom to acquire land and wealth, and the consequent dynamic of expansion set colonists and their descendents onto a collision course with anything in their way. War became an inescapable part of national development.

Indian fighting set the pattern for American fighting men from the early 17th century. Wars in New England and along the Virginia frontier kept colonists on the mettle while forcing them to adapt European techniques to local conditions. Indigenous peoples in the Americas had a dynamic, competitive political system of their own with different polities struggling for dominance. Their culture prized bravery and martial skill, an outlook that earned respect from Europeans.

Conflict with Indians rebounded into the colonies themselves, as Mr. Crocker's discussion of Bacon's Rebellion in Virginia demonstrates. While Sir William Berkeley sought to minimize conflict with Indians as the colony grew, his cousin Nathaniel Bacon demanded an aggressive policy and rallied landless settlers behind him. English intervention ended a quarrel that had set prudence against ambition and illuminated the workings of colonial self-government that would become more important over time.

Rivalry between Britain and France made North America a theatre of war that pitted colonists against the French and their Indian allies. The wars mainly involved small groups operating over great distances, as in Edward Braddock's abortive campaign in the Ohio Valley. Braddock declared as he died, "another time we shall know how better to deal with them," and George Washington who led a Virginia contingent took to heart the lessons of frontier war in America.

Lacking their own Indian allies, colonists learned to match their field craft and formed ranger units. Mr. Crocker argues throughout the book that Americans always excelled at small unit operations, and the ethos of the rangers spread amongst fighting men generally. Audacity offered a potent force multiplier under a whole range of conditions that served Americans well. General Thomas Gage would observe after the battle of Bunker Hill that "the rebels are not the despicable rabble too many have supposed them to be," and underestimating the opposition became a fatal error for the British.

Struggles for land, conflicts with Indians and questions involving self-government all lay behind the American War for Independence. Colonists who had fought under the Crown now faced British regulars, and Mr. …

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