Sunday, February 03, 2008

Patriot's Dream

Two hundred and thirty years ago the remnants of an army huddled in abject misery outside of Philadelphia. Their commanding general, George Washington, had been unable to prevent the British army's capture of the rebel capital, and as the British and Hessian mercenary troops had settled into relatively comfortable winter quarters, Washington occupied a defensive position in a series of low hills a day's march northwest of the city. There in that heretofore unknown corner of the wilderness called Valley Forge, Washington's men built a village of dirt-floored shacks, and endured a winter hardship that ranks with those suffered in Russia by Napoleon's army and the Wermacht in succeeding centuries.

The Continental Army in the winter of 1777--78 was an army in name only. Numbering scarcely more than ten thousand men when they arrived in Valley Forge just before Christmas of 1777, Washington's command was shoeless, clothed in little more than rags, and short-supplied to the point of starvation. At any one time during that winter, the sick and ineffective outnumbered the soldiers who could have responded to a British attack on their position. Nearly a quarter of the army died of disease, exposure, or starvation that winter. Nearly that many simply walked away from camp and went home. That the vastly superior British army did not march out of Philadelphia and end the American Revolution with one sharp, decisive fight is one of the greatest missed opportunities in the history of armed conflict. Truth be told, that missed opportunity was but the latest in a three year series of inexplicable failures by the British to press home a number of attacks, any one of which would have surely resulted in the destruction of the rebel army and the capture and hanging of George Washington.

Had the British destroyed the insurgent force encamped at Valley Forge, the second civil war fought in by Europeans on the continent of North America would have sputtered to an end like a flame consuming the last bit of wax at the nub of a candle.

Wait..., "second civil war?" Yes, and last (to date). The war we refer to as the American Civil War was in fact a seccessionist war--fought between states. Probably the most accurate name for the 1861--65 conflict would be the War for Southern Independence. I make no judgement here as to the justness of the Southern Cause--I merely argue for a more accurate definition. The war we refer to as the American Revolution was more truly a civil war, fought between colonial factions for and against British rule. The first civil war (Prince Phillip's War), fought a century earlier, pitted British-American colonists and allied Native American tribes against a coalition of other Native American tribes attempting to throw the European invasion of North America back into the sea apon whence it had come. Confused? You should be. History is not an easy subject like, say, astro-physics. But, I digress...

Here's the rest of the story. Later in the Spring of 1778, meddling by arm-chair generals in Parliament resulted in, not a war-ending offensive to crush the reeling rebel remnant, but a British retreat from Philadelphia back to a defensive position in New York. The opportunistic French, at the lobby of the American emmissary in Paris, Benjamin Franklin, had entered into the war with a formal alliance against their long-time British adversaries. The British were now reacting instead of acting. Bolstered by a French army, and, more importantly, a French fleet, Washington was finally strong enough to take advantage of another British miscue--this time at Yorktown in 1781--and defeated the bulk of the British army in America. The rest is, as they say, history.

The moral of this story is clear to anyone with an appreciation of the moments of historical opportunity upon which nations have acted, or failed to act. The United States is at one of those so-called strategic inflection points just now. Do we have the will to press home our advantage, or shall we fritter away strategic opportunity in the name of political expediency and at the whim of hucksters wrapped in the amorphous and undefined cloth of "Change."

When you think about the course you would have our nation take, bring to mind the image of a young patriot standing barefoot in the snow on a Pennsylvania hillside. For what and for whom did he believe he was fighting and sacrificing? Why did he stay at Valley Forge, and endure hardship unimaginable to most of us today, when so many of his fellow citizen soldiers had given up on the fight and gone home?

When you honestly reach your own answer to that question, you will know what to do.
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