Now British forces are ending combat operations in Iraq. I always thought it was remarkable to see U.S. troops in Iraq serving alongside British units, some of whose service histories must go back to the struggle against American revolutionaries in the 1770s and 1780s. The two armies have fought together several times since 1917, of course, but the current conflict in Iraq is, to me, the most reminiscent of that first one between British redcoats and American rebels.
At that time Britain was acknowledged to be wealthiest, most technologically advanced nation in what we now call the “West,” and its people enjoyed the highest known degree of liberty. British colonists in America agreed: From 1756 to 1763 patriotic Americans had fought side-by-side with British troops to defeat the despised French and Indians and expand the British Empire. When London sought to recover some of the costs of that war by raising taxes and tightening administrative control over the colonies, the reaction from the colonists — boycotts, demonstrations, petitions, and open defiance of the laws — seemed utterly excessive. The colonists also objected to King George’s measures to protect his American Indian subjects from encroachments by white settlers. They accused the king of trying to enslave them, while they themselves held Africans in bondage. What could be more absurd? Clearly Britain was justified in sending troops to control these American insurgents — who were aided by terrorist radicals from Spain, Prussia, Bavaria, Italy, Poland — and especially France.
There was no 9/11 attack to confuse the British public with. But there was the threat of the French, Britain’s habitual enemies just across the Channel. Once the American rebels allied themselves with the hated French, the morality of the war seemed plain to many in Britain. The disciplined British soldiers who shipped out to suppress the American rebellion were told that they were vindicating not just their national interest but the cause of liberty. Washington, the principal insurgent leader, was getting help from foreign jihadists who would overthrow the legitimate governments of Europe if they got their way. Soldiers must fight in America in order that Britons could sleep safely at home.
The British public was not especially enthusiastic about this war, and some were openly supportive of the Americans. (Edmund Burke spoke frequently in Parliament in support of the American cause. Our modern-day conservatives claim this bleeding heart as their ideological founder.) Britain saw the Continental Congress regime as illegitimate, of course, but did not rely on military force alone to win back the colonies. No, the British created local volunteer forces to maintain order; these were called Loyalists rather than Sunni militia. Britain formed a special relationship with oppressed minorities seeking self-determination; these were called Iroquois and Cherokee rather than Kurds and Assyrians. And they sought to exploit the regional differences between the northern and southern colonies, promising, for instance, freedom to African-American slaves who enlisted in the British army.
War supporters had plenty of evidence of “progress”: The Americans were often defeated in battle, and the few large cities mostly became “Green Zones.” Canada, Florida, the West Indies, and Bermuda all stayed loyal, and rebel invasions were defeated in Quebec and East Florida. Benjamin Franklin’s son, William, remained loyal to the king. A rebel general, Benedict Arnold, returned to British service; many other prominent pre-war leaders sided with Britain. Philadelphia, the Fallujah of rebel resistance, was occupied by redcoats while Washington’s insurgents languished at Valley Forge.
The Americans were also guilty, in the eyes of British hawks, of both incompetence and viciousness. Extremist bands ambushed isolated redcoat patrols and terrorized civilian contractors. When the American paramilitaries faced the British in open battle, the rebels used snipers to kill officers — a barbaric innovation. They tortured civilians, murdered more than a few, and stole their homes and land. The rebels even used a rattlesnake as an emblem, as if they were proud of their viciousness. One could argue that most of the Americans were not like these extremists — but that kind of appeasement of extremism would show a lack of resolve and a failure to support the troops and the king.
Sectarianism — Catholics vs. Protestants — was perhaps less of an issue than it had been before the rebellion, but sectionalism — north vs. south, seaboard vs. frontier — led to bloody, chaotic feuds between rival factions who appeared irreconcilable, especially in the South. Perhaps the initial British war policy had been misguided; even some British officers were prepared to concede this. But clearly, in light of the chaos threatening to overwhelm the whole country, the British had to stay in America to restore peace and rebuild. Besides, if Britain pulled out, France (Iran) would soon control the unstable government.
The Americans could never wholly defeat the British army, the most powerful in the world. After eight years of fighting, though, and after French support threatened British interests elsewhere, Britain finally threw in the towel and ended the unpopular war. The surrender at Yorktown, Va., was the occasion for calling an end to it all, even though Britain still had other troops in North America.
The pullout was abrupt, and thousands of Loyalists had to be relocated onto British territory. London hoped to see the new American government fail, and it kept troops stationed on the American borders, in defiance of the peace treaty, in order to be ready for anything.
British predictions of disaster for the new regime were nearly fulfilled. An Indian uprising in the Ohio valley (Pontiac’s Rebellion) wiped out an entire American army. The “provinces” of the new nation could not agree on a final form of government for 16 years, and even then many Americans claimed that the Constitution was unjust. Rural bands headed by “tribal leaders” took up arms against the federal government in Massachusetts (Shays’ Rebellion) and western Pennsylvania (Whiskey Rebellion). The Americans even fought their former allies, the French, on the high seas and in the West Indies.
Despite Washington’s moderation, presidential politics became so factionalized that supporters of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson each predicted doom and tyranny if the other candidate were elected in 1800. (No one could have guessed that the two men would later renew their friendship, or that both would die on July 4, 1826, exactly fifty years after the Declaration of Independence.)
The United States made countless mistakes and courted disaster repeatedly in its early years, and its commitment on paper to liberty and human rights was often severely tested. While Britain and Europe came to view slavery as a crime, the Americans dithered, protecting slavery in federal law while abolishing it in many states, and phasing out the African slave trade while also expanding the use of slavery to produce cotton for the global economy.
History never really repeats itself, and these comparisons should be taken skeptically. All the same, I consider it fair to say that we and our British allies are the redcoats in Iraq, well-meaning but obtuse, and unable to admit that our presence is the Iraqis’ principal grievance. Britain has gotten the message, but I predict that we Americans will fight on until the cost is deemed too great — a point we somehow haven’t managed to reach yet. Then, like the redcoats before us, we will pull out abruptly, with resentment and cynical unconcern for Iraq’s future, and with secret hope that the Iraqis will fail to achieve peace and stability without us.
Our ancestors fought their way out of the British Empire. Today, though, an imperial paradigm is fashionable at the highest levels of federal power. Witness the spate of books and commentary more or less celebrating the old British Empire and mulling over the supposed benefits of an American sequel.
Empires are certainly good at one thing, and that is the amassing of treasure. The costs of empire are somewhat harder to tally on a spreadsheet, even when they are acutely felt.