The Best Defense interview: Cohen’s new book about the wars of the Great Warpath

The Best Defense interview: Cohen’s new book about the wars of the Great Warpath

Last week I participated in a discussion of Eliot Cohen’s new book about America’s warpath between Albany, New York, and Montreal, Canada. One of the subjects was the similarity between that era and today’s, with sustained limited wars provoked by acts of terror. Cohen made a couple of comments that struck me:

— When Champlain traveled with Indians south from Canada into hostile territory, “it’s not Champlain who is the actor, it’s the Indians who are the actors. The Indians are manipulating him.” Likewise, these days, it’s not always about us. In the post-9/11 world, “we are a powerful piece often being moved around their chessboard.”

–The French did much better than the British/Americans in dealing with the Indians — but eventually the British/Americans got “good enough” at it to use their other advantages to prevail

–“One of the great strategic virtues is empathy.”

I asked an old friend to interview Professor Cohen about his new book:

Magua: Were you inspired to write this book by the movie version of ‘Last of the Mohicans’? If not, why not?

Eliot Cohen: No, no, no. The movie is not all that great, and James Fenimore Cooper’s book is pretty problematic too — wooden dialogue, implausible characters, unbelievable action. But he got the landscape right. On the other hand, it’s still in print, which is more than you can say of most other books coming on two centuries since pub date. But there is a kernel of truth here. Kenneth Roberts was a wonderful historical novelist whom I read when I was a teenager, and between that and a visit to Fort Ticonderoga at age ten I got hooked. Took me some four decades to go from fascination to published book, however.

Magua: Hmm. [Speaking Huron] Magua is glad this guy writes books better than he reviews movies. [Returning to the white man’s tongue] Tell us a bit about this French-Canadian character who keeps popping up, would you?

EC: That would be La Corne St. Luc. He led raiding parties against the Americans in three wars (King George’s War, the French and Indian War, and the Revolution) although he also offered to join them when it looked as though we were about to take Canada in 1775. He was a brilliant leader of Indians and may have had a role in the massacre at Fort William Henry in 1757. In 1761 he figured New France was finished and set sail for France. He was shipwrecked off what is now Cape Breton Island, saw his two sons slip out of his grasp and drown just before he got on shore, pulled together the half dozen survivors, built a fire, found some Indians to take care of them, and then hiked fifteen hundred miles or so to Quebec — in the dead of winter — to get more help. Smart enough to slip away from Major General John Burgoyne’s army invading New York from Canada in 1777, just before it was surrounded and forced to surrender to the last man. Died in 1784, aged 73 (a very ripe old age by contemporary standards) one of the richest men in Canada, with a pretty young wife. Quite a guy.

Magua: The French were in so much better a position militarily. How did they blow their hold on North America?

EC: Numbers had a lot to do with it — there were only 80,000 French Canadians and about fifteen times as many English-controlled colonists in the 1750s. But the more important explanation is the Royal Navy, which pretty much throttled the colony during the Seven Years (French and Indian) War, and the willingness of the British to pour vast resources into the conquest of North America. By 1759, when Quebec fell, there were easily four or five times as many British as French soldiers in North America, and Quebec was cut off and starving. But the French put up a ferocious fight, and might have hung on another year or so. And, in the supreme irony, at the decisive battle outside Quebec in 1759 their combination of French troops, Canadian militia, and Indians actually outnumbered the British army (almost all regulars) under James Wolfe.

Magua: Is there a lesson for our times here?

EC: I am wary of the idea of lessons. What the book shows, though, is just how deeply our way of war is rooted in our past. What is now the United States has been involved in every major global conflict since the end of the seventeenth century, and the Great Warpath was, in many ways the decisive theater for the North American bits of those conflicts. A lot of the ways we think about and approach warfare emanate from the two centuries I discuss in the book, including the paradoxical notion that one can conquer a nation into liberty. On that particular point, see the chapter about the siege of St. Johns in 1775.

Magua: What’s the one question you wish someone would ask about this book?

EC: What was the most fun about researching and writing it? Two answers: (a) leaving behind the pundits (particularly the monomaniacs and wingnuts) of contemporary political discourse and spending time — in my head, that is — with some great historians and truly remarkable historical characters, including La Corne St. Luc, Benedict Arnold, Ethan Allen, and many more; (b) walking the ground, to include snowshoeing the Battle on Snowshoes and sailing the battle of Valcour Island. If the book inspires lots of people to go poking around the places I write about, I will be delighted.