What today's military could learn from George Washington.
This week, the 150th anniversaries of Gettysburg and Vicksburg are being observed, their military lessons reabsorbed. But for strategists today it is more appropriate to recall the Revolution than the Civil War. Yes, Gettysburg was a pivotal slugging match that saved the Union from defeat. And the Vicksburg campaign was indeed a masterpiece of maneuver warfare that split the South in two along the Mississippi River. But both were very conventional military struggles, a rare form of conflict today. Instead, our world is now rife with irregular wars, so there is much more value in remembering that American independence was won by insurgents.
As historian Joseph Ellis makes clear in his new account of that time, Revolutionary Summer, George Washington was initially far too tied to notions of conventional stand-up fights and nearly lost the whole army in his disastrous 1776 campaign in Manhattan. After a narrow escape, he learned his lesson and seldom thereafter ran such risks. Washington grew content, for the most part, to keep the Continental Army "in being," posing an ever-present threat that the British always had to take into consideration in their planning. In the meantime, Washington sent off smaller forces to fight in savage actions, as at Oriskany, and in skillful operations like those that culminated in the great victory at Saratoga.
In the main, what took shape was an insurgent approach to the war based on "winning by not losing," and it was nowhere better employed than in the South. It was there that the Revolution was won — not so much by the main force as by the inspired blending of conventional infantry and irregular raiders. Washington’s most effective executor of this approach was the Quaker-turned-soldier Nathanael Greene, who marched his Continentals here and there to draw his opponent, Lord George Cornwallis, after him. While the British were chasing Greene and his men, American irregulars led by Francis Marion ("the Swamp Fox"), Thomas Sumter, and others struck at outposts and supply lines, causing no end of trouble.
Greene never won a pitched battle, but it didn’t matter. As he famously put it, "We fight, get beaten, rise, and fight again." He always retreated with enough of his force left to recover and resume the offensive later — when the British were more dispersed, trying to chase down Marion and his colleagues. Working in tandem like this, Continentals and guerrillas completely exhausted Cornwallis and his forces. Worn after much lashing out at the elusive rebels, the British fell back on Yorktown where George Washington was able to trap them — thanks to the preparatory efforts of Nathanael Greene. The eminent historian Russell Weigley’s assessment was that Greene "remains alone as an American master developing a strategy of unconventional war."
Indeed, it is curious that in the Civil War the Confederates completely failed to seize upon the founders’ key strategy from the Revolution. Improvements in firepower — particularly the rifle — made advances by massed conventional forces problematic. To win, though, and restore the Union, the North had to go on the offensive, ensuring that its armies’ losses would be high. And they were, from the costly defeat at Fredericksburg to the even more costly victory that U.S. Grant won during his year-long duel (1864-65) with Robert E. Lee. But the Confederates never took advantage of the opportunity to create a Greene-like campaign that blended a conventional defensive with an offensive led by irregular raiders. To be sure, the South had great guerrillas like John Hunt Morgan and Nathan Bedford Forrest. But Lee’s was the guiding spirit, and he preferred the conventional — right up to and even after the culminating disaster of Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg.
The true strategic heir of Washington and Greene seems to have been Vo Nguyen Giap — now over 100 years old — who guided the skillful blending of conventional and irregular field operations that ultimately prevailed against American might in Vietnam. To counter Giap’s strategy, U.S. forces were deployed in a "big unit" war — not too unlike the British effort against the American rebels during the Revolution. And even in the wake of failure against Giap, U.S. military leaders reaffirmed a preference for the conventional, culminating in the development of the Powell Doctrine of "overwhelming force." Needless to say, this doctrine has not served particularly well in either Iraq or Afghanistan, where successes, when achieved, have more often than not resulted from the close integration of conventional and special operations forces.
So the battle for the American military’s strategic soul goes on unabated. No doubt the predilection to pursue conventional approaches is a natural outgrowth of an industrial age in which sheer mass came to mean so much, particularly in the world wars. But in an information age, when the fundamental dynamic in armed conflict has shifted from mass-on-mass collisions to the simple need to find the hidden — the key to fighting insurgents and terrorists — the persistence of the "overwhelming force" mindset imposes huge costs and makes victory ever harder to achieve.
Now, at this inflection point in history, this time at the end of the industrial era and the beginning of the information age, when networks of all sorts are rising up to challenge nations, this is the moment to look back before looking ahead. To look back all the way to the founders of the Republic, who won their and our freedom by using irregular means to defeat the world’s leading power of that day. Now is the time to rekindle our strategic roots if we are to continue to be an effective force for good in the world. This is worth deep contemplation on our 237th Independence Day.