America’s military presence in Iraq represents “a basic violation” of its “historic identity,” that of a nation founded in opposition to imperialism, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Joseph Ellis said.
Americans have neglected an important lesson from their own past, Ellis, an authority on the Revolutionary War period, said. “We have become the imperial power. We have become Great Britain and have succeeded Great Britain as the hegemonic power of the world. I would think we would wish to avoid making some of the mistakes she made.” He challenged the idea that the U.S. needs a military presence in South Korea and Western Europe as well as Iraq.
“The notion that (our problems) are going to be solved in a military fashion is fundamentally misguided and it’s going to send us right down the path that Britain went and into oblivion,” Ellis warned in a recent talk at the Massachusetts School of Law at Andover.
Ellis, author of “His Excellency: George Washington,” “American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic,” and other histories of that period, suggested the problems facing the U.S. occupiers of Iraq today are not dissimilar from those the British faced battling George Washington.
“After his early defeats, Washington realized that the British have to win, but he does not have to win. The British had enormous problems of supply, and they don’t have enough troops. They can take New York, they can take Charleston, but they can’t hold them because they don’t have enough troops to do this,” Ellis said. “The only solution was to fight a defensive---what they called a Fabian strategy---or a war of posts. It’s not just a battle between armies but between populations. Does this sound familiar?”
Prior to assuming command in Iraq, General (David) Petraeus wrote studies saying it would take almost a million U.S. troops to put down an Iraqi insurgency and, Ellis noted, “we aren’t going to get a million troops.” The result in Iraq has put the insurgency in a position where, even if they can’t win, they will succeed if they just don’t lose, but that the U.S. has to “win.”
The Revolutionary War was a battle “for the hearts and minds of the American people, and Washington realizes that,” Ellis continued. “The only major battle he fought was at Monmouth Court House (June 28, 1778) until the end of the war and that was by accident. He comes to an understanding that an occupying army has massive problems not just in defeating but in suppressing and controlling an insurgency. Eventually, the British won’t lose, they will simply give up because the ordinary people back in London don’t want it.”
Ellis said when British Prime Minister Lord Frederick North heard General Cornwallis “surrendered 7,000 troops at Yorktown in October, 1781, he said, ‘Oh, my god, it’s over,’ because he knew that public opinion in Britain was not going to sustain it (the war) any longer.”
Great Britain recovered from the loss of its empire in North America, Ellis said, but over time “overreach, overextension, (and) hubris” collapsed its empire, as these circumstances felled the Roman Empire before it.
“I would think as a historian that we got choices here (in Iraq),” Ellis said. “Those choices ought to be informed by past experiences both of the United States or of other world powers, and especially Great Britain.”
Ellis gave his talk April 5 at the Massachusetts School of Law at Andover, a non-profit law school purposefully dedicated to providing an affordable legal education to minorities and students of modest means that would not otherwise be able to enter the legal profession.
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(Further information: Sherwood Ross, media consultant to Massachusetts School of Law at Andover, at firstname.lastname@example.org)