What You Should Think About George Washington

May 30, 2011

“Bad seed is a robbery of the worst kind. Not only does your pocketbook suffer for it, but your preparations are lost and a season passes away unimproved.”

–George Washington

The United States of America was forged in battle.  Yet this nation was neither created nor conceived to become a dominant military power.  To the contrary, it was our founders’ ability to defy a military superpower that gave rise to the most authentically populist form of government the world had seen since ancient Greece lost its original democracies.   Extraordinary leadership and unwavering determination made all the difference.  Neither the manpower of the Continental Army nor the skill and equipment of allies opposing the British Army were overwhelming.  The decisive outcome of the Revolutionary War would not be predicted by any purely military analysis of the capabilities each side was prepared to field in when the Declaration of Independence was signed.

Even the legendary leader behind this outcome, George Washington, was no great conqueror.  His early military experiences as an American officer fighting for British interests were fraught with misadventure.  In 1754 Colonel Washington surrendered his militia to the French, negotiating a bloodless withdrawal from a hopeless position.  By the end of 1755, his greatest accomplishment involved minimizing losses during the retreat of the disastrous Monongahela expedition.  He emerged from the crucible of defeat as a strict disciplinarian and a cautious tactician.  He went on to promote the prosperity of Virginia by defending the colony’s western frontier with impressive efficiency.

By the time revolutionary sentiment was strong among British possessions in North America, George Washington had already established himself as a commander gifted in the transformation of uneducated and undisciplined volunteers into effective fighting forces.  Yet the ranks of these forces only measured in the hundreds.  His only decisive victories had been won against indigenous tribes equipped with few, if any, firearms.  In 1775, when the Continental Congress asked him to take command of their army, he was selected more by default than acclaim.  The delegates did not recognize how perfectly suited he was to lead an army of underdogs, but they did recognize that he was one among very few prominent American revolutionaries with real experience at military command.

So it was that the fate of our aspiring nation was placed in the hands of a man best known for mitigating the damage from past military defeats.  War had already erupted with the clashes at Lexington and Concord in Massachusettes.  Yet Continental forces amounted to little more than impromptu militias.  Even the core of the army was only committed to single year terms of service.  General Washington immediately set about organizing the military — clarifying chains of command and insisting on rigorous drilling to maintain cohesion when forces were not otherwise engaged.  He held his ground when it was wise to do so, yet he employed his considerable experience at retreat in maneuvers that did much to preserve the modest combat assets of a fledgeling nation.

This leadership went beyond uncommon exercise of military caution.  Washington eventually overcame political resistance in order to restructure the Continental Army as a more stable and durable institution.  Disease and the elements claimed one quarter of his forces during the winter at Valley Forge, but the survivors emerged as tough disciplined professionals on par with the veterans of European conflicts.  Yet even when equipped for plausible victories, he continued to show restraint.  He would strike when the British blundered into a position of extraordinary vulnerability.  Otherwise, he dedicated himself to the preservation of the army and the maintenance of rebel control over an overwhelming majority of colonial territory.

By fighting only the most favorable battles, General Washington bought the revolution time enough to succeed.  Diplomatic achievements, first in France and then elsewhere, forced the British to deal with bigger threats than the loss of American colonies.  He reminded the world that having more men and better equipment does not insure victory.  When he went on to promote adoption of the Constitution and serve as the first President of the United States, he continued to emphasize the value of caution and restraint.  He warned against the costs of lengthy military commitments abroad.  He was openly hostile to the emergence of partisan politics.  He only embraced conflict when he believed doing so was crucial to the survival of the nation.  For example, he personally took command of state militias in order to put down a violent rebellion sparked by one of the federal government’s earliest efforts to raise revenue.

This makes it all the more ironic how George Washington is viewed in some circles today.  Know-nothing fools imagine he would be quick to rebel against federal taxation, when in fact he did not hesitate to put down such a rebellion through force of arms.  Right-wing ideologues imagine he would support costly and deadly exercises in foreign regime change and nation-building, when in fact one of his most clear admonitions was a directive to avoid such entanglements.  Jingoistic bombasts imagine he would take pride in America’s overwhelming military might, when in fact he dedicated much his life to achieving victories while minimizing loss of life and public expense.  It is unlikely that George Washington the man, general, and President would have any respect for the George Washington of Tea Party folklore.

As this Memorial Day comes to a close, I believe it is wise that we ask ourselves, “are we remembering those noble and honorable people who have served this country at great personal risk, or are we celebrating the elective violence and hyperactive warmongering that now consumes over $1 trillion of our $14 trillion national economy?  If we are to truly remember and honor those who were selfless in service to our nation, do we bear no obligation to act against those who engage in the manipulation of political processes and world events for the sake of personal enrichment?”  I believe George Washington would be proud to know that the United States commands the strongest military on Earth.  I believe he would be horrified to know that we only manage to realize that goal by spending 40% all the money the entire planet spends on military procurement.

When we look at the way George W. Bush and Barack Obama launch wars, there is a dramatic contrast.  The former indulged in radical spending increases, made a profound national commitment, ineptly managed alliances, refused to articulate precise objectives, and seemed to believe that merely having an exit strategy was the same thing as accepting defeat.  The latter engaged in modest spending, made a cautious national commitment, harmonized smoothly with allies, and expressed a single clear goal.  The exit strategy for U.S. involvement in Libya remains fuzzy, but otherwise the contrast is dramatic.

First names aside, it is unmistakable which of these leaders is more like the first man to hold the office of President of the United States.  If the entire electorate could be bothered to actually remember the first and greatest of our military commanders, our nation could enjoy a clear path to a more peaceful and prosperous future. As the foremost of our Founding Fathers himself once observed, “experience teaches us that it is much easier to prevent an enemy from posting themselves than it is to dislodge them after they have got possession.”  There is no shortage of hard work ahead for modern day patriots intent on taming the beast of runaway military and security service spending.  Yet it is work that must be done if we are truly to honor the memory of those who made this country great in the first place.

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