Wednesday, 4 July 2012

BRITAIN'S VIETNAM? A FOURTH OF JULY SPECIAL: The FT review of A Few Bloody Noses


NOTE: I wrote this review for the Financial Times eight years ago; it must be one of the last book reviews I did for them, and I'd hate to think it was the cause. As you'll see, I thought the book did best things it didn't necessarily set out, or even want, to do, so as I say, it sometimes seems to be arguing against itself. But Harvey provided a new perspective to think about the Revolution, & the concept of Britain's Vietnam is one that makes more and more sense to me. So because I came across it in my files again just before the Fourth of July (or as the Brits call it, Thanksgiving) I thought I'd share it with you now...

History is not always written by the victors; imperial powers often get to rewrite defeats in their favour. This should be kept in mind when Robert Harvey points out Britons have been unusually silent on the subject of the American Revolution. Although Harvey sets out to debunk what he says are myths cherished by most Americans, and, as he says, ‘creation myths are the strongest’, he also concedes that some pretty comprehensive debunking has already been done by the Americans themselves. And in fact, A Few Bloody Noses is most fascinating when it delves into British perceptions of the war.
 
Harvey calls America ‘Britain’s Vietnam’, an apt and telling comparison. It's a comparison he reinforces with his own emphasis on the actual tactical conduct of the Revolution’s few major battles, which reminds one of revisionist histories of Southeast Asia. For example, Saratoga may not have been the overwhelming victory Americans claim it was, but arguing against its symbolic importance is like arguing the US really ‘won’ the Tet offensive. Saratoga gave the revolution momentum at home, credibility abroad, and most importantly forced Parliament to reconsider how winnable the war might be.

In fairness, Harvey makes such points himself, even though his making them is somewhat self-contradictory; that's true of any number of issues. For example, he asserts the colonists already possessed more freedom than the average Briton, thus dismissing revolutionaries as frauds at the same time he concedes that the greater freedom they did enjoy is by nature self-perpetuating. He castigates the Americans for their skill at ‘spinning’ their side of the war, yet recognises such spin arose because, unlike in Britain, the revolutionaries needed public support merely to fight, much less win, the war. Harvey emphasises a low level of popular support for revolution, while recognising that, like the South Vietnamese, many colonials sat on the fence, waiting to join the winning side, while others merely capitulated to ruling power. Harvey will accept some American myths when they suit him, but that can prove dangerous. For example, the myth of the heavily armed yeoman farmer springing to the American cause had been debunked not long before this book appeared, by Michael Bellesiles’ Arming America.

Harvey’s first major triumph is the outlining the many successes but ultimate failure of British military strategy. Here, the story of Saratoga (that's the British surrender pictured above left) suggests he might also have drawn a striking parallel to the Second World War. ‘Gentleman Johnny’ Burgoyne’s campaign was the Revolution’s equivalent of Operation Market Garden, a daring but flawed plan conceived primarily to allow its creator to outshine his rivals. Harvey corrects the American attribution of victory at Saratoga to British incompetence, asserting ‘professional jealousy’ was the real cause. But surely allowing such jealousy to overcome strategic common-sense is the essence of incompetence! In case it isn't, Harvey also details enough incompetence in other areas to nullify his original point. Interestingly, Burgoyne’s reputation, unlike Clive’s or Byng’s, but very much like Montgomery’s, was sullied not a whit by the failure of what was supposed to be his masterstroke.

Harvey also demonstrates convincingly George Washington’s importance as a leader, as well as a myth. Washington won few major battles, but his crossing of the Delaware and wintering at Valley Forge are America’s equivalents of Dunkirk. Indeed, America has not always wrapped itself in the cloth of invincibility; its two most crucial battle myths of the 19th century, the Alamo and Custer’s Last Stand, are both defeats, as is the myth of Pickett's Charge for the Confederacy.
  
Washington was patient, until, when necessary, he moved quickly and with focus. His decisive action in marching to reinforce Nathanael Greene at Yorktown contrasted directly with Sir William Clinton’s inaction, and was the single stroke which won the war. He also understood politics, surviving numerous plots against his command. Continuing the World War II analogy, I was struck by how closely Washington resembles Eisenhower. “His greatest virtue appeared to be his dullness,” says Harvey, but like Ike, he possessed the perfect temperament for unifying disparate and unfriendly factions for a long haul.

Harvey’s other great success is bringing to light episodes American history prefers to neglect. Although Massachusetts recruited black soldiers, the colonials soon banned them from their armies, fearful of encouraging slaves to leave their masters. The British quickly did exactly that. Nearly a century before Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, the Earl of Dunmore, then governor of Virginia, offered freedom for any slave who fought for the crown; ‘Lord Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment’ joined and fought on the British side; many black veterans and refugees from slavery found their way eventually to Nova Scotia. The Revolution also provided an excuse for colonists to ignore Britain’s Proclamation Line, beyond which land was reserved for Indians.The colonists waged war ruthlessly against those Indians, most of whom sided with the Crown, in a grim foreshadowing America’s relentless expansion west.

About other atrocities, however, Harvey becomes much more circumspect. The Paoli and Waxhaw massacres, perpetrated by British regulars, lead him to conclude only that 'occasional excesses occurred on both sides’. Although conceding General Alexander Leslie ‘distributed’ some 700 negroes infected with smallpox to plantations in Virginia, he allows that this primitive biological warfare ‘would have been a crime indeed’ only if Leslie actually had infected the slaves himself! He seems unaware Lord Amherst had pioneered such tactics two decades earlier, by 'donating' blankets taken from smallpox victims to unsuspecting Indian villages. The British army saw to it that whole tribes were ethnically cleansed by disease.

His book also contains some strange errors. Far from 'disappearing from American myth', John Hancock’s name remains a synonym for signature. Marching west from Lake Ontario would hardly bring one to the Hudson River, which lies well to its east. Numbers are used oddly; Cornwallis’s rearguard at Monmouth shrinks from 6,000 to 2,000 men in the space of two paragraphs. Characters are frequently reintroduced redundantly. Ethan Allan is described as the ‘thuggish’ leader of ‘a band of hillbillies’; on the very next page he is introduced again as ‘hillbillyish’. He was indeed more of a thug than American history cares to admit, but a hillbilly? And, in a book loaded with assertions, the lack of footnotes is frustrating.

It may not have been his intent, but Harvey actually succeeds  better than he intended in embellishing the reputations of Washington and such neglected rebel leaders as Greene (pictured left), Daniel Morgan,and Henry Knox, rather than debunking any major American myths. In the end, however, as a direct descendant of leaders on both sides of the Parliamentary argument, Harvey succeeds best in giving us a kind of Pentagon Papers view of the British war effort, something that is more than two centuries overdue.

A FEW BLOODY NOSES: The American War Of Independence
by Robert Harvey
John Murray 2004, 480pp, £25.00

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