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Northern Exposure

Joel Schwartz

The strategic thinker Eliot Cohen begins this impressive book with a passage that (as he seemingly recognizes) will at first glance strike contemporary readers as laughable, if not ludicrous: “This book ... deals with America’s most durable, and in many ways most effective and important enemy of all. Canada.”

But as Cohen explains, historically Canada really did deserve that designation:

For well over a century, from the colonial period through American independence, the military struggle with what is now Canada was America’s central strategic fact. For at least a half century beyond that war between the United States and British-ruled Canada was a very real possibility.

Borrowing an American-Indian term, Cohen focuses in particular on battles that were fought on and about “the Great Warpath, the great water route between New York City and Montreal, along the Hudson and most particularly along Lakes George and Champlain ... the most bitterly contested piece of land in the world.”

As his title suggests, Cohen’s interest in this substantial slice of military history stems particularly from the ways in which these early battles shaped American military practice and military culture. For example, the first battle that Cohen discusses helped lay the basis for the American preference for winning wars through the enemy’s unconditional surrender: “complete, crushing, and definitive victory.”

Cohen also sees in these battles the roots of what he calls the ambivalence of the American way of war: its penchant for “adhering to international conventions in both the legal and customary sense” on the one hand, and for “resorting to ruthless means when that appeared necessary” on the other. As a contemporary example of a ruthless means adopted by someone ostensibly devoted to international conventions, Cohen points to President Obama’s decision to order raiders into Pakistana supposed allyto kill rather than capture Osama bin Laden.

Cohen alludes to a third legacy of the battles on the Great Warpath of the book’s title, which is taken from a 1774 message from the First Continental Congress to the people of Canada, informing them that a successful American invasion would result in their being “conquered into liberty.” His judgment on this failed American military initiativeand its echoes in subsequent American historyis instructive:

The abortive invasion of Canada combined, in a distinctively American way, idealism and calculating realpolitik. The invaders sincerely advocated representative government and individual liberty, while manipulating local beliefs, brazenly attacking a neighbor in order to secure the fundamental and perilous decision for independence. In years to come, Americans in many other placesfrom Mexico to the Philippines, Vietnam to Iraqwould behave similarly, waging wars for liberty and interest, conquering others into freedom, and as in Canada, with mixed motives and uncertain outcomes.

Battles along the Great Warpath (specifically during the War of 1812) yielded an additional lessonone that is admittedly irrelevant to America’s all-volunteer armed forces today, though it was immensely important during much of the 20th century. These battles testified to “the ability of a small cadre of professional officers ... to train and lead a large body of citizen-soldiers,” pointing to “the country’s capacity for rapid and effective mobilization should the need arise.”

These teachings and others emerge from Cohen’s chronological account of selected battles along the Great Warpath. Four chapters are devoted to battles between British and French colonists in the 17th and 18th centuries, culminating in the French and Indian War; four chapters recount battles in the Revolutionary War; one examines the War of 1812; and a final chapter looks at several near-missesdisputes that might have instigated renewed warfare on America’s northern border between 1815 and 1871mostly stemming from the Civil War.

Overall, Conquered into Liberty excels in its demonstration of the ways in which important components of the American military tradition emerged embryonically in the sometimes obscure battles that it describes. Perhaps this is a quibble on my part, but I suspect that at least some of the lessons that Cohen develops would have emerged even if Canada had never existed that is to say, if the northern border of the United States had also been the northern border of North America. In other words, I suspect that Canada’s existence was only a sufficient, but not a necessary, cause of the emergence of important aspects of the American military tradition.

In the counterfactual world that I am now imagining, American Indians would still have existed and American settlers would still have fought against them. And those battles would still have impressed upon the American settlers the desirability of total victory in warfare, and (a lesson of Cohen’s that I omitted above) the value of “raiding warfare,” involving skirmishes between irregular forces.

Unconditional surrender as a strategic goal, and irregular raiding warfare as a preferred tactic, are logical responses to terrorist warfare. Not to put too fine a point on it, much of the Indian military response to the American settlers was what we would now call terroristic aimed not at soldiers but at women, children, and other defenseless civilians.

Cohen himself makes this point, beginning his book by describing a 1690 raid against Schenectady, in which Indians (bolstered by French and Canadian forces) traveled to the frontier of English settlement “not to hold ground, destroy fortified outposts, or defeat enemy forces but to burn settlements, take captives, and kill civilians.” Perhaps the book could have placed a greater emphasis on the ways in which a central question confronting American military policy today how best to prevent and respond to terrorist attacks was ironically and surprisingly central to American military policy from the very outset. In this context, it’s worth noting that the Navy SEALs’ decision to use “Geronimo” as the code name with which to report the killing of Osama bin Laden, while politically incorrect and predictably controversial, had at least some historical justification.

Be that as it may, the stories that Cohen recounts are valuable not only instrumentally as keys to the origins of the American way of warbut also intrinsically. Simply put, the book contains much interesting American (and Canadian and American-Indian) history that is likely to be unfamiliar to most readers. Particularly worth highlighting are the book’s revisionist depictions of Benedict Arnold and George Washington.

Cohen’s Arnold can arguably be described as a man more sinned against than sinning. He was a remarkable and remarkably successful soldier and sailor who dominated many of the early “points of decision” of the Revolutionary War, a man with a “staggering” combination of skills: “He led on land and on the water, in siege and in the field, he had the talents to build a fleet and then fight it to the death. His men followed him willingly, indeed eagerly.”

Why, then, did he become a traitor? He came to be disgusted by the “conniving, profiteering, and low politics” that he encountered; he was a “proud, prickly, passionate man” whose combat experiences left him utterly exhausted and with “two debilitating wounds in the same leg,” one of which crippled him for life; he had been “abused, traduced, and mistreated by colleagues, subordinates, and Congress.” Thus, Cohen concludes,

Given all that he suffered and endured, in leading his men, in fighting the enemy and above all from his own side, given his exposure to
hardball politics, incessant accusations of misconduct partly justified and mostly not, given his dismay at the protracted failures of Congress and democratic politicians, it should not be entirely surprising that Arnold’s character snapped under the strain.

As for Washington, Cohen hails his “icily unsentimental good judgment and restrained but real ruthlessness.” This is his final assessment:

Far more remote, in some ways, than Abraham Lincoln, the only figure in American history with whom he is to be reasonably compared, [Washington] is often portrayed as a figure of unshakable rectitude, patriotism, and integrity, if occasionally uncertain military judgment. True, by and large. But along the Great Warpath he also demonstrated deep suspicion of his allies, manipulativeness toward an adoring protégé [Lafayette], and ruthlessness toward his own side. ... It says something about the nature of war along the Great Warpath ... that, in that context at least, those were indispensable virtues.

In closing, I should say a word about one of Cohen’s sources. He reports at the outset that he first began to be interested in the Great Warpath as a schoolboy, when he read Francis Parkman’s classic account of the battles between France and Britain in North America. (Not surprisingly, some of these battles are discussed in the first half of Cohen’s book.) In lieu of a bibliography, Cohen concludes with a guide to sources that readers might consult to expand their knowledge of the Great Warpath. Prominent among those sources is Parkman’s history, which chronicles “the climactic struggle for North America between the two European great powers with rare literary skill. Parkman was intoxicated with the landscape of the Great Warpath, which he visited repeatedly and described with care.”

Cohen offers a measured judgment of Francis Parkman (1823-1893) and his massive historical output:

Parkman is much despised today by some historians who find him bigoted, reactionary, and too literary. He was, to some extent, all these things, although a more charitable reading suggests that he had a dark view of most human beings, including the elite of the Boston of his day. And no matter what one thinks of his interpretations, his literary skill remains a marvelwhich is why he, unlike many of his late-twentieth-century critics, remains in print.

That is very well said. Conquered into Liberty deserves a wide readership that should certainly include anyone interested in American history or military history. If some of Cohen’s readers are induced by him to read Parkman (author of what I suspect is the least-read American great book), that would be an added bonus. He will have served these readers well, and they in turn will be well served by Francis Parkman.

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