Listening to the Echoes of the American Revolution
"The struggle had opened in a grey dawn at Lexington; its last shot was fired eight years later on the other side of the world outside a dusty town in southern India."
So ends Piers Mackesy's 1964 book "The War for America; 1775-1783." Not, perhaps, the common narrative of the American Revolution, but through 500-plus pages, Mackesy traces the war from a British perspective, one that seeks to understand not the questions of battlefield technique or specific battles, or even the politics of independence, but rather the broader context of a nearly seven-year conflict with a distant colony amid a global competition for economic and strategic security.
Mackesy helps us see beyond the story of a scrappy band of rebels cleverly hiding behind trees and using backwoods marksmanship to defeat an outdated rank-and-file military organization, an image still pervasive in Americana today. Instead, what emerges is a cautionary tale of just what it means to be an empire with global interests and relations. Writ large are the choices and responsibilities that ultimately limit possibilities, require prioritization and can lead to unexpected catastrophic results.
Published in the same year as the Gulf of Tonkin incident, the book in retrospect appeared to offer a set of potential lessons learned for the United States to study. In today's global environment, it may be even more relevant to reconsider the War of Independence, not to critique British policies then or American policies now, but to see how the complexities of a global system often exert unexpected pressures. Economic constraints and domestic political concerns shape and are shaped by international policies. And distance, logistics, cultural misunderstanding and resource limitations leave even the most carefully thought-out plans at the mercy of the day-to-day volatility of human endeavor.
A Global Hegemon
At the outbreak of the American Revolution, Britain was, at least briefly, the undisputed global hegemon, the victor of the Seven Years' War, in possession of an empire stretching from Canada to the Caribbean, through Africa to India and back across the Pacific. This was a moment in which Britain faced no challenge from a potentially united continental Europe, and its primary competitors had seen their naval capabilities significantly degraded. Britain was sovereign of the seas and the center of global power, with an economic and military reach to match. At least on paper.
In reality, the British were stretched thin, facing political turmoil at home and transitioning from a high-intensity wartime military and economy to a post-crisis structure. Changes in taxation on the American colonies reflected less the elitism of the British aristocracy than the recognition of funding shortfalls and the economic strains of a vastly expanded postwar empire. When the conflict across the Atlantic finally broke into open violence "in a grey dawn at Lexington," the British had spent more than a decade recovering from the Seven Years' War, reducing their forces, and rebalancing their imperial management and priorities. The American Revolution was not unexpected, but the tenacity and spread of armed rebellion was simply not fully appreciated by the decision-makers in London.
For the British, the early stage of the American Revolution was about restoring the status quo. The Americans demanded complete independence, but the British thought it was perhaps only a small minority espousing such unbending sympathies, and the trick would be to demonstrate a decisive military victory and allow the saner loyalist voices in the colonies to prevail. The British fought a limited war, one whose policy was not the defeat of a foreign military power but the pacification of a small uprising of compatriots. British military action was constrained initially in part by the decision not to engage in total war. This was seen first and foremost as a battle for, in modern parlance, hearts and minds. A small rebellion needed to be quashed, and once that was accomplished, the rest of the locals would happily join the British forces to complete the overthrow of the rebellion and resume a cooperative life with Britain.
Logistics and Strategy
Politics did not solely dictate London's strategy, however. The "tyranny of distance" also played a role. The British were deploying forces across the Atlantic, or having to move forces from other parts of the empire, outreaches that still needed protecting. In the days of sail, long-distance travel was a feat rarely accomplished quickly, and the seasons played a strong role in when and where troops — and the massive logistical supply train behind them — could be landed. British shipping quickly became tied up in supplying the materiel for the suppression of American rebellion.
For the colonials, after a few crushing losses to the superior British military, it became clear that a more effective strategy would be to avoid set battles. Like guerrilla armies before and after, the advantage was maintained when the rebels avoided fighting the larger conventional army on its terms. The Americans also had a potentially inexhaustible supply of local recruits, while the British needed to deploy theirs from afar. The Americans could live off the land, at least partially, while the British depended on overseas supply lines. The Americans could disperse into the interior, but the British were largely tied to the coasts, to the port networks of supplies.
And while distant British leaders considered the best course of action to stem the ongoing rebellion in America, which was carrying on longer than anticipated, they did so with a wary eye on their neighbors across the Channel. France and Spain had begun building up their navies as they saw the crisis in America building. It provided a potential opportunity to drain British resources and to open the way for the two continental powers to regain overseas territories lost in prior wars. A united French and Spanish fleet was a potential nightmare for Britain, at a time when the Royal Navy was committed to the (largely unsuccessful) attempt to blockade the American coast, resupply British troops in North America, and continue providing naval support to the other far-flung colonies and territories.
With the British loss at Saratoga in late 1777, the French made their move, changing a local uprising into a global war. In the early months of 1778, the French signed and revealed a treaty of commerce with the American colonies, and a more secretive treaty of alliance. The overt entry of France into the conflict reshaped British priorities, with attention shifting to protect its holdings in the Caribbean while still fighting against American rebellion. A year after the French entered the fray, the Spanish joined in, threatening Gibraltar and Menorca in the Mediterranean and raising a naval challenge to control the English Channel — and potentially even moving toward an invasion of the British Isles.
In 1780, with British logistics stretched near breaking point, Holland joined the war, and the Northern European powers entered into a league of armed neutrality, challenging the blockade of the Americas and drawing Britain into another naval theater in the North and Baltic seas. With few allies of its own, the British fought on against an increasing number of active or potential belligerents. The concern was that with the entry of the Dutch into the war, British possessions in India were at risk. The outposts of British economic power in the Caribbean and British India were more significant to London than the American colonies. Raw logistical challenges as well as frustration with the protracted land war led to the beginning of the end of British attempts to stay the American secession.
Over the final years of the conflict, the British and the other belligerents sought political deals. The individual concerns of Spain, France and others offered the British an opportunity to try to play off these differences. Given the global scope of the conflict — as well as the expanded number of belligerents or "armed neutrals," the distances and supply issues, and limited British manpower — it is perhaps a testament to the sheer staying power of empire that the British came out of the war in such a relatively good position. The power of the British Empire would last for well over a century after the American Revolution, though not without its crises at home and abroad.
Lessons for Today
In looking at the war from a perspective that isn't America-centric, from the viewpoint of a global conflict rather than a traditional David and Goliath story, the conflict reveals lessons that still resonate.
For large, globally significant countries (empires in spirit if not name), individual theaters of conflict are rarely isolated. The current conflict in Syria highlights the way a limited action can escalate to a potentially international confrontation, but also how tightly different theaters of conflict and competition can become tied together. Of necessity, decisions regarding priorities will be made, and one area of interest could be sacrificed for another. For the United States today, it is hard to see an Asia pivot when the Middle East and Afghanistan remain far from settled. And then there are resurgent concerns of Russian action on the European periphery.
Distance remains a major constraint, particularly when considering the logistics train of a modern fighting force. And port access matters. Consider the complications the United States has faced over the past decade in Afghanistan, and how complex the shutdown of Pakistani ports made logistic resupply. And no matter how many troops the United States or other countries might send, they will always be outnumbered by the local population. It remains easier for guerrilla forces — insurgents, militants or whatever name we may choose — to operate in their local territory, to understand and manipulate local culture and demographics, and to operate lightly, agilely and with minimal logistical constraints. Blocking the flow of arms, munitions and other materiel to local insurgents is also nearly impossible.
The challenges of a hearts-and-minds campaign, of limited war that seeks to rally the local population to support the foreign intervention, is as fraught with uncertainty today as it was more than two centuries ago. Limited political aims necessarily constrain military options, and local political and social realities rarely conform to the best-case scenarios of the intervening power. Whether it is nobler to claim to be liberators than occupiers, the locals live there permanently; the outside force only temporarily. American patriots in the War of Independence could and did carry out terror campaigns against loyalist colonials. If the British were to try to win through local cooperation and political suasion, they could not as easily reciprocate, nor could their limited numbers provide security for loyalists or neutrals.
The greater the responsibilities, the greater the perceived or real national interests — and the further flung the economic, political and security ties — the more complex it is to ensure the security of empire. Yet at the same time, these connections and concentrations of power can provide a fair amount of buffer, allowing for losses, blunders and entanglements that are tragic, but not of themselves decisive. Such resources are not infinite, however. Social and political moods, fiscal resources, weapons platforms and international standing are all things that can be drained. While there is room for error, there is also a need to carefully assess the costs and benefits of both action and inaction.
The world is a complicated, interconnected and volatile place. No country has the singular power to intervene for national, economic or even moral reasons everywhere. For Britain, a small rebellion, driven by distance, fiscal policy and changing culture, escalated from a localized police action to a global crisis that dragged on for nearly a decade. In the process, old foes were reawaked and unforeseen challenges to British forces at the far reaches of the empire emerged. On America's Independence Day (a day marking more the start than conclusion of hostilities with the mother country), it is worthwhile reflecting on the ideas and complexities of global capabilities and responsibilities as well as considering the nature of independence and freedom.