Guerrilla War and Our Founders: A Patriotic Digression

In today’s New York Times book review of Max Boot’s new book on guerrilla warfare, Mazower notes, “In 1926, French artillery shelled the center of Damascus. It was in this context that Elbridge Colby, an American Army captain, wrote an article, ‘How to Fight Savage Tribes,’ in order to educate his countrymen and challenge what he saw as their naïve faith in international law.”

That article appeared in the American Journal of International Law, a year following the French attack on Syria. Capt. Colby records: “In Afghanistan, in May, 1919, explosives dropped from planes ‘inflicted heavy losses on civil population and army’ in and about Jalalabad.” Furthermore,

In the same year in October intensive aërial bombardments were undertaken against the recalcitrant tribes of Tochi Wazirs and Mahsuds. All of this was simply a more modernized and more effective version of prior British bombardments with field artillery against native Asian villages, a casual type of incident against native tribes in the story of British colonial enterprise and mastery.

Mazower, a historian at Columbia University, refers to Colby whereas the subject of his book review, Max Boot, the aptly-named military strategist who wrote about guerrilla armies, does not. The reviewer brings his arguments about Boot’s book to a close by saying, “I think Elbridge Colby would have approved.” So let us return to the captain.

“The long list of Indian wars in which the troopers of the United States have defended and pushed westwards the frontiers of America bear eloquent testimony to the unified tribal action in war, and to the almost universal brutality of the red-skinned fighters,” Colby wrote. “With these, there can be little thought of international law.” One of the lines in our Declaration of Independence from the British empire framed the annihilation of the natives in a similar fashion: King George III, that redcoat bastard, “endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction, of all ages, sexes and conditions.”

Alexis de Tocqueville, the famed French visitor whose book Democracy in America captured antebellum political life in the free states very well, marveled how the United States had succeeded where Spain had failed. Tocqueville wrote,

The Spainards, despite acts of unparalleled monstrousness that left them indelibly covered with shame, were unable to exterminate the Indian race or even prevent the Indians from sharing their rights. The Americans of the United States achieved both results with marvelous ease, quietly, legally, philanthropically, without bloodshed, without violating a single one of the great principles of morality in the eyes of the world. To destroy human beings with greater respect for the laws of humanity would be impossible. [Volume I, part 2, chapter 10; emphasis added]

Tocqueville, a man of his time, proceeds to discuss the ticking time bomb of slavery in a way that used to be considered enlightened. “Wherever Whites have been more powerful to date,” he wrote, “they have kept Negroes in degradation and slavery. Wherever Negroes have been stronger, they have destroyed Whites. Such is the only reckoning that exists between the two races.”

“Thus in the United States,” he concludes, “the prejudice against Negroes seems to increase in proportion to their emancipation, and inequality is enshrined in mores as it disappears from laws.” Tocqueville deduces from this state of affairs that never will “the white race and the black race … live anywhere on a footing of equality.” That was similar to Abraham Lincoln’s judgement in 1854, less than a decade before emancipation: “Let it not be said that I am contending for the establishment of political and social equality between the whites and blacks,” Honest Abe declared.

Two years later, at the first state convention of the newly-formed Republican Party, Lincoln decried the evils of the institution of slavery and remarked,

In Kentucky — my state — in 1849, on a test vote, the mighty influence of Henry Clay and many other good men there could not get a symptom of expression in favor of gradual emancipation on a plain issue of marching toward the light of civilization with Ohio and Illinois; but the state of Boone and Hardin and Henry Clay, with a nigger under each arm, took the black trail toward the deadly swamps of barbarism. Is there — can there be — any doubt about this thing? And is there any doubt that we must all lay aside our prejudices and march, shoulder to shoulder, in the great army of Freedom? [italics in original]

The convention then broke into applause, according to the note-taker William Whitney. The antebellum version of the character played by Daniel Day-Lewis was not featured, for the obvious reason that we have a strong need to lionize leaders, or exalt them as our Fathers. There is certainly a lot that the founders, and Lincoln, said that we can proud of quoting, but ignoring the underside does our reckoning with the past no favors, and stunts the ability of ourselves as a self-conscious people to evolve.

Quite the contrary; it is seen as “unpatriotic” to accurately report the real sentiments of the people we cast as demigods, instead of seen as being faithful to history and addressing present guilt without fear. Needless to say, the nation’s schoolchildren learn about the Lincoln-Douglas debates without knowing that the above passage was one of Lincoln’s “talking points.” Nor, for that matter, will they get past the preamble to the Declaration. Or actually read Tocqueville in depth. And it’s a shame.


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