It may not be necessary to go all the way back to the American Revolution to find an example of an occupied peoples’ willingness to take on an empire. But let’s do just that because the Revolutionary War makes for fascinating study. And, besides, I’m a New Englander and we started the whole thing.
We all know the story of “the shot heard round the world” – that fateful day in 1775 when American rebels crossed the Rubicon and opened fire on British army regulars. It was the point of no return. From the moment the shots were fired the American Revolution was underway. There could be no turning back.
On the evening of April 18, 1775 the Commander of the Boston Garrison, General Thomas Gage, sent 700 British regulars to destroy rebel arms caches in the quiet New England villages of Lexington and Concord. The rebels were forewarned and moved most of their stocks, but on the morning of the 19th the British found and burned a small number of supplies at Lexington and then moved on to Concord.
The battle itself was not very remarkable until, mission accomplished, the British began their retreat to Boston. It should be remembered that two and a quarter centuries ago the road to Boston was actually a narrow country lane surrounded, in most part, by forest land.
American Minutemen followed the retreating Red Coats and ambushed them from behind walls and trees and barns and whatever other cover they could find. Leapfrogging through the woods on either side of the lane, the Americans executed ambush after ambush for the duration of the fifteen mile march to Boston. The British were, in effect, forced to run a gauntlet; unable to retreat they had to march forward through unfamiliar territory knowing that death could lie just ahead and that they wouldn’t be safe until they reached Charlestown. The British lost nearly 300 men that afternoon. Almost one half of the original deployment. The Americans, it’s believed, suffered only a third of that number.
In his famous “Midnight Ride of Paul Revere”, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow described the scene:
You know the rest. In the books you have read
How the British Regulars fired and fled,
How the farmers gave them ball for ball,
From behind each fence and farmyard wall,
Chasing the redcoats down the lane,
Then crossing the fields to emerge again
Under the trees at the turn of the road,
And only pausing to fire and load.
Needless to say, today we recognize such tactics as legitimate guerrilla warfare, but in the 18th Century they caused outrage. In an era when soldiers faced off on a battlefield like gentlemen engaged in a duel, guerilla ambushes were considered dishonorable and uncivilized. But the Americans had made their point.
The men laying in ambush weren’t French, African, or American Indian – they were cousins. The farmers behind the stone walls and the soldiers in the red coats were linked by blood, language, history, and religion. Until a very short time before the battle they paid allegiance to the same sovereign and both sides were honored to claim a common cultural and political legacy. If countrymen don’t shy away from ferocity in defense of their land and their rights, imagine how difficult it is to occupy a foreign people.
History is replete with examples of natives doing everything in their power to throw off a foreign yoke. This was done regardless of the strength, benevolence, or reputation of the occupier. The Romans had the Jewish rebellion of the First Century. The British experienced it from their own kinsmen in America. They’ve faced it for centuries in Ireland. The Ottoman Turks likewise had to deal with their subjected Arabs. That’s just to cite the more famous examples; the complete list would fill volumes.
Washington tells us that we’ll only occupy Iraq for, at most, two years. I tend not to believe it. Not that I doubt the president’s word, but history has shown us that once we go in, we very rarely get out. Mr. Clinton sent American troops to Bosnia in 1993 with the promise to be out in six months. Nine years have passed and those soldiers are still there.
Occupied Arabs will resist us sooner or later no matter how generous or benevolent we may be. They won’t develop battlefield weapons to take on our tanks and cruise missiles, they’ll employ “less conventional tactics.”
Regardless of the swiftness of victory, if the American military remains in Iraq for any significant amount of time – or if ordinary daily concerns like poverty relief, lack of food or medical supplies, poor roads, etc start to be viewed as the fault of the Americans – be prepared for losses long after the initial battle has concluded.
The White Man’s burden is a messy business. Just ask the British.