‘War in the name of democracy,’ 1775-style

On this Veteran’s Day (I prefer “Armistice Day,” but whatever), the WSJ had an op-ed piece headlined, “America’s Distinctive Way of War,” by Eliot Cohen of Johns Hopkins University. The headline doesn’t quite give away the topic. The thesis is that much about U.S. military doctrine evolved from our encounters with an enemy that to modern minds may seem unlikely: Canada. While much of it is largely forgotten now, over a 200-year period there was a lot of nasty business along “what Indians called ‘the Great Warpath,’ the 200-mile route of water and woodland paths that connected Albany and Montreal…”

There was a lot in the piece that was interesting, whether you fully accept the Canadian premise or not. Such as this:

War in the name of democracy? In 1775, the rebelling colonies—not even yet the United States — launched an invasion of Canada. The Continental Congress ordered the covert distribution of propaganda pamphlets in what is now Quebec province. The opening line: “You have been conquered into liberty.” Congress subsequently sent Benjamin Franklin north with a few companions to consolidate the conquest of Montreal, spread parliamentary government, and familiarize the baffled habitants of Canada — ruled for over a decade with mild firmness by a British governor—with the doctrines of habeas corpus and a free press.

The American way of war is distinctive. If the armed services have an unofficial motto, it is “Whatever it takes”—a mild phrase with ferocious implications. All that those words imply, including a disregard for military tradition and punctilio, the objective of dismantling an enemy and not merely defeating him, and downright ruthlessness, can be found in the battles of the Great Warpath.

It is often a paradoxical way of war. “Conquering into liberty” sounds absurd or hypocritical. In the case of Canada, it failed (though of course Canada took its own path to free government). In the cases of Germany, Italy and Japan after World War II, it succeeded. In the case of Iraq, who knows? In all of these episodes American motives were deeply mixed — realpolitik and idealism intertwining with one another in ways that even the strategists conceiving these campaigns did not fully grasp. What matters is that the notion of conquering into liberty is rooted deep in the American past, and in the ideas and circumstances that gave this country birth…

There is nothing new, apparently, under the sun.

3 thoughts on “‘War in the name of democracy,’ 1775-style

  1. Burl Burlingame

    Lots of folks don’t think the American Revolution began until July 4, 1776, but the skirmishing began almost two years before.

    And don’t forget the Fenian invasion of Canada after the Civil War.

  2. Rose

    Armistice Day refers to the suspension of hostilities from just World War One – that “war to end all wars” that was only a prelude to an even bigger war. Veterans’ Day is inclusive of all wars (a great-uncle in WWII, some cousins, and other ancestors)AND peacetime service (my late father, and more cousins). And “police action” service in Korea where my great-uncle, a Marine, was wounded three times at the Chosin Reservoir. So I much prefer Veterans’ Day as a thank you to the men and women who have served – not as a remembrance of the war itself.

  3. Steve Gordy

    WRT Burl’s comment: I had a friend in graduate school who remarked as a matter of family pride that her great-grandfather had killed a number of Fenians who were trying to invade Canada. I guess it’s an accomplishment if you’re Canadian, not so much if you’re an Irish nationalist.

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