In December 1779, the British decided to invade the American South in an effort to isolate the Southern Colonies and re-impose imperial rule. Having failed to secure loyalty from the Northern and Middle Colonies, the British thought that loyalty could be secured in the South, where a sizable loyalist population remained. At first, it seemed like an ingenious plan. The Southern colonies were a tinderbox of factional conflicts between the landed gentry and new immigrants, and between the black slaves and their masters. The British set out to subdue patriot militias by arming colonists who were still loyal to the crown.
As one might expect, things did not go as planned. The troops armed by the British quickly set to work butchering women and children suspected of being supporters of the revolution. Chaos ensued among all sides and the British, realizing their failure, sent in their own troops to restore order. In the end, however, the British efforts to secure loyalty ended up turning most of their allies against them. In December, General Washington dispatched Nathaniel Greened to establish a military presence in the Southern colonies. Greene recognized several important facts. He knew that the type of war he was fighting did not require victory in battle to secure victory in the war. He knew that the war would be won by securing the support of the population.
Green set to work engaging the British forces in a number of fast and mobile military operations. He would strike out at the British, and disappear before the British could retaliate in any meaningful way. For months, the British chased Greene and his forces around the South. The Brits did not exist in a vacuum, of course. As they marched through the countryside, the colonists gained a firsthand appreciation of the arrogance and power of the British empire.
Since British troops could not tell the difference between friends and enemies (and behaved accordingly), the British ended up making enemies of virtually everyone they came in contact with. As historian Pauline Maier has pointed out, the British army was the best friend the revolutionaries had. Everywhere they went their arrogance and the destruction they left turned friends into enemies and inspired the native population ever more against the British cause. Greene’s strategy worked brilliantly. His forces lost every major engagement with the British, but military victory was not his goal. By the fall of 1781, the British troops found themselves exhausted and isolated in Yorktown, Virginia, where ultimate defeat awaited them.
While I doubt that Osama Bin Laden is familiar with the intricacies of the American Revolution, it is clear that he is using a strategy similar to that of General Greene. It has become more and more clear that Bin Laden’s goal in the September 11th attacks was to goad America into hitting the Arab world in a major military operation. Hard. The neoconservative establishment has been doing its best to give Bin Laden what he wants. While President Bush and General Powell have done their best to exercise some measure of restraint, the neocons are not satisfied and will not rest until they have opportunity to sow hatred for America in every Muslim nation.
Some Americans may scoff at this theory and claim that all people despise terrorism and will support anti-terrorist activities. While this is undoubtedly true under certain conditions, support for the American war will only last as long as the relative fear of terrorism is greater than the resentment against occupying US forces. As in the Southern colonies where a majority of Americans supported the British cause, support turns to resentment after prolonged contact with an occupying force.
Historian John Keegan has pointed out that this same unfortunate situation overwhelmed the Americans in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War, and it is bound to happen to us yet again. We are already witnessing a destabilization of support for the US in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia as the native populations come face to face with the effects of American military might. It is Nathaniel Greene all over again. As Osama and the Taliban run around evading our bombs, which leave nothing but enraged civilian populations in their wake, we might want to take another look at our naïve policies and wishful thinking. Carpet bombing is not going to make friends of anyone close enough to feel any of the effects, and we should be wary of deluding ourselves into thinking that we can weed terrorists out of a sea of innocents by wielding the broadsword of military might.
Naturally, I am not suggesting that Bin Laden and Taliban are akin to the American Revolutionaries in ideology or goals, but military tactics are neutral. Even before the bombings of September 11th, it was clear that everywhere the US increased its military presence, the occupation gave birth to new fits of anti-Americanism. Meanwhile, anti-Americanism in places like Iran was withering on the vine as a new generation comes to grips with an oppressive regime, and forgets the oppression of the US-installed Shah.
If we are truly going to subdue terrorism and lower our profile as a target, we must use tactics that will not lead to the long-term de-stabilization of Southern Asia and the Middle East. If the US continues to pursue the aggressive and destructive tactics it now employs, a new generation of people will grow up feeling the effects of American militarism. We may continue to occupy cities and win military battles, but lose hearts and minds.