My expectation is you will have ignored all the words save the last and checked out this post for the COIN content. Don’t worry; on that score you will not be disappointed – eventually. To get there, however, you first must indulge the military historian to present a reintroduction of some old documents. The general historical commentary thereon will be made tolerable by a bit of fun about a dog, and who won’t enjoy that? Then, we’ll address the COIN content of the documents.
The documents in question are a series of correspondence between Generals William Howe and George Washington in October 1777. At that time the British Army is in occupation of the Colonial capitol of Philadelphia, and the substance of the letters deals with the Continental Army’s disabling of several grain mills in the vicinity of British acquisition. Welcome to a very fine example of logistics warfare. Before leaving you to read them for yourself, I offer the recommendation that you do so out loud – the drama of the language certainly benefits from it.
To GENERAL Washington:
Head Quarters, 3 October 1777.
Sir, Your Parties having destroyed several Mills in the adjacent Country, which can only distress the peaceable Inhabitants residing in their Houses, I am constrained from a Regard to their Sufferings, and a sense of the Duty I owe to the Public, to forewarn you of the Calamities which may ensue, and to express my Abhorrence of such a Proceeding. At the same Time I am inclined to believe, that the Outrages already committed have not been in consequence of your Orders, and that this early Notice will engage you to put an effectual Stop to them; If not, I do in the most direct Terms disclaim any share in creating the general Scene of Distress among the Inhabitants, which such Destruction must inevitably cause. With due respect, I am, &c.
To SIR WILLIAM HOWE
Head Quarters, 6 October 1777.
Sir: I cannot forbear assuring you, that I am somewhat at a Loss to understand the design of your Letter of the 3d. instant. I can hardly believe you to be serious in remonstrating against a proceedure [sic] fully Authorized by the common practice of Armies, countenanced by the Conduct of your own Troops at Trenton, and obviously calculated to answer a purpose very different from that of distressing the Inhabitants and increasing the common calamities incident to a State of War. If this is a consequence of it, it is an unavoidable one, and had no part in producing the Measure.
I flatter myself the Public is sufficiently sensible, that it is not my wish nor aim to distress, but to protect the Inhabitants, and know how to interpret any thing, that with respect to Individuals, may seem to deviate from this end. Nor will they be easily persuaded to consider it, as any injustice or Cruelty to them, that my parties should have rendered useless for a time a few Mills in the Neighbourhood of your Army, which were so situated as to be capable of affording them no inconsiderable Advantages.
I am happy to find you express so much sensibility to the sufferings of the Inhabitants, as it gives room to hope, that those wanton and unnecessary depredations, which have heretofore, in too many instances, marked the conduct of your Army, will be discontinued for the future. The instances I allude to need not be enumerated, your own Memory will suggest them to your imagination, from the destruction of Charles Town in the Massachusetts, down to the More recent burning of Mills, Barnes and Houses at the Head of Elk, and in the vicinity of the Schuylkill. I am etc.
To SIR WILLIAM HOWE
6 October 1777
General Washington’s compliments to General Howe. He does himself the pleasure to return him a dog, which accidentally fell into his hands, and by the inscription on the Collar, appears to belong to General Howe.*
The dog bit was good, right? The second and third letters run in order in the Papers volume, so one reads of the dog immediately after being immersed in the fraught interchange between two generals at war, and if only for that reason it is such a researcher’s delight. However, it also provides an entry point to engage with the first important aspect of these documents, which is their tone. While their focus is on the substantive matters at issue in the letters, the two Generals are earnest and indignant with each other, if at times also a bit sarcastic. Of course, there is nothing too overt with the last, because within the discourse they remain locked in what I can only describe as the honors and humility Death Match style that governed communications at the time. Each seeking to outdo the other in respect given, it is as if victory went to the party able to abase himself the more to the other. It is not a style one is accustomed to any longer given the acid tone that has overtaken political discourse generally, not to mention that which might proceed between two adversaries.
Next I have to wonder what each hoped to achieve in the exchange. It is as probable as anything else that the direct content of the letters was not the primary purpose for which they were written. Howe had no real standing to make his complaints despite his “sense of Duty…to the Public,”(1) and Washington’s critique of British Army depredations would have had little effect. Thus, we are left to consider what other objectives the letters might have served. Was Howe’s intent to let Washington know that he was aware of the Continental Army’s efforts to block his army’s attempt to live off the local economy? (2) Was it to probe the scope of Washington’s knowledge of his army’s activities, to determine whether such actions were isolated incidents or part of a larger campaign? Or did he just want to tweak his opposing general a bit with the chiding? Washington’s response provides similar room to posit these questions. But really, there’s nothing better than his passage regarding British Army depredations, where he writes that “the instances I allude to need not be enumerated, your own Memory will suggest them to your imagination,” after which he goes on to list the most egregious. Whether “they need not be enumerated,” apparently Washington decided that some amount of emphasis was appropriate.
A third point of consideration regarding the correspondences concerns their political content and how that contrasts with contemporary standards. First there are the technological and bureaucratic changes in the day to day diplomacy of war. In the past century, the advent of mass and rapid communications have enabled the transfer of much of this level of exchange out of the hands of generals and into the hands of professional diplomats and political representatives. But imagine, for example, if Ike and Rommel had maintained a regular correspondence. What might each have learned about the other (as individuals and as representatives of their respective armies), and how might this knowledge have shaped the conduct of the campaigns in Normandy and Western Europe campaigns? While we might imagine without much difficulty that scenario, the idea of COMISAF (3) chatting on a regular basis with the head of the Taliban’s forces is entirely implausible. As well there is the issue that communication with the enemy bestows legitimacy upon their forces and cause. Although this was true in the late 18th century, I would submit that the issue has become more important in the intervening centuries given the increase in the mass politicization of war in the intervening years. Inasmuch as Washington would have been tried as a traitor were the Colonists to fail in their bid for independence (or, for the British audience, disrespectful act of armed rebellion) within the arena of conflict and these exchanges Howe had not the least problem according him the respect of his billet as Commander in Chief of an army.
On a sorry note, however, this means that future historians will not benefit from such sources. My sense of current communications practices in the US military is that official and high level correspondence will be useless in terms of substantive content. These exchanges are boring, brown-nosing, or so domestically politically aware as to contain nothing of use. More dismal still, I just shudder for future PhD researchers slogging through the PowerPoint archives. Not to fear, however, as there will be quality materials, to be found within, among similar sources, the e-mail caches of the officer ranks from senior Captain (post command) to junior Colonel (in/pre command), and their NCO equivalents. The personnel in this echelon have a lot to say, and now, with the internet, they also have a variety of platforms across which to do so. In that vein, I am having visions of the giddy electronic excavation of Doctrine Man’s Facebook wall by future ancient historians.
I also have to add a few words on the fact that the American War for Independence is largely AWOL within these shores. No, the American is NOT pouting that “her” war is missing. This is no mere nationalistic pique being expressed, this is a serious scholarly concern. First, I feel keenly the absence of the perspective of the British side of the war. I think the narrative of the whole event would be vastly more interesting, and I would be a significantly better scholar, were there a clearer, more detailed view of this story. Second, although I understand the reticence to wade into the events of a disappointed past, that’s not a good enough reason for the silence. The shelves of book stores south of the Mason Dixon Line in the US are crammed with the narratives and interpretations of that erstwhile perfidious region’s inglorious military past. (Apparently the Yankee military historian has an opinion or two on that war.) And the Vietnam War is a perennially popular subject for research by American scholars, to give a more contemporary example of a willingness to hash out military failures and flailing. Third, what has been foresworn in military knowledge by this avoidance? The pragmatic decision regarding North American Colonial policy – to cut losses in a conflict not bound to bring strategic and political benefit – might have benefitted the generals of later wars. (4)
I’m sure others could generate more questions or comments regarding the letters – and I hope to see them suggested here in the commentary. The unending prospects for intellectual interrogation comprise the enchanting thing about history, about the documents and the limitless stories that can be explored through them. It is truly an elephant of monstrous proportions. (5)
But I promised you COIN. And that is what you shall get. Or maybe this is about insurgency? I’m not entirely certain which pertains better, but I do know it’s about the strategic importance of popular sentiment towards the armed forces and the governments in war – or as we now call it, Hearts and Minds – and the American War for Independence’s long battle over the support (and resources) of the citizenry local to the migrating theaters of the conflict.
Among the more difficult concepts – to comprehend as well as execute – in COIN theory and doctrine is Hearts and Minds. It may seem an affectionate moniker, but in contemporary western military experience it has been, to put it kindly, an awkward romance. In war, the struggle over the will and support of a local population is a challenge to pursue when the natural preference of any army is for kinetic and coercive tactics. Even many who willingly follow the holy writ on COIN can roll their eyes at the mention of H&M.
At least in the American (if not the western) military tradition I can see several reasons for this skepticism about policies directed at gaining and maintaining the support of local civilians. First, it’s such a fuzzy concept with very few hard and fast means or methods. It often requires that the fight must be sacrificed at times. (By this I mean the destruction of the enemy forces might have to come second to helping, protecting, or otherwise serving the needs of civilians.) Within the effort it can be difficult to mark progress, and even a job well done can take a very long time to manifest results. And sometimes you will need to take a bloody nose in their pursuit. (6) None of these characteristics function well in the rationalistic and prescriptive western military system that has dominated the second half of the 20th century and seems poised to continue at least for a little while, popular though insurgency seems to be these days.
It’s not fun, I get it. Nevertheless, no matter the difficulties one might find with the concept or its implementation, it does no good to try to dismiss the pursuit as something beyond the traditional purview of the armed forces. (I’m talking to the “the point of an army is take the field of battle and fight and defeat the enemy” crowd out there.) The exchange clearly proves that both Howe and Washington made the matters of their armies’ interactions with the civilian communities and how they were treated as strategic, operational, and tactical concerns in their respective commands. (7) And in fact, both generals (and armies) were engaged continuously in activities to sway, coerce, protect, and make use of the populations local to their quarters and battlefields. Dislike it though you might, this concept has historical legs.
I might even go so far as to argue that in the American Revolution and War for Independence the civilians were a decisive front. The disaffected (or just plain greedy) patriots, undecided moderates and outright loyalists provided fertile ground over which the armies could contend. Whether it was political/military support, resources, intelligence or billeting, the local population could sell or submit valuable commodities to the armies – or deny the same to the other. This period of the war is, in fact, exemplary for Washington’s efforts in attention to these issues. In the fall of 1777, his correspondence reflect that he was concerned with the dual problem of denying supplies to the British Army without angering too great a proportion of the local population. His letters to commanders in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland direct them to secure, move, or otherwise dispose of any supplies at risk to the British Army. However, mindful of the sensitivities of the people, he often relied on local magistrates to carry out the actual seizures. (8)
Decisive though it may have been, I would also argue that the civilian front operated differently for each combatant. For the British the objective would have been to gain their support – the popular will was their game to actively pursue and win with an effective seduction. On the other hand, Washington, the Continental Army, the patriot cause, had to work not to alienate the people in the fight against the British Army, and hence it was their game to lose. On balance it is clear that Washington put in the better, more effective effort into his courtship than the rather indifferent and clumsy British.
The importance of this aspect of warfare having thus emerged in the form with which we are familiar today would endure and grow. Its next appearance was fewer than three decades later in the Napoleonic Wars. In the Peninsular War Wellington clearly understood the reasoning behind Washington’s hearts, minds, and agriculture practice, for he takes into account their importance in his planning at Torres Vedras. It is a truism to note that warfare has always included the targeting of sources of food/wealth. However, beginning with Washington, affirmed by Wellington, and remaining true to this day, in the modern era some account of the people’s temper must be taken in such campaigns. This is Washington’s intent when he writes, “I flatter myself the Public is sufficiently sensible, that it is not my wish nor aim to distress, but to protect the Inhabitants, and know how to interpret any thing, that with respect to Individuals, may seem to deviate from this end.” Wellington behaved similarly, particularly as he had, in certain respects, to rely upon the willingness of the civilians to support his campaign to deny the French Army the support and subsistence it required on campaign. (9)
The tendency to take a relatively ahistorical view with respect to COIN and its attendant tactics reflects a curious trend to do so in many areas of defense/military policy. There is always much said about how valuable history is, but very often it gets left out or abused in decisions regarding policy. (10) As concerns COIN, I think there is a sense (a willful deception? desperate hope?) that these are modern, 20th century constructs, and are thus disconnected from the institutional and experiential legacies of contemporary armed forces – and certainly won’t remain important. I can make no guarantees for the future, but the past is unambiguous on the heritage of this component of warfare.
Next time, it will be a discussion of a US Naval Institute’s Proceedings article on limeade at Guadalcanal. Epic stuff indeed. (11)
* The Papers of George Washington Digital Edition: Revolutionary War Series (16 June 1775–14 January 1779): Volume 11 (19 August 1777–25 October 1777), Theodore J. Crackel, Editor in Chief, pp. 384, 409, and 410.
1 Does anyone think that the Crown and Parliament (or their agents) represented the Colonists at this point? No? Good. Even if the war had ended victoriously for the British at that point some form of political dissolution would have been the result.
2 The issue of local sourcing remains important today. Although this logistics plan eliminates certain obstacles, most importantly transport requirements, it can create others. Inflation and local shortages for the civilian market are the most significant effect of army purchasing upon civilians. At the Naval War College, in the Joint Military Operations core course, the Operational Logistics module warns of this to students who are prone to assume that purchasing in-theatre is the most benign (and perhaps even beneficial) logistics plan. For a wealthy army like the British in the American War for Independence this would not have been much of a problem – and it still would have been less costly than bringing it from home or other colonies. Of course, it made Continental Army acquisition that much more difficult, especially as the British could offer the farmers and merchants gold, which was vastly preferred to the increasingly devalued Continental Dollar. For a time the British Army was a financial benefactor to the Continental Army. With the surrender of General Burgoyne’s force at Saratoga and the creation of the Convention Army the British were by treaty required to provide for the subsistence of their soldiers, which they did in gold payments. Of course, the Americans used the gold for its own military acquisition and paid for the rations with Continental money. It took a while, but the British finally caught on to the fact that they were subsidizing the American war effort and provided for the subsistence of their soldiers directly.
3 This is not nearly so satisfying an acronym as COMUSMACV (Commander, United States Military Assistance Command, Vietnam).
4 I’ve heard some say that the American Colonies and War for Independence were not that important to Great Britain at the time or for the succeeding history of the empire. This means they were smart enough to cut their losses – this is no inconsequential achievement and deserves attention to understand better the government’s (ultimately) sensible decision-making, as such does not always characterize policy-making in war. And although it did not take too many bloody noses the first time to get the British Army out of Afghanistan, nor the Soviet Army, today we are 10 years into Afghanistan 3.0 in the modern era. If nothing else, the English might have learned something important about the tenacity of their contemporary alliance partner.
5 No, not the awkward elephant in the room, but rather the elephant of the parable, which, when grasped by eight blind men, was described differently according to the characteristics of the specific part each had examined.
6 My personal take on COIN is that the willingness to take hits for the “people” is so influential to the cause that it is a requirement. We ask military personnel to put their lives at risk in their service, so is not so egregiously cold hearted as it seems. It is no easier, kinder, or more honorable to compass a soldier’s death storming a gun position than protecting a civilian.
7 Let’s be clear; I don’t mean to assert that Howe liked the people. I don’t really know how he felt. However, I do know he realized that the war could be won (the fighting ended) if the rebels (patriots) lost enough popular support.
8 Although he endeavored to use civilian authority where possible, nevertheless to deny supplies to the British Army Washington was willing to be quite as ruthless as he felt necessary. However, when it came to impressments for the support of his army Washington was beyond conservative in his caution. In fact, this reluctance is cited as one of the few time he can be characterized as defiant towards Congressional authority.
9 John Morgan’s article on the logistics plan for Napoleon’s campaign in Spain describes the nightmare encountered by the French as they tried to live off the land in Catalonia. Napoleon’s idea to have “war feed war;” i.e., for Spanish agriculture and taxes to support his army, was a dismal failure. (“War Feeding War? The Impact of Logistics on the Napoleonic Occupation of Catalonia,” JMH, 73, (Jan 2009), pp. 83-16.)
10 For example, clearly someone forgot to do some research prior to OIF – our own experience of throwing off dictatorship clearly demonstrates that nobody likes a foreigner to do the job for you. Here’s the kicker; that lesson was aptly demonstrated by none other than the French in the American War for Independence. And, I think it’s the originating story for the Humpty Dumpty nursery rhyme.
11 If you’re wondering why there are so many footnotes for this thought piece, I should confess I have very many colleagues who quite enjoy them, so I wanted to have a little fun.