Nothing beats turning the pages of a good book, but I confess that being able to download a volume onto my iPod transforms a long car trip turn into something special. That’s exactly what I did recently with the added dividend of David McCullough’s sonorous voice reading his own 1776. Like all McCullough books, it’s a great “read”, history beautifully told. This book was not merely satisfying. Whether intentional or not, it was surprisingly timely. What’s striking and often forgotten about 1776, a year that we celebrate with too little introspection, is how hard it was. We take Empire America so for granted, that we forget what an ill equipped rag tag bunch of novices fought for its Independence. To be sure Washington was a charismatic and towering (literally) figure but, as McCullough points out, a general with no combat experience surrounded by more on-the-job trainees than officers as we think of them today. The citizen soldiers who fought for the colonies were a tattered, often shoeless, lot. The British boasted the greatest military (Army and Navy) of its day – spit and polish with all the necessary tools of war within arm’s reach. By every measure, Washington with his inept grossly outnumbered fighting force (calling them an army is misleading) should have lost and decisively so. They did not. They were fighting for their land and the right to determine their own destiny, an unbeatable combination.
Does this have a familiar and immediate ring, like you just read it in today’s Times? You bet it does. 1776 wasn’t the only time in history that we’ve seen how the odds can be turned on their head when people are fighting for their homeland. Nor is it the only time the British confronted a rebellion of the under equipped. Remember India and Pakistan? And let’s not forget the odds against outnumbered little Israel prevailing in its war of independence. And how about Viet Nam (which supposedly is something totally different) where we were thinking creeping Communism and dominoes while the Vietnamese were fighting for homeland? Israel (with reversed fortunes as the dominant power) is about to vacate Gaza where, whatever their monstrous means, Palestinians have been fighting for their homeland too.
Perhaps there is a war on terrorism. But as with the war against Communism, it’s one that conveniently is used as cover when the cause at hand can't be justified. It isn’t simply that we shouldn’t be in Iraq but that 1776, the year and the book, informs us that we can’t possibly win when people think they are fighting for homeland and real self determination. Sure there are some non-Iraqi fighters involved in this conflict, many but probably not all of them terrorist jihadists. We got some help from the French in our war for independence and the Vietnamese had allies as well. Who has joined someone’s side and even the tactics they use doesn’t change the reality that we don’t want to see, admit, or remember from our own history. An Iraqi involved in writing their constitution complained to a reporter yesterday of being rushed by the Americans so that George Bush could claim a success. OK Mr. Bush, he said, you’ve had a success, now go away and let us write our constitution in our own time – it will take time to get it right. I guess some of our people in Washington have lost sight of the fact that, once completed, the Iraqi’s will have to live by that constitution or have forgotten how hard it is to change documents like that once they’ve been adopted.
David McCullough’s 1776 is a terrific book about a pivotal year. Too bad with all our bravado, flag waving and lapel buttons that we’ve forgotten its lessons.