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Back In the Day We Were a Punk Rock People

Today we pass the dubious milestone of 1800 American soldiers killed in Iraq.

You know, there was a time when Americans didn't take crap from incompetent and duplicitous leaders.

To the Massachusetts provincial soldiers huddled against the cold in huts near Stillwater, New York, the year 1758 dawned bleakly, and not only because they remembered the previous summer's defeats. The eighty men of Captain Ebenezer Learned's company had come to think of their enemies not so much as the Indians and French as cold weather, short rations, and their own British superiors. Learned's provincials -- farmers, laborers, and artisans from central and western Massachusetts -- had enlisted in the spring of 1757 to serve for a campaign that they understood would last only until November 30. Because their notions of military obligation were no less contractual than those of New Englanders gener­ally, it had come as "a greate & unexpected disappointment" to learn, as their tour of duty was about to end, that Lord Loudoun had ordered them to remain in service until Candlemas (February 2, 1758).

Loudoun had extended the enlistments of Learned's and three other Massachusetts companies because he needed men to garrison the block­houses and forts north of Albany. The fall of Fort William Henry had laid the region open to enemy raids, and in September he had asked the assemblies of New York, New Jersey, and the New England colonies to recruit rangers to defend it over the winter. Nobody questioned the need -- had anyone done so, the French and Indian destruction of Ger­man Flats in early November, a raid that resulted in the deaths of 50 set­tlers and the seizure of 150 more, would have made it undeniable -- and despite their lack of enthusiasm for the additional expenditure, most of the assemblies acceded to Loudoun's demand. But Massachusetts, unlike the other colonies, garrisoned a chain of forts and blockhouses along its own frontier, and its general court refused to raise the men Loudoun asked because the province was already carrying more than its share of the burden. With the German Flats incident on his mind, Lord Loudoun found this even more exasperating than the usual colonial obstinacy and so dealt with it directly. On November 18, as the provincials were disbanding, he detained 360 Massachusetts soldiers, advanced them two months' pay from his own funds, and ordered them to remain in ser­vice -- or suffer the consequences.

Captain Learned's men had acquiesced but among themselves agreed not to serve beyond the time for which they had been paid. Learned had returned to Massachusetts on sick leave, and when he returned in early January his men told him that they planned to march for home on February 3. Rather than upbraiding them for their lack of loyalty or warning them of the consequences of desertion, Learned offered to represent their case to Captain Philip Skene, the regular who commanded at Stillwater. If Skene refused to make some reasonable accommodation, Learned said, he would lead the "retreat" himself. In the meantime his men continued to save food out of their rations to provision the journey home and improved their leisure hours by making snowshoes. According to a nineteen-year-old private in the company, Rufus Putnam, when Candlemas ("the day. . . that we wished for") arrived,

we were all ordered into the Fort whe[re] Capt. Skean read a part of a letter to us, that Major General Abercrombie sent to him, the con­tents of which was this. You are hereby required to persuade the Massachusetts [men] that are under your care to tarry a few days longer, till I shall hear from their government, to know what the government intends to do with them. To these orders, there was answer made by some of our Company, that they looked upon him to be a good soldier that tarried till his time was out; and that the Province had no business to detain us any longer; neither would we be detained any longer by any power that they could raise. He told us that if any man had been duly enlisted into His Majesty's service and should leave the same, without a Regular Discharge, he should Suf­fer Death. We told him we did not value that, for according to our Enlistment, neither they nor the Province could hold us any longer, and that we did not break the Court Act by going off.

At three o'clock the next morning, leaving behind only a second lieutenant to care for ten men who were too sick to walk, Ebenezer Learned's company -- with its captain and first lieutenant in the lead -- marched for home. Seven days later, half-starved, frostbitten, and minus their mascot ("a large dog" they had eaten two days earlier) they staggered into Hawks's Fort in Charlemont, Massachusetts. The garrison received them "very Kindly," offering the deserters food and a place to rest before send­ing them on their way. No one at the fort seems to have thought that Learned's men had done anything wrong. Indeed, the hospitality they offered gives us every reason to believe that the provincials at Charlemont admired the deserters' willingness to brave the winter woods rather than remain at Stillwater without enlistment contracts to protect them from enslavement.

"He is a good Soldier that Serves his time out" was a maxim as transparently true to the soldiers of the Bay Colony as it was unmeaning and pernicious to Captain Philip Skene and his fellow regular officers in America, adherents of a military system based on the gospel of subordi­nation and discipline, men with neither time nor sympathy for contractu­alist sophistry. That whole companies of soldiers, together with their officers, would defy the king's officers in the name of a supposed princi­ple, was a fact significant in ways Lord Loudoun never quite grasped. Soon, however, he would discover that soldiers who defied his authority to preserve what they called their rights were the least of his problems.

The small saga of Ebenezer Learned's company bears retelling because it illuminates the larger pattern of resistance to imperial author­ity that was emerging in New England at the beginning of 1758. Even as Learned's men floundered through the snowdrifts of the Green Moun­tains, politicians in the Massachusetts Assembly were gathering their resolve to challenge Lord Loudoun on issues that went to the very heart of his power as commander in chief.

From Crucible of War: The Seven Years' War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766 by Fred Anderson, pp. 219-221.


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This would seem to point us towards the idea of "liberals" in the US military (or just general citizenry) eventually staging a violent revolution against the Federal government and having a very strong precedent for doing so. Do you think civil war in the US is a possibility?

No, I don't think this points us to people staging a violent revolution. There is no violence in the passage at all, except for the violence the provincials are threatened with if they don't do what they are told.

I think it points us toward a time when people held their leaders accountable for their incompetence and duplicity, and if the leaders were found wanting the people booked on them.

You'll note that the provincials actually showed a good deal of forbearance, staying on for the extra two months. And when that wasn't good enough for their leaders, they bailed.

The country now knows we were lied or otherwise manipulated into a worse than useless war in Iraq. What I don't get is why we are satisfied with there being no consequences for the incompetent and duplicitous leaders who got us there. Back in the day, we'd book on these clowns. That is, we weren't afraid to inflict penalties on lousy leaders. I wish that was still true of us. I'm talking about the public here, not the soldiers in combat. The grunts can't be expected to book on their commanders when the people back home can't summon the backbone to stand up to an incompetent and duplicitous commander-in-chief.

And, no, I don't think civil war in the U.S. is even a remote possibility at the moment.

Something that I keep seeing over and over and over again among Americans, in this matter as in others, is a bone-deep reluctance to deal with unpleasantness. Holding GWB's feet, and those of his minions, to the fire involves unpleasantness. Giving someone a real explanation of why you want to break up with them involves unpleasantness. Watergate involved a lot of unpleasantness; people got mad at the Washington Post for "going after" Nixon, and the media, both print and electronic, doesn't want to deal with that sort of unpleasantness again. Complaining to the management about poor service, or failure to repair things, might involve unpleasantness. God forbid that we should have to deal with unpleasantness. It might be unpleasant.

Needless to say, here power devolves into the hands of those who are willing to either risk dealing with unpleasantness, or be unpleasant themselves (if Karl Rove is coming to mind about now there's a reason).

This spinelessness on our collective parts is childish, selfish, and destructive, but hey, it's easier to disappear and pretend you've been kidnapped, than to tell your friends and family that your wedding plans are out of control and you'd really rather get married at the courthouse than go along one minute longer with the plans for the ultimate wedding extravaganza with 7 or 14 or whatever bridesmaids.

The American Revolution was won by a minority. If it had been left to the majority, both North and South, the American Civil War would not have happened, and slavery would not have come to an end. It would have involved being unpleasant, and unless we, as individuals, are severely affected, we're all too likely to decide we can put up with almost anything rather than deal with something unpleasant.

Yeah, I'm ranting.

No, we aren't going to have a civil war. It would involve unpleasantness.

I have the best commenters.

I so agree with your rant, but would add that it's not entirely an American trait. It's just that we tell ourselves we are the Home of the Brave when in fact most of the time, as you say, we are the home of the chickenshits.

What makes many of the BBC journalists an absolute joy to watch is their fearlessness w/r/t being unpleasant. Over and over again they call bullshit on their interviewees, whether that person is a representative of some thug-nation bureaucracy or some toad from the Bush Administration (wait... aren't those the same thing...?)

Of course, the first thing you hear them criticized for over here is their "unpleasantness".

No, we aren't the only avoidant types on the block, but we make such a big deal out of what big, bad, chest-beaters we all are, as a nation, that this quality makes for an interesting comparison. People who hear us squall should always keep it in mind.

Of course you get interesting commenters. You give them interesting things to think about, including Rube Goldbergian cat box systems.

Heh, the cat box is a leading contender in my Google stats, though no one has ever written to tell me they actually tried it themselves. I think, yes, they look on it in awe, but then turn away, much like the response people have while witnessing an embarrassing family scene at Thanksgiving, or something.

I was not referring to the story you posted, but to the eventual rise and revolution of the American colonists later. Approximately 20 years later, in fact. However, I tend to agree with the rest of the posters that US citizens are not really into giving up their possessions and comforts to speak truth to power. If it involves signing a petition, or even holding a house party, they can do it - and even that level of activity took a great deal of angst and horror to provoke.

Also, keep in mind that for Joe Sixpack the situation in Iraq is just an abstraction. Very few Americans have had to make commitments or sacrifices based on the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Yeah, it's on the news every night and no one likes seeing 19-year-olds from Des Moines getting killed or being seperated from their extremities. However, you can still go out Wal-Mart and buy your case of Bud Light for the big stock car race on Sunday. Start interfering with *that*, and you'll see some people getting seriously pissed off. I know that I'm being a little flip, but I do think that the essential true is that an intrinsic part of the legendary American rugged individualism is selfishness. No serious political punishment is going to be meted out until the masses see a direct effect on themselves.

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