Channelling George Washington: Hating Things Military


Mr. Fleming is a former president of the Society of American Historians. This is the latest in a series of articles, "Channelling George Washington."

“Have you read a single newspaper or magazine story anywhere describing one of our soldiers in Afghanistan doing anything courageous or admirable?”

“Now that you mention it, General—no.”

“This hostility to the military is sad and ultimately dangerous.  I wonder if anyone realizes how far back it goes?”

“I don’t think anyone has thought about it that way.”

“I saw it begin as a general—and I had to cope with it as a president.”

“Now you’ve got me intrigued.  I had no idea you were a witness of this phenomenon.  Like most Americans, I thought it had first erupted in the Vietnam War.”

“It started in the American Revolution.  There was a cadre of politicians in Congress, loosely led by Sam Adams, who hated the idea of a regular army.  They never abandoned the idea that militia—untrained amateurs with patriotic spirit—could fight just as well.  They persisted in regarding the Continental Army—the regular army I founded in 1775—as a threat to the nation’s freedom and an unnecessary expense.”

“Amazing.  How did this play out?”

“Sam and his friends were constantly on the alert for the slightest sign that I or other officers were being disrespectful to Congress.  They were all left-wing democrats at heart.  They didn’t respect an organization where the leaders weren’t elected.  This led to an ugly clash with General Benedict Arnold that had a lot to do with making him a traitor.”

“Could you add a few details to that story?”

“I made Arnold military commander of Philadelphia in the summer of 1778, after the British retreated to New York.  Congress banned a theater that had operated during the British occupation.  No one paid any attention to them.  Congress’s popularity was on its way down to the nadir of 1783, when it became a national joke.  Arnold went to a play.  Congress furiously denounced him and launched an investigation into his conduct.  They found a conflict of interest in him doing business using government wagons, and demanded I court martial him.”

“Weren’t these idiots aware that Arnold was your best field commander?  The man who won the battle of Saratoga?”

“That cut no ice with these ideologues.  Arnold started wondering if he could get more respect from the British.  He had a fiancé who was a secret Loyalist.  The rest, as they say, is history.  I say it’s history that wouldn’t have happened if Congress had shown any judgment.”

“Were there other outbreaks of hostility between the politicians and the army?”

“In 1783, we were on the brink of victory.  The officers asked Congress to pay the pensions it had promised them if they stayed in the service until we won the war.  When Congress refused, claiming to be bankrupt, some officers threatened to march on them.  I defused the situation by reminding them that they were men of honor.  A number of congressmen launched a smear campaign against these soldiers, portraying them as greedy would-be aristocrats.  Pretty soon the hostility spread to the whole regular army.  Officers and men were derided and mocked when they came home, most of them penniless.”

“Did this hostility persist after we became independent?”

“Definitely.  When I resigned as commander of the Continental Army, I urged Congress to fund a small regular army, they ignored me.  This attitude persisted in the Congress that served with me when I became president in 1789.  If anything the hostility was more virulent.”

“This will surprise a lot of people.”                 

“The anti-army politicians clustered around Thomas Jefferson.  They orated about a standing army as a threat to our liberty—and pointed out it was expensive in the bargain.  They absolutely refused to let me create one, even though we were soon at war.”

“Who were we fighting?”

“The Indian tribes who lived in the Mississippi and Ohio River Valleys.  The British, in one of their classic double-crosses, refused to cede the territory between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi to us.  We had won it in the peace treaty we signed with them at the end of the Revolution.  King George’s men continued to maintain forts and garrisons at key points and armed the Indians.  They urged them to massacre any and all American men, women and children who came west to settle on these lands.  The goal was to confine an independent America to the Atlantic seaboard.”

“Did we fight back?”

“Of course.  But with no regular army, we had to rely on untrained militia.  I sent two militia armies west in the early 1790s.  Both met horrendous defeats.  I used every pressure at my disposal to persuade Congress to agree to raise a small regular army, enlisted for two years service.  I put one of our best Revolutionary War generals, Anthony Wayne of Pennsylvania, in command.  What do you think Congress did next?”

“I can’t imagine.”

“They refused to let me call it the U.S. Army.  The best I could get from them was “The Legion of the United States.”   I told them that the Constitution made me commander-in-chief of the armed forces and commissioned Wayne a general in the U.S. Army.”

“This is amazing stuff. What happened next?”

“General Wayne trained these men for a year—and led them west to challenge the biggest Indian army ever assembled—almost 2,000 warriors.  He routed them at the Battle of Fallen Timbers, near present day Fort Wayne, Indiana.  Some people call it the last battle of the American Revolution.  Essentially, they’re right.”

“Did it end the war in the west?”

“The British evacuated their forts and we persuaded the Indians to sign a treaty promising to cease their attacks on western settlers.  I asked Congress to congratulate General Wayne.  What do you think these wonderful Jeffersonians did?”

“I can’t imagine.”

“They said it was improper for Congress to congratulate a regular army general and refused.  I told them the president of the United States would send Wayne his personal congratulations.”

“You think this hostility to the regular army has persisted through the decades?”

“Unquestionably.  For a long time it was focused on the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.  There were repeated attempts to abolish the school.  In the 1840s, Congress came within a single vote of succeeding.  But the achievements of West Pointers in the war with Mexico and in the Civil War silenced all criticism for several generations.”

“Did the hostility surface again in the twentieth century?”

“In the 1920s, Nicholas Murray Butler, the president of Columbia University, wrote a nasty attack on West Point, portraying it as a school for morons.  Soldiers, according to this academic worldview, are essentially stupid.  More recently, there has been talk of shutting down West Point because it’s too expensive.  These military know-nothings claim good officers can be educated and trained for half the price at various universities.”

“I wrote a history of West Point during the Vietnam War. I saw first hand the impact the anti-war protestors’ smears of the army as rabid killers had on the officers’ wives and families.  It was ugly stuff.”

“West Point found an answer to that experience, thank goodness. They started teaching their graduates how often the army was attacked and smeared in the past.  They have a perspective which makes them—and the rest of the army—relatively immune to this deplorable habit of mind.”

“Thanks for an important history lesson.”

“I hope someone is listening.”

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More Comments:

Jonathan Dresner - 8/9/2010

It's not clear to me that Mr. Fleming - either speaking as himself or as the President Washington of his Superego - has any understanding of the delicate balance between military and civilian institutions in politically stable and healthy societies. That the US has, until recently, remained cautiously proud of its military heroes and servicepeople is a key element in having avoided over-militarization - the downfall of many other societies in modern history - and the principle of civilian control is one of the Founders' greatest gifts to history.

Some of the Founders, anyway.

Michael Furtado - 8/8/2010

There have been many stories in the media about positive or even heroic actions by US and allied military personnel in Afghanistan:

The stories are there. The courage and heroism are there. Since the military is composed of humans, though there are also stories of less than inspiring actions, cover-ups and official lies. To tell only the good (or the bad) stories would be inapprpriate.