Every Fourth of July, I think about the American Revolution and the soldiers of the Continental Army. Throughout most of my life I have been surrounded by the rich history of the Revolution. I grew up in New Hampshire, from where militiamen flocked to Boston following the Battles of Lexington and Concord, fighting at Bunker Hill. New Hampshire native General John Stark led troops in the Saratoga campaign and later penned the state motto “Live Free or Die.” Today, I teach at West Point, the same location Benedict Arnold attempted to sell to the British. The American Revolution surrounds our campus, with Fort Montgomery, John Jay’s homestead, and the New Windsor Cantonment all nearby.
The American Revolution is cast, in many Americans’ eyes, as a struggle between a righteous band of oppressed patriotic Americans and a tyrannical or, at best, coldhearted British government. While I wear the uniform of the United States Army, I am a direct descendant of the men and women who went to battle with what they had access to in their households and on their farms, fighting against the most powerful military on the planet who controlled operations from an ocean away. My own service in Afghanistan has an odd echo. There, I waged counterinsurgency warfare in the streets and valleys of a nation far from home against people who fought me with what they had at hand. Was I the modern-day redcoat?
So why are we reluctant to call the American Revolution an insurgency? Why are the minutemen of Lexington and Concord not framed as insurgents in our texts and staff rides? Why do we consistently view insurgents as the other side? After figuring out how many coolers I needed (the answer was two), I pondered more about the nature of conflict and the American Revolution as I loaded the truck to go to the lake. To be fair, not everyone in the Department of Defense shies away from defining or examining the American Revolution as an insurgency, but the overwhelming image is that our forefathers were not insurgents.
Defining an Insurgency
First, I needed to find a good working definition of insurgency. Being a soldier, I first turned to FM 3-24, Insurgency and Countering Insurgencies, defines an insurgency as “a struggle for control and influence, generally from a position of relative weakness, outside existing state institutions.” While a good definition, it lacks a clear framework for determining what an insurgency seeks to achieve. Joint Publication 3-24, Counterinsurgency, leads off with a stronger definition: “the organized use of subversion and violence to seize, nullify, or challenge political control of a region.” To examine the American Revolution I broke JP 3-24’s definition down into three component parts:
- Were the rebelling colonists an organized force?
- Did they challenge political control of a region?
- Did they use subversion and violence to achieve their ends?
The answer to all three questions is a resounding yes.
On organization there is no doubt that the colonists fit the definition. They were both politically and militarily organized for resistance. Following the passage of the Stamp Act of 1765, the Sons of Liberty formed as an entity to contest British rule. They organized various acts of local resistance to the Stamp Act—tarring and feathering tax collectors, burning down the office of a local stamp distributor, and ultimately organizing the Boston Tea Party, where members of the group raided a British merchant vessel at port in Boston, tossing its cargo into the bay.
Later, in opposition to the Coercive Acts, committees of correspondence formed in the thirteen colonies to further organize and resist. Committees agreed to send delegates to a continental congress, who set about governing the colonies, organizing foreign support, and eventually declaring independence. On June 19, 1775, the Second Continental Congress appointed George Washington as commander in chief of the Continental Army. The Continental Army was similar to many other armies of the day, with a formal rank structure, standing units, and regional militia forces. The organization of a political resistance in conjunction with a military wing echoes what the Taliban did in Afghanistan, where insurgent leaders served in shadow governments or as military commanders or lobbied internationally for support.
Challenging Political Control
The colonists aligned with Washington and the Continental Congress also challenged British political control. Seeking freedom from British rule entirely was too extreme to be palatable to most colonists early on. The Sons of Liberty initially popularized their effort as a fight against taxation without representation. However, tensions between the British government and the colonists escalated over time to the point where the members of the Second Continental Congress decided to take the drastic action of declaring independence from their mother country.
Use of Violence and Subversion
Whether throwing tea into Boston Harbor or engaging in open and regular warfare at Yorktown, there can be no doubt the American patriots used violence and subversion to achieve their political objectives. From Thomas Paine’s Common Sense calling for colonial independence to Paul Revere’s propaganda print broadcasting British cruelty after the Boston Massacre, subversion took place early and often. Violence escalated over time from targeted violence against tax collectors or stamp agents to full-scale intrastate war. As countless monuments, national parks, and even the imagery of the National Guard attest, violence was indeed central to achieving colonial political goals.
Were We the Good Guys?
With the criteria needed for an insurgency so clearly met, why do we so seldom hear the colonists referred to with this label? My initial thought was that it had to do with constant conflict with insurgencies that the United States has been in over the past two decades. After all, even JP 3-24 is called Counterinsurgency. If insurgents are our current enemy, who would want to tar our own forefathers with such a dirty word? Perhaps joint leadership today, having grown and commanded in the post-9/11 world, was reluctant to linguistically tie our legacy to insurgents and an insurgency lest anyone become confused that we are the good guys. However, this reasoning falls short because histories of the American Revolution started long before our most recent counterinsurgency efforts.
Looking to the generation of my grandfathers, even then insurgencies were far from the mind of government information campaigns. World War II propaganda posters do not project the American soldier as an inheritor of an insurgent legacy. In Bernard Perlin’s famous “Americans Will Always Fight for Liberty” poster, American soldiers in 1943 march in review past a formation of Revolutionary soldiers with the date 1778 above them. Conventional contemporary troops are on parade for conventional colonial troops. In another reference to 1778, an Office of Emergency Management poster encourages Americans to save food and equipment using an image of a Continental soldier at Valley Forge. While he looks the worse for wear, the background is clearly a military encampment, complete with cannons, blockhouses, and a flagpole, all of which are far from an insurgency waged in the swamps, forests, and cities of the colonies.
Winners Write the History
Perhaps the apocryphal Winston Churchill quote, “History is written by the victors,” can shed light on the willing disassociation from an insurgent American Revolution. In this hypothesis, the United States itself does not wish its founders to be viewed as insurgents. After all, JP 3-24’s definition of does not state that the original governing authority is unjust. Instead, JP 3-24 presents a sterile definition of one entity disrupting society in a fight against the status quo. In creating a new nation, our forefathers took considerable effort to argue the morality of their decision to throw off the yoke of British oppression. On this holiday weekend, I give thanks to the insurgents, revolutionaries, patriots, freedom fighters, or whatever other titles are given to the founders for the bold actions they took to bring the country I call home into being.
Maj. Sean Marquis is an infantry officer who teaches in the Defense and Strategic Studies program at the United States Military Academy. He has served in a variety of infantry assignments, including command at the company level. He holds a BA in political science from the University of New Hampshire and an MA from Boston University’s Pardee School of Global Studies.
The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Declaration of Independence by John Trumbull (1826), courtesy of the Architect of the Capitol
From our article above:
"The American Revolution is cast, in many American’s eyes, as a struggle between a righteous band of oppressed patriotic Americans and a tyrannical or, at best, cold-hearted British government. While I wear the uniform of the United States Army, I am a direct descendant of the men and women who went to battle with what they had access to on their households and farms, fighting against the most powerful military on the planet who controlled operations from an ocean away. My own service in Afghanistan has an odd echo. There, I waged counterinsurgency warfare in the streets and valleys of a nation far from home against people who fought me with what they had at hand. Was I the modern-day Redcoat?"
To (possibly) help answer this question, let us consider the following from David Kilcullen's "Counterinsurgency Redux:"
"Similarly, in classical theory, the insurgent initiates. Thus, Galula asserts that ‘whereas in conventional war, either side can initiate the conflict, only one – the insurgent – can initiate a revolutionary war, for counter-insurgency is only an effect of insurgency’. Classical theorists therefore emphasise the problem of recognising insurgency early. Thompson observes that ‘at the first signs of an incipient insurgency … no one likes to admit that anything is going wrong. This automatically leads to a situation where government countermeasures are too little and too late.’ But in several modern campaigns – Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Chechnya, for example – the government or invading coalition forces initiated the campaign, whereas insurgents are strategically reactive (as in ‘resistance warfare’). Such patterns are readily recognisable in historical examples of resistance warfare, but less so in classical counter-insurgency theory."
Politically, in many cases today, the counter-insurgent represents revolutionary change, while the insurgent fights to preserve the status quo of ungoverned spaces, or to repel an occupier – a political relationship opposite to that envisaged in classical counter-insurgency. Pakistan's campaign in Waziristan since 2003 exemplifies this. The enemy includes al-Qaeda-linked extremists and Taliban, but also local tribesmen fighting to preserve their traditional culture against twenty-first-century encroachment. The problem of weaning these fighters away from extremist sponsors, while simultaneously supporting modernisation, does somewhat resemble pacification in traditional counter-insurgency. But it also echoes colonial campaigns, and includes entirely new elements arising from the effects of globalisation."
From the perspective offered by Kilcullen above, MAJ Marquis' question above ("Was I the modern-day Redcoat?"), this could only be answered in the affirmative if — back in the days of the American revolution —
a. The British were attempting to "modernize" the American colonies/were attempting to achieve "revolutionary" political, economic, social and/or value change there — this, much as the U.S./the West has attempted to do in places like Afghanistan recently? And:
b. The Americans — much like "tribesmen" described by Kilcullen in his second paragraph above — were resisting this such "modernization" process/were resisting this such "revolutionary" activity. Herein, fighting and dying so as to maintain their traditional culture and the status quo?
Here is another quote from Kilcullen's "Counterinsurgency Redux:"
The term ‘classical counter-insurgency’ describes the theory of counter-revolutionary warfare developed in response to the so-called wars of national liberation from 1944 to about 1980. The term ‘counter-insurgency’ was invented in this period, which produced a canon of works now regarded as classics (and listed as such in the latest US counter-insurgency manual). Key theorists included David Galula, Robert Thompson, Frank Kitson, Bernard Fall, Mao Zedong, Che Guevara and Vo Nguyen Giap. These classics still colour the modern view of earlier theorists like T.E. Lawrence, Louis Lyautey and C.E. Callwell (whose works are often seen through the lens of 1960s counter-insurgency). Classical counter-insurgency thus constitutes a dominant paradigm through which practitioners approach today's conflicts – often via the prescriptive application of ‘received wisdom’ derived by exegesis from the classics. The 1960s theorists cast a long shadow, but current field experience seems to indicate their ‘classic’ version of counter-insurgency is less relevant for current conflicts."
From this such perspective (current field experience seems to indicate that the so-called wars of national liberation are less relevant for current conflicts today); from this such perspective, can see MAJ Marquis' service in places like Afghanistan, today, in simple "British" or "tribesman" terms?
Another way of looking at MAJ Marquis' question: "Was I a modern-day Redcoat?":
As Joseph Schumpeter notes below, one of the main purposes of "colonization," back-in-the-day, this was to (a) overcome the "cultural backwardness" problems of various native peoples; this, so that (b) "normal economic intercourse" (commerce and trade) could thereby be achieved in areas abroad.
"Where the cultural backwardness of a region makes normal economic intercourse dependent on colonization, it does not matter, assuming free trade, which of the ‘civilized’ nations undertakes the task of colonization."
(See the first paragraph of Schumpeter's "State Imperialism and Capitalism.")
a. We might see MAJ Marquis' actions in Afghanistan of late; this, from the perspective of overcoming the "cultural backwardness" problems of the Afghan natives; this, so that "normal economic intercourse" could thereby be achieved there,
b. Can we really see the British Redcoats' actions, in the American colonies back-in-the-day, from that exact same perspective?
(Probably not? This, given that the Americans saw the British as being the one's having — now outdated — "cultural backwardness" problems; problems which stood in the way of American's optimally benefiting from such things as "normal economic intercourse"/commerce and trade?)
With regard to MAJ Marquis' article and related questions above, let us consider the following re: present-day insurgencies and counterinsurgencies; in this case, as described by Dr. Robert Egnell below:
"Robert Egnell: Analysts like to talk about 'indirect approaches' or 'limited interventions', but the question is 'approaches to what?' What are we trying to achieve? What is our understanding of the end-state? In a recent article published in Joint Forces Quarterly, I sought to challenge the contemporary understanding of counterinsurgency by arguing that the term itself may lead us to faulty assumptions about nature of the problem, what it is we are trying to do, and how best to achieve it. When we label something a counterinsurgency campaign, it introduces certain assumptions from the past and from the contemporary era about the nature of the conflict. One problem is that counterinsurgency is by its nature conservative, or status-quo oriented – it is about preserving existing political systems, law and order. And that is not what we have been doing in Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead, we have been the revolutionary actors, the ones instigating revolutionary societal changes. Can we still call it counterinsurgency, when we are pushing for so much change?
Dhofar, El Savador and the Philippines are all campaigns driven by fundamentally conservative concerns. When we are looking to Syria right now, it is not just about maintaining order or even the regime, but about larger political change. In Afghanistan and Iraq too, we represented revolutionary change. So, perhaps we should read Mao and Che Guevara instead of Thompson in order to find the appropriate lessons of how to achieve large-scale societal change through limited means? That is what we are after, in the end. And in this coming era, where we are pivoting away from large-scale interventions and state-building projects, but not from our fairly grand political ambitions, it may be worth exploring how insurgents do more with little; how they approach irregular warfare, and reach their objectives indirectly."
(See the Small Wars Journal article "Learning From Today’s Crisis of Counterinsurgency" — an interview by Octavian Manea of Dr. David H. Ucko and Dr. Robert Egnell.)
a. Counterinsurgencies are "conservative and status quo oriented" — as Dr. Egnell notes in his first paragraph above — and if, accordingly,
b. Insurgencies, thus, are "liberal" in nature and "achieve revolutionary political, economic, social and/or value change" oriented,
Then MAJ Marquis cannot be a modern-day Redcoat (a modern-day government soldier); this, because:
a. Today's modern-day U.S./Western government soldier — as described by Dr. Egnell (and indeed by David Kilcullen also; see my initial comment above) —
b. These such U.S./Western government soldiers fight against the conservatives; this, so as to overcome — and so as to replace — the status quo.
(Thus, Dr. Egnell's suggestion — in his second paragraph above — that we study Mao, etc.)