Washington: The crying game

JOSEPH J. ELLIS is a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and the author, most recently, of "His Excellency, George Washington."

IT’S A RIDICULOUS question: “What would George Washington do about Iraq?” Well, if you plopped him down in Baghdad, he would be utterly lost. He couldn’t find Iraq on a map. Show him a cellphone, a helicopter or a Humvee and he wouldn’t order them into action, he’d be mesmerized. He is simply unavailable for a conversation about Iraq.

But suppose you could contact him, and suppose you posed a question to him that never mentioned Iraq specifically yet described the fundamental strategic dilemma facing the United States. It might go like this:

“Can a powerful army sustain control over a widely dispersed foreign population that contains a militant minority prepared to resist subjugation at any cost?”


Washington would recognize the strategic problem immediately, because it is a description of the predicament facing the British army in the colonies’ War for Independence.

And, more than anyone else, Washington’s experience during the war as the leader of an American insurgency allowed him to appreciate the inherently intractable problems that faced an army of occupation in any protracted conflict.

Until the winter of 1777-78 at Valley Forge, Washington thought of the war against Britain as a contest between two armies. When the British army presented itself for battle, as it did on Long Island in the summer of 1776, Washington felt honor-bound to fight — a decision that proved calamitous on that occasion and nearly lost the war at the very start. That’s because the British had a force of 32,000 men against his 12,000. If Washington had not changed his thinking, the American Revolution almost surely would have failed because the Continental Army was no match for the British leviathan.

But at Valley Forge, Washington began to grasp an elemental idea: Namely, he did not have to win the war. Time and space were on his side. And no matter how many battles the British army won, it could not sustain control over the countryside unless it was enlarged tenfold, at a cost that British voters would never support. Eventually the British would recognize that they faced an impossibly open-ended mission and would decide to abandon their North American empire. Which is exactly what happened.

The implications for U.S. policy in Iraq are reasonably clear, and they pretty much endorse the recommendations of the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group. Like the British decision to subjugate the American colonies, the Bush decision to democratize Iraq has been misguided from the start. The administration never appreciated the odds against its success, and it disastrously confused conventional military superiority with the demands imposed on an army of occupation.

No man in American history understood those lessons better than Washington, who viewed them as manifestations of British imperial arrogance, which he described as “founded equally in Malice, absurdity, and error.” If dropped into Baghdad, he would weep at our replication of the same imperial scenario.