Thursday, January 27, 2005

The Deadly Triangle

"Triangularity of struggle" is a term coined by historian John Shy to describe the essential dynamic in wars for control of a population. Such wars are three-cornered. One belligerent force contends against the other in combat, but both contend for the allegiance of the population. You can attempt to win that allegiance through magnanimity--think Mao's Eight Points for Attention--or you can win it through intimidation and terror. You can even use a combination of the two. But the point is, who wins the victories in open battle matters less than who wins the victory for control of the people's allegiance.

Those kinds of war occur far more often than people think. Iraq is currently such a struggle. Vietnam in 1945-1975 was quite famously so. The phrase was "hearts and minds" back then, but it was the same idea. Reconstruction in the American South during 1868-1876 was such a struggle. And--very much to the point with regard to my undergrads tonight, urgently cramming for the midterm and IMing me with questions--so was the war for the American colonies in 1775-1783.

In a classic essay entitled "The Military Conflict Considered as a Revolutionary War," Shy noted that the war for American independence was fought not just on the battlefields between the British and the Continental Army. It was fought in communities and countrysides. The second contest was amorphous. It could be lethal, and it was not infrequently cruel, but it did not depend on bloodshed to achieve its aim. It depended instead on social coercion, and in this contest the militia played the most crucial role.

It is probably true that complete repression could have worked--in theory. But America was far too large and far too distant for the British to deploy sufficient strength to accomplish this. The closest approach was the use of Loyalist militia to control areas won by regular British forces, so that regular forces could move on to other areas.

This attempt at area pacification failed. For one thing, Loyalists didn't follow the program--inaugurated harsh repression (similar to what they themselves had earlier experienced at the hands of the revolutionaries.) Such repression was insufficient to cow the revolutionaries. Indeed, more often than not it spurred them to greater resistance.

For another, the revolutionary combatants--the militia and irregular forces--ultimately prevailed in this vicious petite guerre.

"By 1780-81," Shy concludes, "earlier in some places, most Americans, however weary, unhappy, or apathetic toward the rebellion they might be, were fairly sure of one thing: the British government no longer could or would maintain its presence, and sooner or later the rebels would return. Under these circumstances, civilian attitudes could no longer be manipulated by British policies or actions."

I've no idea how things will work out in Iraq. I was deeply skeptical of the decision to invade, and it's hard for me to make a convincing case to myself that we are succeeding. Substitute "Iraqi people" for "most Americans," replace "British" with "American," and you have a not unreasonable prognosis for the outcome. Note the wording: not unreasonable. Didn't say it would happen. Am not predicting it. All I'm saying is that the deadly triangle is in full operation.

Update: After posting the above I visited Victor Davis Hanson's site and plugged "hearts and minds" into search engine. Sure enough, VDH recognizes the dynamic but has a more optimistic take. Actually, with VDH "optimistic" isn't the word. Too sunny in tone. How about a more Churchillian take?

Further (and gratuitous) update: Student ratings of VDH

1 comment:

Dolski said...

Hello All,
I recently looked at the VDH website referred to in this blog entry and wanted to impart an impression gained from one of the articles posted there. The title is "Stories of Imperial Collapse Are Getting Old," and here is the link just in case you are interested in it:

I thought the piece went a little beyond mere optimism, to the point of being dangerously ultra-patriotic. However I generally agree with the premise behind the work, which seems to be a refutation of the conventional wisdom currently popular which states that the US is an empire on the verge of collapsing. (Are we about to collapse, are we even an empire?) That being said, I think that Hanson supports his view with tenuous assertions that paper over the difficulties the US will face in the near future, while over-blowing the inability of the rest of the world to effectively compete with us.

The article was worth reading, as it provoked interesting questions that are pertinent to issues covered in this blog, such as those dealing with the military history metanarrative or postcolonial/postmodern history. If anything, the VDH site promises to cast an interesting light on some of the discussions held here.