Civil Wars

Yesterday afternoon I was watching this documentary series on the History Channel about the American Revolution (if you missed it, I’m sure they’ll show it again next July 4th). One episode was about Britain’s southern strategy and how it all went wrong. The British, you see, had stepped into a hornet’s nest in the Carolinas. Loyalist and Patriot militias were terrorizing the countryside. The British made matters worse by issuing an “if you aren’t with us, you’re against us” decree. They looked at the situation as putting down a revolt. What was really going on, however, was what could be considered the first American civil war.

On paper it seemed simple enough. The British had the support of the Loyalist militias, while the small Continental army had the support of the Patriot militias. The war, however, was much more complicated on the ground. The various militias used the war as an excuse to settle old scores, seize disputed land, and persecute vendettas. Attacks led to retribution, which led to counter-attacks and so on. In hundreds of small battles American fought American with nary a redcoat a sight. It was a vicious circle of sectarian violence and the British army walked into the middle of it. They didn’t know the lay of the land or the local politics. Their only real chance was to corner and destroy the Continental army and hope the countryside would fall in line. When this failed, their southern strategy was in shambles.

I’m sure the astute among you can see the parallels with the quagmire in Iraq. The biggest difference is that the British at least had a rebel army it could attack in open battle. The American army in Iraq doesn’t even have that as a target. Nor does it really have the support of a group like the Loyalists. The army is simply stuck in the midst of a civil war, with no clear goals and no realistic strategy. Such are the perils of imperialist ambitions.

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