Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Down the ages, the phrase ‘we’re all in this together’ is just the prelude to your being ripped off. Again.

I hate it when we turn human beings into secular saints. 

In these sad days, which I fear are going to be the last of Nelson Mandela’s life, I’m particularly dreading the overblown tributes we’re going to be given by people who once declared him a terrorist. Almost as bad as the hypocrisy, however, one of the worst effects of that kind of adulation is that it spreads legends that submerge the truth, making it difficult to discover the reality of the man beneath the myth. And yet the man is always more interesting than the saint.

This thinking was one of the main reasons I’ve tended to keep away from studies of George Washington, despite my fascination with US history. All that stuff about ‘I cannot tell a lie’ and throwing a silver dollar (none of which existed in Washington’s youth) across the Potomac (not his local river and a mile across at its nearest point to him) is just that: so much stuff.

So I’m delighted to be reading Ron Chernow’s masterly study of Washington’s life, racily entitled Washington: a life. An excellent gift from my mother. Chernow only mentions the cherry tree myth to debunk it, and doesn’t even dignify the dollar-across-the-Potomac story by mentioning it at all.

A fine biography of a remarkable man

What emerges is a rounded picture of a noteworthy man.

Let’s say at once that he wasn’t an exceptional general, whatever the legends say. He was unusually courageous, forever exposing himself to fire on the battlefield. In fact, if we did want to canonise him, we might point to the fact that he was never injured (though he did have two horses shot from under him) as evidence of something miraculous. However, a military leader needs more than personal courage, and the verdict of history is that Washington was excellent at planning an action, and successful when everything went to plan; he was however far too slow to adapt when circumstances abruptly changed.

What he did have was another quality which to me seems far more admirable. He understood that as their leader, he had to share his men’s pain. It was the custom in his time for armies to fight only in good weather (in passing, let me say I think that would be an excellent defence policy for Britain: warfare could only take place here on about ten days of the year).

In winter, armies stopped and concentrated on keeping warm. For the Continental Army led by Washington, that was no easy task. Winter after winter, they found themselves trying to shelter from bitter winds and snow, with inadequate clothing and far too little food. Why? Because Congress was practically bankrupt and the States weren’t prepared to finance it properly. So Washington was forced to sit and watch his men wasting in cold and dying of hunger, while all he could do was keep begging for funds.

It made it particularly difficult to hold any kind of force together, because many of his men were on short-term enlistments. Given the terrible conditions, which included long periods without even their pay, it was hard to persuade them to stay and fight again when the next season came round. And yet keeping the army going was all that won the war: the British could, and did, occupy American cities; they could, and did, win battles; but while they couldn’t finally destroy the Continental Army, while it survived to go on harassing them, they couldn’t win the war.

Washington lived in marginally better conditions than his men – usually in a stone house rather than in rickety, overcrowded shacks – but he was there, among them and knew their sufferings. It was that capacity for sacrifice as well as his courage that held his army together and ensured ultimately that the war would be won and the US successfully born.

For that, all Americans owe him a great debt of gratitude, which no doubt inspires the veneration felt for him to this day. However, in among the admiration, it would be well to remember a little more about the behaviour of the Americans of his time.

His armies starved in areas of rich agriculture. There was food around. It just wasn’t getting to his men. Principally, this was because too few people were prepared to dip into their pockets to finance the war. In addition, though, many of the farmers around his encampments preferred to sell their produce to the British, who paid in good, solid, hard currency than to the Congress with its rapidly devaluing credit.

And the farmers were far from alone in putting their pocket books ahead of their country. Far from it. As Washington himself saw on a visit to the capital, many were profiteering from the war, lining their pockets very nicely. And a great many others, without directly turning the war to their advantage, continued to live very comfortably off their civilian incomes, while paying lip service to a common cause to which they expected others to give their all.

The story of Washington and the Continental Army is a glorious illustration of how many of those who talk of national causes and general dedication, prefer in practice to see others make the sacrifice while they keep making the bucks.

I’ve learned to think more highly of Washington than I did before, if only because he rose above the petty self-serving attitudes of those around him, and sacrificed his own comfort to ensure his nation gained its freedom.

However, I’ve also learned again a lesson I learned a long time ago: never trust those who tell you ‘we’re all in this together.’ Like David Cameron
’s  government, what they really mean is that there are bad times ahead for those least able to defend themselves: the vulnerable, the poor, the unskilled, the disabled. But they and their friends will go on doing just fine, thank you.

It’s true that there’s often no gain with no pain. Trouble is, they aren’t both felt by the same people.


Faith A. Colburn, Author said...

It came as a shock to me some years ago to learn Washington nearly lost the war at the very beginning when he managed to get himself and his army trapped on Long Island and it was only a bunch of civilian boats that managed to get them out under cover of night.

I agree about the "we're all in this together" phrase. It hear stuff like that and I reach for my wallet, just to make sure it's still there.

David Beeson said...

Well said. Reach for your pocket and lock up the spoons.

Washington's great military achievement has to have been that he kept the army going, through thick and thin, most of it thin. Had he lost the army he would, indeed, have lost the war. As long as he kept it alive, Britain couldn't win.

As you say, he could have lost it early on, in the New York campaign. But, to be fair to him, he didn't. In fact, the withdrawal was well executed, including the reliance on civilian boats - rather like the Dunkirk evacuation over a century and a half later. As Churchill said in 1940, you don't win wars by evacuations; on the other hand, you can certainly lose one by not evacuating intelligently and on time.