Concord Bridge vs. Kabul, Afghanistan: Where’s Solomon When We Need Him
The 4th Grade of St. John’s Grammar School: 1946
(“X” = The Author)
Back in the Fourth Grade, at St. John’s Grammar School in West Fitchburg, circa 1946, the nuns taught us American History. One day, someone in the class asked how the American Colonists won the Revolutionary War. We knew they were mostly farmers and merchants, and up against England, the greatest military power of that time. Sister Mary Cornelia acknowledged that was a good question, and helped us compile a list on the blackboard of all the reasons we thought that the English lost the American Revolution, and the Thirteen Colonies won and became the United States of America.
Recently, I’ve been thinking about that list we compiled so many years ago, and comparing it to the existing situation in Afghanistan. I wondered if any of those nearly 250 year old reasons are still valid. I think enough of them are to warrant consideration today.
I’ve updated the language, but basically we Fourth Graders agreed that:
1. The English believed they were fighting for an ideal: To preserve their Empire. The Colonists believed they were fighting for their homeland.
2. The English were far from home, and it was difficult, dangerous, and expensive to resupply them.
3. The English were fighting an entirely different war than they had ever fought before. They were used to civilized gentlemen lining up on opposite sides of a field, and shooting at one another, until it was time to march forward, and close with the enemy, in formation, accompanied by bugles and drums. These American Colonists had learned to fight like the Indians, from behind trees and rocks. They were masters of camouflage and the ambush. They made no noises to alert the enemy of their arrival, and disappeared silently into the woodland when they were done.
4. The English had modern, heavy weapons, cannons and mortars and such; but they weren’t very useful against the Colonists who avoided open confrontation. The Colonists struck and fought from cover and concealment, and then faded away to fight another day.
The term “asymmetrical warfare” had not been invented yet, nor had “guerrilla warfare” or “insurgencies,” but the American Colonists understood these concepts: When the odds are lop-sided and stacked against you, make the other side fight the war the way you want to fight it: The way you think you can win.
5. The American Colonists knew the terrain. It was their land, and they could get from here to there a lot faster than organized military units could, marching down public, and dangerous, roads fraught with ambushes and traps.
6. The English couldn’t distinguish the farmers, who saluted them by day as they marched past their fields, from the armed bands that came out at night to wreak violence upon them.
7. The American Colonists could live off the land, and find support at nearly every farmhouse and village. The English got no such support unless they took it, and that just made matters worse.
8. The American Colonists were armed, experienced hunters, and comfortable in their own wild. “Marksmanship was valued,” someone once wrote, “because they had to buy their own lead and make their own bullets.”
9. The families back home in England were tired of their children being wounded and killed by this ragtag band of farmers, and at the vast amounts of money being wasted over here that could be better used at home.
10. The English Parliament, like the English citizenry, grew lukewarm to the entire action over time. They started thinking, in an expression used at the time, “The game is not worth the candle.” One historian wrote that it wasn’t so much the Colonials won the War as it was the English lost it, after becoming tired, demoralized, and worn out from fighting it.
Now, not all these points may be applicable to Afghanistan, and there are many differences between the two situations. The American Colonists, for example, did not fight for the “freedom” to go back years in time to live in comparative ignorance, with large segments of their population poor, uneducated, living in hovels, without medical care, and avoiding all kinds of central authority, except their own zealous religious governance.
The American Colonists wanted their freedom first and foremost. They wanted their own modern economy, the freedom to vote for whomever they wanted, the independence from taxes and imported laws that made little sense over here. They didn’t want religious governance, they’d govern themselves. They saw themselves competing with the English as social, economic and intellectual equals, not fighting them.
But even so, there are enough similarities, beginning with spending our blood and our treasure, and experiencing all the misery, to consider now in Afghanistan the question the English had to consider so long ago:
Is this game worth the candle? Do we belong there? Is it worth our lives, our fortune, our sacred honor? Should we force democracy upon a people who don’t understand it, don’t respect it, and don’t want it?
Can we ever succeed anyway, when we are hard pressed to even define success? Can we negotiate with corrupt religious fanatics and tribal zealots? When we leave, will the Afghans go right back to what they were before we got there – as they have always done? That’s what happened when the Russians left in 1989, and the British left in 1919, and countless others left, as far back as Alexander the Great, in 330BC.
A U.S. Marine officer who met with Afghan tribal elders recently, said he was told: “You Americans have the watches, but we Afghans have the time.”
As Sister Mary Cornelia asked that Fourth Grade class nearly seventy years ago: “Given all that, what would you do?”