The United States of America Is An International Accomplishment

Watching the rebels in Libya struggle against their well-armed dictator, my thoughts return frequently to the real history of the liberation of our own country — the United States of America– from the imperial forces of Great Britain.

Mythmakers love the story of New England farmers taking their hunting guns, hiding behind walls and firing at the soldiers.  Of the Swamp Fox, Francis Marion — down in the Carolinas — leading them on soggy chases through bogs.  Of a ragtag, ill-fed group shivering through a brutal Pennsylvania winter, soothed in part by soup from the other-wise aristocratic Martha Washington.

In fact, while all these things are true and admirable, the British were not quite the sad-sacks these legends portray.  In point of fact, our war for liberation, like the one in Libya, had a long, ugly, indecisive middle.  Support for independence has been estimated at a 1/3 1/3 1/3 split, with “doesn’t really concern me” running neck and neck with support for each side.   The British Navy ensconced itself well along the Eastern seaboard (yes, Evacuation Day in Boston really is March 17, that is not an excuse for St. Patrick’s Day parades) and when they started fighting its way down the Lake Champlain-Hudson River back entrance, things looked pretty grim.

Those farmers and swamp runners could not win this war by themselves.  We needed exactly the same things that the Libyan rebels need today: military training skills (George Washington WAS good, but could not be everywhere) and foreign military assistance.

At such a moment, a few of us might be remembering Lafayette, whose name is everywhere.  But the benefactor we should remember today, when considering the Libyan situation, is Thaddeus Kosciuszko.  A Polish freedom fighter of ambivalent nationality — because in those days, there were no passports, and many of today’s nations were only cultural constructs pulled apart by warring ruling families — in other words, when European realities resembled those of the Middle East today — he came to North America to provide the endless hours of drilling and forming which turn a rebel militia into victorious armies.

Few Americans today remember Kosciuzko, in part because his name seems hard to pronounce.  Koz-eeOOH-sko is what I remember, and I’ve seen it spelled that way phonetically.  However you say it, his story today poses a challenge to us, as we debate our policy toward Libyan rebels.  His arrival and work gave us the greatest gift most of us have: a free and fairly open nation.  Are we going to treat that as something we deserved, or a Pay It Forward model to take seriously?

My mind and heart are not yet reconciled on this one.  Intellectually, I know that there is much to lose, particularly by our military, if we choose to expand our assistance to the rebels.  Here I have to praise President Obama, for he seems to have a genuine international coalition to work with, for which he worked and waited.  The Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, did a great job of stating clearly to the Congress that this will not be easy, it will not be Shock and Awe and easy victory.  We have troops in harm’s way in Afghanistan and Iraq, and no assurance that there will be no long-term support required in either one.   And none of the so-called “rich nations” supporting this effort has the stomach to call for national sacrifice — and taxation — required to conquer both dictators abroad and recession at home.

But on the other hand, I can’t help feeling that this might be the very thing to get our troops out of Afghanistan and Iraq with better long-term effect.   Both were victims of a bad neighborhood, as much as of their own histories; in fact, both probably had better prospects before outside economic and political  parasites invaded them to support their own international goals during the 20th century.  But those invasions are rapidly being superceded by a new educated indigenous class who are ready to take back their national destinies — as nations.  They remind me (and this is no coincidence, it’s partly geography of the Italian patriots who so inspired Unitarian foremother Margaret Fuller, in the 1840s.  Just as the Italians struggled to unite as a nation by overthrowing warring local noblehouses, so these new patriots in North Africa are trying to throw out ruling clans, even sects, by proclaiming overarching values like democracy and secularism.

It sounds familiar.

So who are we in all this?  Sometimes taking care of the whole street means raising prospects for the weakest families who live on it.  Healthiness, it turns out, is as contagious as illness.  Perhaps closing that Arc of Opportunity along the Libyan coast is exactly what it will take to progress the stalemates to which our military have so valiantly worked and sacrificed — as did their predecessors almost two and a half centuries ago.

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3 thoughts on “The United States of America Is An International Accomplishment

  1. I think Kosciusko may be better known in the South, because of placenames.

    All of the monuments in Lafayette Square, in front of the White House, are to foreign helpers in our Independence.

  2. I would rate the contributions of the foreign advisors to the fledgling Continental Army as very important – but pride of place must go to Baron von Steuben who taught the Americans how to stand up to the British (and Hessian) regulars on their own terms. Over the past several years, I have worked with the US Army training units preparing to deploy to Iraq and Afghanistan. I can assure you that today’s military and civil leaders understand the importance of enabling Iraqis and Afghans to fight their own fights, even though we know that they will not always fight for exactly the same things that we would. But every unhappy Arab/Islamic country is unhappy in its own unique way and circumstances. If you think Libya presents us with tough policy decisions, Syria will be a nightmare – and then there is the challenge of reform facing those Arab/Islamic monarchies who have never forgotten that the USA is a democratic republic and thus inherently hostile to monarchist regimes. This creates filters when they hear our advice.

  3. Both Von Steuben and Kosciuzko are familiar to Chicagoans. Von Steuben has been honored with a High School named in his honor and Kosciuzko a city park. I did my ice skating at the park in my youth. Chicagoans use two pronunciations: Koz-ee-es-ko and Kah-shush-ko. The latter for those who either had to do the Saturday morning Polish classes in their own youths, and of course the flood of new Polish immigrants to the city.

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