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.