Enduring Lessons on Life and Citizenship: The “Western Way of War”—the American Exception Part 2

Enduring Lesson
Enduring Lessons on Life and Citizenship: The “Western Way of War”—the American Exception Part 2
Enduring Lesson

I want to continue our discussion of the “Western Way of War,” and why, at first, the American colonies lacked some of the key elements. One of the most important developments in American history was the rise of the militia system.

9/27/2019

I want to continue our discussion of the “Western Way of War,” and why, at first, the American colonies lacked some of the key elements. One of the most important developments in American history was the rise of the militia system. This actually dated back to England and Henry II who, in 1182, issued the “Assize of Arms,” in which he required that virtually every Englishman be armed for the defense of England. The “Assize” called for

*every man with a certain amount of land to furnish his own horse, lance, armor, and shield.

*every man with slightly less land had to furnish a horse, lance, a little less armor, and a shield.

*every man with slightly less land had to furnish a lance, shield, and leather armor.

And so on. Burgesses (mayors) were to learn if any man lacked a weapon and to supply one! (How is this for a reverse “bun buyback” program?)

So the colonists, all of whom were armed, looked only to themselves for protection. After all, the king sent no soldiers along to Jamestown or Plymouth. These were private companies. As the colonies developed, all able bodied men were a part of the “standing militia,” which drilled perhaps once a month. But out of the “standing militia” was a “ready militia,” later known as the “minutemen,” because each member of the ready militia was to keep sufficient powder, flint, and musketballs on hand so it could be mustered at a “minute’s notice.”

Colonists had muskets, and, for close combat, tomahawks or knives. But when war finally came with the British, the Redcoats had the famous “Brown Bess” muskets with 21" bayonets. In the combat of the day, it was common for armies to form long lines, usually two deep. They would fire in a volley. Now the essence of volley fire was twofold. First, the inaccuracy of the muskets of the day was such that it was difficult to hit what you aimed at. Musket balls were, well, balls and emerged from the musket like a knuckleball from a pitcher. Air resistance caused it to move wildly. But when a long line of men fire together—even if they are aiming—you might hit the enemy to the right of who you were aiming at, and the guy on your left might hit your guy! So volley fire minimized the impact of inaccuracy. The second factor was psychological. When a group of men is attacking, and you see one man go down to your right, you think, “It won’t get me.” Even when the man to your left goes down, you can still tell yourself, “it won’t get me.” But when you see an entire rank of men in front of you fall, you think, “Oh my God! I’m next.” It blunts attacks, breaks the will, and has a deep psychological impact.

Without bayonets, militia was a disadvantage in open field, and at a severe disadvantage in maneuver. Militia did have an advantage at what is called “irregular” fighting in woods or broken ground, where lines of men are ineffective. But you may recall the movie “The Patriot,” in which Mel Gibson’s character, looking on a battlefield with Heath Ledger (his son) at the Redcoats routing lines of American regulars, says “That Gates is a damn fool. Going toe to toe in open field with the Redcoats is madness.” Well, Mel, no. This was the only way to win. Guerilla warfare could deny the British the countryside, but the only way to force England out was to beat them in an open battle. George Washington recognized this, which was why he trained and trained his men for that open field fight. Fortunately, he got an opportunity to bottle up Lord Cornwallis in Yorktown and besieged him there. 

Washington, John Adams, and to a degree, Thomas Jefferson all saw the reality of this. While Jefferson cut the standing army, he established West Point to train officers and thought in turn, they would be able to quickly train newly-raised army. By the War of 1812, while we still fielded large numbers of militia (and many of whom still ran, such as at the Battle of Bladensburg). Elsewhere, when there were fortifications and battlements available—as at New Orleans—militia were effective. And as late as the civil war, militia units were still a major element of both the Union and Confederate armies. But by that time they were far better trained and were essentially the equivalent of regular army units.

Militia units usually elected their own officers. That could present problems. (I know who I’d vote for, the guy who said, “Men, I’m not gonna get you killed.”) This aspect of militias, however, underscored one of Victor Hanson’s main points about Western military culture, namely that because life was valuable and soldiers were free men, their input and opinions were valuable. Officers strongly relied on sergeants for advice, generals held councils of war soliciting opinions from subordinates. By World War II, there were important benefits to such practices. For example, after the Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942, a chief warrant officer aboard the U.S.S. Yorktown discovered a system to inject coolant into fuel pipes to prevent fires on board the ship if one of the pipes was hit in combat. He took it to the captain, who immediately approved the plan and told his subordinate to put it in place as soon as possible. They did, and it was in place for the Battle of Midway in June—just in time to help the Yorktown dampen fires enough to keep her in the battle and play a part in the victory. And, at Midway, the commander of the fleet, Vice Admiral Ray Spruance, had no experience with aircraft carrier operations. He gave a subordinate, Vice Admiral Jack Fletcher, complete control over the U.S. carriers and they proceeded to win the defining battle of the Pacific. Neither of these ever would have happened in, say, the Japanese Navy.

Of course, competent soldiers were made by relentless training. Ulysses S. Grant valued “ a day of drill higher than a week of oratory.” After World War I, Lt. Col. Paul Malone, arguing for an infantry training school, wrote, “Losses of American infantry in time of peace is given to the leaders of infantry units.” Col. Joshua Chamberlain, a professor in peacetime, went to be each night with his officer’s drill book—and mastered it well enough to become the hero of Gettysburg. Nor is it surprising that Americans were both the best-skilled in certain areas (railroads, cars, telegraphs), and also the best educated in the world. Reading a manual was no problem for most American soldiers and a higher education today is required for all officers.

America may have started outside the “Western Way of War,” but over the course of 200 years the militia was re-formed into a professional volunteer army of the highest caliber.



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