The Magazine

Northern Exposure

The long, bloody road to U.S.-Canadian amity.

Feb 20, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 22 • By JOEL SCHWARTZ
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The strategic thinker Eliot Cohen begins this impressive book with a passage that (as he seemingly recognizes) will at first glance strike contemporary readers as laughable, if not ludicrous: “This book .  .  . deals with America’s most durable, and in many ways most effective and important enemy of all. Canada.”

But as Cohen explains, historically Canada really did deserve that designation:

For well over a century, from the colonial period through American independence, the military struggle with what is now Canada was America’s central strategic fact. For at least a half century beyond that war between the United States and British-ruled Canada was a very real possibility.

Borrowing an American-Indian term, Cohen focuses in particular on battles that were fought on and about “the Great Warpath, the great water route between New York City and Montreal, along the Hudson and most particularly along Lakes George and Champlain .  .  . the most bitterly contested piece of land in the world.”

As his title suggests, Cohen’s interest in this substantial slice of military history stems particularly from the ways in which these early battles shaped American military practice and military culture. For example, the first battle that Cohen discusses helped lay the basis for the American preference for winning wars through the enemy’s unconditional surrender: “complete, crushing, and definitive victory.”

Cohen also sees in these battles the roots of what he calls the ambivalence of the American way of war: its penchant for “adhering to international conventions in both the legal and customary sense” on the one hand, and for “resorting to ruthless means when that appeared necessary” on the other. As a contemporary example of a ruthless means adopted by someone ostensibly devoted to international conventions, Cohen points to President Obama’s decision to order raiders into Pakistan—a supposed ally—to kill rather than capture Osama bin Laden.

Cohen alludes to a third legacy of the battles on the Great Warpath of the book’s title, which is taken from a 1774 message from the First Continental Congress to the people of Canada, informing them that a successful American invasion would result in their being “conquered into liberty.” His judgment on this failed American military initiative—and its echoes in subsequent American history—is instructive:

The abortive invasion of Canada combined, in a distinctively American way, idealism and calculating realpolitik. The invaders sincerely advocated representative government and individual liberty, while manipulating local beliefs, brazenly attacking a neighbor in order to secure the fundamental and perilous decision for independence. In years to come, Americans in many other places—from Mexico to the Philippines, Vietnam to Iraq—would behave similarly, waging wars for liberty and interest, conquering others into freedom, and as in Canada, with mixed motives and uncertain outcomes.

Battles along the Great Warpath (specifically during the War of 1812) yielded an additional lesson—one that is admittedly irrelevant to America’s all-volunteer armed forces today, though it was immensely important during much of the 20th century. These battles testified to “the ability of a small cadre of professional officers .  .  . to train and lead a large body of citizen-soldiers,” pointing to “the country’s capacity for rapid and effective mobilization should the need arise.”

These teachings and others emerge from Cohen’s chronological account of selected battles along the Great Warpath. Four chapters are devoted to battles between British and French colonists in the 17th and 18th centuries, culminating in the French and Indian War; four chapters recount battles in the Revolutionary War; one examines the War of 1812; and a final chapter looks at several near-misses—disputes that might have instigated renewed warfare on America’s northern border between 1815 and 1871—mostly stemming from the Civil War.

Overall, Conquered into Liberty excels in its demonstration of the ways in which important components of the American military tradition emerged embryonically in the sometimes obscure battles that it describes. Perhaps this is a quibble on my part, but I suspect that at least some of the lessons that Cohen develops would have emerged even if Canada had never existed—that is to say, if the northern border of the United States had also been the northern border of North America. In other words, I suspect that Canada’s existence was only a sufficient, but not a necessary, cause of the emergence of important aspects of the American military tradition.