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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In the counterfactual world that I am now imagining, American Indians would still have existed and American settlers would still have fought against them. And those battles would still have impressed upon the American settlers the desirability of total victory in warfare, and (a lesson of Cohen’s that I omitted above) the value of “raiding warfare,” involving skirmishes between irregular forces.

Unconditional surrender as a strategic goal, and irregular raiding warfare as a preferred tactic, are logical responses to terrorist warfare. Not to put too fine a point on it, much of the Indian military response to the American settlers was what we would now call terroristic—aimed not at soldiers but at women, children, and other defenseless civilians.

Cohen himself makes this point, beginning his book by describing a 1690 raid against Schenectady, in which Indians (bolstered by French and Canadian forces) traveled to the frontier of English settlement “not to hold ground, destroy fortified outposts, or defeat enemy forces but to burn settlements, take captives, and kill civilians.” Perhaps the book could have placed a greater emphasis on the ways in which a central question confronting American military policy today—how best to prevent and respond to terrorist attacks—was ironically and surprisingly central to American military policy from the very outset. In this context, it’s worth noting that the Navy SEALs’ decision to use “Geronimo” as the code name with which to report the killing of Osama bin Laden​—​while politically incorrect and predictably controversial — had at least some historical justification.

Be that as it may, the stories that Cohen recounts are valuable not only instrumentally—as keys to the origins of the American way of war—but also intrinsically. Simply put, the book contains much interesting American (and Canadian and American-Indian) history that is likely to be unfamiliar to most readers. Particularly worth highlighting are the book’s revisionist depictions of Benedict Arnold and George Washington.

Cohen’s Arnold can arguably be described as a man more sinned against than sinning. He was a remarkable and remarkably successful soldier and sailor who dominated many of the early “points of decision” of the Revolutionary War, a man with a “staggering” combination of skills: “He led on land and on the water, in siege and in the field, he had the talents to build a fleet and then fight it to the death. His men followed him willingly, indeed eagerly.”

Why, then, did he become a traitor? He came to be disgusted by the “conniving, profiteering, and low politics” that he encountered; he was a “proud, prickly, passionate man” whose combat experiences left him utterly exhausted and with “two debilitating wounds in the same leg,” one of which crippled him for life; he had been “abused, traduced, and mistreated by colleagues, subordinates, and Congress.” Thus, Cohen concludes,

Given all that he suffered and endured, in leading his men, in fighting the enemy and above all from his own side, given his exposure to
hardball politics, incessant accusations of misconduct partly justified and mostly not, given his dismay at the protracted failures of Congress and democratic politicians, it should not be entirely surprising that Arnold’s character snapped under the strain.

As for Washington, Cohen hails his “icily unsentimental good judgment and restrained but real ruthlessness.” This is his final assessment:

Far more remote, in some ways, than Abraham Lincoln, the only figure in American history with whom he is to be reasonably compared, [Washington] is often portrayed as a figure of unshakable rectitude, patriotism, and integrity, if occasionally uncertain military judgment. True, by and large. But along the Great Warpath he also demonstrated deep suspicion of his allies, manipulativeness toward an adoring protégé [Lafayette], and ruthlessness toward his own side. .  .  . It says something about the nature of war along the Great Warpath .  .  . that, in that context at least, those were indispensable virtues.