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The Great Warpath

By: Patrick J. Garrity
September 17, 2012

Eliot Cohen, professor of Strategic Studies and director of the Philip Merrill Center for Strategic Studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), always provides a good read of the subject at hand, with stimulating insights into larger matters that should have occurred to one, but didn't. His latest book, Conquered into Liberty: Two Centuries of Battles Along the Great Warpath that Made the American Way of War, meets that description.

Cohen notes that "[f]or 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," indeed, through the American Civil War, conflict "between the United States and British-ruled Canada was a very real possibility.... [T]he central front in that conflict [was] what the natives called the Great Warpath, the great water route between New York City and Montreal, along the Hudson and most particularly along Lakes George and Champlain." Cohen's overarching thesis is that this contest, although it has been behind us for generations, nevertheless continues to influence powerfully American military institutions, strategic thought, and military culture.

Cohen's conclusions on this point are not universally accepted—the British historian Andrew Roberts, in an otherwise highly favorable review, wrote: "The only place where this book slightly disappoints is in Mr. Cohen's contention that the struggles along the great warpath created a specifically American way of fighting wars. No doubt the country learned much about such matters as financing war—fighting and trying to win hearts and minds, but most of the lessons are universal ones rather than identifiably American." That said, Cohen's arguments are, as always, an invitation to reflect on the general as well as the particular.

As to our concern with the classics of strategy and diplomacy, we would note that the lessons of the Great Warpath have been communicated to American society at large through great literature, which form a critical genre of classical strategic texts: Francis Parkman's series on the struggle between France and England for the control of North America (who does not pass scholarly muster among modern historians but whose powers of description of the people and landscape memorably convey the stakes of the conflict); James Fenimore Cooper's Last of the Mohicans, which as Cohen reminds us, "famously depicted the siege of Fort William Henry in 1757"; and Kenneth Roberts's popular historical novels of Rogers's Rangers and of the Revolutionary War campaigns of 1776-1777. Cohen notes that his reading of this literature as a young man inspired his own love of the topic, which he later carried over into his professional career.


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Cohen argues that the particular strategy of the French towards the British North American colonies played a major role in what would become the American way of war. To compensate for the considerable material disadvantages that they faced with respect to the British, French governors could have embraced a strongpoint defense in depth, augmented with limited conventional offensives aimed at destroying British fortified outposts and defeating colonial forces in the field. (For a discussion of imperial frontier defense options, see the works of Edward Luttwak, especially The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire [1976]). The French authorities instead adopted what we would today characterize as a policy of terrorism. Bands of French troops, French-Canadians and Indians, operating from wilderness forts that served as forward defenses, were set against the English frontier to burn settlements, take captives, and kill civilians. This policy was designed to paralyze and divide the British-Americas and to embroil them in conflicts with the native tribes further south.

Although the French had their moments, the long-term effect was quite the opposite and it resulted (or at least contributed to) "one feature of the American way of war—its quest of annihilating victories against the enemy, [a] pragmatic determination to finish off an opponent utterly." (The seminal text on the American way of war is the book by Russell F. Weigley, of the same name, first published in 1973; for a summary and reflection on Weigley's argument, see Brian M. Linn, Journal of Military History, April 2002.) Victory was to be achieved not so much by extermination of populations as by the dismantling of the opposing state. "[W]ar was not a game of political advantage and statecraft, to be suspended from time to time by diplomacy and treaties, but rather a hard brutal struggle, to be resolved by complete, crushing, and definitive victory." The nature of that victory is reflected in "[t]he title of the book—Conquered into Liberty—[which] comes for the opening sentence of a subversive pamphlet American revolutionaries spread about in advance of the invasion of Canada in 1775. It captures a paradoxical notion," an American combination of idealism and calculatingRealpolitik, that of subversive warfare.


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The emerging American way of war, which came into being on the harsh frontier, reflected another kind of ambivalence. On the one hand, it retained European military sensibilities, traditional rules of war, and adherence to international conventions in both the legal and customary sense. On the other hand, American forces were capable of resorting to unconventional (by 19th century standards) and even "ruthless means when that appeared necessary." "Honor mattered, but victory mattered more," when it was seen as a matter of survival. "American military culture thus became a self-contradictory hybrid of form, restraint, and etiquette...[and] improvisation, raw energy, and unwillingness to accept limits."

One type of improvisation involved the emulation of French and Indian tactics of woodland scouting and ambush by small units, what Americans came to call "ranging." Although the exploits of the Anglo-American rangers were exaggerated—they were never quite equal to their French and Indian counterparts—they proved good enough when combined with the numerical superiority of the conventional British Army and its colonial adjuncts. The most famous ranger from the French and Indian War was Robert Rogers, whose published Journals (1765) included a short treaties on "ranging warfare," based on his standing orders.

Cohen notes that Rogers's Rules, as they became known, bear an astonishing similarity to today's U.S. Army Field Manual 7-8, Infantry Rifle Platoon and Squad. The rules have been passed down less formally to junior Army officers as they were summarized by a character in Kenneth Roberts's 1936-37 novel, Northwest Passage.


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Rogers' rules, as passed down, reflect an American way of small infantry unit tactics (or irregular warfare) based not on "untrained instincts or accumulated experience...but on rules and practices that could be formally communicated...and reinforced in training." They were an attempt "to render the art of woodland fighting into something teachable and transmittable as military doctrine." According to Cohen, "Rogers' rangers...were the forerunners of the [American] infantrymen of a much later age, citizen soldiers molded by carefully conceived systems of military thought intended to guide practice but not dictate it;" who were "disciplined...but not beaten into mechanical docility." "[T]he average soldiers...fought independently, cannily, and tenaciously under competent sergeants and junior officers not because such was their natural aptitude, or even because of the cause for which they fought"—although military historians debate this point—"but because of the army that had trained them, and indirectly, the society that had produced them."

Standing Orders, Rogers's Rangers:

 1. Don't forget nothing.

 2. Have your musket clean as a whistle, hatchet scoured, sixty rounds powder and ball, and be ready to march at a minute's warning.

 3. When you're on the march, act the way you would if you was sneaking up on a deer. See the enemy first.

 4. Tell the truth about what you see and what you do. There is an army depending on us for correct information. You can lie all you please when you tell other folks about the Rangers, but don't never lie to a Ranger or officer

 5. Don't never take a chance you don't have to.

 6. When we're on the march we march single file, far enough apart so one shot can't go through two men.

 7. If we strike swamps, or soft ground, we spread out abreast, so it's hard to track us.

 8. When we march, we keep moving till dark, so as to give the enemy the least possible chance at us.

 9. When we camp, half the party stays awake while the other half sleeps.

10. If we take prisoners, we keep ‘em separate till we have had time to examine them, so they can't cook up a story between ‘em.

11. Don't ever march home the same way. Take a different route so you won't be ambushed.

12. No matter whether we travel in big parties or little ones, each party has to keep a scout twenty yards ahead, twenty yards on each flank and twenty yards in the rear, so the main body can't be surprised and wiped out.

13. Every night you'll be told where to meet if surrounded by a superior force.

14. Don't sit down to eat without posting sentries.

15. Don't sleep beyond dawn. Dawn's when the French and Indians attack.

16. Don't cross a river by a regular ford.

17. If somebody's trailing you, make a circle, come back onto your own tracks, and ambush the folks that aim to ambush you.

18. Don't stand up when the enemy's coming against you. Kneel down, lie down, hide behind a tree.

19. Let the enemy come till he's almost close enough to touch. Then let him have it and jump out and finish him with your hatchet.