Joseph Ellis: Says Iraq War Violates America's "Historic Identity"

Historians in the News

America’s military presence in Iraq represents “a basic violation” of its “historic identity,” that of a nation founded in opposition to imperialism, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Joseph Ellis said.

Americans have neglected an important lesson from their own past, Ellis, an authority on the Revolutionary War period, said. “We have become the imperial power. We have become Great Britain and have succeeded Great Britain as the hegemonic power of the world. I would think we would wish to avoid making some of the mistakes she made.” He challenged the idea that the U.S. needs a military presence in South Korea and Western Europe as well as Iraq.

“The notion that (our problems) are going to be solved in a military fashion is fundamentally misguided and it’s going to send us right down the path that Britain went and into oblivion,” Ellis warned in a recent talk at the Massachusetts School of Law at Andover.
Ellis, author of “His Excellency: George Washington,” “American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic,” and other histories of that period, suggested the problems facing the U.S. occupiers of Iraq today are not dissimilar from those the British faced battling George Washington.

“After his early defeats, Washington realized that the British have to win, but he does not have to win. The British had enormous problems of supply, and they don’t have enough troops. They can take New York, they can take Charleston, but they can’t hold them because they don’t have enough troops to do this,” Ellis said. “The only solution was to fight a defensive---what they called a Fabian strategy---or a war of posts. It’s not just a battle between armies but between populations. Does this sound familiar?”

Prior to assuming command in Iraq, General (David) Petraeus wrote studies saying it would take almost a million U.S. troops to put down an Iraqi insurgency and, Ellis noted, “we aren’t going to get a million troops.” The result in Iraq has put the insurgency in a position where, even if they can’t win, they will succeed if they just don’t lose, but that the U.S. has to “win.”

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