Philip Mead: Walking the Freedom Trail with Iraq War Vets

Roundup: Talking About History

[Philip Mead is a Ph.D. candidate in the history department at Harvard University. His dissertation examines interactions between civilians and soldiers in the Continental Army]

What can the experiences of General Thomas Gage, commander of British forces in North America from 1763 to 1775, teach the United States Army in Iraq? The officers of a field artillery battalion posed that question to members of the Harvard history department in May 2006. Intrigued, I agreed to walk the Freedom Trail with these forty officers, to see the sites where those eighteenth-century events happened. I was the only civilian amidst all these soldiers, almost all of whom had already seen combat in Iraq, and their questions and observations challenged my views of the present war in Iraq, the American Revolution, and the responsibilities of a historian in a time of war.

The battalion major contacted the history department in March. He and his fellow officers had received word that they faced a year of urban fighting against an Iraqi "insurgency," and they wanted to know if they could glean anything from the experience of British commanders in Boston before the Revolutionary War. In the e-mail exchange that followed, the major explained that the U.S. Army has a set of procedures and theories for Counter Insurgency Operations, or COIN; that these derived from close scrutiny of past insurgencies against established governments around the world; and that 1770s Boston appeared to fit the profile. The goal of COIN, he explained, is to discover the hard-core opposition within the population and deprive it of popular support through a combination of propaganda and material aid. In essence, these officers saw themselves as facing tactical and strategic challenges analogous to those of British General Thomas Gage, who had failed to arrest the rebel American leaders and restore order and loyalty in Boston.

I found this comparison surprising on a number of levels. Everything I had learned from studies of popular historical memory—books such as Alfred Young’s The Shoemaker and the Tea Party (1999) or David Hacket Fisher's Paul Revere's Ride (1994)—had taught me to expect public institutions and figures to adopt and claim the inheritance of national heroes and ignore parallels with historical enemies or villains. But these officers showed a striking comfort with comparing themselves to America’s former enemies. At the same time, their analogy between the war in Iraq and the American Revolution came close to equating Iraqi terrorists with the Founding Fathers. More broadly, I am often skeptical of attempts to draw analogies between past events and present ones. At worst, historians can cease to speak analytically and can become memory keepers, using the past for modern political reasons....
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