Sunday, September 16, 2007

"The Office" (Workstation series) 42 (Western Mass edition)

Piggybacking onto some neighbor's Netgear wireless in the condo complex where Dharmonia's mom now lives. Mostly a travel-and-old friends day today: overnighted last night with Elder Brother and spouse in their beautiful place on a side street just off of Harvard Square. The Nieman Fellowship building is around the corner and John Kenneth Galbraith lived on the next block, but it's Nancy's garden that was featured as the block's entry in the Cambridge cavalcade of homes last year.

Thence to visit old music buddies Josh and Janell at their house in Weston, whence they moved from the back side of Beacon Hill. Beautiful old 1890s place, probably the "summer house" for a Boston lawyer or stockbroker, where the wife, kids, and servants would stay from June until September to get out of the City's heat, and Father would come on weekends on the old passenger rail. The place is a beautiful but a little quiet and sad since the recent decease of beloved Phoebe, the Golden who was the soul and spirit of the house.

Then out Route 2, the old "Concord Road" out which Gage's 700 redcoats and Hessian mercenaries marched on the late night/early morning of April 18/19, when in the confusion on the Lexington Green at sunrise, someone amongst the disciplined ranks of regulars and the 77 disheveled farmers, brewers, and cowherds who opposed them pulled a trigger, and the militiamen broke and fled, leaving eight of their number dying on the Green. It's the climactic scene of Esther Forbes's great young-adult novel of the American Revolution, Johnny Tremaine, a book that captures, as much as any from my childhood, what it felt like to imagine the history of the place where I grew up. The regulars marched out along this road, having embarked over the Charles River to the tune of the mocking anthem Yankee Doodle--but, to quote a minor character in Forbes's novel, "They go out to Yankee Doodle, but they'll dance to it by nightfall."

The regulars marched on from Lexington, out the route that would later be called the Battle Road, intending to confiscate the stores of powder and arms that spies had reported in Concord, and hoping to snap up, along the way, the rabble-rousers John Hancock and Sam Adams. They were stopped at the North Bridge--90 to 95 British grenadiers and light-infantry against something like 500 militiamen, clumped on the high ground at the other side of the bridge. Someone among the ill-ordered, badly-deployed British fired a shot, and in the confused mass of return fire from a vastly superior force, the youngsters and conscripts of the British forces turned and ran.

They retreated 18 miles--back through Concord, through Lexington, and down that Battle Road back toward Boston. In contrast to the claims of Longfellow's bullshit romanticism and knuckleheaded revisionist historians' cowardly apocrypha, it was a fighting retreat. They were far better trained and commanded, far more heavily armed, with the entire weight (vastly distant, and with horribly overextended supply lines, it's true) of an empire behind them, with far greater esprit de corps and a learned courage under fire--and they held tough.

But they were vastly outnumbered, fighting an irregular militia on terrain unfamiliar to them and unsuitable to their or their commanders' training but infinitely familiar to the colonials, ill-commanded by their generals (who as ever were fighting the new war with the old war's tactics, and killing their men through their nostalgic anachronism), with a government back home who cared nothing about a changing world order but only about safeguarding the investments of the speculative corporations who had invaded and colonized the new territory in the first place, and would send poor men to die for the sake of rich men's stock dividends.

Of course they were defeated. Of course they retreated. Of course the war became a war of attrition: not just of supplies, but of conscripts' lives, and of terrain that could be captured in the daylight with pointless loss of life, only to revert at night or in bad weather to the control of the insurgents. Shot from behind trees and rocks. Their barracks burned. Their forage patrols doubled and tripled and quadrupled and still ambushed and picked off by irregulars who would loose a few shots or fire a rick or spike a cannon before fading off into the night or the weather.

The lesson of the American Revolution is that an occupying imperial army cannot hold an entire geographical region in the face of local insurgencies, a sympathetic local population into which the insurgents can disappear "like fish" (as Mao--a masterful guerrilla commander--said), a supply train which has to cross half the known world, and failing political will at home. No matter how much the stockholders insist on their dividends, not matter how much the politicians will thunder about a "clash of civilizations" or the "battle between order and chaos," no matter the raw courage of those kids who have to actually stand up under fire from behind the rocks and trees--or the mosques and palms and walled gardens--the cold hard economic/political/demographic/military/historical lesson is that, in the circumstances described, the occupying force will always--eventually--be defeated. The only choice the empire has is in when it decides to recognize that defeat, cut its losses, save lives, and withdraw.

I've known that since my childhood. Here. In this place.

On this road, between these old stone walls, and the rocks and trees that are still scarred with the bullet-marks of that spring day in '75.

[ETA 9/17/07: Jack Murtha agrees]

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