Author: Jensen, Ken
Date published: July 1, 2012
Cohen, Eliot A. Conquered into Liberty: Two Centuries of Battles along the Great Warpath That Made the American Way of War. New York: Free Press, 2011. 405pp. $30
The American way of war-a product of two centuries of war with . . . Canada? How can that be? Civil War history and the experience and history of World War II have driven out of our minds a truth known to James Fenimore Cooper, Francis Parkman, and Kenneth Roberts. The American colonies, thereafter the United States, fought battle after battle with France, Britain, and Canada throughout most of the seventeenth century and until the early nineteenth century. The place of these battles was then called the Great Warpath, stretching from Albany to Montreal and Quebec.
American readers who pick up Eliot Cohen's Conquered into Liberty will most likely be embarrassed by learning how much they do not know (or only vaguely remember) about American war fighting in the colonial and early national periods. However, by the time the first chapter, about the Schenectady raid of 1690, is finished, American readers will feel embraced, as though part of their American selves has been returned. Non-Americans will be surprised at first, and by the end of the book astonished.
Cohen teaches strategic studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and he was a senior adviser to the secretary of state on strategic issues from 2007 to 2009. This book is a military history, as good a one as might ever be done. As a historian, Cohen's strongest suit is that he treats war as it is made by political and military leaders, by the regulars (and irregulars and Native Americans), and by "leaders and managers who got things done." By the last he means those (mostly citizen-soldiers) who improvised in combat and managed to supply forces under nearly impossible conditions. His insights regarding these sorts of men make up a large part of his understanding of what the "American way of war" is about. Cohen quotes Germany's Field Marshall Erwin Rommel to affirm that what was an eighteenth-century American quality has endured-the American speed of adaptation to armored warfare, Rommel wrote, is explained "by their extraordinary sense for the practical and the material and by their complete lack of regard for tradition and worthless theories."
American wars along the Great Warpath, Cohen reminds us, were parts of European wars. The Atlantic Ocean more linked us to Europe than it insulated us from it. Moreover, these wars exposed us to a full range of seventeenth-to-nineteenth-century European warfare, from set-piece battles to what could be called unconventional and secret warfare. They also brought the full horror of war to us. Cohen explodes the contemporary European notion that the United States did not become "the territory of war" or exposed to terror until 2001. Indeed, terror in the form of murderous raids on New York and New England villages marked much of its colonial period.
Among many other things, Cohen argues that the American appetite for the kind of unconditional surrender pursued by Franklin Roosevelt in World War II had its grounding in the eighteenth-century American intention to destroy the enemy polity that was Canada. More than that, America's wars to attach Canada to itself were wars for the freedom of that polity. Cohen says, "If any countries have ever been 'conquered into liberty,' as the Continental Congress had written to the doubtful habitants of Canada in 1775, they were Germany, Italy, and Japan, occupied and transformed by armies that combined, in paradoxical degree, thoroughness in defeating an enemy and an unlimited, even na´ve, commitment to liberating him."
Cohen's book is an astonishingly good read in addition to being highly thoughtful and often revelatory.