Ben Miller

The (Old) American Way of War

In Colonial (American) Period, Military on January 29, 2010 at 5:40 am

By Ben Miller

Michael Scheuer, author, military philosopher, and former CIA veteran, has often written of the traditional, ruthless guiding philosophy of American warfighting–and has publicly lamented its decline. In one of his many essays, Scheuer elucidates:

“Until the last half-century, America’s Marines, soldiers, sailors, and airmen were not used to pursue a war aim called ‘building democracies.’ Historically, U.S. leaders have understood the American way of war: Get there quick with the biggest stick, annihilate the enemy, his supporters, and infrastructure, and come home.”

There is no better example to help illustrate this than the notorious Sullivan Expedition (well, okay, maybe King Philip’s War, but we’ll save that for another post). In July of 1778, a couple of years into the Revolutionary War, a combined force of British-allied Loyalist Rangers, Senecas and Cayuga Indians launched an assault on settlers living in Pennsylvania’s Wyoming Valley, near present-day Wilkes-Barre. The male population was virtually wiped out, with 227 American scalps taken, and an unknown number of prisoners and fleeing soldiers tortured. This event became known as “The Wyoming Massacre” (as it so happens, my x4 great grandmother, Mary Benjamin, was a survivor). In November of the same year, the Loyalists struck again, this time with the assistance of about 320 Iroquois. The target was Cherry Valley, New York. After surrounding the main fort, Indians began massacring civilians in the village. Sixteen soldiers and thirty-two civilians were killed and scalped, the latter consisting mostly of women and children. Eighty people were taken prisoner, half of whom were never returned. The town itself was completely destroyed.

Illustration of the Wyoming Massacre

At this point, George Washington decided that enough was enough. He sent the following orders to General John Sullivan:

“Orders of George Washington to General John Sullivan, at Head-Quarters May 31, 1779

The Expedition you are appointed to command is to be directed against the hostile tribes of the Six Nations of Indians, with their associates and adherents. The immediate objects are the total destruction and devastation of their settlements, and the capture of as many prisoners of every age and sex as possible. It will be essential to ruin their crops now in the ground and prevent their planting more.

I would recommend, that some post in the center of the Indian Country, should be occupied with all expedition, with a sufficient quantity of provisions whence parties should be detached to lay waste all the settlements around, with instructions to do it in the most effectual manner, that the country may not be merely overrun, but destroyed.

But you will not by any means listen to any overture of peace before the total ruinment of their settlements is effected. Our future security will be in their inability to injure us and in the terror with which the severity of the chastisement they receive will inspire them.”

Sullivan dutifully carried out Washington’s orders, and the Indian threat was completely eliminated, with more than forty Iroquois villages destroyed in upstate New York. According to some historians, Washington’s Iroquois nickname “Town Destroyer” was bestowed as a result of this expedition.

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