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  • James Houser

Unknown Soldiers Episode 15: The American Insurgency - Commentary & Sources

The American Revolution, like basically every period of history, is a fascination of mine. I find that Americans in particular have trouble seeing this conflict from a strategic, worldwide perspective – and this isn’t our fault, really. Every country tends to see every conflict from its own point of view, with its own interests foremost and paramount. But at the same time, this can block us from perceiving other points of view that might be more relevant later.

I’m a little concerned that I hit the point home too hard in this episode, that I went too far in my comparison of the British angle to the American Revolution to the United States wars in the Middle East after 9/11. But some of the comparisons were uncanny, and the more I read about the two wars, the more influenced I was in favor of this viewpoint. There’s stuff I didn’t include that reinforced that parallel even more, I just didn’t have room for it. There was a whole religious aspect to the American Revolution, where many British officers saw Americans as all dangerous religious heretics and radicals, that I didn’t include – similar to American perceptions of Islam throughout the early 21st Century.

But I do want to emphasize here that the connection is not exact. I want to be very explicit on this point. History does not repeat itself. No two events are the same, every historical event and story occurs within its own context, on its own terms and in its own time. People aren’t just puppets dancing on the strings of the past.

But humans are always human, and sometimes they make many of the same assumptions and commit many of the same errors. I could have drawn just as easy a parallel between these conflicts and, say, the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, or the U.S. in Vietnam, or the French in Algeria, or the Chinese in Vietnam, or the Mughals in Maharashtra, or the Ottomans in Albania, or the Argentines in Patagonia, or the Romans in Britain, Germania or Judaea. So maybe give the tragic villains of 2001 and 2003 a little bit of slack. They weren’t the first, and they won’t be the last, to lead their countries into a pointless insurgency.

I do find it ironic, though, that Americans still associated themselves with plucky Colonial militia and minutemen in the 2000s, when the U.S. military was demonstrably…not that. We like to think of ourselves as the underdog, or as the idealized version of the US in World War II: fighting for freedom against an evil tyranny. The World War II imagery was deliberately invoked throughout the beginning of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, with absolutely disastrous results – we tried to see the wars as the same, and they were NOT the same, with all the costs that entailed. For instance: de-Baathification in Iraq was destructive to nation-building prospects because people associated it with de-Nazification, and that was good, right? Also, the World War II imagery deliberately promoted the idea of seizing the capital and ending the war quickly, when that was absolutely not what occurred. But all that is a whole other story.

My point in this episode was that Americans could have learned a lot from the British side of the Revolutionary War if they chose to, and they really could have. Piers Mackesy’s The War for America has been on military reading lists for AGES, and even if it’s a bit dated, it offers an excellent strategic view of Britain’s war for the colonies. But the real book that inspired this episode the most was Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy’s The Men Who Lost America, a collective biography of people like King George III, the Howe brothers, Charles Cornwallis, and Lord North that shredded a lot of what I thought I knew about the Revolution. I recommend this book a thousand times over, and it’s not super technical or full of military jargon, it’s an extremely accessible read. I cannot recommend it enough.

Anyway, that’s about all for this week. Stay tuned for two short rounds coming out next week, and see you the week after that for the next full-length episode!

Maybe some other day I'll go on that full-fledged rant about The Patriot. I already have three types of episodes, introducing "military history movie reviews" might be just a bridge too far.

If you need a very accessible work on the British view of the Revolution, Christopher Hibbert’s work is solid for a popular audience. But I adore O’Shaughnessy’s book, and I think you guys are definitely savvy enough to tackle it.


Allen, Thomas B. Tories: Fighting for the King in America's First Civil War. New York: HarperCollins, 2010.

Hibbert, Christopher. Redcoats and Rebels: The American Revolution Through British Eyes. London: Grafton Books, 1990.

Mackesy, Piers. The War for America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1964.

Pancake, John S. This Destructive War: The British Campaign in the Carolinas, 1780-1782. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1985.

O'Shaughnessy, Andrew Jackson. The Men Who Lost America: British Leadership, the American Revolution, and the Fate of the Empire. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013.

Spring, Matthew H. With Zeal and with Bayonets Only: The British Army on Campaign in North America, 1775-1783. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2008.

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