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Iraq and the backcountry of the Carolinas

by DG Martin

Can experiences in the Carolinas during the American Revolution help us understand what is happening in Iraq today?

Maybe, I think, as I read about the efforts of British General Lord Cornwallis to pacify the Carolina backcountry during 1780. University of South Carolina history professor Walter Edgar describes the horrors of those times in Partisans and Redcoats: The Southern Conflict That Turned the Tide of the American Revolution.

Edgar describes the patriot resistance that rose up in response to British efforts to control the Carolina backcountry after their conquest of Charleston in 1780. He believes that this backcountry resistance was’  “key to America’s triumph over Great Britain in the Revolution.”

Even though British General Cornwallis had much better trained and equipped soldiers, he could not subdue the patriots’ resistance. American forces in Iraq have a similar challenge.

There are some specific similarities.

1. The misleading assurance of a “warm welcome.”

The British government was led to believe the majority of people in the Carolinas would welcome the return of royal control. Before the invasion of Iraq, some American officials had the same idea. Remember Donald Rumsfeld saying about the reception our troops would receive in Iraq, “There is no question but that they would be welcomed.”

2. Optimistic – but premature – reports of “successful” anti-insurgency efforts.

Even after Cornwallis acknowledged that backcountry patriots were resisting his efforts to re-impose royal control, he reported that he was putting down the rebellion. On more than one occasion he wrote that he had “put an end to all resistance.” At one point he wrote, “‘…[W]ith the forces at present under my command’… I can leave South Carolina insecurity and march’… into the back part of North Carolina, with the greatest probability of reducing that province to its duty.”

A few months later British forces suffered a crippling defeat at Kings Mountain.

Similarly, the early assurances from American generals that they had sufficient forces to bring order to Iraq were too optimistic.

3. Switching sides.

In thinking back on the American Revolution, we like to think that there was a very clear distinction between patriots and the king’s loyalists. It was not the case in the Carolina backcountry, says Edgar. “One of the major difficulties was trying to figure out who was on whose side,” he writes. “By some accounts, individuals might have switched sides as many as four or five times.”

In Iraq, it is hard to know which ones of today’s supporters will be with us tomorrow.’ 

4. “Atrocities” as a recruiting tool.

The conflict in the Carolina backcountry was so brutal and inhuman that it is painful to acknowledge. Edgar writes that if their “actions had been committed in the 1990s instead of the 1780s, Lord Cornwallis and a number of his subordinates, such as Banastre Tarleton and James Wemyss, would have been indicted by the International Tribunal at the Hague as war criminals.”

Edgar writes, “When Mrs. John Frierson refused to reveal where her husband was hiding, she and her four-year-old son were locked in her house, and it was set ablaze. Eventually they escaped when the heat from the fire drove the guards from the door. In an act of ‘mere wantonness,’ pigs, chickens, ‘and every living thing that could be caught, were thrown into the flames and burned to death.'”

In addition to such individual terror, whole towns were torched. Prisoners and wounded combatants were executed.

Arguably, the patriot atrocities were equally horrible, but those of the British drove the backcountry rebellion to a growing intensity. The loss of a home or a relative turned neutrals or passive rebels into active patriots, ready to lay down their lives to revenge the wrongs they had suffered. The ranks of the patriot militia confronting Cornwallis grew and grew.

By comparison, the alleged atrocities of American forces in Iraq are minor. But, similarly, every lost home, business or family member nudges an Iraqi towards active resistance.

5. The combination of a foreign occupation and a civil war is especially messy.

Cornwallis and the British learned, as we have learned in Iraq, that trying to occupy a foreign country that is in the middle of its own civil conflict may be an extraordinarily difficult task.

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