How The Romans Americans And The Vietnamese Defeated The Most Powerful Military Machines Of Their Day

I’m currently reading military historian and Pulitzer Prize winning author, Thomas E. Ricks’ latest book, First Principles: What America’s founding fathers learned from the Greeks and Romans and how that shaped our country.

I just finished the part where Rick’s explains the evolution of General Washington’s strategic thinking that took him from looser to winner. As most American history buffs know, early in our War for Independence the woefully inexperienced Washington suffered defeat after defeat, until, that is, he discovered the Fabius means to eventual victory. The Fabios method of fighting might be compared to that flamboyant boxer, Muhammad Ali’s, Rope a Dope style of fighting. It is a manner of moving about so that an opponent is never allowed to land a knockout punch while at once wearing out one’s adversary.

In military terms it is called the Fabius strategy. Fabius was a Roman general who was tasked with taking on Hannibal’s mighty Carthaginian army. Starting around 218 bc, and continuing on for fifteen years of constant campaigning against Fabius, an exhausted Hannibal, being unable to catch him in a decisive battle, finally gave up and went home — war over.

Moving forward in time to the American Revolution, Washington, having suffered at least two years of disastrous battles against the British was fortunate that on 1 March 1777 Alexander Hamilton was appointed his aide-de-Camp. It is believed that Hamilton (then only in his early 20s) being quite familiar with the classics was aware of the Fabius strategy even before the war, and thus possibly might have sold Washington on the concept that saved the American cause. Even if this were not the case, Hamilton, being far more articulate than the American commander, Washington sent him out to the various American commands to explain the new, more or less, hit and run strategy.

For revolutionary firebrands like John Adams, however, they railed against this so-called Fabian strategy as a demonstration of weakness, as if such a weakness wasn’t pathetical obviously to all in the first instance.

In any event, things for General Washington and his army had already begun turning for the better when he crossed the Delaware River on a frigid night, the evening following Christmas of 1776, overrunning a modest garrison of Hessian Troops at Trenton New Jersey. The days of trying to take the might of the British army head on were mostly over. With one major exception, the Battle of the Brandywine, the Americans did not look to directly confront formidable British arms in open set piece battles, until attacking Cornwallis at the Battle of Yorktown in Virginia on September 28, 1781. This was done in conjunction with a powerful French fleet and French army support — an American knockout punch that finally caused the British to soon lose interest in the war altogether The Americans had gained their freedom.

While Ricks, at least up to the point that I have read his book, does not mention the ironic fact that the Vietnamese used the same Fabian tactics to rid their lands of a string of foreign invaders (French, Japanese and sadly Americans) as the Americans had used to drive off the British. Indeed, one might compare the Americans overrunning of the Hessians at Trenton to the Viet Cong’s Tet offensive that momentarily overran parts of Saigon. Both sent a signal to powerful militaries that they might not be winning.

There is little doubt that General Giap, the top commander of Vietnam’s military, had studied General Washington’s martial operations in fending off the British. In a weird twist of fate, it may be said that what goes around comes around, even in this most deadly aspect of human endeavor.

In regard to the British military condition, Ricks writes: “When the British ejected the Americans from New York City in August and September 1776, they had fielded 31,600 soldiers. By February of 1777they had just 14,000, with the rest simply gone — killed, badly wounded, seriously ill, captured, or deserted.” Still, the fighting would go on for another three plus years, until, like the Americans in Vietnam, the war became politically untenable for the British military on theEnglish home front.

“John Adams may have never gotten on board, but his son John Quincy Adams (Harvard, 1787) eventually did, concluding decades later that the Fabian strategy had ‘succeeded in our Revolutionary War’…Through the crucible of war he [Washington] had proven himself to be the noblest Roman of them all.” So writes Ricks.

It might be useful to note that in the American Civil War of the early 1860s the much weaker agrarian Southern Confederacy, lead in the main by the renowned General Robert E. Lee, most definitely did not apply the Fabian strategy of warfare in taking on the far more powerful industrial North. Time after time General Lee fought monumental battles again a much superior Federal military. While he won a fair number of those bloody encounters, in doing so he sacrifice much of his irreplaceable officer corps and caused his material and human resources to be badly run down until he was finally compelled to surrender at Appomattox Courthouse Virginia on April 9, 1865.

We therefore are given examples on our own lands of using — and not using — the old Roman Fabian system as a better way for taking on a superior enemy.

Jim Ridgway, Jr. military writer — author of the American Civil War classic, “Apprentice Killers: The War of Lincoln and Davis.” Christmas gift, yes!

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