Ragan Speech to the Sons of the Revolution

It has been said that war, simultaneously, brings out the best and worst in mankind… magnificent acts of incredibly selfless sacrifice and unfathomable courage in the face of impossible odds juxtaposed with instances of depraved, senseless violence and wanton, despicable destruction.

Perhaps it is this ironic contrast on the scale of life and death that causes a great many people talk about war as if they understand what it is.  In deed, like understanding the concept of language, at some levels, perhaps, they do. 

However, there a multitude of aspects to war, all of which are multifaceted and, possibly, not the easiest to grasp despite what some may think.

War, at different times, has served the noble purpose of freeing humans from oppression and, at other times, the evil purpose of enslaving them.   Decisive victory in war has, simultaneously, both, saved lives, and destroyed them. 

In fact, “victory” is so complex that even dedicated students disagree about its definition.  Famous generals such as Caesar, Alexander, Lee and Grant would have agreed that a military victory is defined as controlling a particular piece of territory through force when, and for as long, as you choose.

However, other generals such as Sun Tzu, Lemay and Von Clausewitz might argue over the exact meaning of “controlling territory.”  Similarly, they might question whether “force” actually meant using combat power or merely a credible threat to use it.

War is a mere continuation of politics by other means.  --- Carl Von Clausewitz, 1832

War is thus an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will.  --- Carl Von Clausewitz, 1832

Generally warfare can be viewed as a spectrum with attrition warfare and maneuver warfare on opposite ends. In attrition warfare the enemy is a collection of targets to be found and destroyed. Attrition warfare exploits maneuver to destroy enemy forces.  In contrast, maneuver warfare, exploits combat power and attrition on key elements of opposing forces.

Maneuver warfare can bring about the defeat of an opposing force through strategic movement.  This method is potentially more efficient in economic and diplomatic terms than by simply contacting and destroying enemy forces until they can no longer fight.  Instead, in maneuver warfare, the destruction of certain enemy targets (command and control centers, logistical bases, fire support assets, etc.) is combined with isolation of enemy forces and the exploitation by movement of enemy weaknesses.

Bypassing and cutting off enemy strongpoints often results in the collapse of that strongpoint even where the physical damage is minimal (e.g. the Maginot Line or MacArthur’s “island hopping campaign”).  Combat power, which is used primarily to destroy as many enemy forces as possible in attrition warfare, is used to suppress or destroy enemy positions at breakthrough points during maneuver warfare. Infiltration tactics by conventional or special operations forces may be used extensively to cause chaos and confusion behind enemy lines.

Last time I spoke before a group of the Sons of the Revolution, I used examples of maneuver warfare that the American forces successfully employed against the loyalists and British.  One such example was the Battle of King’s Mountain.  From a strategic perspective, the Overmountain Men and their allies were able to engage Ferguson’s forces at an unexpected time and place by successfully employing decisive maneuver.  I also pointed the successful use of maneuver by both the land and sea forces of the Americans and French at the Battle of Yorktown.

However, in this presentation, I would like to shift the focus.   Instead of rather antiseptic analyses of moving men and supplies about on battlefields and impersonal discussions of what constitutes bringing superior combat power to bear against strongholds, I want to address another aspect of warfare.

There are instances in warfare where smaller less well-equipped military forces are able to defeat larger and stronger enemies.  In some of these cases, the difference is better strategy like King’s Mountain.  In other cases, it is superior tactics like the Battle of Trenton.  There are situations such as existed at Valley Forge that literally changed the direction of an entire campaign.

There is an intangible at play in these situations.  That intangible could be called esprit.  However, to merely label it that takes away from it and misses an important part of its essence.

What is that essence that causes men to endure a winter encampment so ill supplied that starvation and disease generate far more casualties and fatalities than any enemy combat action?  That same essence drives soldiers to march to the attack leaving bloody footprints on snow covered ground because they lack boots.  That same essence causes men to go past the point of exhaustion moving to meet an enemy in a fierce battle after days of grueling exertion.

Some say that the essence we are discussing springs from inspired and charismatic leadership.  In the Revolutionary War, one need look no further than George Washington, Francis Marion, Daniel Morgan, John Sevier, Henry Knox and a host of others to see this leadership demonstrated in spades.  Therefore, there can be no doubt that charismatic leadership is an important ingredient in this intangible.

However, there is more to it in my opinion.  There is the strength of ideas and ideals.

Listen to these words”

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, —

Now listen to these:

THESE are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated. – Patrick Henry

In his Farewell Address, 1796, Washington stated: "Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and Morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of Patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great Pillars of human happiness.”

These words, I think capture the essence of which I spoke earlier.  All of them refer to a Divine power and a set of principles worth, both, living and dying for.  All of them speak to a responsibility and call upon those who hear them to rise above pettiness and mundane pursuits to meet these responsibilities.

It is that call to commit oneself to higher ideals and service beyond self that inspires citizens to become soldiers and to endure incredible hardships.  Inspired and charismatic leaders can indeed motivate men to great achievement.  However, when such leaders call on their followers to adopt such noble purposes and live them, enduring the impossible becomes, not just, imaginable but a self-expectation.   Achievements such as a nation founded upon the worth of individual citizens for the first time in history becomes a reality.

To the Sons of the Revolution, I say that while is it important to recall past events with pride, it is more valuable to remember the intangibles which inspired those events and motivated the sacrifices that made those events possible. 

Let me close with a call to action:

"Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must, like men, undergo the fatigue of supporting it."

--Thomas Paine: The American Crisis, No. 4,1777

"The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." -- Edmund Burke

"But you must remember, my fellow-citizens, that eternal vigilance by the people is the price of liberty, and that you must pay the price if you wish to secure the blessing.  It behooves you, therefore, to be watchful in your States as well as in the Federal Government." -- Andrew Jackson, Farewell Address, March 4, 1837

 

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