Can Defense Spending Buy Us Peace of Mind?

GREENSBORO, N.C.–On a day when I was walking one of the great and forgotten battlefields of our War of Independence, the President was a few hundred miles to the southeast, addressing Special Operations troops and their families in Fayetteville, N.C., near Fort Bragg, home of the Green Berets. He was touting his proposed $48 billion increase in defense spending, saying the additional money was necessary to give the military “all the tools” it needs in the fight to keep the nation secure from its enemies.

“We want every terrorist to be made to live like an international fugitive on the run, with no place to settle, no place to organize, no place to hide, no government to hide behind–not ever a safe place to sleep,” the President said. Later, Mr. Bush watched as the troops at Fort Bragg staged a mock response to a mockery: Army Rangers parachuted from helicopters to “quell” a “riot” being conducted by other troops playing generic global troublemakers and shouting anti-American and anti-Bush slogans.

Here in Greensboro, while the President was observing the best-equipped troops in the world in action, hundreds of mock soldiers in well-crafted rags gathered for their annual re-creation of the battle of Guildford Court House. Never heard of it? Typical Yank. It was one of the Revolutionary War’s bloodiest fights: It featured two world-class generals, the American Nathanael Greene and Britain’s Lord Cornwallis, and was one of a handful of occasions when the Continental Army stood toe-to-toe with the British and inflicted far more casualties than it suffered.

The armies fought at Guildford Court House on March 15, 1781, and while the Americans and Greene technically lost because they retreated from the field, the British war machine was badly battered. When news reached Parliament of the battle, Charles Fox told the House of Commons, “Another such victory would ruin the British Army.” Ruin, in fact, followed: Cornwallis, appalled at the loss of a quarter of his men, thought it best to withdraw from Guilford Court House after two days, the better to resupply and re-form. The British marched first to Wilmington, S.C., and then north to Virginia, to meet history in Yorktown.

I was in North Carolina to research my biography of General Greene, and had the good luck–as in Branch Rickey’s “residue of design”–to have two knowledgeable escorts at my side when I toured the battlefield. Like me, Michael McLaughlin of Boston was on hand to research a writing project, and his friend Brett Wallis, a Winston-Salem resident, is a Revolutionary War re-enactor who’s gone AWOL the last few years because of family obligations. (It didn’t take him but five minutes on the field before he was making plans to re-enlist.)

Mr. Wallis shares my enthusiasm for General Greene, and his observations about this forgotten (though not for long) military genius not only rang true, but applied to our military predicament today. With the eye of an expert–these re-enactors are marvelous amateur historians as well as guardians of living history–Mr. Wallis described Greene’s order of battle and the ways in which he utilized the terrain to its best advantage. “He puts his first line here,” Mr. Wallis said, gesturing to what anybody else would see as a patch of grass. “This way, the oncoming British have to stumble through a ravine and a plowed field before they can really get going.” We walked back to where Greene placed his third and last line of defense. It’s at the crest of a ridge, some 600 yards or so behind his second line. To reach it, the well-equipped, well-armed British soldiers had to trudge through thick woods, and then down and up a pleasant little killing ground of rolling hills and cleared fields.

“Greene knew the British had all these advantages, but he used tactics that kept them constantly off-balance,” Mr. Wallis said. “They didn’t know what to expect. And it worked.”

Mr. Bush would have us believe that he has a little Nathanael Greene in him. At the appropriately named Fort Bragg, he talked about keeping our enemies off-balance, with the help, of course, of the finest hardware known to humankind. You have to wonder, though, whether we’re playing the role of Greene or of Cornwallis in this deadlier conflict. All our technology and firepower appear to have gotten us very little in Operation Anaconda, at least according to our Afghan friends. One local commander told the Associated Press that the key to demolishing terrorists in Afghanistan is to “know where they are hiding and then send in small commando units to take them out.

“Bombs from B-52’s won’t defeat Al Qaeda or the Taliban,” the commander said.

Lord Cornwallis would understand the dilemma. Can Defense Spending Buy Us Peace of Mind?