The futility of force and the preservation of power: British strategic failure in America, 1780-83

Citation metadata

Date: Autumn 2012
From: Parameters(Vol. 42, Issue 3)
Publisher: U.S. Army War College
Document Type: Article
Length: 8,641 words
Lexile Measure: 1920L

Document controls

Main content

Article Preview :

The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and the commander have to make is [to] establish ... the kind of war on which they are embarking; neither mistaking it for, nor trying to turn it into, something that is alien to its nature. This is the first of all strategic questions and the most comprehensive. (1)

--Carl von Clausewitz

In the spring of 1763 Great Britain, basking in the warm afterglow of decisive victory in the Seven Years War, presided over a vast and unprecedented global empire. The small island nation seemingly, and rather suddenly, found itself without peer--enjoying a level of military and political hegemony not seen since the days of the Roman Empire. (2) It was a unique, albeit fleeting, position. In the span of a mere twenty years, the world's preeminent global power, despite enjoying a considerable advantage in almost every conceivable category used to calculate military potential, found itself disgraced and defeated by a start-up nation possessing a markedly inferior conventional military capability. Crippled by a grossly burgeoning national debt, diplomatically isolated, and politically divided at home, the North Ministry became embroiled in a protracted and unpopular global war that its policymakers and military leaders seemed incapable of understanding--much less winning--until it was far too late. (3)

The War for American Independence, especially if viewed from the British perspective, retains extraordinary significance for contemporary practitioners of national and military strategy. The conflict contains many valuable and exceedingly relevant insights regarding the rise, prevention, and challenges of insurgency, the perils of a people's war for a foreign power, and the absolute imperative of a thoughtful, coherent, and proactive national strategy that integrates all instruments of national power prior to, not just after, the commencement of hostilities. The British experience also provides timeless lessons regarding the difficulties of balancing ambitious political ends with limited military means, civil-military relations, and sustaining national will in democratic societies during protracted and unpopular wars. Finally, the conflict serves as a conspicuous example of the potential for irregular warfare to thwart the application of conventionally superior military force and thereby decide or influence the political outcomes of wars and campaigns. In that regard, Great Britain's experience in the War for American Independence provides an important prologue for many of the contemporary challenges associated with the application of coercive force in a postcolonial and postnuclear world. While predicting the future remains problematic, the United States should, in all likelihood, expect both the character and conduct of its future wars to more closely resemble that of the American revolution, albeit from the British perspective, than those of a bygone era where industrialized nation-states waged near-total wars of annihilation. (4)

This article uses an abbreviated examination of the Southern Campaign (1780-82) to explore the principal causes of British strategic failure in the War for American Independence. The subject demands more attention than it traditionally receives, especially from the nation that has, in the span of a mere two generations, overtaken...

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|A320068227