The popular image of the Continental Army that fought and won the American War for Independence is one of a ragtag collection of farmers and tradesmen gathered from across the thirteen colonies who stood up to the strongest professional military of its time and achieved its goal of independence through patriotic zeal and tactical creativity. There is some truth to this image, but the reality was much more complicated.
Many don’t realize that George Washington often despaired of the Americans’ commitment to the cause of American liberty. Recruiting and retention was a constant struggle, and it was only through clear-eyed dedication to the ends for which the war was fought while simultaneously balancing the ways and means against the hard realities of the struggle that Washington succeeded. Given the U.S. military’s current recruiting problems, it is worth examining how Washington managed to steer the Continental Army through its own shortage of willing and able warriors to achieve final victory.
When Washington assumed command of the Continental Army in 1775, zeal for the American cause was just beginning to peak. The Massachusetts militias had forced a British retreat from Lexington and Concord and penned the enemy into the port city of Boston. Washington, as he had shown in the French and Indian War, was an offense-minded commander. But reticence on the part of his subordinate commanders and constant shortages in supplies and manpower meant he was forced to change his operational approach. Even at the height of patriotic fervor, his officers refused to attack Boston, so Washington settled for an artillery barrage that eventually forced the British to evacuate.
During the siege, Washington complained in a private letter that the army surrounding Boston had obtained a reputation for courage and patriotism that “they by no means deserved.” Only two months after his appointment as commander-in-chief, he had already “broke” one colonel and five captains for cowardice, and two more colonels were under arrest for the same offense. He constantly tried to talk officers, including his top generals, out of resigning their commissions.
This problem became more pronounced as the excitement surrounding independence dissipated, giving way to despair. Self-interestedness gradually replaced patriotism and concern for the common defense. Many Americans either deserted or simply refused to reenlist. Gradually, a reliable core of battle-hardened soldiers and officers who prioritized duty over self-interest emerged, but these were barely enough to ensure the Continental Army’s survival. Major offensive action was, with a few notable exceptions like the attacks on Trenton and Princeton, out of the question.
As recruiting and retention lagged, Washington instituted several policies to reverse this trend. He asked Congress to extend enlistment commitments from one to three years or for the duration of the war. He fought for generous pension plans for his officers and enlistment bonuses for soldiers. His constant struggle to keep his troops supplied with even the bare minimum they needed for survival drove him to the brink of despair. He reluctantly authorized the requisition of civilian foodstuffs for his starving army and felt that a draft might be appropriate, given the dearth of new recruits.
Despite these efforts, Washington couldn’t take the offensive nearly to the extent he wanted to until the arrival of the French navy. In the meantime, his most important move was a strategic reengineering of how he employed his army.
Washington practiced strategy in its most pragmatic form, later famously expressed as an equation by Arthur Lykke: “Strategy equals ends (objectives toward which one strives) plus ways (courses of action) plus means (instruments by which some end can be achieved).” While his formula is original, Lykke emphasized the same axiom of strategy that every great strategist takes for granted: the end or purpose is all-important. Ways and means exist only to serve and achieve that end.
The Second Continental Congress made the end of the Continental Army crystal clear. Its purpose, and that of its commander-in-chief, was simply “the defence of American liberty.” One of the many qualities that made Washington America’s “indispensable man” was that he never deviated from that purpose for a moment.
But he did revise how he pursued that purpose, given the means at his disposal. He did not have enough men to pursue the offensive to the extent that he wished. Seeing that the preservation of American liberty depended on the continued existence of the Continental Army, he pursued a strategy of survival until French support arrived. That was the best way of achieving his end, given the available means, and when all was said and done, it was a winning strategy.
Today’s policymakers and military leaders should look to Washington as they navigate their own recruiting crisis. This will likely require a revision of how they pursue their ends, given their inability to recruit to the level their current plans call for. But there’s another, more fundamental question they must answer first: Are they pursuing the right ends?
As Lykke and Washington illustrated, a nation achieves victory when that victory is clearly defined. For the Continental Army, that end was the defense of American liberty. With the adoption of the U.S. Constitution as the law of the land, that purpose was reemphasized, but it did not change.
The Preamble to the Constitution, which no constitutional amendment has yet altered or abolished, contains the ends for which the American republic exists. The two that especially concern the U.S. military are to “provide for the common defence” and “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” Defending American liberty is still the reason the U.S. military exists.
The question that American policymakers and military leaders must confront prior to addressing ways and means (such as recruiting numbers) is whether they have deviated from that constitutionally mandated purpose. The current National Security Strategy addresses homeland defense, but American liberty is a minor theme, and the phrase itself is nonexistent. Instead, it addresses freedom in global terms and is concerned with what is best for the world rather than what is best for the United States. It commits the nation to supporting “every country, regardless of size or strength, in exercising the freedom to make choices that serve their interests.” Even if that were possible, it is extra-constitutional.
Moreover, it exceeds the purpose of the Constitution as asserted by the Framers themselves, which was to “promote the lasting Welfare of that Country so dear to us all and secure her Freedom and happiness.” That sounds nationalistic. But, the U.S. Constitution to which servicemembers and public officials swear their oaths is, properly understood, a nationalistic document. Even when addressing matters relating to foreign powers, such as treaties, commerce, war, and judicial scope, the Constitution is wholly concerned with the good of the nation, not the world. When “the people” ordained and established the Constitution, they did not grant the national government authority to shape the world according to America’s image. Constitutionally speaking, they still haven’t. No amendment mandates or authorizes the U.S. to promote global democracy at the expense of its own citizens.
The freedom to trade and conduct commerce in relative safety is a critical component of American liberty, and to that extent, American liberty requires global engagement. But that engagement should focus on preserving American liberty, not chasing ambiguous and unachievable goals such as inculcating “democratic values” in every corner of the world.
As far as military recruitment is concerned, perhaps there is only a “shortage” if the United States military tries to do more than what the Constitution demands. Perhaps if the nation focuses its military efforts on what is necessary for preserving American liberty rather than meddling in other nation’s internal affairs, we will find that current recruiting trends are not as dire as we thought. After all, the core of George Washington’s army consisted of a small group of patriots who distinguished themselves from their fellow Americans through their endurance and a heightened sense of duty. Perhaps not much has changed since then.
More importantly, it is likely that a renewed commitment to the U.S. military’s constitutional purpose will make the service more attractive to potential recruits. They want and deserve a real and achievable purpose to be worth the sacrifice. Utopian dreams of global democracy do not meet that standard. Still, the privilege of serving as a defender of American liberty and of carrying forward the legacy of Washington and his Continentals is every bit the cause worth fighting for.
Some who read this will likely accuse me of isolationism, but if they examine my argument carefully, they will find that I don’t advocate a policy of global disengagement. I simply echo Washington and his fellow Framers of the Constitution, whose foreign policy of choice was not isolationism but independence. They refused to subject American sovereignty to the whims of foreign powers. They did this to preserve American liberty for posterity, as mandated in the Constitution. To do the same for our children is the great challenge of our time.
Andrew J. Bibb is a U.S. Army strategic plans and policy officer who has completed numerous combat and operational deployments. His work has been published in respected outlets such as the Army War College’s War Room, West Point’s Modern War Institute, and the U.S. Congressional Record. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.