Jack R. Van Ens
is a dramatist, historian and author
Commander George Washington amassed great power, winning two battles at Trenton and then defeating British Redcoats on Princeton's outskirts. After gaining military muscle, why didn't he flex it like a warlord does? Why didn't Washington strut his military stuff like Napoleon would a few years later? Many colonials would gladly have crowned him their benevolent dictator.
David Hackett Fischer, who wrote
a definitive study of the two pivotal Trenton battles followed by a strategic victory at Princeton, describes how Washington wisely went to war. Following their surprise attack on the Hessians after Christmas Eve in 1776, "Washington and his army had difficult choices about a plan of operations, the design of the defensive battle, and the concentration of the American army at Trenton," Fischer notes.
Pinpointing Washington's source of wisdom that sustained him in battle, Fischer observes, "Washington was at the center of all these decisions,
functioning more as a leader than a commander
(italics mine); always listening, inspiring, guiding; rarely demanding, commanding, coercing."
He wasn't cocky, like so many biblical warriors. Each suffered the same fatal flaw, declared John Bright, my teacher of Old Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary. The warring biblical kings, Bright quipped, "acted like self-made men who worshipped their creator - themselves." Washington didn't bow before a made-up mind.
A colonial Presbyterian church sits on the crest of a hill off the Delaware River, near Washington Crossing State Park. Having served in ministry with this church during the Bicentennial era, I often have visited the site where Washington crossed the ice-choked Delaware River on Christmas Eve in 1776. His army defeated superbly trained Hessians bunkered in Trenton. British Generals Howe and Cornwallis decided, against advice from savvy subordinates, to unleash a counterattack and destroy Washington's army.
In the second battle of Trenton on Jan. 2, 1777, the British were repulsed again. The next day, Washington's army clashed with the British outside Princeton, forcing a Redcoat retreat.
In his book, Fischer maintains that Washington respected a fundamental fact upon which our republic was built. Colonial civil and military leaders worked out a system of accountability in war.
Washington believed he was accountable to the people through their representatives in the Continental Congress. He worked for the Congress to further the national good. He didn't protect our country's destiny through fiat. Nor did he surround himself with yes-men. Author Fischer describes how Washington, from the start of the Revolutionary War to its completion, "worked hard to establish the principle of civil control over military affairs, and always respected it."
Washington led; the British generals commanded. He negotiated with his military aides; the Redcoat officers ruled over subordinates.
Compared with Washington, who lacked formal education, President Bush has considerable learning from Yale and Harvard but wears it lightly. Bush doesn't negotiate, as did Washington. Acting like a British general in the Revolutionary War, he forges ahead with his mind made up.
When members of the Iraq Study Committee met with him, they found Bush "far more upbeat than the realities in Iraq seemed to warrant." A committee member remembered that the president didn't so much want to hear their views questioning the unwise war strategy. He was hell-bent on persuading "us that we should be writing a report reflecting his own views." When someone crosses the president with an opposing view, Bush digs in his heels, rarely retreating.
Is this a courageous trait? Or is Bush obstinate?
What happens when Washington's wise listening and negotiation skills are missing?
A president then leads unilaterally. Soon after 9/11, Bush ordered the National Security Agency to monitor al-Qaeda communications coming into and out of our country. He circumvented established court procedures. Getting a court OK as delineated in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act would prove too cumbersome. Saying he needed to move fast and pivot as terror erupts, the president seized constitutional power that authorized widespread surveillance without judicial restraint.
Is this democracy in action? Where's accountability between civil servants and our commander in chief? Where are listening and negotiation skills?
When the first battle at Trenton raged Dec. 26, 1776, Congress granted Washington full authority to direct the war, but the Congress remained fully in charge. Washington wisely ran the war Congress oversaw.