Books, culture, fishing, and other games

August 25, 2004

Benedict Arnold Lite?

A comment over on Captain's Quarters got me thinking. That's one thing about the byplay of blogs, the friction of thinking minds in near real time (especially when compared with the time spans involved in peer reviews or even corporate meeting schedules) produces sparks of synergy which start new bonfires of thought and conversation very rapidly. Part of the great appeal of blogs to me is the thoughtful exchange of comments that happens on the best. CQ has certainly played host to more than its share of these exchanges in the past few weeks, but it is by no means a solitary example. But I've sidetracked.

"Jim" says, in the third comment to this post,

"My assessment of the facts in this whole swiftboat thing is that it seems that Kerry's record has been, at a very minimum, at least somewhat padded (but I still think that his service was honorable and courageous). The known facts surrounding the bronze medal clearly do not support Rassmann's story(ies) or the citation. And I think that without question Cambodia is a farce and that there is substantial evidence that Kerry is a shameless self-aggrandizer. He would be a scary Commander-in-Chief for these and numerous other policy and political philosophy reasons."

I have no issue with his main statement here. The part that sparked more though from me was that first parenthetical, "but I still think that his service was honorable and couragous." Why is that germaine to the discussion? It's a phrase we see over and over again about Kerry. Why is it not simple a given? Is such service unusual? In the warped testimony and book (The New Soldier) written by John Kerry himself it is, but are those who make this statement the sort that impugn the honor and courage of individuals who serve in our Armed Forces routinely? Not that I've noticed. In fact, they are mostly the opposite, more apt to be accused of blind cheerleading for our men and women who put their lives on the line.

I think it derives from a false dichotomy, that one cannot serve with honor and courage and still act improperly in other fashions or at other times. Or perhaps that isn't quite right either. The real issue on point is the reputation of a man. Reputation is a composite of all the known facts (and rumors, to a degree) about the conduct and being of a person, but those facts are not weighted equally. An extreme (though in many ways apt) example can be useful to illustrate.

One of this country's earliest and greatest heros is known for his command of a fleet of small boats in a battle that is now credited with being pivotal in ensuring the survival of the delicate entity that was the fledgeling United States. That battle, the Battle of Lake Champlain, was a tactical defeat, though it was a strategic victory of the first order. Benedict Arnold's small flotilla of boats, with half-naked soldiers serving as sailors, succeeding in his planned aim of delaying the progress of the British forces invading from Canada. The British plan, of which he was aware from intelligence he had himself acquired in his participation in the invasion of Canada earlier, was to conduct in pincer movement of two strong forces, one coming down from Canada, the other coming up the Hudson with the aim of meeting at Albany and dividing the thirteen "colonies" and choking them into submission. Arnold's aim was to prevent that join up in Albany to buy time for the Continental Congress to raise more forces.

It was an apparently impossible task. But Arnold was not afraid to take on the impossible. He'd already accomplished an overland march into Canada that has been likened to Hannibal's crossing of the Alps. He made the plan, sold it to Congress, managed the building of the boats, recruited and trained the crews, and led the flotilla in the engagement, inflicting sufficient damage that the British commander decided to postpone the invasion, and then retreating his force while under extreme pressure by pursuing British native American allies. It is not unjust to consider Arnold one of this nation's Founding Fathers. Without his success at Lake Champlain in delaying the Canadian wing of the British invasion, many historians believe the revolution would have failed. While Arnold participated, and heroically, in many other actions before Lake Champlain, and went on to rally and lead a counterattack at Saratoga, the Lake Champlain battle, its planning and execution, was truly Arnold's brainchild. This country owes him a great debt for his service.

Arnold was wounded multiple times. He was shot in the leg in Canada. Later his horse was shot out from under him at Saratoga and fell on that same leg, crippling him for life. His leadership in the invasion of Canada was worthy of high acclaim. In the battles there, his commanders were killed or wounded and his assumed command even though himself legshot. He was the last man to leave Canada in the retreat, shooting his own horse lest it fall to the enemy, and leaping into his boat with the sound of the approaching British in his ears. His planning and leadership under fire at Lake Champlain, including the withrawal under fire were spectacular. His decision to set aside his pique and participate unofficially at Saratoga, to rally a troop and lead them into the enemy resulting in his wounding and eventual crippling, is one more example of his leadership under fire and above and beyond the call of duty. All of these actions, and others, merited, under our current system, medals up to the highest awarded.

And yet, already in this Presidential campaign season his name is being used in a sense that is entirely opposite. The term "Benedict Arnold CEO" is being applied to the leaders of corporations who outsource jobs to other countries. That is because, of course, though Arnold's story begins with his service, it does not end there.

Arnold was not apparently a master of politics. He appears to have been constantly in conflict with his superiors and his fellow officers. His great champion, and probably the reason he had opportunity to accomplish much at all, was George Washington. Arnold resigned several times in fits of pique. But when he heard the clash of steel and tasted the acrid smoke of black powder on the breeze, he always threw aside his resentment and charged to the fore (even when he had no official role), inspiring the common soldier and his own troops to overcome impossible odds. He was treated unfairly, there is no question, but he was by no means the only one. Congress was running the war on a quarter of a very worn shoestring. It is a shame that that body did not recognise what they had in Arnold, a leader who could take a strand of shoestring, too few men, and an indomnitable impulse to overcome and accomplish the needed task somehow.

The histories present Arnold as self-centered, calculating, and cool. I suspect there's more than a touch of narcissism there. While he proved very useful to his country, his service was not selfless. Always there was a strong "Me" involved. Much of his conflict with his fellow officers and superiors was over who had command authority. Yet he proved on multiple occasions that he needed no official authority to be a great asset to his country and his fellow warriors. When the bugle blew and the cannon roared, he set aside his funk and charged onto the field, leading by example. But he expected credit and glory. And that proved his downfall.

Once his bitterness at his mistreatment, percieved and real, reached a certain level, he clearly put himself before his country. His contacts with the enemy, the British, provided ample opportunity for profit. And he sought a position, command of West Point, with an eye to being able to turn it over to the enemy. When George Washington granted him that request, instead of another field command which he had offered, Washington had no idea where it would lead nor what was Arnold's intent. He trusted Arnold, undoubtedly not a little because of his history of past service to his country.

And now we consider "Benedict Arnold" to be synonymous to "traitor," not patriot, though the man himself was apparently a great patriot, before he was a traitor. There were warning signs but none knew how to read them. Arnold clearly had problems of priorities, when compared to many of his fellows. He did ask what his country could do for him, repeatedly, and became upset when it did not do as much as he wished. He was willing to risk death, but he expected command, glory and prompt repayment of expenses. While he may have deserved such, many others did also, and went without quietly, with an eye on the eventual greater good for all.

Maybe this isn't an extreme example. I see a lot of parallels between Arnold and Kerry, and I don't think it's unfair to compare and contrast the two men.

Both served their countries in war. Arnold's service was at a higher level, one of operational and even strategic level, at times. Scholars have called Arnold "the best General on both sides of the War of Independence."1 (hat tip Beldar) While Kerry had command, it was at a small unit and small engagement level. Arnold was a big picture commander in nature. It's unclear that Kerry was. Kerry's activities in battle were constrained to very small unit actions with very limited objectives. Benedict Arnold was responsible for logistical activities in very difficult circumstances, and addition to gathering and analyzing intelligence, planning at all levels, and directly leading forces in various kinds of actions which included long marches, building fleets, holding actions, withdrawals, retreats under pursuit, naval battles, sieges, assaults and counterattacks, and more. In contrast, Kerry operated with a few riverine gunboats, patrolling and interdicting enemy movements, serving as ferry for ground troops, and responding to ambushes. He had little opportunity for and there is little evidence that he participated to any serious degree in logistical planning, intelligence gathering and analysis, or command activities beyond very small unit activities.

Both Kerry and Arnold are acclaimed for bravery under fire. Both suffered hardships. Kerry's record pales if comparisons are drawn between long winter marches with inadequate supplies and riverine patrol activities from a relatively fixed base that was reasonably well-supplied. Hunger was not a factor Kerry had much concern about, though the food may not have been up to his usual standards.

Both suffered wounds in action. Arnold was shot in the leg in Canada. Later the same leg was broken when his horse, shot dead under him, fell on it. Arnold was crippled for life. There were probably other wounds of more minor nature in the many heated battles in which he was involved, but they did not garner much attention.

Kerry was awarded three Purple Hearts for wounds in action. One was for a tiny piece of shrapnel of uncertain origin (which isn't all that unusual in battle) in his first battle in which it is uncertain there was any enemy fire. Another resulted from grenade and rice shrapnel in his posterior anatomy (ass and thighs, apparently) after he tossed a grenade into a bag of rice he sought to destroy lest the enemy profit from it. The third was for a contusion on his arm resulting from banging into the pilothouse of his boat, as a result of and explosion or collision with an underwater obstacle as he maneuvered following a mine explosion that crippled another boat in his patrol.

Like Arnold, Kerry appears to have had less than comfortable relationships with his fellow officers. It's difficult to judge how much resulted from his postwar activities and how much was actually evident at the time. Many of his fellow officers now say they wanted him gone. Kerry's fitreps are not spectacular, contrary to the opinion of many of his proponents now. And the range of grades in his records suggests, at a minimum, that his superiors had diverging opinions of his compentence and character as an officer. Remarks on the record suggest strongly that, like Arnold, Kerry was very conscious of his position and honors. He was quick to put himself in for medals. His postwar history of reporting his war experience also shows a tendency to give himself more credit than other records of the events, sometimes even his own other records, suggest he actually deserves.

In a comparison of achievements while at war, Kerry is not on the same plane as Benedict Arnold. While both were wounded in service, Arnold's were clearly suffered in pitched battles. None of Kerry's have been proven to have occured under enemy fire. By the very act of holding up his medals and pointing to them as exemplar of great service to his country, Kerry invites comparison to the character flaw of Arnold that led him to his betrayal of his country: he sought recognition more than he sought to serve.

Many veterans see what Kerry did upon his return from Vietnam as a betrayal, of themselves and of their country itself. When he called them war criminals in testimony before the Senate, knowing his words were lies, and went on to meet with representatives of North Vietnam, all while still in the Naval Reserve, he again invited comparison to Benedict Arnold.

While I will by no means argue that Kerry's postwar activities are on a plane with Arnold's betrayals, they certainly were betrayals. I'd say they are parallel in the sense that they are to Arnold's betrayal as Kerry's war wounds are to Arnold's. Kerry's betrayal is to Arnold's as Kerry's achievements in war are to Arnold's. Because Kerry had so little on record when compared to the achievements of Benedict Arnold, he had much less to betray. His low level of achievement shields him. If Kerry is a traitor, as many veterans claim, he is at best a traitor lite.

The final chapter in this comparison remains to be written, however. Benedict Arnold ultimately failed in his attempt to do great harm by handing the British West Point. He was found out and forced to flee. He lived out his life in exile, first in Britain, later in Canada.

Kerry cannot be said to have failed in his attempts to undermine the war in Vietnam. It can be argued his efforts succeeded. In this respect, he perhaps surpassed Arnold. Vietnam fell to the communists. Cambodia, and others, followed. As a result millions died, most under the regime of Pol Pot in cambodia. But it can be argued little direct harm came from this to his own country. Those most betrayed were the freedom-seeking peoples of Southeast Asia that were willingly handed over to murderous and repressive communist regimes.

The question before us now is whether he will be permitted another opportunity. Does his record of service, whether military or in civil government, justify the trust of the American people that Kerry has our best interests at heart?

That question will be resolved in November. Let us pray the collective wisdom of the American public exceeds that of George Washington.

Some online essays on Benedict Arnold.

1) see David Hackett Fisher's Washington's Crossing, p 438.

Posted by dan at August 25, 2004 01:09 PM | TrackBack

Just caught this from Beldar. Thoughtful, penetrating and dead on.

Posted by: vnjagvet at August 26, 2004 10:06 AM

Excellent perspective. I would further aver,
given the situation we find ourselves in with
North Korea and Clinton's complicity in same,
makes the possibility of Kerry being able to do
more actual harm to this country and the world
at large than Arnold, likely if not probable

Posted by: Steel Turman at August 26, 2004 07:59 PM
Post a comment

Remember personal info?