By D. Michael Ryan, the Concord Minute Men Historian, an 18th Century volunteer history interpreter with the National Park Service and Associate Dean of Students at Boston College.
"A world-class army, blundering in unfamiliar territory... the myth of invincibility... large resources of wealth and firepower... bewilderment and dislocation... the smell of sweat and fear... forces of fatigue and fear and adrenaline..."*Statements which apply to the British column of Regulars marching to Concord on 19 April 1775. Phrases explaining the American experience in Vietnam. An old axiom says that those who fail to learn from history are destined to repeat it.
With turmoil in Massachusetts, King George and Parliament send a new governor, increase the troops in Boston, put pressure on the rebels and close Boston harbor by force. Such a show of strength should quickly end hostilities. Between 1966-67, President Johnson and Congress change ambassadors to Vietnam, increase ground forces, pressure North Vietnam and the VC and take actions to close Haiphong harbor. Yet both local British and American commanders believe that they have not the manpower to accomplish expected missions and hesitate.
In England, many people sympathize with the colonists and already have rioted in the face of poverty, hunger, unemployment and the loss of rights. Most Englishmen do not want another foreign war. After Tet '68, Americans in larger numbers demonstrate against the Vietnam war and government policies as social conditions in the U.S. worsen and sympathy for the Vietnamese increases.
British forces in Boston are generally commanded by noblemen and gentlemen of wealth while the rank and file consists of the poor, criminal, abandoned and those avoiding unemployment. Most of the latter are young, none have experienced combat and few know the reasons for their presence in the colony. While a draft existed in America and many officers were college educated, generally the combat soldier in Vietnam was disproportionately young, poor, unemployed and minority. Few understood what the war was about and few had combat experience.
Increasingly, Parliament leaders and the King believed that a mere show of force would cause the colonists to abandon their causes and sue for peace. Wealth, power and a trained army with overwhelming firepower and time honored tactics could overcome an obstacle. So thought American Congressional leaders and the President as they entered and executed the Vietnam war. But in both instances, it was found that a determined foe, fighting on home terrain with some civilian support and using practical field tactics could persevere and make up for deficiencies
As the column of Regulars marched toward Concord, it operated in unfamiliar territory, stretched its supply and communications lines, faced a hostile populace with some friendly Tories (how do you tell the difference) and depended on reserve forces miles away to escape annihilation. Such would be the Vietnam experience with Americans fighting in a strange land, unable to tell friend from foe and depending on distant rear echelon support to survive.
In the end, the King's army under siege would capitulate and in March 1776 abandon Boston leaving behind many Tory sympathizers and supporters. America withdrew its ground forces from Vietnam in 1973 with the final exit in 1975 being from a beleaguered Saigon where many South Vietnamese, loyal to the U.S., were left behind.
Thus in a haunting manner "Vietnam and Battle Road seemed to merge... a single ghostly blur across history"*. Yet the 1775 British Regular and the Vietnam American soldier cannot be faulted for not attending to duty. Both were courageous beyond explanation, undaunting under hardships, determined against all odds and brave in combat. Perhaps the leadership in London and Washington was most wanting, lacking in understanding and purpose. Regardless, failure to learn from history provides an environment for it to be repeated.
*O'Brian - see sources right.
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