When top British general Sir William Howe marched his powerful professional army of Redcoats, American Loyalists, and German mercenaries into Philadelphia in 1777 it appeared the American Revolutionary War was over.
At least Howe and King George III were convinced the American revolutionaries were defeated, their Congress forced to flee the city and General George Washington's army apparently shocked and awed from the battlefield. The king's troops entered Philadelphia in triumph and settled down for a comfortable winter in this, the British Empire's second largest city, with its many Loyalists and their pretty ladies. To Parliament back in London, Howe's capture of Philadelphia seemed a brilliant move - politically, at least: Howe had shown the hitherto unconvinced British population that a military solution to the American colonial uprising might be possible.
American revolutionary leaders were not, however, about to give up the fight. And as for Howe's occupation of Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin described it another way:
"Howe has not captured Philadelphia. Philadelphia has captured Howe."
The most powerful military force in North America - one of Britain's best field armies - was actually bottled up far from its main supply base at New York. Howe was in Philadelphia, but what was he to do next if the revolutionaries continued to fight? And fighting was precisely Washington's intention. He stepped up training at Valley Forge, and his army's morale rose. Further, France, with its powerful navy, entered the war on the side of the revolutionaries. It became apparent that the revolution was not defeated, and the British army in Philadelphia could be cut off by land and sea.
Howe, a brilliant general, became the scapegoat for misguided British colonial policies and was compelled to resign his command - all this for taking Philadelphia! By springtime, Howe's replacement, General Henry Clinton, had to abandon the city. Clinton began a fighting withdrawal, marching his troops back to New York.
On a hot and steamy June day at Monmouth, New Jersey, the Americans fought Howe's best troops to a standstill, inflicting heavy losses. A formerly ragtag revolutionary force was now a formidable and confident field army. Now, the American Revolution could not be defeated.
The revolutionaries might not win by pitched battle, but time was on their side. They were fighting for their own homeland, on their own soil. It was a classic insurgent scenario, to be replayed many times in the following centuries, from Napoleon's failed invasion of Russia to Hitler's failed occupation of Europe and America's failed campaigns in Indochina. The Revolutionary War dragged on another five years, but the result was total victory for the uprising. In the future, many of the best British regiments would mention little about the "American War" in their otherwise glorified regimental histories.
Is there a comparison to be made between Howe's proud army and the tens of thousands of American troops now "occupying" Baghdad under the command of the much-admired General David Petraeus? Well, there is always a comparison in cases of military folly.
With Petraeus's troops scattered in company-sized units planted in vulnerable outposts throughout the city's ever-dangerous neighborhoods, the American army is being made captive. Captive to the teeming, violent city of Baghdad. Captive to the anti-occupation insurgents, who now have the initiative to strike when and where they choose. Captive, also, to the whims of American domestic politics, wherever they might lead. Captive to the arrogance of political and military leaders who said the seizure of Iraq would be a "cakewalk" and are now desperate for any victory, anything that might be described as victory, at whatever cost, in the coming few months.
Have President George Bush and the "Neoconservatives" and our leading military commanders walked into a trap of their own making in Baghdad? Just like Sir Billy Howe in Philadelphia?
More important, more crucial: What if the Iraqi puppet government collapses, and with it go the army and police - essential allies in any block-by-block contest? And if the Iraqi insurgents make it too costly in terms of truck drivers' lives and helicopters to supply those thousands of duty-bound soldiers in their scattered outposts, how do we extricate them? As with Howe in 1777, the main American supply bases are far away - mostly to the south, in Kuwait and other client states. Vital American supply lines are vulnerable to being cut by roadside bombs and calculated, determined insurgent attacks.
An "exit strategy" from Iraq that depends on fighting rather than political agreements will wash Baghdad's streets in blood this summer. Much of it American blood.
What then, as the question goes, are we fighting for?
To avoid a humiliating and bloody retreat from Baghdad? Is this what our soldiers are killing and dying for? Or to prevent a defeat that has been brought on by corrupt leadership at the highest level of our government? Or to prop up an incompetent administration in Washington until the next election?
Historically, the result of such misguided policies is always the same: Dead fighters on both sides. Many more dead civilians. And humiliation for the invaders, no matter how brave or patriotic they might be.
Now is the time, before it is too late, to lay the groundwork for all parties concerned with the destiny of Iraq to forge a truce that will permit General Petraeus and his army to leave Baghdad with some semblance of military honor. Otherwise, so many American soldiers will be stationed in vulnerable posts throughout the city that it could be said Baghdad has captured General Petraeus.
Just as Philadelphia once captured General Howe.
Stuart A.P. Murray, author of thirty five books, specializes in American history.