Under the Radar

Exploring 'America's Violent Birth'

Scars of Independence aims to blow up everything we know about the American Revolution, but it's far too scholarly and responsible a book to fully deliver on its (almost certainly) correct premise. German-born historian Holger Hoock only relates the stories that he can back up with research, but his outsider's perspective does offer more a more violent and less political version of a war that most Americans still view through a romantic lens.

The Revolution and the War of 1812 were the only great American wars conducted before the invention of the telegraph. Not only were military decisions made in response to events that happened days or weeks or even months before, there was far less incentive for war reporters without a timely outlet for their stories.

Patriots employed guerrilla tactics against a British army and its Hessian mercenaries, tactics that enraged officers and troops trained in 18th-century rules of engagement. The Brits employed brutal tactics in response and the Patriots often hit back with even more vicious attacks.

Hoock spends a lot of time exposing how British treated American prisoners. Soldiers held in New York City were crammed in tiny spaces without air or adequate food. Men who were held on prison ships had it far, far worse. Even if patriot fighters often engaged in battle tactics that betrayed the moral superiority that General George Washington insisted America needed to maintain over the enemy, the British treatment of prisoners was bad enough to more than verify all American charges about an oppressive ruler.

Scars of Independence also delves into just how much fighting went on between native Patriots and native Loyalists. The Revolution was truly a civil war. Even if the Loyalists didn't flock to fight for the British in the numbers that the politicians back home were counting on, they participated in the fighting and the Continental Army exacted terrible revenge on them and their families both during and after the war.

Hoock's making a basic point: the men and women who struggled for democracy (and those who struggled to keep us aligned with the crown) were far less noble or exceptional (or villainous) than the historical figures we all learned about in elementary school. The America of Scars of Independence is a both a philosophy and a country in process of being invented, one that looks a lot more like the one we live in today than any version we've seen before.

Some enterprising producer at STARZ or HBO could option this book, turn it over to the right producers and end up with a show on par with The Sopranos or Game of Thrones. If they're willing to take a bit of dramatic license, there's a powerful story contained in Hoock's exploration of the facts.

 

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Under the Radar