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Washington’s revolutionary wisdom won in war

Rev. Jack Van EnsVail, CO Colorado

Veteran commander George Washington amassed great power, winning two battles at Trenton and then defeating British redcoats on Princetons outskirts. After gaining military muscle, why didnt he flex it like a warlord does? Why didnt Washington strut his military stuff like Napoleon? Many colonials gladly would have crowned him their benevolent dictator. Washington didnt unilaterally decide after the Hessians and redcoats acted like terrorists. They butchered wounded colonial militia, raped women and left the land barren. Nor did Washington assume his decisions had the force of edicts. David Hackett Fisher, who wrote Washingtons Crossing, a definitive study of the two pivotal Trenton battles followed by the strategic victory at Princeton, describes how Washington wisely went to war. After their surprise attack on the Hessians after Christmas 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, Fisher notes. Pinpointing Washingtons source of wisdom that sustained him in battle, Fisher observes, Washington was at the center of all these decisions, functioning more as a leader than a commander; always listening, inspiring, guiding; rarely demanding, commanding, coercing.He wasnt 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 worshiped their creator: themselves.Washington didnt 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 in Pennsylvania. Serving 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 Day in 1776. His patriotic army defeated superbly trained Hessians bunkered in Trenton.British Gens. Howe and Cornwallis decided, against advice from savvy subordinates, to unleash a counterattack and destroy Washingtons army. In the second Battle of Trenton on Jan. 2, 1777, they were repulsed.The next day, Washingtons army clashed with the British outside Princeton, forcing a redcoat retreat.

Fisher, in his book, 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. They recognized how politicians and generals wrestled with one another to determine who made unilateral decisions to protect our nation from terror. Washington believed he was accountable to the people through their representatives in Congress. He worked for Congress to further the national good. He didnt protect our countrys destiny through fiat. Nor did he surround himself with yes men. Fisher 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. He fit a biblical leaders profile: With the right strategy you can wage war, and with many advisers there is victory, Proverbs 24:6.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 George W. Bush has considerable learning from Yale and Harvard but wears it lightly. Bush doesnt negotiate, as Washington did. 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 President Bush far more upbeat than the realities in Iraq seemed to warrant. A committee member remembered the president didnt so much want to hear their views questioning the unwise war strategy. He was hellbent on convincing us that we should be writing a report reflecting his own views, the committee said. 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 Washingtons wise listening and negotiation skills are missing?A president leads unilaterally. Soon after Sept. 11, Bush ordered the National Security Agency to monitor al-Qaida 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 must move fast and pivot as terror erupts, the president seized constitutional power that authorized widespread surveillance without judicial restraint. Is this democracy in action? Wheres accountability between civil servants and our commander in chief? Where are listening and negotiation skills put into play?When the first Battle of Trenton raged Dec. 26, 1776, Congress granted Washington full authority to direct the war. Congress remained fully in charge. Veteran Washington wisely ran the war Congress oversaw. The Rev. Jack Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth Ministries, which enhances Christian worship through lively storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make Gods history come alive. Van Ens book, How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes, is available in local bookstores for $7.95.


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