When you think about it, our country celebrates a pretty odd birthday.
I’m not talking about the fireworks bursting in the sky while stomach linings are bursting on the ground. As Erma Bombeck once said, it’s a wonderful thing that we observe a patriotic holiday with food and Frisbees rather than a march of our armored divisions down Pennsylvania Avenue – and besides, it’s un-American not to celebrate a major event by over-eating, right?
Nor am I talking about the fact that we celebrate on July 4th an independence that was approved on July 2nd. Given our national ability with dates, we’re probably lucky not to have it at the start of football season.
I don’t even mean the fact that every Independence Day concert closes with “the 1812 Overture,” a piece about Russians kicking the tar out of the French army about 30 years after our Revolution ended … with the help of the French. We’ll overlook a lot for the chance to fire off cannons at a concert, after all.
No, here’s the oddity, at least from my perspective.
Every July, we celebrate a war that was mostly won by not losing.
Think about it.
We’re a country that packs the stands at the Olympics and takes it as a personal offense when we don’t grab the gold in everything. We spend a lot of time cheering for sports that allow scoring, scoring and more scoring (baseball’s given a pass because of tradition; hockey because of the fights). We’re the land of Rambo and Horatio Alger; where “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing,”; where anything can be a competition, even throwing cow pies.
We are, in short, as obsessed with victory as ever a nation was. Ask George Karl sometime.
Just don’t ask George Washington.
Not unless you’re ready to squint at the win-loss record.
This isn’t meant as a slam on the General. He’s an American hero and rightfully so. At times he held the Continental Army together through sheer willpower, wrestled with an often-sluggish Congress for essential resources (you know, nothing like today) and stood up when his country called, over and over again, to do whatever it needed him to do.
But if you had a dollar for every time a history text said “Washington retreated” or “Washington withdrew,” you could probably put on a pretty nice fireworks show.
Sure he had reason. The British could usually put more troops in the field with better cohesion. But that doesn’t change the fact that , until the surprise attack at Trenton at the end of the year, 1776 mostly saw Washington and his men being chased out of New York, out of New Jersey, and into Pennsylvania. The most notable moment for the Continentals came with a near-miraculous escape across the East River under cover of fog.
In short, this was a losing streak that would be unparalleled until the creation of the Chicago Cubs.
During World War II, Winston Churchill once quoted a saying that England always wins one battle – the last. Washington seemed to have understood something similar. For a revolutionary general, victory isn’t measured by battles. Or by territory. Or even whether your side keeps possession of its capital.
Victory is measured by whether you still have an army in the field and can keep up the fight. If you’re still there, you win. You can lose any number of individual clashes, so long as you hold on to the essentials.
It’s a perspective that often gets lost today, I fear.
Fight out a bill? Absolutely, every time, by every means possible, without compromise – even if the net result is Congressional paralysis.
A war on terror? Grab every tool you can to fight it – even if the result is the shrinking or loss of those liberties we thought we were fighting for.
I’m not saying surrender. Washington didn’t either. But never lose sight of the goal. Never lose sight of where victory really is.
Brilliant victories that lose a war are all too common. But to make even defeat a cornerstone of triumph – now that’s genius.
If the fight can go on … if the nation can go on … we all win.
And if that’s not worth a barbeque, I don’t know what is.