The Nation's Pulse

The American Character

Petraeus, 9/11, and the issue that mustn't be mentioned.

By 9.11.07

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By itself, the fact that New York Senator Charles Schumer is from Brooklyn would be ignored as unremarkable biography.

It isn't.

Schumer's hometown should be "Exhibit A" in any discussion of the Petraeus report, 9/11 and the larger war on terror itself. For Brooklyn, New York is at the very heart of a discussion that fills the spaces between the lines of the Petraeus findings, at once unmentioned and unmentionable. The issue is the American character. And Harry Potter-style, the American character is being treated by terrified liberals like Schumer as if it were the name of the evil Lord Voldemort, known to Potter fans as "he whose name must not be mentioned."

Why Brooklyn?

It was in Brooklyn, specifically at the battle of Brooklyn Heights, that the brand new American military, struggling to forcibly expel the British from the thirteen colonies, suffered its first, unvarnished major defeat. And three more after that in quick succession.

Historian David McCullough's recent bestseller 1776 is a graphic reconstruction of the terrible events that exploded mere miles from where Schumer was born in the Sheepshead section of Brooklyn. It was in Brooklyn that the British campaign to invade Long Island, drive the American revolutionaries from New York, and crush the rebellion outright began. And it was in the waters off of Brooklyn that the largest fleet ever seen in America, with thousands of enemy sailors and soldiers representing the world's most powerful military force crowding its decks, first appeared in force. Initially in that hot and fateful summer, some 45 ships appeared ten miles outside the Narrows that separated Brooklyn from Staten Island. Quickly they were joined by another twenty-one, "as if they had been dropped from the clouds." Then another one hundred. And still more, eventually numbering a "long thick cluster" of 400 British war vessels. Brooklynites stared out at an armored armada in a "display of military might past imagining" -- all within a breath of Brooklyn.

And what of the Americans and their hurriedly assembled "army" who were watching all of this? Thousands were out and out physically sick. The late August heat, described as "oppressive," began an epidemic of camp fever. "The vile water sickens us all," wrote a New Jersey chaplain. Soldiers were dying of dysentery and other "putrid disorders." The ravages of small pox were "carrying off great numbers." General Nathaniel Greene, the man General George Washington counted on more than any other, was so sick he was removed from Brooklyn Heights altogether to the safety of a house well above New York.

In the midst of all this mass physical agony, the British attack began. "Wave after wave of soldiers came on, their red coats and polished bayonets gleaming in the bright sunshine," followed by ranks of blue-coated, well-disciplined Hessian grenadiers. As if this weren't bad enough, "loyalists" -- Americans still loyal to the British King -- greeted the British as liberators from the hated revolutionaries, bringing "long-hidden" supplies to help defeat an army composed of their own neighbors. The fighting was savage, with one American private saying later that it was "impossible for me to describe the confusion and the horror." George Washington, writes McCullough, "was facing disaster and could do nothing but sit astride his horse and watch."

Even though he miraculously managed to save his army by a nighttime escape eerily resembling the later World War II evacuation of the British at Dunkirk, "The Battle of Brooklyn -- the Battle of Long Island as it would later be known -- had been a fiasco."

One disaster followed another now, coming in quick succession for Washington and his troops as they fought to hold on to New York City. Next the British quickly targeted Manhattan Island, or "York Island" as it was then called. Washington was crushed at Kips Bay (running between Brooklyn and Manhattan), where surrendering Americans, hands uplifted, were shot or bayoneted by Hessians who had come ashore on with thousands of British. After that came the loss of Fort Washington, a mile north of Harlem Heights. In spite of a fierce fight, the Battle of Harlem Heights was lost as well, the fort captured along with most of its invaluable supplies of tents, blankets, brass and iron cannon. More than a thousand Americans had been marched off as prisoners at Brooklyn, then twice that number with the surrender of Fort Washington.

It was, simply put, a catastrophe, leading to stories that Washington simply wept as he watched this series of tragedies unfold. If he did cry, he wasn't given much time for the purpose, with yet another new British attack on nearby Fort Lee. Scaling the Palisades overlooking the Hudson, British soldiers suddenly swarmed the last American hold on New York, sending Washington shouting orders to abandon Fort Lee and everything in it before he fled.

The results of the rebellion had been so disastrous militarily that the British Admiral Lord Richard Howe, filled with contempt for Washington and the rabble army he commanded, took it upon himself to offer a proclamation. Issued on November 30, 1776 Howe offered a pardon to all Americans who would take an allegiance to the King. McCullough says "throngs" took him up on his offer. Throngs. Not tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands. Just "throngs."

STANDING IN FRONT OF a Joint Session of Congress on the day after Christmas, 1941, a mere 19 days after the United States had been savagely attacked by the Japanese, with a considerable part of the American Navy laying at the bottom of Pearl Harbor, Winston Churchill asked a question that goes straight to the heart of the unmentioned issue in General Petraeus' report. After acknowledging his American roots (his mother was an American) and listing some of the seemingly impossible difficulties looming ahead in the fight against the Japanese, Germans and Italians, he addressed head-on the issue of the American character: "What kind of people do they think we are? Is it possible they do not realize that we shall never cease to persevere against them until they have been taught a lesson which they and the world will never forget?"

Brooklyn's Chuck Schumer of Sheepshead, Brooklyn has indeed forgotten what kind of "people we are." In his haste to stay in step with a group of virulent anti-American left-wing hate mongers, the "loyalists" of 2007 who have vilified a four-star general of impeccable reputation as "General Betray Us," Schumer and his party have traveled the intellectual distance from Brooklyn to the Upper West Side without any recollection of exactly the kind of character it took to eventually secure the freedom of both.

Leading men who followed him back and forth across the terrain of the 13 colonies for seven years in spite of "putrid disorders," hunger, desertion, defeat, freezing cold, suffocating heat, no shoes, ragged clothes, and a death toll that came finally to 25,000 (1% of the population of the existing population, by percentages of lives lost making the American Revolution the most costly in American history next to the Civil War), Washington both understood and exemplified the heart of the American character. Says McCullough:

Above all, Washington never forgot what was at stake and he never gave up. Again and again, in letters to Congress and to his officers, and in his general orders, he had called for perseverance -- for "perseverance and spirit," for "patience and perseverance," for "unremitting courage and perseverance."
The story of what happened in Brooklyn in 1776, and the story of Washington's bloody and failed battle to keep control of New York City, is worth remembering this September 11th. It is a story of character, of what has come to be recognized as the uniquely American character. It is that same tenacious, gritty and inspired character that in the following two centuries persevered in struggles to unite a continent, end slavery, build railroads, invent the airplane, win two World Wars and a Cold War, land on the moon, create computers, construct an ever expanding global economy and bring freedom and prosperity to increasing millions.

Make no mistake. What is really at issue in the Petraeus report and its reception is something that is never mentioned, that is in fact an unmentionable in the eyes of the MoveOn.org crowd. It is an issue that forms the very heart and soul of America.

At a time when Americans are remembering an attack on New York, we could all do well to remember that it wasn't the first. And to remember something else as well: the real battle in America today is about the American character.

Who has it, who lost it -- and who hates it.

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About the Author
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com.