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Book review: The Men Who Lost America, By Andrew O'Shaughnessy

A revisionist history saves the good name of Redcoat generals – with lessons for today

All the things you thought you knew are turning out to be wrong. A bracing breeze of revisionism is blowing through the history of British wars. A hundred years ago Britain could do no wrong; 50 years ago she could do no right; now, as the fall of the Empire recedes towards the horizon of living memory, come calmer, more enlightening assessments.

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Gary Sheffield has rehabilitated the fighting record of the British Army in the First World War. Now Andrew O'Shaughnessy casts an impartial eye over the soldiers and statesmen who tried to strangle the United States in its cradle. Of course, we all know about them: a bunch of effete, cruel, blundering aristocrats who set themselves against the tide of history and the cause of liberty, and met deserved humiliation. Right? Wrong.

In a series of vivid biographical chapters, the British-born professor of history at the University of Virginia demolishes the Mel Gibson school of American Revolution historiography. In US folklore, George III and his henchmen are paragons of evil comparable to Prince John and the Sheriff of Nottingham. With mischievous relish, O'Shaughnessy points out that they were able, decent but fallible men doing their best in trying circumstances.

And they are a surprisingly appealing bunch. There is George III, neither a monster of tyranny not the sad, tormented lunatic of his later years, but bluff, popular, patriotic, obstinate "Farmer George", who believed with absolute certainty that it was his duty to save Britain from being relegated, by the loss of America, to the status of a second-class power. There is Lord North, witty, well-liked, a superb parliamentary performer, who believed in the justice of the British cause – the colonists were defying the authority of Parliament, on which English liberty depended – but fatally lacked faith in his own ability to win the war, pathetically begging the King to permit him to resign the office of Prime Minister.

There is "Gentleman Johnny" Burgoyne, clever, ambitious, eloquent, one of the best generals in the army but perhaps not quite as trustworthy as a gentleman ought to be. He won a smashing, bloodless victory at Ticonderoga, only to lose his army and his reputation in the wilderness of upstate New York.

The perspective of the victor can be a distorting glass. Less light, for example, is shed on the Normandy campaign by arguments about Montgomery's "master plan" than by the decisions the Germans were forced to make about where to commit their reserves as the battle unfolded. And so with the American revolutionary war. We all know about Valley Forge and Washington crossing the Delaware, but O'Shaughnessy's analysis makes clear something else: the British lost the war because they did not have enough troops to conquer and hold down the 13 colonies. But they had never expected to have to do that. They believed – on reasonable grounds but wrongly – that the Loyalists were a majority among the colonists. The British mission was not to defeat the American people but to topple the revolutionary clique that had seized power. Do that, and the people would be free to return to their natural loyalty.

Probably none of that was true, even at the beginning of the war, and the colonists' sentiments were further alienated by British military occupation. And so the men who lost America, competent and conscientious though most were, faced an unwinnable war.

We may reflect that this lesson from American history was surprisingly unfamiliar to the American neoconservatives who planned the "liberation" of Iraq on the assumption that all they had to do was remove the tyrant Saddam and the Iraqi people would, naturally, establish a working democracy. As with the monarchists of 1776, so with the democratic republicans of 2003: people are inclined to assume that whatever political system they themselves approve of is the natural condition of humankind.