In Concord

This article combines and expands upon a series of four blogs I posted a year ago, capturing the thoughts and reflections that I have when I go to one of my favorite and most sacred places, the Old North Bridge in Concord, Massachusetts. For most of this new millennium, the bridge and its environs has been my church and my retreat, the place I go to pray, to think, to find my balance. It has been such for a number of reasons. First, it was the site of pivotal events which shaped history for the centuries to come, and which resonate with the events that move us most profoundly today. Second, it is a place where men laid down their lives for their country. Finally, as a piece of nature, the arching bridge over the flowing river reminds me of the miracle of nature and creation.

The original articles each had theme, one line of thought of the several that I focus on when I go to the bridge. My time there, my meditations on nature, life, death and sacrifice, my ponderings of the history made there and its place in the larger fabric of American life and history have provided me with what I regard as important lessons and reminders, and so I'd like to share those with others.

Graves of the British Soldiers The first spot, and the last that I always visit sets the context for my visits. It is the graves of two British soldiers who were killed at the bridge on April 19, 1775. For those who have not vsited the site, let me set the scene. The bridge is not far from Monument Road, and you approach it down a broad path between rows of high arching pine trees, trees intentionally planted there to create something of a cathedral in the pines atmosphere. The path leads straight to the obelisk monument, and off to the left, by the inevitable New England stone wall, there is a small chained off area, with two Union Jacks and a large inscribed stone. Usually, there are flowers on the graves. If the pines create a cathedral effect, the graves are a small chapel to the side. They are small and unremarkable, at least physically.

But in another way they are most remarkable. All over the world you can find war memorials, grave sites, and markers to the fallen dead of past wars. But here, without much fanfare is one of the most unique. It is a memorial to the Enemy's Honored Dead. Think of that. Not to our nation's fallen heroes, not to the local boys who gave their lives, but to the fallen enemies, to those who were seen as invaders and a threat to the town, to two of the first casualties of the American Revolutionary War, even though they were on the other side.

This unique memorial says a lot to me about who we are as a people. Many of my ancestors are Celts, Irishmen and Scots, people who are renowned for their abilities to keep a feud alive for years, and generations. And so it is the world over, where wars are often fought over slights and insults generations or centuries old. But here, in America, "the Great Melting Pot", historical enemies have learned to live side by side, to hang together lest we hang separately. The first permanent colonists in the Commonwealth, the Pilgrims and the Puritans, came here seeking not religious tolerance, but the freedom to, in the case of the Pilgrims, create a separate community run by their own strict principles or in the case of the Puritans, to purify the Anglican church, according to very similar principles. Names like "Cotton Mather" are not associated with tolerance.

A century and a half later, as the United States emerged, Americans had learned that Quakers, Catholics, Protestants, Jews and Deists all had to set apart their differences, to live and work side by side with those with whom they disagreed upon the most fundamental truths and principles, that if freedom, democracy and the rule of law were rule in place of the King as joint head of Church and State then differences and old grudges must be set aside. Not surprisingly, once the Revolution and its echo, the War of 1812 were past, we tended to see Great Britain and Canada as perhaps rivals, but not real enemies.

And so, 130 years ago, the British graves were protected by pillars and chains donated by an English ex-pat, and we honor their deaths, and their role in the founding of our nation. We lay flowers on their graves, and mark it with their flag, and write words that praise their bravery. And that, is something not often seen now or through history. It is a small thing, but one of many that make me proud to live in my Commonwealth and my country.

And as I look at our present day conflicts, I start with a prayer that we can understand those on the other side and those caught up in the middle as we have come to understand those whom we fought 233 years ago. In part, these two soldiers died in a conflict that had been growing inevitably for years, and in part they died due to misunderstandings and confusions that arose in the heat of the moment. They died as a result of the folly of their superiors, immediate and ultimate, and helped to start a struggle that led to the fall of their Empire. I pray, each visit, that we can learn from them; that we can avoid similar follies; that we do not plunge our great Republic into a similar decline from greatness.

I visit their graves with both pride and humility. Only a great people can afford to honor their fallen enemies, and great nations can fall through hubris and folly. I come to their graves to pray not only for them but for all soldiers who fight and die in foreign lands, for our soldiers who are overseas and for our Republic. My next stop, is the obelisk, a few feet behind me.

I came to this spot, between the two monuments, one month short of the 208th anniversary of the Battle of Concord, on March 19, 2003 to contemplate what brought these two British soldiers here.

They were sent, you see, on a mission to seek out and confiscate or destroy Weapons of War in the hands of dangerous fanatics who were a threat to their homeland thousands of miles away, and to capture and arrest two of the most dangerous of the fanatics' leaders. They never found the weapons. They never captured the leaders. But the locals, fearing that their town was being burned down by the invading army, who by the way, were actually trying to save the town, took up arms, joined the militias in huge numbers and using tactics that violated the rules of war drove the invading army back to the capital city, where they remained besieged until they withdrew. The mission, the invasion, the occupation, emboldened the fanatics, allowed them to recruit huge numbers, and assisted by foreign fighters hostile to the invading army drove them from the area. In doing so, they set an example for fanatics, separatists and nationalists around the world and a globe-spanning empire declined and fell.

The next day, March 20, 2003, it was my fears and not my prayers that were answered. This time the Great Power was the United States and not Great Britain. The Weapons of War were chemical and biological weapons, and perhaps a nascent nuclear project rather than cannons and as we have subsequently learned, seem not to have existed—the cannons were only hidden. But the story was nonetheless familiar. 

Of course, the analogy is imperfect. Saddam was undoubtedly a despot and had little in common with Adams and Hancock, and we were legitimately a British colony, and so on, but still, there are important lessons in terms of the strategy, the cost of tactical errors, and the like. To someone steeped in the history of the Battle of Concord, the siege of Boston and the American Revolution, some of these lessons are glaring. The soldiers buried here were their nation's first casualties in a series of conflicts that saw their homeland lose its influence in the area and its possessions and prominence throughout the world.

I had originally planned to give a more detailed account of the Battle of Concord and its analogy to our invasion of Iraq, but in keeping with my oft repeated urging that you not believe me, but rather inform yourselves and make your own decisions, let me refer you to the Wikipedia's article on the battle. You will find that the article is tagged as having its accuracy and neutrality challenged. The reason is that a couple of people feel that it is biased in favor of the British, and speculate this is due to foreign editors. As a matter of fact, the main editors are locals, and their understanding is quite like mine. But perhaps more importantly for my purposes here, since I am drawing an analogy between the colonials and modern Iraqis, and the the British and the modern US, that bias if it does exist works against and not in favor of my points.

I'll wait here while you go read the article.

Now that you're back, let me draw your attention to the following paragraph in the "Aftermath" section of the article (emphasis mine):

In terms of accomplishments and casualties this was not a major battle. However, in terms of supporting the political strategy behind the Intolerable Acts and the military strategy behind the Powder Alarms, the battle was a significant British failure because the expedition contributed to the fighting it was intended to prevent and because few weapons were seized.
This is the precisely the point I made to the tourists I discussed the Concord/Iraq parallels with back in 2003, on the eve of our invasion. Invading someone else's country, putting them in fear of their lives, and of the loss of their homes is not a way to keep the peace, is not a way to win world opinion. Rather it, in the President's words "emboldens the enemy". And anyone who knows about the birth of our country should have known that.

And the lessons go deeper than that. Governor Gage was on the one hand someone obsessed with secrecy, but clumsy in intelligence. His orders to Col. Smith were sealed, not to be opened until the troops were underway. His orders for reinforcements were sent only as single copies to keep them from falling into enemy hands, and yet the Colonials knew of his plans in advance and the failure to send duplicate orders created unnecessary and costly delays. When the reinforcements did move out, they went with inadequate supplies and when supplies were later sent to them they were waylaid and fell into enemy hands.  Intelligence failures, a failure to adequately plan for contingencies, and an obsession with secrecy should all seem familiar to us today.

And yet, if we just study the first Battles of the American Revolution, we can see these lessons. If we study the last days of the Roman Republic as it became the Empire, or the fall of Republics into Empire after them we can find other, just as important, lessons.

Next, we proceed across the bridge to the monument that was the reason for my visit on September 12, 2001, the first time I came to the site explicitly to pray—the Concord Minuteman.

Minuteman at DuskMy prayer on September 12 was one of thanksgiving as well as one of mourning and remembrance. It seemed clear to me that just as the Minutemen defended their homes and neighbors in Colonial America, a number of the passengers of Flight 93 constituted the Militia in 2001. The details were sketchy, but it seemed clear from the reports of phone calls from the passengers that a group of men and women had gathered, determined that the hijackers had to be stopped from using their plane as a weapon, and charged the cockpit.

I came here to honor them, and their predecessors of the last 3 centuries, free citizens, volunteers who have stood to defend our Republic and Commonwealth. A few weeks later, in early October, I came here to pray before writing an essay entitled "9-11: America Victorious", in which I protested the portrayal of 9-11 as an American failure. This angered me because it gives too little credit to patriots like Beamer, Bingham, Burnett, and Glick who exemplify the Minuteman spirit.

In all the times that I have discussed this subject at the foot of the Minuteman statue, never has anyone disagreed with my contention that the Flight 93 heroes are the modern versions of Isaac Davis, and his fellows. Some have been surprised that they hadn't thought of it that way before, but none have taken issue.

Not so my other observation. You see, the Minuteman as portrayed in Daniel Chester French's statue is clearly an Unlawful Combatant, or more correctly, he is not in terms of the Geneva Conventions, a "Lawful Combatant". According to Article 4 of the Third Geneva Convention, in order to qualify as a Prisoner of War (a Lawful Combatant), one must fulfill the following requirements:

  1. That of being commanded by a person responsible for his subordinates;
  2. That of having a fixed distinctive sign recognizable at a distance;
  3. That of carrying arms openly;
  4. That of conducting their operations in accordance with the laws and customs of war.

The colonial militias at the time of the Battle of Concord wore no uniforms, and displayed no fixed distinctive sign, though some did wear war paint and others cockades, but these were more designation of rank than of allegiance. It can also be argued that they did not conduct their operations in accordance with the laws and customs of war. Certainly it was so argued at the time. One of the fallen British soldiers at the North Bridge was described by a fellow as appearing to have been scalped. The militia fired from cover, retreated into civilian houses and blended into the civilian populace. There is reason to believe that the cannons that the Governor was looking for in Concord were stolen from the British in Worcester. In the months leading up to the Battle of Concord, the militia had been used to intimidate the Governor's appointed judges, and so on.

Please, dear reader, understand that I do not say these things to disparage the Minutemen or the militias in general. You will be hard pressed to find someone more proud of the history or citizens of the Commonwealth or the Republic. I vehemently support the revolutionaries and insurgents who were our founding fathers. They were free men who fought for Liberty and for us, their descendants. They founded one of, if not the, greatest countries ever to grace the pages of history.

Rather, I bring these things up because I am critical of the Geneva Conventions and even more so of our nation's relationship to them. You see, in direct contradiction of the policies and opinions of the current administration, I hold that the Geneva Conventions do not cover enough people, rather than too many. They are not quaint, should not be abandoned or narrowed. The should be expanded. As they stand they would not cover the very men who fought to create our country. They would not cover the farmer who sets aside his plow to take up his rifle.

Ah, but you say, what of paragraph 6? (At least those of you facile with GCIII Article 4, Section A.) What of

  1. Inhabitants of a non-occupied territory, who on the approach of the enemy spontaneously take up arms to resist the invading forces, without having had time to form themselves into regular armed units, provided they carry arms openly and respect the laws and customs of war.

We were, however an occupied territory, a colony. Recall, if you will, that what had the Colonists up in arms (literally)—gathering the cannons, muskets and ammunition that Governor Gage sent his troops to find and confiscate were the "Intolerable Acts", including the Quartering Act, the reason that that the framers felt it was necessary to include in the Constitution the prohibition that

No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.

Also, we had plenty of time. We had organized militias for more than a century. We did not "spontaneously take up arms". We chose the path of irregular militias rather than regular armies. No, paragraph 6 is not for us.

I'm no lawyer, especially not one versed in international law, so there may be something that I have overlooked, some way in which one might argue that the colonial militiamen might be covered by GCIII and GCIV, but at best, the matter is unclear. And so, if we were to be true to the history of our nation, we would be pressing the international community to extend the coverage of the Geneva Conventions, and not as the current administration has done, worked to restrict that coverage.

This country was founded by insurgents, by free men who banded together for self protection who believed that the government was "of, by and for the people", that it takes its legitimacy from the will and the consent of the governed. We reject monarchy based on divine right and the subordination of the people to the state. The restrictions in the Geneva Conventions are based on the premise that only a state may raise an army, that fighters who are part of a recognized army fielded by a legitimate state should be protected. Individuals who fight for their own liberty, for the defense of their neighbors without state blessing are not as valued and protected. Unlawful Combatants. Insurgents and other non-state sponsored individuals are not protected. This should not be surprising as the Geneva Conventions are agreements between states.

It is perfectly understandable, but in terms of what happened on April 19, 1775, and the years that followed it, in terms of the principles of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitutions of the United States and of the several Sates, it is not very American. It is very Bush, however. The current administration believes very much in rule by a strong individual, a Commander in Chief who is the sole decider in a Unified Executive. They have advanced political theories that dismiss individual liberty for the good of the State and the nation. They have sought to limit the number of people protected by the Geneva Conventions, and by our laws. For them, States are more important than individuals, rights are granted to citizens by the state rather than the other way around, and of course all power in the state is wielded by the sole supervisor of the unitary executive.

The lesson of Isaac Davis, the Acton Minuteman immortalized in the Concord Minuteman statue is that the farmer, the gunsmith, the man who was convinced that if he took up arms he would die, takes up those arms because it is the right thing to do, because a patriot protects his neighbor's town from being burned by an occupying army seeking to disarm honest farmers. Here is not a soldier, not a lawful combatant, but a gunsmith, a farmer, a free man, chosen by the common consent of his fellows, to lead the first charge. This is America.

We next follow the path to the Visitor's Center. After a short while it turns sharply to the right. The road used to fork here and the left fork continues on as a mowed path through the grass past the ruined foundation of Capt. David Brown's farm. I often stop here to contemplate the subject of this posting, but for a while there has been an even more concrete focus to be found further up the path.

The Hancock In the Visitor's Center we find "The Hancock", one of the two remaining cannons from the cache that Gov. Gage had sent his men to confiscate. It is on loan from the Bunker Hill Monument in Boston (which commemorates the battle fought on Breed's Hill, but that is a story for another day). Like the other remaining cannon believed to be from the Concord cache, "The Adams", the Hancock is named after one of the two dangerous radical leaders that Gage was seeking. It sits on a recently made gun carriage not unlike the ones found and burned in downtown Concord resulting in the smoke that made the men of Concord fear their town was being burned. Together they represent the triggering causes of the "shot heard round the world", the outbreak of the War that would give birth to one great nation and begin the fall from power of another.

All that because Gage feared this weapon and its like in the hands of Hancock, Adams and the bands of insurgents and unlawful combatants who sided with them. All this because rather than treat with men like Hancock and Adams, he and his superiors across the sea chose a preemptive military action, to interdict the radicals and their weapons of war.

But that formulation is all from the point of view of the British, their motives, their mistakes and the strategic failures that they led to. These are important in light of the analogy to our failure to apply the lessons of Concord to modern times, but now let us look at The Hancock and its fellows from the perspective of the Colonists. What does it tell us about their motives and beliefs, about the oft-cited Founding Fathers, their beliefs and assumptions?

To put it bluntly, the Battle of Concord was fought, in part over the right of the people to bear arms, and not just pistols, and fowling pieces, but cannons—weapons of war. Gage moved precipitously and disastrously because he did not believe that the weapons of war belong in private hands, a view shared by many Americans today. But what Captain Davis and Private Hosmer died for on the North Bridge was their belief in the right and the need for the people to remain armed. Captain Davis was a gunsmith who drilled his Minute Company with bayonets and shot that he supplied them with, who died defending right of the men of a nearby town to possess cannons, powder, shot and the stores needed to field their militias against a government they found tyrannical.

When we write of Colonel Barrett, Captains Davis and Brown and the other colonial officers, it is easy to think of them as commissioned officers because of the titles of rank the bore, but there is an important distinction between Col. Barrett and Col. Francis Smith, the redcoat who lead his soldiers into Concord, between Capt. Davis and Capt. Walter Laurie who lead the troops on the other side of the bridge. Capt. Laurie, commander of the 43rd Regiment of Foot bore a King's Commission. He was a Captain in the King's army because the King said he was. His authority over his troops devolved to him because he and his superiors were appointed by the King or his appointees.

Capt. Davis was a captain because his fellow citizens in Acton said he was. Capt. Davis was elected. He served his town and his neighbors because he volunteered to and they elected him. His bravery, familiarity with firearms and willingness to supply and train his neighbors qualified him. Before the battle he met with Major Buttrick, whose house is just beyond the Visitor's Center, and who drilled his men on the very field upon which the Colonials were gathered, and Capt. Brown, his next door neighbor, whose family watched the battle, and Col. Barrett whose field hid the cannons. They met to discuss and decide what to do because they were responsible not to a distant Governor or more distant King, but to the men who would die following their orders. The men, their neighbors, who elected them to make these decisions.

I stress the distinction between the commissioned officers of the King's army and the elected officers of the colonial militias and Minute companies because it is important in understanding who the cannons belonged to (ignoring for the moment the fact that they may very well have stolen them from the British). They belonged to the People. Even in 1775, before the Declaration of Independence, before the Constitution of the United States of America, these men gathered in Concord believed that political and even military power arose from the people.

The cannons were not Col. Barrett's, not Hancock's or Concord's. The cannon belong to the people. Barrett had them because he was the a senior officer in the people's militia, and was capable, as he proved, of protecting them until they were needed. He needed no authorization from the King, no commission as an officer. Rather he had the trust and respect of the men who elected and followed him, who were willing to die following his orders or those of Capt. Davis or Maj. Buttrick.

That this is so becomes quite clear a little more than a year later when John Hancock, the dangerous fanatic who fled Lexington with Sam Adams a few hours before the fight at the Bridge, and who would become the first Governor of the State of Massachusetts, seventh President of the United States in Congress Assembled, signed a document that declared that

... Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, ...
and
... But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, ...

And that is the importance of the cannon, since named after him, that lay concealed in the furrows of Col. Barrett's field, and the shot, powder and amassed provisions that were stored in his neighbors' houses. They enabled the people, the militia, to throw off British rule, to revolt against the government that they judged to be despotic.

These men did not believe in the inherent authority of the Commander in Chief and Supervisor of the Unitary Executive to ignore the law, whether he called himself the King and claimed Divine Right or President elected by a minority of the citizenry. They believed in retaining not only their rights, but also the right and obligation to revolt. They believed in the retaining the cannons, the weapons of war, to enable them to exercise those rights and duties to overthrow despots not merely foreign, but domestic.

It is all well and good to try to claim that

A well regulated Militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed.
means something else, but as the men who laid down their lives in Concord on Patriot's Day, April 19, 1775, demonstrated, the men who hallowed this ground did so in defense of the right to bear cannon, and the right to revolt. And it was not merely the men of the Commonwealth who believed this. In response to Shay's Rebellion, a little more than a dozen years later the Virginian Thomas Jefferson wrote:

A little rebellion now and then is a good thing. …God forbid we should ever be twenty years without such a rebellion. The people cannot be all, and always, well informed. The part which is wrong will be discontented, in proportion to the importance of the facts they misconceive. If they remain quiet under such misconceptions, it is lethargy, the forerunner of death to the public liberty. …And what country can preserve its liberties, if its rulers are not warned from time to time, that this people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to the facts, pardon and pacify them. What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time, with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.
And here's the paradox of liberty. This country whose founding documents proclaim the right of revolution, the right of the populace to be armed enabling such a revolution, was the site of a singular event, as a man dressed in colonial garb at the foot of the Concord obelisk pointed out to me yesterday. Twenty two years after the Battle of Concord, John Adams, the cousin of the other dangerous radical who fled with Hancock, was inaugurated as President, under the following history making conditions.
  1. The outgoing Head of State was still alive
  2. The incoming Head of State was not related to the outgoing
  3. The turnover was entirely peaceful
  4. The incoming and outgoing Heads of State disagreed about major policies
  5. The military was not involved

The country that believed in and was based on the right of revolt—armed revolt—was the birthplace of the entirely peaceful and orderly change of government.

And so, I disagree with those who seek to keep assault rifles and other weapons of war out of citizen's hands, to confine them only to duly appointed representatives of the government. Men died hallowing the ground where I pray in defense of just the opposite.

I met a man on the path of this sacred place, one who disagreed with some of what I have said in this article, who quoted me an old Shi'ite proverb that Iblis, the devil, was the first to reason by analogy, and that underscores the admonition that I usually end my blog postings with…

Don't believe me. Read the history of the Battle of Concord and the Intolerable Acts. Read of the life of Isaac Davis, and the owl he believed foretold his death but which did not hold him back. Read the story of Mark Bingham, the gay patriot from San Francisco and the words of his mother, Alice Hoglan regarding the ground that is hallowed by the bones of her son and the terrorists he died fighting.

Decide for yourself what the memorials in Concord mean at their heart, what it means to honor the enemy dead, what it means to live in a Commonwealth and a Republic founded by insurgents, rebels and citizen soldiers—unlawful combatants.


The pictures illustrating this article are all posted on Flikr as a set and a map. The following Google-based map shows where each of the pictures were taken.


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