TCS Daily

Pilgrims' Progress

By Michael Rosen - September 18, 2006 12:00 AM

Note: This is the first installment of a two-part series.

What do historian Nathaniel Philbrick and Atlantic columnist James Fallows have in common?

Both advocate similar but distinct approaches to conflict resolution and point the way toward potential success in the War on Terror. As we recently commemorated the five-year anniversary of the war's animating event, we would be well-served to examine their respective methodologies.

Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community and War, Philbrick's masterful narrative of 17th century colonial life in Plymouth, depicts the trials and tribulations of the Pilgrims and their turbulent interactions with the Native American population of what is now New England.

Fallows' provocative article "We Win" outlines a strategy for declaring and achieving victory in the War on Terror.

While both writers are a bit too generous in their portrayal of the enemies we have faced and continue to face, and while Fallows in particular neglects an entire subcategory of foes, there is much to commend in their respective accounts.

Philbrick's history recounts not only the journey of his title's eponymous vessel but also the tale of the first half-century of settlement on the shores of Massachusetts Bay, marked as it was by alternating periods of peace and war between the Pilgrims and their Indian neighbors.

The story begins even before the famed transatlantic voyage. The first pilgrimage took place almost exactly 400 years ago when, in 1607, dozens of Separatists -- including William Bradford, who would go on to lead Plymouth colony -- evacuated their ancestral homes in northern England for the friendlier climes of Holland.

When they departed the Low Countries in June 1620, the real adventure began. Philbrick chronicles the travails of the Mayflower and its companion vessel, the Speedwell (which, contrary to its name, never quite made it to the New World), difficulties that ran the gamut from scurvy to homesickness.

Their arrival -- marked by a week-long struggle simply to find shores hospitable for a safe landing -- epitomized the next fifty years of their existence: the need for internal unity in the face of deeply uncertain surroundings.

One of the Pilgrims' first acts was to sign the Mayflower Compact. In Philbrick's words, "just as a spiritual covenant had marked the beginning of their congregation in Leiden, a civil covenant would provide the basis for a secular government in America."

Yet that such a covenant was even necessary reflected the nature of the distinctly non-Utopian society established in Plymouth. Far from a unified mass of fundamentalist zealots, the residents of the colony included numerous single, male hangers-on who were not especially disposed to devout Christianity (ultimately, the spiritual condition throughout New England declined so precipitously that local ministers introduced the "Half-Way Covenant," or "an easing of the requirements for membership intended to boost the number of communicants."). While religious laws and sentiment were predominant, Bradford found it necessary to exercise great care in piecing together all of Plymouth's distinct segments.

Such unity was in turn necessitated by the inhospitable environment. For one thing, these European farmers were unused to the marshy swamplands of coastal Massachusetts; they spent their first years subsisting on minimal nutrition, especially in the winter.

For another, the Native American population in their surroundings was deeply ambivalent toward the newcomers.

After a tense initial period of several years, the Pilgrims gradually came to an accommodation with the neighboring and powerful Pokanokets, led by their charismatic Sachem Massasoit, largely through the devices of the famous interpreter Squanto.

By tradition, this agreement was memorialized in the Thanksgiving celebration. Contrary to popular belief, however, the feast -- if any actually occurred -- took place in September or October and likely consisted of duck, goose, deer, bass, bluefish, and cod, in addition to the fabled wild turkey (Philbrick notes that "alas, the Pilgrims were without pumpkin pies or cranberry sauce.")

Interestingly, the festival consisted of spiritual elements along with ribald, secular ones (the recently harvested barley crop surely added to the beer-soaked festivities); this combination paralleled the colony's admixture of religious purists with unbelieving laborers.

The celebration was also noteworthy for what it reflected about inter-group relations. Philbrick observes that the Pilgrims eschewed an "arrogant isolationism" and instead took "active part [in] the diplomatic process" by engaging the Pokanokets who ultimately proved "very trust[worth]y, quick of apprehension, ripe witted, [and] just," according to one Pilgrim.

* * *

Yet the amity with the Pokanokets slowly unraveled as a new generation began to take over. As the Pilgrims grew accustomed to the land, and as their material fortunes waxed, their need for assistance from the local Indians waned. As the burgeoning colonial population gradually acquired more and more land from the Pokanokets, Massasoit's son and successor, Philip, came to prominence in the 1670's and led a pan-Indian "resistance" movement against the Pilgrims.

The crazy quilt of sometimes allied, sometimes warring tribes included the Narragansetts, the Pequots, the Nipmucks, the Niantics, the Quabaugs, and the Sakonnets. But as the Indians closed ranks, so did the colonists. The conflict eventually enveloped all of New England and drew a thousand-man-strong militia from Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Plymouth into the fray, which became known as King Philip's War.

Benjamin Church, a Rhode Islander who grew up in close proximity to the Sakonnets, distinguished himself on the battlefield and came to assume authority in the militia. Philbrick depicts Church as something of an ideal gentleman-warrior who resisted the hate-drenched slaughter of innocents pressed by his comrades-in-arms.

In the author's telling, only when the colonists started to co-opt some of these tribes and neutralize others did they find "the secret to winning the war." Adopting the tactics of the natives -- hiding in swamps, fanning out in dispersed fashion, traveling by night -- the militia began to take control. Church's band of friendly Indians eventually located and captured Philip himself, thereby effectively ending the conflict.

* * *

Philbrick doesn't mince words in his description of the combatants. At times he goes overboard in a vaguely politically correct indictment of the colonists. In his words, by July 1675, "most English inhabitants had begun to view all Indians with racist contempt and fear." He writes of "the horrors of European-style genocide" inflicted on the Narragansetts, horrors that included widespread deportation into Carribean slavery.

But he also depicts the Indians' guerrilla tactics and their desire to "kill men, women and children." They kidnapped women and held them hostage. And while they never raped their female captives, the tribes acquired a reputation for "savage, barbarous cruelt[ies]" such as ritual torture.

There are indeed many illuminating parallels between King Philip's War and our current struggle against Islamism.

A note left behind at the scene of an Indian-led massacre bears a chilling resonance:

Know by this paper, that the Indians that thou has provoked to wrath and anger, will war this twenty-one years if you will; there are many Indians yet, we come three hundred at this time. You must consider the Indians lost nothing but their life; you must lose your fair houses and cattle.

Such an utterance might as well have come out of the mouth of Ayman al-Zawahiri or Hassan Nasrallah: we're here, we're not going anywhere, there are lots of us, we love death, and you are so weak that you shed tears over your lost material possessions while we revel in our sacrifice.

It is difficult to fight such evil and evildoers. When losing one's life is not merely a side-effect of malevolence but instead its very essence, we might be tempted to throw up our hands. How can we prevent someone from killing us when he intends to kill himself in the process?

Philbrick admonishes the reader to follow Church's road toward successful conflict resolution: "Instead of loathing the enemy, try to learn as much as possible from him; instead of killing him, try to bring him around to your way of thinking."

We are indeed learning much from our contemporary enemy, even as we are learning of the depth of his depravity. And we are indeed trying to bring him around to our way of thinking by planting the saplings of liberty in the barren fields of the Levant. Whether our efforts will succeed remains to be seen -- but do we have much choice other than to keep plowing?

Apt also is Philbrick's observation that the turning point in King Philip's War arrived when Church and his followers began relying on friendly Indians to defeat their adversaries. So too must we cultivate moderate Muslim leaders worldwide who reject the scornful totalitarianism preached in all too many mosques across the globe.

And finally, like the original Plymouth colonists, we Americans must band together despite our religious, cultural, and political differences. As our enemies attempt to sow dissension on the home front, we mustn't break ranks. It wasn't for nothing that President Lincoln harkened back to colonial unity when, in the midst of the Civil War in 1863, he established Thanksgiving as a national holiday.

* * *

Philbrick concludes his magisterial book with an appropriate anecdote taken from Church's own memoir of the war. The militiaman asked one of his captives for his name, which was "Conscience."

"'Conscience,' Church repeated with a smile; 'then the war is over, for that was what they were searching for, it being much wanting.'"

If and when our enemies locate their own consciences, perhaps then we can declare victory. Yet in the next installment, I will examine how one keen if mistaken observer -- James Fallows -- wants to declare victory now.

Michael M. Rosen, TCS Daily's intellectual property columnist, is an attorney in San Diego.


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