I told you earlier this year that I was reading Sarah Vowell’s impressive and fun “Lafayette and the Somewhat United States. ” It truly is a marvelous little book.
It has a passage that has struck with me. It deals with the facts of the winter of 1777 that our Founding Fathers spent at Valley Forge. Leading up to it, she lays out how bad the conditions were. The famous images of those soldiers marching barefoot and leaving bloody tracks in the snow. My friends and I went to Valley Forge earlier this year, and what we learned there drove home Vowell’s points in the passage. I’d argue the facts that often get left out of the scholastic history books might have gotten kids more interested in history. One of the men giving a lecture to Valley Forge visitors explained how the soldiers might get whipped with a cat o nine tails for peeing too close to the quarters. Another place pointed out how desertion was such an issue. These weren’t easy times. Heck, how about the fact that several founders and some military officers began to doubt the Father of the Country, going so far as plotting against General Washington. Our founding story might seem more interesting if its success didn’t seem preordained. But this isn’t the striking lesson at Valley Forge of her passage that struck with me.
She pointed out that our soldiers were starving on their own homeland surrounded by food. There was no blight that year. No famine. Everyday Americans ate well that winter. But nearby businesses and farms didn’t lend much of a hand. And Vowell’s books explain one of the other issues.
There is a saying about supply lines attributed to both Frederick the Great and Napoleon Bonaparte: “An army Marches on its stomach.” My money’s on Napoleon if only because after he invaded Russia, his Calvary had to shoot its horses to eat as food.
In 1777, the continental army was two years old. The officers and politicians supplying the soldiery were no more experienced at getting blankets to the troops than the troops were at standing in a line and fending off Cornwallis and his veteran regulars, fighters well clothed and well fed through and efficient supply system who’s kinks have been worked out over generations. And just as the troops at Valley Forge were about to undergo a serious program of self improvement, so would patriot logistics. Not that this progress was going to bring back to life the 2,000 corpses who would never march out of there that summer.
I would like to see the calamity of Valley Forge as just the growing pains of a new nation. It has been a long time since the men and women serving in the Armed Forces of the worlds only superpower what naked because some crooked townies in upstate New York filched their uniforms. But there still this combination of governmental ineptitude, shortsightedness, stinginess, corruption, and neglect that affected the Cardinals before, during, and after Valley Forge the 21st century Americans are not entirely unfamiliar with.
While I was reading to starve the army at pleasure, the veterans affairs secretary was forced to resign after the reservation of widespread mismanagement of VA hospitals, including, CNN reported, “at least 40 US veterans bracket [who] died waiting for appointments at the Phoenix Veterans Affairs Healthcare System, many of whom were placed on a secret waiting list.”
I’m not just thinking of the Pentagon’s blunders, though. I’m thinking of how the noun “infrastructure” never appears in an American newspaper anymore without being perceived by the adjective “crumbling.” Or how my friend Katherine, a public high school teacher, has had to pay out of her own pocket for her classroom’s pens, paper, paperclips, thumbtacks, and, she says,”chalk when I run out,” chalk being the one thing her school system promises to provide its teachers for free.
It’s possible that the origin of what kept our forefathers from feeding the troops at Valley Forge is the same flaw that keeps the federal government for making sure of that with renal failure can get a check up, and that impedes my teacher friends local government from keeping her in chalk, and that causes a decrepit, 93-year-old exploring Watermain to speak 8,000,000 gallons of water down Sunset Boulevard during one of the worst drought in California history. Is it just me, or does this for a ballpark back to the root of the revolution itself? Which is to say, a hypersensitivity about taxes– and honest disagreements over how they are levied, how their calculated, how that money is spent, and by whom. The fact that the continental Congress was not empowered to levy taxes was the literal reason for the ever empty patriot coffers. More money would’ve helped, but it wouldn’t have entirely solve the problems of a loosely cinched bundle of states trying to collaborate for the greater good.
Whatever the actual root of our centuries old, all American inability to get our shit together, no one kitty died at the flinty survivors of Valley Forge embodied another national treat that every man, woman, and child in this republic is supposed to have: backbone, self-reliance, grit. And attribute that comes in handy in the Celestine public spirited republic of continentals we’re fighting to bring about.
If you ask me, the best way to celebrate Veterans Day, it’s to do what you can to make sure that our vets at home and abroad, as well as their families, get the physical and mental health support they need, the living wages they deserve, and respect they’ve so dearly earned.