Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for August 20th, 2016

Braddock’s defeat and the pitfalls of skill

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Harold Rosenberg

For me the most dramatic example of the newcomer’s illusion of being elsewhere is Braddock’s Defeat. I recall in my grammar-school history book a linecut illustration which shows the Redcoats marching abreast through the woods, while from behind trees and rocks naked Indians and coonskinned trappers pick them off with musket balls. Maybe it wasn’t Braddock’s defeat but some ambush of the Revolutionary War. In any case, the Redcoats march in file through the New World wilderness, with its disorder of rocks, underbrush, and sharpshooters, as if they were on a parade ground or on the meadows of a classical European battlefield and one by one they fall and die.

I was never satisfied with the explanation that the Redcoats were simply stupid or stubborn, wooden copies of King George III. In my opinion what defeated them was their skill. They were such extreme European professionals, even the Colonials among them, they did not see the American trees. Their too highly perfected technique forbade them to acknowledge such chance topographical phenomena. According to the assumptions of their military art, by which their senses were controlled, a battlefield had to have a certain appearance and structure, that is to say, a style. Failing to qualify, these American trees and rocks from which come such deadly but meaningless stings are overlooked. The Redcoats fall, expecting at any moment to enter upon the true battlefield, the soft rolling greenswards prescribed by the canons of their craft and presupposed by every principle that makes warfare intelligible to the soldier of the eighteenth century.

Harold Rosenberg, The Tradition of the New

Written by nevalalee

August 20, 2016 at 7:30 am

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