Quora Question: Was George Washington's Crossing of the Delaware on Christmas an Act of Terrorism?

A man looks up at a painting of the first U.S. president, George Washington, at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington September 30, 2013. Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

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Answer by Jon Davis, amateur military and cultural historian, on Quora:


To illustrate this, let me explain why burying a roadside bomb to take out American humvee is not terrorism.

Before too many people get up in arms about that statement, I assure you, it is correct. I'm speaking both as a veteran of the Iraq War and a high school history teacher, so I assure you, whether or not any individual American historical figure was in fact a terrorist is something I feel equipped to answer.

The assumption in this question is that anything sneaky, or unfair, that kills people is terrorism. Don't get me wrong, I don't know a person who went out of a convoy who didn't experience some degree of terror from the experience. The use of these weapons was indeed sneaky, and underhanded, and unfair to the Marines and soldiers who experienced them. That, however, doesn't mean that their use was terrorism, even when terrorists were the ones who did it. Think of it this way, we didn't exactly fight fair with them, did we? We had Predator Drones, Cruise missiles, and automatic grenade launchers. How is that a fair fight? There is a military maxim that goes something like this, "If you're fighting fair, your tactics suck." So I really can't fault the people we fought for being clandestine in the way they waged war. When the terrorists attacked Americans, and when they attacked just the Americans, they weren't acting as terrorists. They were simply rebels. They were still the enemy, but there was something of a sense of honor about them that you could respect as a fellow warrior. So then, why is it I still call them terrorists?

Terrorism is when non-state militants take the war to attacking civilians and public property, rather than directly combating enemy soldiers directly. Terrorists manipulate the fear of common people so that they pressure the government to give into the terrorists' demands simply so that you will stop murdering them.

Jon Davis's answer to Was the American Revolution an act of terrorism?

Targeting civilians with intent to murder, maim, or otherwise intimidate through force for political purposes—that's terrorism. If the Sunni rebellion had only targeted American forces, it would have been a far different event, but they didn't. Some—not all, but many—targeted civilians. As we have seen in the news of that region, it was common to bomb schools, cafes, shopping centers, hospitals, and even mosques. The largest of these was the Yazidi Communities Bombing. This was the second deadliest attack committed after 9/11. On August 14, 2007 four corresponding suicide bombs exploded in the towns of Yazidi and Jazeera. It had estimated casualties of 796, while 1,562 people were injured.

Terrorist attacks were common throughout the war with many different terrorist groups vying for power through terrorizing civilians. There were many real warriors, I believe, within the Iraqi resistance. Many were former officers and soldiers within the Iraqi army before the Americans arrived on the scene. Many of them, though, had no problem with using civilians to make a political point, a trait common in modern Islamic conflicts dating back at least to the Algerian Civil War. Their military knowledge, as well as the knowledge of their non-terrorist comrades, spread throughout the ranks of the other terrorists and tactics used to combat real soldiers were used against children and diners in Baghdad. Therefore, the tactics they used weren't terrorist in nature. It was the targets they deployed them upon which makes them terrorists, and so long as your partners in a conflict are terrorists, you will inherit the same moniker.

So, that said, we return to the trial of George Washington and the Continental Army.

Was the Continental Army attacking civilians? No, they were attacking Hessian soldiers, mercenaries of the British.

Was the attack unreasonable? No, by most standards, it was considered just another act of war. Second, the image of silent American revolutionaries slipping through the enemy barracks, slitting the throats of every Hessian they could find doesn't stand up to the historical record either. Accounts state that only about 20 were killed in the raid, while another 100 were wounded, and 1,000 captured. This got the attention of the Hessian commanders who were tired of their commission to aid the British, as they were originally brought to help defend the colonies from Indian raiders and not to serve as infantry in a British civil war. The event was a key turning point that eventually helped push the Hessians, then comprising a quarter of the British forces, out of the war. This act thereby prevented the needless deaths of perhaps hundreds, if not thousands of people, both American and German.

So was it terrorism? It was certainly a clandestine attack and not the honorable sort of face-to-face combat that they make movies about; however, they usually make movies about units that are almost wiped out just to take a single hill. The American defeat of the Hessian mercenaries was a far greater achievement in that at the cost of only 20 Hessian lives, all military, a major blow was delivered to another military force, and a major hurdle overcome in winning the American Revolution. That said, no civilians were targeted, nor was sending a message to them ever an aim of the raid. Therefore, by no means whatsoever was George Washington's crossing the Delaware on Christmas day an act of terrorism.

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