Monday, August 22, 2011

A Libyan Von Steuben?

The speed of the Libyan rebels charge into Tripoli on Sunday seemed to take even them by surprise. On Saturday rebel spokesmen announced that with the capital surrounded on three sides and with their forces less than 20 miles from the city center, a final assault would begin within days. Less than a day later, rebel forces were in Green Square, the plaza at the center of Tripoli that Moammar Gadhafi had used for so many photo-ops. Two of Gadhafi's sons had been captured by rebel forces, though The Man himself was still at-large as of Monday morning. It's difficult to imagine a Libya without Gadhafi, the strange Colonel has been the leader of Libya my entire life, and then some. But it is impossible to imagine him clinging to power now – rumors are circulating that he has already fled the country, perhaps to neighboring Algeria or Chad.

It has been quite a reversal for Gadhafi and for the Libyan rebels as well, who until recently, quite frankly, were a fairly inept fighting force, often winning ground one day and losing it the next. That's not meant to be an insult to the rebel fighters, but more a nod to the fact that they were not professional soldiers, but rather students, office workers and tradesmen who found themselves thrown into a war. It reminded me of another collection of citizen-soldiers, the American Colonial Army. Like the Libyans, they were a collection of average men who found themselves thrown into combat, and like the Libyans, they were initially awful at it. That is until a man named Friedrich von Steuben showed up at the American encampment at Valley Forge. While largely forgotten to history, and overshadowed by Revolution-era icons like George Washington, Von Steuben deserves at least some of the credit for winning the American Revolution.

Von Steuben presented himself to the Colonial leadership as a Prussian nobleman. He almost certainly oversold his own credentials, but Von Steuben had been trained by the Prussian military, one of the finest fighting forces in Europe. Von Steuben set about teaching the ragtag collection of farmers and merchants gathered at Valley Forge the basics of soldiering, drilling basic military concepts into them during the course of the winter. A proper Colonial Army would emerge from Valley Forge, one capable of finally standing up in battle against the British, thanks to the efforts of Von Steuben.

The sudden recent success of the Libyan rebels makes me think that they had their own Von Steuben somewhere; perhaps it was thanks to the efforts of NATO advisers, or officers who defected from Gadhafi's military, perhaps we'll never know. But somehow the Libyan rebels were able to turn themselves from a collection of amateur into an effective fighting force, and now the reign of one of the world's longest-ruling dictators appears to be at an end.

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