Monday, April 15, 2013

The Benedict Arnold Inside Us All

I've been thinking a bit about Benedict Arnold this week.  
The average American probably has one reaction when they hear that name.  "Traitor."  The former American General's name is synonymous with betrayal in American English.  
But if it wasn't for Benedict Arnold, the United States might have very well lost the war and never gained its independence from England.  
The Battles of Saratoga took place in upstate New York during September and October of the year 1777.  Benedict Arnold was a major-general in American army under the command of Horatio Gates, facing a British invasion force being lead by John Burgoyne.  The British aim was to march their forces from Canada down through New York and block the support from the southern colonies to New England.  
Now, Benedict Arnold, even without taking his treason into account, was a peevish fellow.  He enjoyed the good life.  This lead him to try to find some financial gain at whatever post he was assigned to.  He was brought up on court martial a number of times for corruption, though he was acquitted every time.  He was constantly writing letters of resignation.  Every time someone he considered to be of lesser ability was promoted over him,  he'd send one of these letters to George Washington.  Washington's response was to refuse his resignation and send him off to take care of some fort or fight some battle, which Arnold was usually successful at doing.  He eventually got his promotions, but his peevishness never alleviated.  This lead to him have numerous disagreements and arguments with his commander, Gates, including one that's been described as a shouting match that resulted in Gates ordering Arnold confined to his quarters, after which Gates left the army to rest at a farmhouse some miles away, presumably to chill out after having yet another fight with his troublesome subordinate.  
Unfortunately for the Americans, it was the next day that the British decided to attack.  
Arnold's response was to ignore Gates's order and rejoin the army.  The historical accounts of the battle credit Arnold's leadership with rallying the American side, driving the British army back and capturing some of their defensive positions.  Several days later, surrounded and outnumbered, General John Burgoyne surrendered the remainder of his army to Gates, who had returned from that farmhouse where he went to chill.  
It was because of the American victory at Saratoga that France decided to openly side with the United States against the British, sending not only supplies but armies and navies to the New World to help us fight.  Spain also began supplying us with money and weapons after Saratoga.  It's considered to be the turning point in our war for independence.  
Arnold, who had received a wound in his left leg that would eventually leave it two inches shorter than the right, was rewarded by having his seniority restored above those that had been promoted before him.  This gesture from Congress wasn't enough for him, though.  A few years later he fled to the British side after his negotiations to turn over the fort at West Point to the British was revealed.  In something of an ironic twist, he was given a general's rank in the British army and served under the general that commanded the British right flank at Saratoga in an expedition into Virginia.  He nearly captured Thomas Jefferson during that campaign.  Had he done so, his name would have come even more infamous.  
If Arnold had died of the wound he'd received at Saratoga, Americans would have a much different memory of him.  There might be something like the "Arnold Certificate of Valor," or it might be his silhouette embossed on the Purple Heart Medal instead of George Washington.  
A bit of trivia: The Purple Hearts that have been given out to soldiers during the Iraq War were made during World War 2, in anticipation of the casualties American forces would face during the planned invasion of Japan.  When those casualties didn't happen because of the Japanese surrender after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, they were saved and presented to the soldiers wounded in the wars since then.  
I hear people all the time talk about what they "know" about other people.  I don't think any of us really "know" anyone.  George Washington, who wrote letters on Arnold's behalf to Congress, clearly didn't know what he was capable of doing.  He never would have tried to promote him or given him such an important position as the command of West Point.  I can imagine how Washington must have felt when he got word of Arnold's plans to turn the fort over to the enemy.  
"That son of a bitch!  After all I've done for him!" 
That's supposition.  I didn't look up a copy of Washington's diary on line or anything.  
We are often so sure of people's motivations, of who they are, even if we have only the barest of evidence from their behaviors.  We see the suspect in the latest Trial of the Decade, and people say, "You just KNOW she did it!"  We're even more certain of those people we have contact with in real life.  We're all experts on each other.  I think we are all actually amateurs.  
That's one of the attractions of writing for me.  I can really know the people I'm writing about.  But even then, sometimes even I don't know what they'll do next.  I can be writing a scene and suddenly one of them pulls out the gun I gave them and shoots the other.  "Holy Crap!  I didn't see that coming!  I thought he was going to shoot the other guy."  
But even when I'm surprised like this, I still get why they did what they did.  Because I can see inside their head and know how they're wired.  I don't think that good characters are necessarily consistent.  Only a robot can be expected to do exactly what it is expected to do.  And that's assuming its behavior is strictly tied to its programming.  
When it comes to characters though, it is not consistency that makes them seem real to us.  It's the opposite I think.  It's the anticipation at what they will do next.  A tacit acknowledgement that we're never sure what anyone were paying attention to will do.  It's waiting to see if they're going to do what we think they'll do or something completely different.  As long as that action can be tied to something important to them, then we'll find a way to believe it.  
There's a story that, on his deathbed, he asked to have his old, Colonial Army uniform put on him.  "Let me die in this old uniform," he reportedly said.  "May God forgive me for having put on another."  
Assuming this is true, who is the real Benedict Arnold?  The soldier that nearly died helping create a new nation?  The peevish, self-important little fellow that enjoyed living high on the hog and wrote all those letters complaining of lesser people?  The cold-hearted traitor that betrayed his countrymen and comrades for a few thousand pounds?  The sorrowful old man at the end of his life, expressing his regret with a faded blue coat?  
How can you pick just one?  We are all heros and traitors inside.  The difference is what we let out for the world to see. 


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