The War on Terror as an Indian War

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In the 1940s and 1950s, when the generation of men now ruling over us were growing up, boys could disappear into a form of war play — barely noticed by adults and hardly recorded anywhere — that was already perhaps a couple of hundred years old. In this kind of play, there was no need to enact the complicated present by recreating a junior version of an anxiety-ridden Cold War garrison state (though you could purchase your own H2O Missile, a water-powered toy “ICBM” in imitation of the sort just then being prepared by adults to pulverize the planet). For children in those years, there was still a sacramental, triumphalist version of American history, a spectacle of slaughter in which they invariably fell before our guns. This spectacle could be experienced in any movie theater, and then played out in backyards and on floors with toy six guns (or sticks) or little toy bluecoats, Indians, and cowboys, or green, inch-high plastic sets of World War II soldiers. As play, for those who grew up in that time, it was sunshine itself, pure pleasure. The Western (as well as its modern successor, the war film) was on screen everywhere then.

When those children grew up (barely), some of them went off to Vietnam, dreaming of John Wayne-like feats as they entered what they came to call “Indian country”; while others sallied off to demonstrate against the war dressed either in the cast-off World War II garb of their fathers or in the movie-inspired get-ups of the former enemy of another age — headbands and moccasins, painted faces, love beads (those previously worthless baubles with which, everyone knew, Manhattan had so fraudulently been purchased), as well as peace (now drug) pipes. Sometimes, they even formed themselves into “tribes.”

As it turns out, though, there was a third category of young men in those years — those who essentially steered clear of the Vietnam experience, who, as our Vice President put it inelegantly but accurately, had “other priorities in the ’60s.” Critics have sometimes spoken of such Bush administration figures as “chickenhawks” for their lack of war experience. But this is actually inaccurate. They were warriors of a sort — screen warriors. They had an abundance of combat experience because, unlike their peers, they never left the confines of those movie theaters, where American war was always glorious, our military men always out on some frontier, and the Indians, or their modern equivalents, always falling by their scores before our might as the cavalry bugle sounded or the Marine Hymn welled up. By avoiding becoming either the warriors or the anti-warriors of the Vietnam era, they managed to remain quite deeply embedded in centuries of triumphalist frontier mythology. They were, in a sense, the Peter Pans of American war play.

So no one should have been surprised that, when George Bush declared his global war on terror, he also swore to get Osama bin Laden in this fashion: “I want justice. And there’s an old poster out West… I recall, that said, ‘Wanted, Dead or Alive.’” Of course, that “poster” came not from any real experience he had in the West, but directly from the thrilling cowboy films of his childhood. So did his John-Wayne-like urge to “hunt” the terrorists down, or “smoke ‘em out,” or (for Iraqi insurgents) “bring ‘em on.” From that same childhood undoubtedly came the President’s repeated urge to dress up in an assortment of “commander-in-chief” military outfits, much in the style of a G.I. Joe “action figure.” (Think: doll). It’s visibly clear that our President has long found delight — actual pleasure — in his war-making role, as he did in his Top Gun, “mission accomplished” landing on that aircraft carrier back in 2003.

It’s not surprising either that a critic who spent real time up close and personal with top Bush administration figures, Colin Powell’s former Chief of Staff Larry Wilkerson, would accuse the President of “cowboyism.” Nor should it be strange that various neocon writers close to this administration and in thrall to the same spirit should lovingly quote American military men who also believe themselves out on some Western frontier. Robert Kaplan, for instance, cites one officer as saying, “The red Indian metaphor is one with which a liberal policy nomenklatura may be uncomfortable, but Army and Marine field officers have embraced it because it captures perfectly the combat challenge of the early 21st century.”

Many things have changed in our world in recent decades. For one thing, hundreds of years of history have more or less disappeared into the entertainment/media maw. In films like Dances with Wolves, which came out at the time of the first American war in Iraq, the Indians have turned all warm and fuzzy and are now the veritable Ewoks of our planet. In the meantime children on their floors and in their video games still shoot down innumerable evil ones ready to ambush them, but so many of them are now off this planet: demons, supervillains, mutants, and aliens. They are surely the first generation in memory to pass a full childhood without fighting old-style Indian Wars on their floors or playing “cowboys and Indians.” And yet the paradigm of the frontier and of the Indian Wars settled deep into the American soul. So again, it should not be surprising that the now officially grown up boys, who have the power to make war on the world, should still imagine themselves in their beloved movies of long ago and that the framework of the Indian Wars, however suppressed and transformed, remains in some fashion deeply with us.

Surprising, however, is how little attention this has gotten. Fortunately, John Brown, a former State Department official who resigned to protest the coming invasion of Iraq in 2003 (and who has previously written on Bush’s Global War on Terror for Tomdispatch) now takes up this theme and ushers us provocatively into the secret frontier dreamland of our rulers. ~ Tom

“Our Indian Wars Are Not Over Yet”
Ten Ways to Interpret the War on Terror as a Frontier Conflict

By John Brown

The Global War on Terror (GWOT) is, like all historical events, unique. But both its supporters and opponents compare it to past U.S. military conflicts. The Bush administration and the neocons have drawn parallels between GWOT and World War II as well as GWOT and the Cold War. Joshua E. London, writing in the National Review, sees the War on Terror as a modern form of the struggle against the Barbary pirates. Vietnam and the Spanish-American War have been preferred analogies for other commentators. A Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, Anne Applebaum, says that the war in Iraq might be like that in Korea, because of “the ambivalence of their conclusions.” For others, the War on Terror, with its loose rhetoric, brings to mind the “war on poverty” or the “war on drugs.”

I’d like to suggest another way of looking at the War on Terror: as a twenty-first century continuation of, or replication of, the American Indian wars, on a global scale. This is by no means something that has occurred to me alone, but it has received relatively little attention. Here are ten reasons why I’m making this suggestion:

1. Key supporters of the War on Terror themselves see GWOT as an Indian war. Take, for example, the right-wing intellectuals Robert Kaplan and Max Boot who, although not members of the administration, also advocate a tough military stance against terrorists. In a Wall Street Journal article, “Indian Country,” Kaplan notes that “an overlooked truth about the war on terrorism” is that “the American military is back to the days of fighting the Indians.” Iraq, he notes, “is but a microcosm of the earth in this regard.” Kaplan has now put his thoughts into a book, Imperial Grunts: The American Military on the Ground, which President Bush read over the holidays. Kaplan points out that “‘Welcome to Injun Country’ was the refrain I heard from troops from Colombia to the Philippines, including Afghanistan and Iraq…. The War on Terrorism was really about taming the frontier.”

As for Max Boot, he writes, “u2018small wars’ — fought by a small number of professional U.S. soldiers — are much more typical of American history than are the handful of u2018total’ wars that receive most of the public attention. Between 1800 and 1934, U.S. Marines staged 180 landings abroad. And that’s not even counting the Indian wars the army was fighting every year until 1890.” A key GWOT battlefield, Boot suggests, is Afghanistan, noting that “[i]f the past is any indication of the future, we have a lot more savage wars ahead.”

2. The essential paradigm of the War of Terror — us (the attacked) against them (the attackers) — was no less essential to the mindset of white settlers regarding the Indians, starting at least from the 1622 Indian massacre of 347 people at Jamestown, Virginia. With rare exceptions, newly arrived Europeans and their descendants, as well as their leaders, saw Indians as mortal enemies who started the initial fight against them, savages with whom they could not co-exist. The Declaration of Independence condemned “the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.” When governor of Virginia (1780), Thomas Jefferson stated:

“If we are to wage a campaign against these Indians the end proposed should be their extermination, or their removal beyond the lakes of the Illinois River. The same world would scarcely do for them and us.”

President Andrew Jackson, whose “unapologetic flexing of military might” has been compared to George W. Bush’s modus operandi, noted in his “Case for the Removal [of Indians] Act” (December 8, 1830):

“What good man would prefer a country covered with forests and ranged by a few thousand savages to our extensive Republic, studded with cities, towns, and prosperous farms, embellished with all the improvements which art can devise or industry execute, . . . and filled with all the blessings of liberty, civilization, and religion?”

Us vs. them is, of course, a feature of all wars, but the starkness of this dichotomy — seen by GWOT supporters as a struggle between the civilized world and a global jihad — is as strikingly apparent in the War on Terror as it was in the Indian Wars.

3. GWOT is based on the principle of preventive strike, meant to put off “potential, future and, therefore, speculative attacks” — just as U.S. Army conflicts against the Indians often were. We have to get them before they get us — such is the assumption behind both sets of wars. As Professor Jack D. Forbes wrote in a 2003 piece, “Old Indian Wars Dominate Bush Doctrines,” in the Bay Mills News:

“Bush has declared that the US will attack first before an u2018enemy’ has the ability to act. This could, of course, be called u2018The Pearl Harbor strategy’ since that is precisely what the Japanese Empire did. But it also has precedents against First American nations. For example, William Henry Harrison, under pressure from Thomas Jefferson to get the American Nations out of the Illinois-Indiana region, marched an invading army to the vicinity of a Native village at Tippecanoe precisely when he knew that [Shawnee war chief and pan-tribal political leader] Tecumseh was on a tour of the south and west.”

4. While U.S. mainstream thinking about GWOT enemies is that they are total aliens — in religion, politics, economics, and social organization — there are Americans who believe that individuals in these “primitive” societies can eventually become assimilated and thus be rendered harmless through training, education, or democratization. This is similar to the view among American settlers that in savage Indian tribes hostile to civilization, there were some that could be evangelized and Christianized and brought over to the morally right, Godly side. Once “Americanized,” former hostile groups, with the worst among them exterminated, can no longer pose any threat and indeed can assist in the prolongation of conflicts against remaining evil-doers.

5. GWOT is fought abroad, but it’s also a war at home, as the creation after 9/11 of a Department of Homeland Security illustrates. The Indian wars were domestic as well, carried out by the U.S. military to protect American settlers against hostile non-U.S. citizens living on American soil. (It was not until June 2, 1924 that Congress granted citizenship to all Native Americans born in the United States.) While engaged in the Indian wars, the U.S. fought on its own, without the help of foreign governments; such has essentially been the case with GWOT, despite the support of a few countries like Israel, the creation of a weak international “coalition” in Iraq, and NATO participation in Afghanistan operations.

6. America’s close partner Israel, which over the years has taken over Arab-populated lands and welcomes U.S. immigrants, can be considered as a kind of surrogate United States in this struggle. Expanding into the Middle East, the Israelis could be seen as following the example of the American pioneers who didn’t let Indians stand in their way as they settled, with the support of the U.S. military, an entire continent, driven by the conviction that they were supported by God, the Bible, and Western civilization. “I shall need,” wrote Thomas Jefferson, “the favor of that Being in whose hands we are, who led our fathers, as Israel of old, from their native land and planted them in a country flowing with all the necessities and comforts of life.” Less eloquently, Ariel Sharon put it this way: “Everything that’s grabbed will be in our hands. Everything we don’t grab will be in their hands.”

7. As for the current states that are major battlefields of GWOT, Afghanistan and Iraq, it appears that the model for their future, far from being functional democracies, is that of Indian reservations. It is not unlikely that the fragile political structures of these states will sooner or later collapse, and the resulting tribal/ethnic entities will be controlled — assuming the U.S. proves willing to engage in the long-term garrisoning in each area — by American forces in fortified bases, as was the case with the Indian territories in the Far West. Areas under American control will provide U.S. occupiers with natural resources (e.g., oil), and American business — if the security situation becomes manageable — will doubtless be lured there in search of economic opportunities. Interestingly, the area outside of the Green Zone in Baghdad (where Americans have fortified themselves) is now referred to as the Red Zone — terrorist-infested territory as dangerous to non-natives as the lands inhabited by the Redskins were to whites during the Indian wars.

8. The methods employed by the U.S. in GWOT and the Indian wars are similar in many respects: using superior technology to overwhelm the “primitive” enemy; adapting insurgency tactics, even the most brutal ones, used by the opposing side when necessary; and collaborating with “the enemy of my enemy” in certain situations (that is, setting one tribe against another). What are considered normal rules of war have frequently been irrelevant for Americans in both conflicts, given their certainty that their enemies are evil and uncivilized. The use of torture is also a feature of these two conflicts.

9. As GWOT increasingly appears to be, the Indian wars were a very long conflict, stretching from the seventeenth century to the end of the nineteenth — the longest war in American history, starting even before the U.S. existed as a nation. There were numerous battles of varying intensity in this conflagration with no central point of confrontation — as is the case with the War on Terror, despite its current emphasis on Iraq. And GWOT is a war being fought, like the Indian wars in the Far West, over large geographical areas — as the Heritage Foundation’s Ariel Cohen puts it, almost lyrically, “in the Greater Middle East, including the Mediterranean basin, through the Fertile Crescent, and into the remote valleys and gorges of the Caucasus and Pakistan, the deserts of Central Asia, the plateaus of Afghanistan.”

10. Perhaps because they are drawn-out wars with many fronts and changing commanders, the goals of GWOT and the Indian Wars can be subject to many interpretations (indeed, even Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld at one point was eager to rename the War on Terror a “Global Struggle Against Violent Extremism”). For many abroad, GWOT is a brutal expression of a mad, cowboy-led country’s plans to take over the world and its resources. In the United States, a large number of Americans still interpret these two wars as God-favored initiatives to protect His chosen people and allow them to flourish. But just as attitudes in the U.S. toward Native Americans have changed in recent years (consider, for example, the saccharine 1990 film Dances with Wolves, which is sympathetic to an Indian tribe, in contrast to John Wayne shoot-the-Injuns movies), so suspicious views among the American public toward the still-seen-as-dangerous “them” of GWOT might evolve in a different direction. Such a change in perception, however, is unlikely to occur in the near future, especially under the current bellicose Bush regime, which manipulates voters’ fear of terrorists to maintain its declining domestic support.

Tom Engelhardt [send him mail] is editor of TomDispatch.com, a project of the Nation Institute. He is the author of several books, including The Last Days of Publishing: A Novel and The End of Victory Culture. John Brown, a former Foreign Service officer who resigned from the State Department over the war in Iraq, compiles a near-daily “Public Diplomacy Press Review,” available free upon request. The title for this paper comes from a 1692 quotation by Puritan preacher and witch-hunter Cotton Mather.

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