We're No Angels


Many Americans, it seems, don’t like to hear themselves and their country criticized. Some think it is unpatriotic. Others think it clashes with the image of a special country of special people especially blessed by God.

Well, at the risk of getting disapproval dumped on my head, let me say that reality doesn’t match the image. Our ancestors did not wrest this choice piece of real estate from the British, the French, the Spanish and the Native Americans by being a jolly little band of Goody-Two-Shoes. If modern Americans could meet some of their early ancestors, they might be scared of them, and with good reason, because some of them were a rough, brutal and fierce lot of people.

There is a story about one of Kit Carson’s friends who set off by himself to catch two wanted bandits in order to collect the reward. He found their hideout and killed them in cold blood with his buffalo gun. Then, he decided that carrying the bodies back would be too much trouble, so he cut their heads off and stuffed the heads in his saddlebags.

He was invited to a celebration at the governor’s house and was presented with an engraved rifle. He took the rifle by the barrel and threw it over the wall. Then he said to the governor: "I didn’t kill them greasers for no (expletive) rifle. Where’s my money?"

An English traveler described visiting a frontier tavern after a brawl and said you could hardly walk without stepping on eyeballs and severed ears. Cage fighting today is child’s play compared with the way the American frontiersmen fought. Gouging out eyes and biting off ears and noses were acceptable tactics.

A hard environment and hard times make hard people. The United States, for most of its existence, was a poor country. How would you like to dig coal in an unsafe mine with a pick and shovel you had to buy from the mine owner and get paid a few pennies a ton?

When modern Americans think back to the Indian Wars, they tend to get teary-eyed for the Indians and indignant about the whites and Mexicans who fought them. They forget that the Indians of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries were not the same as the Indians today. The Indians our ancestors fought were armed and free and just as brutal as the people they fought. You ought to look at some of the photographs of Geronimo. If you can find a hint of sympathy or compassion in that face, let me know. He was not a man at whose mercy you would want to be.

Justifications don’t mean a rat’s toenail. Everybody who fights and ever has fought always believes he is justified. In the Indian Wars, Indians were disadvantaged by their tribalism and our numbers. We might find ourselves in the same fix one day if a half-billion Chinese decide they would rather live in North America.

And we haven’t changed. We fight modern wars with the same savagery and ruthlessness as our ancestors. When we finished with Japan and Germany in World War II, there were hardly two bricks on top of each other in either country, and we had slaughtered millions of civilians. Yes, we kill innocent civilians. Americans have always operated under the rule that if it’s a question of our death or your death, let’s make it your death.

As for angry blacks, those who lived through the last days of segregation have a right to be angry. People of both races born after the civil-rights movement have no idea of the indignities, humiliation and, yes, beatings and murders that were inflicted on blacks.

Still, Americans have no reason to be ashamed of our past. Every country in the world has its own dismal record. The world is as it is. People, including us, are as they are. Let’s just not delude ourselves that we are angels.

Charley Reese [send him mail] has been a journalist for 49 years.