“Indian” Wars

US imperialism today still bears reminders of past massacres of indigenous people.

The integral link between Wounded Knee in 1890 and Wounded Knee in 1973 suggests a long-overdue reinterpretation of indigenous-US relations as a template for US imperialism and counterinsurgency wars. As Vietnam veteran and author Michael Herr observed, we “might as well say that Vietnam was where the Trail of Tears was headed all along, the turnaround point where it would touch and come back to form a containing perimeter.”

Seminole Nation Vietnam War veteran Evan Haney made the comparison in testifying at the Winter Soldier Investigations:

The same massacres happened to the Indians . . . I got to know the Vietnamese people and I learned they were just like us . . . I have grown up with racism all my life. When I was a child, watching cowboys and Indians on TV, I would root for the cavalry, not the Indians. It was that bad. I was that far toward my own destruction.

As it happened, the fifth anniversary of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam occurred at the time of the 1973 siege of Wounded Knee. It was difficult to miss the analogy between the 1890 Wounded Knee massacre and My Lai, 1968. Alongside the front-page news and photographs of the Wounded Knee siege that was taking place in real time were features with photos of the scene of mutilation and death at My Lai.

Lieutenant William “Rusty” Calley was then serving his twenty-year sentence under house arrest in luxurious officers’ quarters at Fort Benning, Georgia, near his hometown. Yet he remained a national hero who received hundreds of support letters weekly, who was lauded by some as a POW being held by the US military. One of Calley’s most ardent defenders was Jimmy Carter, then governor of Georgia.

One of the documented acts, among many, that Calley committed and ordered others to carry out at My Lai took place when he saw a baby crawling from a ditch filled with mutilated, bloody bodies. He picked the baby up by a leg, threw the infant back into the pit, and then shot the baby point-blank. My Lai was one of thousands of such slaughters led by officers just like Calley, who a few weeks before My Lai had been observed throwing a stooped old man down a well and firing his automatic rifle down the shaft.

The ongoing siege at Wounded Knee in 1973 elicited some rare journalistic probing into the 1890 army massacre. In 1970, university librarian Dee Brown had written the book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, which documented and told the 1890 Wounded Knee story, among many other such nineteenth-century anti-Indian crimes and tragedies. The book was a surprise best seller, so the name Wounded Knee resonated with a broad public by 1973.

On the front page of one newspaper, editors placed two photographs side by side, each of a pile of bloody, mutilated bodies in a ditch. One was from My Lai in 1968, the other from the Wounded Knee army massacre of the Lakota in 1890. Had they not been captioned, it would have been impossible to tell the difference in time and place.

During the first US military invasion of Iraq, a gesture intended to obliterate the “Vietnam Syndrome,” Brigadier General Richard Neal, briefing reporters in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, stated that the US military wanted to ensure a speedy victory once it committed land forces to “Indian Country.” The following day, in a little-publicized statement of protest, the National Congress of American Indians pointed out that fifteen thousand Native Americans were serving as combat troops in the Persian Gulf.

The term “Indian Country” is not merely an insensitive racial slur to indicate the enemy, tastelessly employed by accident. Neither Neal nor any other military authority apologized for the statement, and it continues to be used by the military and the media, usually in its shortened form, “In Country,” which originated in the Vietnam War.

“Indian Country” and “In Country” are military terms of trade, like other euphemisms such as “collateral damage” (killing civilians) and “ordnance” (bombs) that appear in military training manuals and are used regularly. “Indian Country” and “In Country” mean “behind enemy lines.” Its current use should serve to remind us of the origins and development of the US military, as well as the nature of our political and social history: annihilation into unconditional surrender.

When the redundant “ground war,” more appropriately tagged a “turkey shoot,” was launched, at the front of the miles of killing machines were armored scouting vehicles of the Second Armored Calvary Regiment (ACR), a self-contained elite unit that won fame during World War II when it headed General Patton’s Third Army crossing Europe.

In the Gulf War, the Second ACR played the role of chief scouts for the US Seventh Corps. A retired ACR commander proudly told a television interviewer that the Second ACR had been formed in the 1830s to fight the Seminoles, and that it had its first great victory when it finally defeated those Indians in the Florida Everglades in 1836. The Second ACR in the vanguard of the ground assault on Iraq thus symbolized the continuity of US war victories and the source of the nation’s militarism: the Iraq War was just another Indian war in the US military tradition.

After weeks of high-tech bombing in Iraq followed by a caravan of armored tanks shooting everything that moved, the US Special Forces entered Iraqi officers’ quarters in Kuwait City. There they found carrier pigeons in cages and notes in Arabic strewn over a desk, which they interpreted to mean that the Iraqi commanders were communicating with their troops, and even with Baghdad, using the carrier pigeons. High-tech soldiers had been fighting an army that communicated by carrier pigeon — as Shawnees and Muskogees had done two centuries earlier.

Twelve years after the Gulf War, a US military force of three hundred thousand invaded Iraq again. A little-read report from Associated Press correspondent Ellen Knickmeyer illustrates the symbolic power of Indian wars as a source of US military memory and practice. Once again we find the armored scouting vehicles and their troops retracing historical bloody footprints as they perform their “Seminole Indian war dance”:

Capt. Phillip Wolford’s men leaped into the air and waved empty rifles in an impromptu desert war dance . . .

With thousands of M1A1 Abrams tanks, Bradley fighting vehicles, Humvees and trucks, the mechanized infantry unit known as the “Iron Fist” would be the only U.S. armored division in the fight, and would likely meet any Iraqi defenses head on.

“We will be entering Iraq as an army of liberation, not domination,” said Wolford, of Marysville, Ohio, directing the men of his 4th Battalion, 64th Armor Regiment to take down the U.S. flags fluttering from their sand-colored tanks.

After a brief prayer, Wolford leaped into an impromptu desert war dance. Camouflaged soldiers joined him, jumping up and down in the sand, chanting and brandishing rifles carefully emptied of their rounds.

Excerpted from An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States.

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