At the close of war: A history lesson from Little Turtle


In this moment of triumph, the United States should heed the wisdom of Little Turtle. Meshequinoqua (Little Turtle), the great war chief of the Miami Confederacy, understood triumph and its perils. In 1790, he routed a United States army under General Josiah Harmar, sent by the new republic to break the Indians of Ohio and Indiana. The following year, he and his allies annihilated the army of Gen. Arthur St. Clair. Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull get the publicity for beating George Custer, but these two battles certainly rank among the greatest defeats inflicted by American Indians on the military forces of the United States.

Yet in 1794, the U.S. sent out another army. Meshequinoqua rose in the war council on the day before the decisive battle to say it was time to make peace. "We have beaten the enemy twice under separate commanders," he said. "We cannot expect the same good fortune always to attend us." His advice was rejected, and the next day his forces fought Gen. "Mad" Anthony Wayne in the Battle of the Fallen Timbers. Wayne inflicted a crushing defeat and in the punitive campaign that followed permanently broke the power of the Miami Confederacy.

The United States has now beaten Iraq twice in two of the more brilliant campaigns of military history, but it is time to follow the advice of Little Turtle and win the peace. The best warriors understand that they cannot expect the same good fortune in the next battle and that the greatest leaders are the ones who make a better world emerge from the destruction of war. These are lessons American Indians, historically acknowledged as great orators and diplomats, can bring to those in danger of being carried away by the euphoria of victory.

Since the end of the Indian wars, by and large, Native peoples have thrown in their lot with the United States and its military. As many tribal leaders said after the September 11 attacks, the First Peoples of the continent feel a special obligation to defend it against foreign enemies. Starting with World War I, Indians have served in the Armed Forces far out of proportion to their numbers; some 12,860 are enrolled today. The first woman to die in the Iraq War, Hopi and American soldier Lori Piestewa, and her fate, has touched a nerve throughout Indian country. American Indian servicemen and servicewomen and their tribal nations have been among the most committed members of President Bush's "Coalition of the willing." They have an intense interest in preserving the gains of this sacrifice.

American Indians, who themselves introduced Europeans to various mobile war tactics, can appreciate the efficiency of the Iraq War strategy. Like the products of clear thinking, it can be stated with the simple elegance of a high school physics equation: force equals mass times speed. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's planners departed from the long-standing U.S. military doctrine of amassing overwhelming numbers of troops, which because of Turkey's refusal to cooperate in a northern front, would have required a wait of several weeks to redeploy the heavily armed Fourth Infantry Division. Instead they relied on the speed of the troops advancing from the south to produce an equivalent impact on Saddam Hussein's brittle regime. The greater speed of the advance, enhanced by the tactical surprise that it didn't wait for the type of air war that preceded Iraq War I, compensated for the lessened mass of the troop strength, and the force was adequate to accomplish the job.

A number of traditional military officers found this strategy disquieting, and the equation definitely will not have the same results in other places against other enemies. It's a lot easier to reduce the speed of an army than to whittle away at its numbers. In its own terrorist fashion, Saddam's regime sought to slow the advance by harassing attacks on the long U.S. supply lines. The true impact was far less important than the press made it out to be, but the situation could have been far more serious in a country with a population more committed to defending its rulers. The strategy, in short, was regime-specific. What would work against a hated dictator could fail miserably against a democratic people schooled in local initiative.

A less-appreciated side of the Pentagon's genius contributed to the success of this strategy. In Iraq, as in Afghanistan, the U.S. has shown an unusually skillful hand in dealing with local populations, and in particular the tribal ethnic groups who have suffered the greatest oppression. No group in Iraq seems more grateful to see Americans than the Kurds, the indigenous people of the northern mountains. The Northern Alliance, a coalition of ethnic minorities in Afghanistan, did the work of routing the Pushtun-based Taliban. So far, American agents in the field, and especially the unsung Special Operations units, have displayed such political skill that when the local people turn their fury on hated "foreigners," their targets have been the recruits from Pakistan, Syria or elsewhere, of al-Queda and the Fedayeen Saddam. The triumph in Iraq is the work of leaders trained not only in military theory but also in political philosophy.

But an enormous amount of work remains to consolidate this success. Many of the war aims are still not met, and the ultimate stability of the country is far from assured. As we argued in supporting the war, American Indians have a deep historic interest in eliminating weapons of mass destruction and in particular biological agents. We remain convinced that they are either present in Iraq or have been moved to other lands. U.S. forces must remain determined to find them. The April 16 raid on the home of Dr. Rihab Taha underscores this effort. This woman, a British-trained microbiologist, is notorious in the West as the head of Saddam's biological warfare research; the wife of a high regime official, she sent a chill through western analysts when she appeared on Iraqi television during the war at the table of one of Saddam's strategy meetings. As the U.S. said during the months and years of UN inspections, the scientists like her are the ones who truly know where to look and the primary effort should be to get them to talk freely.

This is an enquiry that now can and should go on in full daylight, regardless of the countries and corporations it might embarrass. A segment of international opinion is still doubting the existence of these weapons, or like France, Russia and Germany, cynically hoping they never turn up, potentially to hide their own involvement in making them possible. The U.S. would benefit from bringing the UN back into this search. The staff of the UN inspection agencies UNSCOM and its successor UNMOVIC showed great skill and courage in a hostile environment, even though their work in recent months was obscured in cryptic public presentations to the Security Council. Their full-length reports, including a March 19 "Working Paper" largely overshadowed by the beginning of the war, make frightening reading. To have them working jointly with the U.S. Army's "Exploitation Teams" would give the hunt the international legitimacy that might help make a dent in these scourges.

The U.S. still has scores to settle with the regime leaders still fugitive and with many, like the Palestinian terrorist Abu Abbas, whom they harbored. Plans are underway for war crimes trials. These will cover not only the current war but also the brutalities of the 1991 Gulf War. The fate of Lori Piestewa and the other casualties of the 507th Maintenance Unit could be a prominent issue. We will watch these developments with great interest.

Reconstruction of Iraq, both politically and physically, should be well underway before the U.S. seeks any other battles. As we learned with Afghanistan in the 1980s, we can't walk away from a shattered country without running a serious risk of harm from the forces that spring back from the wreckage. National security for Indian nations, America and the world, requires that a viable representative government be nurtured in Iraq, and Afghanistan too. American Indians have compelling recent experience that might prove useful in showing how self-government within a federal American framework can help preserve tribal identity and tradition while enriching the whole.

And why shouldn't Indian enterprises, whether tribal or private, have a hand in the physical rebuilding of Iraq? Billions of dollars in contracts will be up for bid. The government has programs that encourage American Indian subcontracting. These could be good business opportunities for companies that know how to work in a tribal environment. Certainly American Indian nations, which contributed their share of the sacrifice to liberate Iraq, have more claim to take part than do those European interests, in France, Germany and Russia, who sought to stay justice for Saddam. We think the people of new Iraq might agree.

This was a war that American Indians had a good share in winning. And, like Little Turtle, it is essential to understand the importance of winning the peace as well.