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Kaplan needs to study harder

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People who know Robert D. Kaplan say he's actually a decent guy who has
written several perceptive books on Europe. We suspect he would be dismayed
by the highly-negative response to his recent Wall Street Journal column
looking to the 19th century Indian wars for lessons in the global fight
against terrorism. (The same can't be said for the Journal editors. They
are delighted to exploit him in their own campaign to equate Indian country
with the enemy.) Our problem with Kaplan is that he doesn't know his
history.

The moral terrain of the Indian wars was as different as day and night from
the war on al-Qaeda. The war against terror is a justified response to
unprovoked attacks. The wars against the tribes were thefts of land and
resources. With one exception, the performance of the Army in the late 19th
century is nothing one would want to copy in the 21st. Wherever one fits
the invasion of Iraq into the "War on Terror," there is a great deal in
common between the U.S. military's current blundering in Baghdad and its
indiscriminate slaughter of "friendlies" and "hostiles" in the American
West. And the Indian wars ended, not as Kaplan imagines with the crushing
annihilation of the tribes, but with a series of peace treaties, which are
still binding in law if not in fact. But aside from Kaplan's false analogy
and his massive ignorance of historical detail, he does have one valid
point, which boiled down is that the U.S. military could learn, and
possibly already has learned, valuable lessons from its Native encounters.

True, the merits of Kaplan's piece have a hard time surviving the
disastrous flaws of his hypothesis. Only a truly vicious propagandist (like
a Wall Street Journal editor) could see a moral equivalence between the
homicidal movement that ordered the unprovoked 9/11 attacks against
civilians from thousands of miles away and the tribes' defense of their
homelands against constant illegal encroachments. Even General Philip
Sheridan, who directed most of the post-Civil War Indian campaigns as
commander of the Military Division of the Missouri, said of his enemy, "We
took away their country, broke up their mode of living, their habits of
life, introduced disease and decay among them, and it was for this and
against this that they made war. Could anyone expect less?"

Often enough, the army provoked hostilities by its own pointless maneuvers,
such as Gen. John Pope's failed Plains offensive of 1865. U.S. cavalry had
a remarkable propensity to murder the chiefs most interested in making
peace, such as the Cheyenne Lean Bear, who rode to his death carrying
letters of friendship signed by Abraham Lincoln. In spite of the personal
preference some generals might have had for a war of extermination, peace
came because Washington insisted on treaties. The Red Cloud war ended in
1868 with Peace Commission negotiations at Medicine Lodge and Fort Laramie,
the dismantling of army forts along the Bozeman Trail in Wyoming, and
guarantees of hunting rights, the first and only time, say Army historians,
that the U.S. ceased hostilities by totally accepting the terms of its
adversary.

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Kaplan and the Journal have a hard time acknowledging the treaties because
they are the legal and constitutional affirmation of the tribes'
"government-to-government" relation with the U.S. and their co-equal status
with states. (Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas hit on something in his
Lara opinion when he suggested that the 1871 Congressional rider ending
treaty making with the tribes might not pass Constitutional muster.) Tribal
leaders adhered to the treaties, and still do, in spite of the most extreme
provocations. Red Cloud himself helped avert a pitched battle after the
massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890 between the disorganized Seventh Cavalry
and 4,000 enraged warriors who had been assembled near Pine Ridge for a
peace conference. At one point in the crisis, a unit of Indian police ended
an exchange of gunfire by taking a position between the besieged U. S.
soldiers and surrounding Lakota fighters, some of whom were relatives. The
Army was so impressed by their loyalty that the next year it asked for
legislation allowing recruitment of Indians directly into its ranks.

Within a generation, 1,000 Sioux from Pine Ridge volunteered to fight in
World War I, starting a tradition that persists to this day. American
Indians lead the country in the proportions who serve in the military,
deciding that defense of the continent is too important to be left to the
European settlers. We suspect that many Natives in the Special Forces are
exactly the kind of "soldier-diplomats" that Kaplan advocates, the
individual or small unit working closely with a friendly indigenous
population. (We have run more than one obituary of highly decorated Vietnam
veterans whose service record is still classified.)

Kaplan does allude to one episode in the Indian wars that foreshadowed this
policy, the one seed of truth in his wrong-headed metaphor. That is the
1882 Apache campaign of Gen. George Crook. Very much an exception in the
leadership of the Seventh Cavalry, Crook used "Apache methods and Apache
soldiers" to fight Chiricahua "insurgents." "To polish a diamond there is
nothing like its own dust," he explained to a sympathetic newsman. Some
observers see the traces of Crook's strategy in the American campaign in
Afghanistan, in which the deft use of local allies stands in sharp contrast
to the confusion in Iraq.

We have no quarrel with Kaplan's point that small-scale conflicts are best
fought by small units attuned to local customs and allied to indigenous
forces. We think that people steeped in the politics of clans and extended
families might be best suited to deal with the tribal and ethnic mosaic of
the Middle East and much of Africa and Asia, and just possibly American
tribal leaders and members might have a great deal to offer, not only in
warfare but in diplomacy and development. But Kaplan has the wrong analogy.
Indian country is not the enemy. It is a valuable source of experience and
wisdom.