On Sept. 21 The Wall Street Journal published a piece by Robert D. Kaplan,
"Indian Country", in which he compared the current war in Iraq to the
Indian wars of the 19th century. The thrust of the piece was how the Indian
wars resemble the situation in Iraq, and he had advice for the military to
follow the tactics he says worked then. His advice was given in the "can
do" spirit of the wishful thinking neo-cons who brought us the Iraq War. I
confess to having parallel thoughts - there are some similarities - but I
am struck mostly by the differences and by the enormous lack of context
embraced by Kaplan and by the people who took the United States into this
war, the war which diverted attention from al Qaeda and the attack on 9/11
by a small cadre of religious fanatics mostly from Saudi Arabia.
The United States is currently engaged in combat operations with an enemy
that, it turns out, has many identities. Fallujah is inhabited by a number
of distinct tribes, there are Baathists, nationalists, socialists, and
domestic and foreign religious fanatics among the enemy. The greatest
similarity is that the enemy controls most of the territory - U.S. forces
are largely held up in forts, just like the old days in Indian country.
There are, however, great differences.
The Indian wars were fought for plunder. The U.S., from the Congress on
down, was intent on seizing Indian land and forcing the Indians onto barren
lands or killing them all. That was the first lesson about wars of
colonization: They work better when you are ready to kill everyone, as was
the case with the Indians. People like to argue about who killed how many,
but no one can doubt that the massacres of Indians were real, were intended
to instill terror, and were about the transfer of the wealth of the Indians
into the hands of conquerors. In Iraq, the U.S. says it wants to keep
civilian casualties to a minimum, and that it is not interested in
acquiring or stealing the wealth of Iraq, even though Paul Bremer, the
proconsul who turned over "sovereignty" to the interim government, mandated
laws allowing foreign (mostly British and American) companies to own
everything of value in Iraq, at least in principle. During the Indian wars,
the combination of the U.S. military and an invading colonizing population
outnumbered the Indians. There's nothing like that happening in Iraq.
The rationale for most of the Indian wars, while dishonorable, was widely
popular. It was the era of manifest destiny. America was far from the
civilized centers of Europe, Indians were generally despised by a
significant majority of the population, and there was a popular religious
movement that gave Americans a feeling of entitlement, as though God had
intended them to have the land. That religious entitlement explains better
than anything else why the American treatment of the Indians was so much
bloodier than Canada's. The British in Canada wanted to dispossess the
Indians but they used lawyers where the Americans used bullets.
The popularity for the rationale for the war in Iraq is paper thin even in
America. There is little consensus among the CIA's intelligence analysts
that the things that Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice and Powell told Congress,
the U.N. and the American people about the threat posed by Saddam Hussein's
regime were true. Crimes, or apparent crimes, were committed along the way.
Cheney asked for clarification about documents which turned out to be
forged which supported a claim for Saddam's nonexistent effort to obtain
material for a nuclear weapon, and the wife of the CIA person who
investigated and found it to be a forgery was illegally exposed. Congress
was given a story about weapons of mass destruction in Saddam's hands,
including poison gas and biological weapons, which was not true. Saddam's
capacity to deliver the weapons was not true. The rationale for going to
war, that Iraq posed an immediate threat including the imagery of the
"mushroom cloud," was not true. The U.N. process of weapons inspection had
disarmed Hussein of such weapons. He was not a threat. He was not evolving
into a threat. During the Indian wars the disingenuousness was mostly
directed at the Indians. In Iraq, it has been directed at the world.
Kaplan is trying to make the point that with some tweaking of the U.S.
military's approach to include smaller, more mobile, and deadlier elite
commando and anti-insurgency units operating beyond the vision of any news
media, the war could be taken to the enemy all over the globe. There is no
army of potential settlers at their back, no epidemic diseases likely to
reduce enemy numbers, the enemy comes from a vast population which
stretches from North Africa's Atlantic coast to Indonesia. Subduing such a
population while camcorders and cell phones send pictures to satellite
television broadcasters is going to be a daunting task.
The United States is so militarily dominant that no nation state can
challenge it on the battlefield, and the people who wish to oppose American
objectives overseas must do so in small isolated tribal or politically
motivated militias that the U.S. has designated as stateless combatants or
terrorists. Bush has stated repeatedly that their motives are that they
"hate our freedoms" but Osama bin Laden has been clear that he is fighting
against America's subordination of the lands of Islam to U.S. hegemony. He
wanted U.S. forces out of Saudi Arabia and he attacked the World Trade
Center as a ploy to force the U.S. to go to Afghanistan. He thought his
forces would do to the Americans what they had done to the Soviets. Soon
after 9/11 Rumsfeld expressed the thought that this might be an opportune
time to use the attack as an excuse to attack Iraq. This is not at all like
the Indian wars.
The greatest threat to the world is that someone could gain possession of a
nuclear weapon and detonate it in a city as a political statement. The
Pakistani scientist who has led that country's nuclear weapons program is
known to have shared technology with other countries that want to build a
bomb and the U.S. policy of preemptive war has doubtless made some
countries feel they won't be safe until they have one. Western intelligence
sources do not know who his clients are. Tens of thousands of nuclear
warheads are rotting in various degrees of security in the old Soviet
Union. U.S. preoccupation with Iraq has meant that these threats have not
been adequately addressed and the world is not a safer place since the
The Indian wars of the last century are not a good model for the very
dangerous world which is emerging, and the Bush administration has done
much to increase the danger and too little to address the real threats.
John C. Mohawk Ph.D., columnist for Indian Country Today, is an author and
professor in the Center for the Americas at the State University of New
York at Buffalo.