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National pundits sadly ignore American Indian history

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Bad analogies from American Indian history are becoming the fad among
pundits on the Middle East. We wish they would cut it out. The comparisons
don't explain much about the deep and deadly conflicts of that region, but
they do show a dangerous level of ignorance about the tribal nations of
this continent.

One of the most troublesome examples comes from a very controversial
Israeli historian named Benny Morris. A blunt, groundbreaking scholar,
Morris has managed to enrage just about every side in the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict at one time or another with his research into
its origins. Using newly opened archives, he has written that at a
desperate point in Israel's 1948 war for independence, facing a pan-Arab
invasion, its mainstream Zionist leaders encouraged the forced expulsion of
strategically located Palestinian Arabs. Their tactics, he said, included
selected atrocities, which he forthrightly labels war crimes. The ensuing
panic swelled an exodus of 700,000 Arabs, which became the nucleus of the
Palestinian refugee issue, which still poisons Middle East diplomacy.

Although Palestinians welcome the hard look at events that have been
shrouded in official denials, they are deeply upset by his interpretations.
Morris has a very bleak vision for the future of Israeli/Arab peace talks
and advocates exchanges of population along a barrier that would separate
Palestinian and Jewish land. He echoes the view of Machiavelli that great
nations are built on great crimes.

What concerns us is an example he apparently used in a lengthy interview
with the Israeli paper, Haaretz. The interviewer Ari Shavit quoted Morris
(or misquotes him, Morris now maintains) as saying, "Even the great
American democracy could not have been created without the annihilation of
the Indians. There are cases in which the overall, final good justifies
harsh and cruel acts that are committed in the course of history."

We caught up with Morris at a recent talk at Yale University and he
apologized for appearing indifferent to the "extermination" of the Indians
(his words). He cited a letter he wrote to Haaretz complaining that the
interview condensed a seven-hour conversation into two pages, selecting the
harshest of his statements without his nuances or qualifications. "I feel
bad about what happened to the Indians," he said, "although it was probably
more from germs than the 7th Cavalry."

His apology, we thought, only made things worse. The real problem with his
statement was not the callous attitude, but the bad history. As every
Native person in this country has probably had to explain at some time or
another, Indians are not extinct. In fact, direct descendants of bygone but
well-remembered chiefs appear to be rather ubiquitous. (Morris admitted
that one of his students in Israel was American Indian.)

Perhaps the depopulation of New England by post-contact epidemics made it
easier for English settlers to gain a foothold. The indigenous campaign
against Europeans in 1676, now known as King Philip's War, was a very close
call and still ranks as the bloodiest conflict per capita ever fought by
Americans. But it is simply false to say that the American democracy could
not have been created with Indians around. Because it was.

The first martyr of the American Revolution, Boston Massacre victim Crispus
Attucks, was part Indian. Tribal allies bailed out Continental troops a
number of times. The Oneida Indian Nation (owners of Indian Country Today's
parent corporation, Four Directions Media) recently commemorated the Battle
of Oriskany, which repulsed a British incursion into central New York. The
new republic flourished amid substantial tribal populations. The
Constitution and the first Congress promised a special status for tribal
nations in the new federal system, with direct relations to the central
government.

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The "ethnic cleansing" by Andrew Jackson and his successors came late in
the game. It grew from greed and racism rather than any national necessity.
Some historians argue it was meant to break up a burgeoning hybrid
Euro-indigenous culture on the frontier, marked by intermarriage and
settler adaptation to Native ways. As a cold-blooded policy, it outranks in
evil, we submit, any of the wartime atrocities described by Morris.

But the expulsion of the Eastern tribes is a separate history, and it does
no good to anyone to drag it into a Middle Eastern crossfire. Even worse,
however, is the increasingly popular modeling of American Middle East
strategy on the so-called "Indian wars."

Former Foreign Service officer John Brown noted this phenomenon in a recent
online essay, citing Wall Street Journal contributors Max Boot and Robert
Kaplan as well as historian Jack D. Forbes. Kaplan, he observed, has
expanded his thoughts in a new book, "Imperial Grunts: The American
Military on the Ground," according to which the common refrain of American
troops abroad is "Welcome to Injun country." Brown himself offers "Ten Ways
to Interpret the War on Terror as a Frontier Conflict."

These 10 ways, however, turn out to be mightily strained and totally
unhelpful. The "essential paradigm" of both conflicts, he wrote, is "us
[the attacked] against them [the attackers]." Well, so is the mindset of
all wars, on all sides. As far as the United States is concerned, it
happens to be more true of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks than of almost any
Indian conflict, with the possible exception of King Philip's War. U.S.
tactics will be similar, Brown continued, "using superior technology to
overwhelm the 'primitive' enemy." The war on terror will be a very long
conflict, like the Indian wars, which he called "the longest war in
American history, starting even before the U.S. existed as a nation."

The battlefield states of Iraq and Afghanistan will be controlled like
Indian reservations, he went on. "Interestingly, the area outside of the
Green Zone in Baghdad [where Americans have fortified themselves] is now
referred to as the Red Zone -- terrorist-infested territory as dangerous to
non-native as the lands inhabited by the Redskins were to whites during the
Indian wars." And so on.

You get the drift. This pseudo-analysis is a mishmash of superficial
history and offensive cliche. The only real comparison is that both the war
on terror and the authors' notion of the "Indian wars" are low-intensity
conflicts against an amorphous, "primitive," dark-skinned enemy. These
analysts show little understanding of the actual events. The "longest war"
was actually a disjointed collection of isolated conflicts against vastly
different tribes in vastly different circumstances. The great difference
from the war on terror is that these conflicts ended with treaties, and
many of them began with American violations of even earlier treaties.

One should rather call this period the "longest diplomacy." Almost without
exception, tribal relations with the United States were based on treaties,
which the tribes observed punctiliously in the face of extreme
provocations. The Cherokee Nation, for instance, continued to invoke the
Treaty of Hopewell up to its final forced eviction from Georgia; Andrew
Jackson ignored it. "Treaty rights" is still the universal rallying cry in
Indian country, and it is still a struggle to have them observed.

The "Indian wars" analogy tells less about the war on terror than it does
about a certain mindset that denigrates the status of tribal nations. We
would expect this ignorance and insouciance from The Wall Street Journal's
crew. It reflects the mental laziness of a decaying conservative movement.
But it's surprising that a former Foreign Service officer would show such
little regard for treaties. They are, after all, the emblems of the
country's good faith and the constitutional law of the land.

The Middle Eastern experts don't seem to have much knowledge of the tribal
treaties, if they are even aware that Indians still exist. Until they learn
a bit more of this history, they should leave Indian country alone.