John Brown is a former foreign service officer who resigned over the war in Iraq. He compiles the Public Diplomacy Press Review.
By John Brown
Like all historical events, the global war on terror is unique. But I'd like to suggest another way of looking at the war: as a 21st-century continuation of the American Indian wars, on a global scale. This is by no means something that has occurred to me alone, but it has received little attention. Here are a half-dozen reasons why I'm making this suggestion:
-- The essential paradigm of the war on terror -- us (the attacked) against them (the attackers) -- was no less essential to the mind set of white settlers regarding the Indians, starting at least from the 1622 Indian massacre of 347 people at Jamestown, Va. With rare exceptions, newly arrived Europeans and their descendants saw Indians as mortal enemies who started the initial fight against them -- savages with whom they could not co-exist. The Declaration of Independence condemned "the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions." When governor of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson stated: "If we are to wage a campaign against these Indians the end proposed should be their extermination, or their removal beyond the lakes of the Illinois River. The same world would scarcely do for them and us." President Andrew Jackson, whose "unapologetic flexing of military might" has been compared to George W. Bush's modus operandi, noted in his "Case for the Removal [of Indians] Act" (Dec. 8, 1830):
"What good man would prefer a country covered with forests and ranged by a few thousand savages to our extensive Republic, studded with cities, towns, and prosperous farms, embellished with all the improvements which art can devise or industry execute, ... and filled with all the blessings of liberty, civilization, and religion?"
Us versus them is, of course, a feature of all wars, but the starkness of this dichotomy -- seen by war-on-terror supporters as a struggle between the civilized world and a global jihad -- is as strikingly apparent in the war on terror as it was in the Indian wars.
-- The war on terror is based on the principle of preventive strike, meant to put off "potential, future and, therefore, speculative attacks" -- just as U.S. Army conflicts against the Indians often were. We have to get them before they get us -- such is the assumption behind both sets of wars. As Professor Jack Forbes wrote in a 2003 piece, "Old Indian Wars Dominate Bush Doctrines," in the Bay Mills News:
"Bush has declared that the U.S. will attack first before an 'enemy' has
the ability to act. This could, of course, be called 'the Pearl Harbor
strategy' since that is precisely what the Japanese Empire did. But it
also has precedents against First American nations. For example, William
Henry Harrison, under pressure from Thomas Jefferson to get the American
Nations out of the Illinois-Indiana region, marched an invading army to
the vicinity of a Native village at Tippecanoe precisely when he knew that
(Shawnee war chief and pan-tribal political leader) Tecumseh was on a tour
of the south and west."
-- U.S. mainstream thinking about war-on-terror enemies is that they are total aliens -- in religion, politics, economics and social organization -- but there are Americans who believe that individuals in these "primitive" societies can eventually become assimilated and thus be rendered harmless through training, education or democratization. This is similar to the view among American settlers that in savage Indian tribes hostile to civilization, there were some that could be evangelized and Christianized and brought over to the morally right, Godly side. Once "Americanized," former hostile groups, with the worst among them exterminated, can no longer pose any threat and indeed can assist in the prolongation of conflicts against remaining evil-doers.
-- The war on terror is fought abroad, but it's also a war at home, as the creation after Sept. 11, 2001, of a Department of Homeland Security illustrates. The Indian wars were domestic as well, carried out by the U.S. military to protect American settlers against hostile non-U.S. citizens living on American soil. (It was not until June 2, 1924, that Congress granted citizenship to all American Indians born in the United States.)
In the Indian wars, the United States fought without the help of foreign governments; such has essentially been the case with the war on terror, despite the support of a few countries like Israel, the creation of a weak international "coalition" in Iraq, and NATO participation in Afghanistan operations.
-- As for the current states that are major battlefields of the war on terror, Afghanistan and Iraq, it appears that the model for their future, far from being functional democracies, is that of Indian reservations. It is not unlikely that the fragile political structures of these states will sooner or later collapse, and the resulting tribal/ethnic entities will be controlled -- assuming the United States proves willing to engage in long-term garrisoning -- by American forces in fortified bases, as was the case with the Indian territories in the Far West. Areas under American control will provide U.S. occupiers with natural resources (oil), and American business -- if the security situation becomes manageable -- will doubtless be lured there in search of opportunities. 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-natives as the lands inhabited by the Redskins were to whites during the Indian wars.
-- As the war on terror increasingly appears to be, the Indian wars were a very long conflict, stretching from the 17th century to the end of the 19th -- the longest war in American history. There were numerous battles of varying intensity with no central point of confrontation -- like the war on terror, despite its emphasis on Iraq. And the war on terror is being fought, like the Indian wars over large geographical areas -- as the Heritage Foundation's Ariel Cohen puts it, almost lyrically, "in the Greater Middle East, including the Mediterranean basin, through the Fertile Crescent, and into the remote valleys and gorges of the Caucasus and Pakistan, the deserts of Central Asia, the plateaus of Afghanistan."