America’s Longest Wars

Just a few of the battles fought against Native Americans
Just a few of the battles fought against Native Americans

W.J. Astore

A popular headline in the media is to describe the Afghan War as “America’s longest,” as in this brief summary today from Foreign Policy:

The war in Afghanistan, America’s longest, is now formally over. The 13-year war, which claimed more than 2,200 American lives and cost more than one trillion dollars, ended quietly at a ceremony in Kabul yesterday. U.S. President Barack Obama and other Western leaders promised their ongoing commitment under the rebranded Operation Resolute Support and insisted the war was a success. But the Taliban is poised for a comeback with a recent surge in violence in Kabul and around the country. There are concerns that Afghanistan’s military and fragile political institutions will crumble as the United States leaves.

There’s a big problem with this.  America’s longest war, by far, is not the recent Afghan War; it was its more or less continuous effort against Native Americans from the early 1600s to the late 1800s.  Americans like to forget that native peoples populated the land before European settlers began to arrive, and that these native peoples had to be killed, or corralled, or otherwise subjugated or shunted aside in the name of Manifest Destiny and in the pursuit of profit.

As historian John Grenier notes in The First Way of War: American War Making on the Frontier, 1607-1814,

For the first 200 years of our military heritage, then, Americans depended on arts of war … [that included] razing and destroying enemy villages and fields; killing enemy women and children; raiding settlements for captives; intimidating and brutalizing enemy noncombatants; and assassinating enemy leaders.

For Grenier, America’s “first way of war” relied on “extravagant violence” often aimed at “the complete destruction of the enemy,” in this case various Native American peoples.  This was indeed America’s longest war. Yet despite (or perhaps because of) its long duration and brutal violence, the war against indigenous peoples is rarely mentioned today, especially by those who seek to promote American exceptionalism.

Another longer war than the Afghan one, more recent in America’s memory, was the Cold War we fought against the Soviet Union and its allies from the close of World War II to the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.  Lasting nearly half a century, this war ended in victory of a sort for the United States, even as its legacy continues to poison U.S. culture and foreign relations.  For the Cold War left us with an enormous military-industrial-Congressional complex, to include nuclear forces capable of destroying the planet, which the U.S. continues to feed and even to enlarge.  The result has been the growth of a second “shadow” government, a national security and surveillance state of enormous power, an apparatus with wide-reaching and unaccountable powers that is potentially a greater threat to American freedoms than the Soviet Union ever was.

When America forgets its longest wars, and especially when Americans forget the legacies of these wars, it’s more than history that suffers.

Update: Just after I wrote this, I came across this article on corporate “land grabs” that continue to bedevil Native Americans.  Some would argue that the long war against native peoples never really ended.  And to state a point that is perhaps obvious: the Afghan War grew out of the Cold War and U.S. efforts to embroil the Soviet Union in its own Vietnam in 1980.  U.S. efforts to support the Afghan “freedom fighters” against the Soviets contributed to the rise of Osama bin Laden, who would eventually turn against the U.S. in the 1990s.  America’s Afghan War, in other words, is not a 13-year war.  To understand it, one must look back to 1979-80 and the machinations of a U.S. foreign policy establishment that was much more concerned with hobbling the Soviets than with helping the Afghan people.

Apache Scouts, Listening; Hollywood, Not Listening

Apache Scouts, Listening (National Gallery of Art)
Apache Scouts, Listening (National Gallery of Art)

W.J. Astore

Frederic Remington understood the color of night, and he also understood something of the uniqueness of the Native Americans he painted.  This lesson was brought home to me by David Heidler, a good friend and a leading historian of American history.  Visiting an exhibition of Remington’s nocturnes, Heidler had this to say about how these paintings moved him:

[Remington’s works] reminded [me] of something easily forgotten by the sanitized depictions of Indians inflicted on our own times.  Remington was able to portray them as obviously aboriginal while preserving their stoicism and majesty.  Hollywood Indians, whether in Kevin Costner’s wolf-waltzing epic or the Mohican picture featuring the terminally taciturn Daniel Day Lewis as foil for the grumpily taciturn Russell Means, are simply European ethnics festooned in feathers and possessed of nifty woodcraft.

Remington’s Indians, though, are people so alien that one instantly recognizes them as part of another world uneasily coming to terms with an encroaching one.  His “Apache Scouts, Listening” perfectly captures the odd division between the near-feral instincts of the scouts and the tentativeness of their army employers.  The several Apaches are in various postures, mainly ones of repose, but their necks are elongated, their broad faces frozen with concentration and all directed just beyond the viewer; the two army officers sit on horses in the background, their hands cupping their ears in an effort to hear that the Apaches obviously can detect with ease.  It is night and winter, and a full moon illuminates the scene with jarring clarity, the light ambient from the heavy snow on the ground.

I could still be standing there watching it if allowed to.

Few Hollywood movies that I’ve seen capture the distinctiveness and uniqueness of Native Americans on their terms.  Our movies are mitigated (or polluted) by the Western gaze, tending to portray Indians as either “savages” or mystical proto-environmentalists/Zen gurus.  We see what we want to see, not what is.

Back in the bad old days of John Wayne westerns, Indians were typically portrayed as savages who deserved to be extirpated or shunted on to reservations where they could be “civilized.”  Nowadays, the “magical” Indian is more common, a noble brave and guru to the White man who highlights the White man’s materialism, prejudice, and violence.

Although it’s not a perfect movie (it has its own political agenda), “Little Big Man” with Dustin Hoffman and Chief Dan George captures at least some of the distinctiveness of Indians, at least for me.  The decision to allow the Indians to speak fluently in English (when it’s meant to be Cheyenne) helps to bridge the gap of understanding (no Pidgin English as in old westerns, and no distracting subtitles as in the sanctimonious “Dances with Wolves”).

The depiction of Native Americans in LBM is neither universally positive nor negative.  The brutality of Indians is shown in the opening scene of carnage in the aftermath of an attack on White settlers.  The Cheyenne encampment is described in humorous terms (from my memory): “When first entering an Indian camp, one might be excused from thinking, I’ve seen the dump.  Where’s the camp?”  It’s an amusing reminder that standards of cleanliness for Plains Indians differed from White town folk.  The Cheyenne also eat boiled dog, which the narrator (Hoffman) describes as downright delicate in taste (I doubt that scene would survive Humane Society inspection today).

But for me the most harrowing scene is Chief Dan George’s masterful speech as he holds a scalp.  He explains how the Indians (the “human beings”) believe everything is alive but the White man believes everything is dead.  It captures the animism of the Indians and their connection to nature while highlighting the instrumentalism and ruthlessness of (some) Whites.

The gulf in understanding between our peoples only exacerbated the wars over turf.  And the Indians sensed, as Chief Dan George says in the movie, that they were on the losing side of the demographics (an endless supply of White men, but a limited number of Human Beings, notes Chief Dan George).

But watch “Little Big Man” for yourself and draw your own conclusions.  Even better, take a close look at Remington’s nocturnes.  Try to place yourself in the paintings as my friend David Heidler so powerfully did.  Such a vivid exercise in imaginative exploration — using Remington’s work as a time machine that transports you to a different world among a people who are far more diverse and complicated and alien than Hollywood has ever managed to capture — is both transfixing and transformative.  And fun!

Author’s note: I’d like to thank David Heidler for his permission to cite and share his personal (and moving) reaction to Remington.