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On Apache Terrorism


“Oh, sure, an F-18 roaring nearby across the sky will raise goose bumps on even the most jaded of American patriots, but when an Apache helicopter rises from behind some hillside and hangs in a hover, looking at youWell that’s our enemy’s nightmare: He ain’t gettin’ away.”

A patriot and Apache admirer

The Apache twin-engine army attack helicopter, produced by Boeing and first used in the invasion of Panama in 1989, has figured prominently in U.S. military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the Boy Scouts’ July 2001 National Jamboree at Ft. Hill, Virginia. (“Kids love helicopters” said Maj. Forrest Carpenter, 3rd Battalion executive officer.)

More than half of those produced have been sold to U.S. allies, and they are routinely deployed by Israel against Palestinian targets in Gaza. At present, this aircraft is supposed to be serving the “War on Terrorism,” as that most vaguely conceptualized of wars expands, targeting anyone on the Bushites’ expanding terrorist enemies list.

Ironically, the Apache is named after a people who for many decades of North American history were regarded by most whites settling down in their homeland (straddling what is now New Mexico and Arizona) as ferocious savages customarily inflicting terrorist atrocities upon civilized Christian society for no good reason.

I often think, when reading about “terrorism,” of the violent historical encounters between white settlers and Native Americans. The latter, overwhelmed by the superior technology and resources of those claiming their lands, were obliged to deploy the “weapons of the weak” in their efforts to stave off encroachment, dispossession and what was termed “Indian removal.”

In other words, they were intent upon maintaining their homeland security, and “homeland” in the Apache case means a habitat enjoyed for centuries before the Europeans first came barging in. (Not that the whites were the Apaches’ only problem; the Comanches drove them out of part of their ancestral homeland as well. By the way there’s also a “Comanche” attack helicopter). Thus the Apaches sometimes attacked whole white communities—yes, men, women, and children—offing them all indiscriminately in order to send the settlers a message: Get out, go back where you came from, stop threatening our way of life and killing our people. Just a few examples out of Apache history, randomly collected from the internet:

In 1751, in Tubac, in what is now Arizona, then under Spanish rule, Apaches raided Santa Ana and the mission of San Ignacio. They killed at least 105 people, including two German Jesuit missionaries (who had beaten “mission Indians”); 36 Spanish men, 15 Spanish women, and 37 children. (I guess you could call this “targeting civilians.” Not that it’s anything like Hiroshima or Nagasaki.)

In 1849, Jicarilla Apache warriors in what is now New Mexico killed half a dozen white men traveling through their territory, capturing the wife and daughter of one of them, along with two Black women. An Apache woman killed the wife when she tried to escape; it’s not clear what happened to the other captives. In northern Mexico, bands led by Apache leader Cochise, and his successors Victorio and Ju, killed over 15,000 Mexicans.

During the early 1860s, Cochise allegedly “used the distraction caused by the Civil War to invade and destroy whole towns and settlements” in U.S. territory. “Nothing escaped his vengeance. At one point, he even burned Tubac to the ground. His war lasted twelve years. During that time, he tortured his captives to death by slow fire, scalped and mutilated others, and stole women and children for slaves.”

In the 1870s, Apaches in the Arizona Territory “swooped down on isolated farms and small settlements killing all” . In 1885, Apache leader Geronimo “killed a ranching family.

The Chicago Times in 1881 reported on “Apache Atrocities,” emphasizing female involvement. The Apache man, according to the reporter, “cuts off the nose of a prisoner while yet alive, and throwing [it] on the coals will allow [it] to become half broiled, and then thrust [it] in the mouth and down the throat of his victim. He will heat a piece of iron and with this pierce the cheeks of a living man through and through, and then let the instrument serve as a gag between the jaws of the horrified captive. Terrible as these tortures may appear, it is the squaw who exhibits a refinement of cruelty that puts the male Apache to shame. She it is who invents new and startling devices for mutilation of the dead, and in their execution chuckles with feverish glee.” Makes one think of how CNN covered the ululating matrons of Gaza right after the 9-11 attacks.

I can’t testify to the accuracy of any of these old reports, and in any case, unquestionably, the atrocities committed by settlers against the Apaches greatly exceeded any attributed to the latter, to whose “petrified tears”—their sufferings gave the name to a gemstone—the late great Johnny Cash paid tribute. The Mexican government, when it ruled their homeland, actually rewarded genocidal bounty hunters for any Apache scalps: “in 1835, a warrior’s scalp would bring 100 pesos, and by 1837 Mexican officialdom was offering 50 pesos for a woman’s scalp and 25 pesos for that of a child.

I’ll just observe that the Apaches once had a very, very bad press, like certain peoples collectively resisting oppression receive in our own time. But it was the victimizer’s press, warped by racism and bullheaded religious doctrine (the “manifest destiny” of God’s chosen white people to populate the Promised Land, after ridding it of the ungodly savages still resident therein). Today, now that the 50,000 surviving Apaches are not a “terrorist threat,” the southeasternmost county of Arizona can be named after Cochise, a U.S. postage stamp can celebrate Geronimo, and a key piece of the U.S. “anti-terrorism” arsenal can even be named after this worthy people. (By the way, “Apache” in the language of the Zuni means “enemies.” It’s not the name the Apache traditionally applied to themselves; that was just N’de (the People): they are, in their western branch, the Northern and Southern Tonto, Mimbreno, and Coyote; in their eastern branch, the Chiricahua, Mescalero, Jicirilla, Lipan, and Kiowa. They are related to the Navajo who speak the same Athabascan language and also resisted Spanish, Mexican and U.S. encroachment.) Towards the end of the Vietnam War (1972), Hollywood could finally produce (as an allegory of the relationship between U.S. GIs and the “hostiles” of the Vietcong), a fairly balanced, nuanced film about Apache resistance: Ulzana’s Raid, set in Arizona in 1882.

Clearly some sort of historical reassessment (revisionism?) has occurred. As it has with Nelson Mandela, who was just recently removed from the U.S. State Department’s “terrorist list”, although he might still be regarded as such by Vice President Cheney. Things change. Perceptions of who is the terrorist, and who the terrorized, really do evolve over time, even in the challenged minds of the power elite who are best placed to create and manipulate public opinion. So when you read that Apaches have wiped out 250 Taliban fighters in the Sha-e-Kot Valley of Afghanistan (March 2002); or that Apaches killed 33 civilians in Hillah, Iraq (April, 2003); or that an Apache attack has killed two nurses in Gaza City hospital (as one did March 5); or that an Apache attack killed a Hamas leader and three bodyguards (March 8); that eight civilians were wounded in an Apache attack on Gaza workshops (as occurred June 1); or that two Qassam Brigades fighters were killed in an Apache attack on Zaitoon neighborhood in southern Gaza (June 12); or that 11 Hamas members were killed by Apache missile attacks as of Sept. 2; think (with or without irony) about the past vilification of the gunship’s namesake. Imagine also a future (maybe some decades from now) in which a super-gunship, crafted and used by who knows whom, might be proudly dubbed the “Chechen,” the “Kashmiri,” the “Kurd,” the “Moro,” or the “Palestinian.”

* * *

One must suppose today’s Apaches have mixed feelings about their soaring namesake. On the Fort Apache Indian Reservation in Arizona, the military still has a presence. According to a reservation website, “illegal incursions” of Apache helicopters and other military aircraft “on Apache airspace happen almost daily because the military can claim it wasn’t really them, and no one in the State,—or in Congress, is concerned about illegal military flights.”

Apache intrusions into Apache airspace. Even the U.S. military has a sense of humor.

GARY LEUPP is an an associate professor in the Department of History at Tufts University and coordinator of the Asian Studies Program.

He can be reached at:


Gary Leupp is Professor of History at Tufts University, and holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at:

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