"Indian Country"


at least ten Indians are (to be) killed for each white life lost.You should not allow the troops to settle down on the defensive but carry the war to the Indian camps, where the women and children arethe truth should be ascertained and reported, but should not delay the punishment of the Indians as a people. It is not necessary to find the very men who committed the acts, but destroy all of the same breed.

-U.S. Major General William T. Sherman, 1866

27 February 1991: Oxford, Ohio.

This morning I woke to a winter wonderland, nice clean snow, and that silence that snow seems to effect. Now, a few hours later, the temperature has risen, and a steady rain is coming down. The snow is nearly all gone — just a few patches here and there. The sky is stern, but the air is cold and clean.

I heard on the news that the smoke from the oil fires in Kuwait was seeding clouds and bringing down torrential rain — black rain. The smell of oil. I smiled when I heard the description. I never knew the smell of air without oil until I left Oklahoma when I was 21. For a long time I missed the odor. Even now when I drive by Hercules, outside San Francisco, or down through Bakersfield or Long Beach, or through Houston or Lake Charles, as I just did in January, I catch a waft of oil in the air and feel a warm fluid flow through me, followed instantly by a sharp pain. Memories of childhood are like that, especially a childhood such as mine in rural western Oklahoma, my dad driving a Mobil truck. The SOHIO oil pipeline was our main diversion as children; I think we believed it had been put there for children to play on.

This morning, I thought about the children of the Persian Gulf, of Arab children, the poor ones, and the children of those scared-looking Filipina servants. I suppose the smell of oil seems like a natural phenomenon to them, too, and the pipeline is about their only diversion. Unless you count war, and the smell of gunpowder.

William Appleman Williams, the late historian, described American imperialism as “a strategy of annihilation unto unconditional surrender.” Some of us used to know that, during the Vietnam War. Did we think it had gone away, evaporated? Maybe we bought into the “superpower” myth, which reasoned that once one “empire” collapsed or cried Uncle, the other would follow suit. Maybe we forgot what we should have known: that the United States of America has been imperialistic from its founding, and is the principal heir to the historical legacy of imperialism. “We Americans,” said Williams, “have produced very, very few anti-imperialists. Out idiom has been empire, and so the primary division was and remains between the soft and the hard.”

SMART BOMBS: I have been reading more than I ever thought possible about the machinery of war. One commentary in particular struck me: “It is difficult to imagine the scale of the air war because it is unprecedented in human history… Not only is the air war distant and remote, and much of it secret, but we have neither the experience nor the language to grasp it… Since the technology of the air war is always developing and since much of it is covered with secrecy, the public is never aware of the newest lethal systems being prepared or used… The importance of reducing American ground casualties is one of the key arguments used to support the electronic battlefield… [that] even further depersonalizes a depersonalized war.”

This may sound like a recent report, but it is not, It is about the war in Southeast Asia, circa 1971, from Tom Hayden’s The Love of Possession is a Disease with Them. Depressingly, the secrecy surrounding such bombing 20 years ago was not present in the Gulf war. Rather, during the six weeks of nonstop bombing of Iraq, each day in press briefings U.S. military commanders reported, openly and without embarrassment, and without challenge from the press corps or negative public reaction, on the use of napalm and fragmentation bombs, on B-52 carpet-bombing, day after day, week after week.

In interviews after the war, B-52 pilots were excited by their success. “We rediscovered high-level bombing,” Col. Randall E. Wooten told the New York Times. In 19 days, the 70 B-52s dropped more than 1,158 tons of bombs, including anti-personnel cluster bomb units. “Rolling Thunder” is what they called B-52 carpet-bombing in Vietnam. And, after two weeks of delivering “smart” bombs and cruise missiles, the military turned to Rolling Thunder in Iraq. They did it to create terror. It was the Americans, in front of their televisions, who were impressed with “smart” bombs, not the Iraqis. Terror, extreme exemplary violence, was necessary to annihilate unto unconditional surrender.

INDIAN COUNTRY: On February 19, Brigadier General Richard Neal, briefing reporters in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, stated that the U.S. military wanted to be certain of speedy victory once they committed land forces to “Indian Country.” The following day, in a little-publicized statement of protest, the National Congress of American Indians pointed out that 15,000 Native Americans were serving as combat troops in the Gulf.

But the term “Indian Country” is not merely an insensitive racial slur to indicate the enemy, tastelessly employed by accident. (Neither Neal nor any other military authority has apologized for the statement.). “Indian Country” is a military term of trade, a technical term, such as “collateral damage” and “ordnance,” which appears in military training manuals and is used on a regular basis. “Indian Country” is the military term for “behind enemy lines.” Its current use should serve to remind us of the origins and development of the U.S. military, as well as the nature of our political and social history: annihilation unto unconditional surrender. The historical context is, I think, essential to understanding the present war, and the love of the war we are witnessing.

When the redundant “ground war” against Iraq was begun, at the front of the miles of heavy metal killing machines were armored scouting vehicles of the Second Armored Calvary Regiment (ACR), a self-contained elite unit that was made famous by being at the head of Patton’s Third Army when it crossed Europe during World War II. In the Gulf war, the ACR played the role of chief scouts for the U.S. Seventh Corps. A retired commander of the ACR proudly told his TV interviewer that the Second ACR was formed in the 1830s to fight the Seminoles, and that it had its first great victory when it finally defeated the Seminoles in the Florida Everglades in 1836. I do not think putting the Second ACR in front of the ground assault on Iraq was an accident. It was just another Indian war in the U.S. military tradition of annihilation unto unconditional surrender.

The Ohio Valley is a strange place to be during the Gulf war and the orgy of patriotism. As an historian, I feel I am almost reliving that period two centuries ago when U.S. imperialism was cast in blood, and when annihilation unto unconditional surrender was first employed by the U.S.A., just down the road from where I am, at the Battle of Fallen Timbers.

In the late 1780s, Native Nations, led by Joseph Brant (Mohawk), Little Turtle (of the Miami Nation, after which this university is named), Blue Jacket (Shawnee) and others, had launched a series of attacks against encroaching Euroamerican settlers across Indiana, Ohio, and western Pennsylvania. In September, 1790, a force of 1,500 soldiers was sent by President/General Washington to silence Native resistance to occupation and colonization, but the Native guerrilla fighters ambushed them in northwestern Ohio, killing two hundred soldiers. The following year, Washington sent six thousand troops who met a similar fate.

The Native alliance was able to clear the entire Ohio area of the colonizers. But Washington was determined to crush Native resistance. In the autumn of 1793, General Anthony Wayne led a third army of conquest into Ohio. Using a scorched-earth strategy, the U.S. forces overwhelmed the two thousand resistance fighters and forced the signing of an agreement ceding the entire southern two-thirds of Ohio.

Subsequently, the U.S. military hammered away, leveling Native towns, burning crops, reducing the Shawnee and the Delaware, the Miami and the Wyandotte. In 1809 (Everything at Miami University dates back to 1809, when the university was founded), under the Treaty of Fort Wayne, the U.S. opened three million acres of Delaware and Pottawatomie land in Indiana to settlement. (If you identify the names of these Native Nations with Oklahoma, you are correct; the war refugees were forcibly deported to Oklahoma territory).

Out of the carnage and ruins was born an incomparable liberation movement, led by Tecumseh, the Ho Chi Minh of North America. In 1809, Tecumseh, and his brother, Elskwatawa, of the Shawnee Nation, began to travel among the Native villages of all the Nations. They warned of their common threat and called for an alliance against the invaders. Their headquarters became the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, from the Allegheny Mountains to the Mississippi. Tecumseh denounced the United States as wicked and corrupt, a source of evil.

In 1811, William Henry Harrison, governor of the U.S.-claimed “Indiana Territory,” organized a thousand mercenaries with full authority from the Secretary of War to do whatever was necessary to wipe out the movement. The mercenaries attacked the Native headquarters and burned it to the ground, but most escaped and set the region on fire for several months. At a fierce engagement near Detroit, at the “Battle of the Thames,” as it is called in U.S. military annals, Tecumseh fell.

The Native alliance shifted its theater of operation to the Southeast, under Creek Nation leadership. General Andrew Jackson headed the Tennessee militia, another mercenary outfit, “panting for the orders of our government to punish a ruthless foe,” as Jackson put it in 1808. (One of his officers, Davy Crockett, would later be a mercenary on behalf of imperialism in Mexico and die at the Alamo.) By 1814, Jackson’s scorched-earth campaigns and cannon had destroyed the southeast nations’ farmlands and food supplies and reduced their numbers by slaughtering women and children in the villages. Jackson seized 22 million acres of Creek land, nearly two-thirds of their nation.

The warriors from all the nations allied in resistance, along with thousands of Africans who had escaped slavery, moved into the Florida Everglades, then Spanish territory. The First Seminole War began in 1818. The following year, the U.S. annexed Spanish Florida and claimed to be fighting terrorists. The Seminole Nation is a nation born in struggle. “Seminole” means rebel in the Creek (Muskogee) language, which was the common language of that new people. The Seminoles were never defeated and never signed a treaty, but after the third war, in 1836, the U.S. stopped fighting them. By then, Jackson was president and had dissolved Native title in the Southeast and overridden the Supreme Court’s decision to prohibit U.S. settlement in Cherokee territory. The Nations east of the Mississippi were forced to relocate to Oklahoma.

It was here–in the Ohio Valley, the “old Northwest”–that the U.S. military was formed, in five decades of unrelenting war, of annihilation unto unconditional surrender. It was here that U.S. imperialism was born and its ideology fixed, and that U.S. nationalism was defined, inseparable from imperialism.

TOUGH LOVE: I kept hoping we would lose the war. Of course, it was only a far-fetched dream, the possibility of losing the war in the Gulf. I never really had any confidence in that result. Yet, I kept hoping that Allah, or God, or Fate, or the Goddess, or the Force, maybe Martians, maybe even Soviets, would intervene and make the impossible, possible. David and Goliath, something definitive to prove that might does not make right, to prove that the only solution to conflict is dialog and cooperation, to put a brake on this tendency to annihilate unto unconditional surrender.

Even if my dream of losing had come true, it would have come late, maybe too late. Our last opportunity to have changed course, perhaps, was the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis. The Iranians were demanding an international tribunal to investigate U.S. war crimes related to the CIA role in forming and maintaining SAVAK, the Shah of Iran’s murderous secret police. Of course, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards were wrong to occupy an embassy and seize diplomats, and the U.S. took Iran to the World Court and won the case. Yet, just imagine, what if President Carter had gone on television in 1980, preempting Gorbachev’s call to a new order of cooperation, disarmament and international law, to tell us the truth: that the Iranians did not lie in their accusations, that we apologize, that it was wrong to overthrow their government, that it was wrong to prop up a decadent monarch and train his secret police, that our government renounced past invasions, interventions, toppling leaders, not only in Iran, but in North American Native Nations, in Mexico over and over, taking half the country, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Chile, Uruguay, Argentina, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Greece, Cuba, and practically every other nook and cranny of the world, that we would never behave that way again, that we would lift strangling embargoes against Vietnam and Cuba. What if? Instead, from the Carter era, we have the neutron bomb, the Stealth bomber, the Cruise missile, and smarter weapons than ever before. Just consider that fateful second half of 1980. In August, at the U.N. Special Session on Development, the Carter administration sent a low level delegation to announce that the New International Economic Order was dead in the water. In October, Iraq, acting as a U.S. client, attacked Iran, initiating eight years of war, leaving millions dead and maimed. In November, Reagan was elected. In December, the entire Salvadoran democratic opposition leadership was assassinated and four U.S. churchwomen were brutally murdered.

A strategy of annihilation unto unconditional surrender.” So, the imperial policy of the U.S. continues in the present situation. Extreme exemplary violence was the rationale behind the cruel aerial bombing of Iraq every minute, twenty-four hours a day, for six weeks. How many times did we hear authority figures (mostly old white men) tell us that we would not have to act as world policeman and do future wars, that the treatment of Iraq would show other would-be wrong-doers the price of errant behavior. Is not that the philosophy behind “tough love?”

In Iraqi officers’ quarters in Kuwait City, the U.S. Special Forces found pigeons in cages and notes in Arabic strewn over a desk, which they interpreted to mean that the Iraqi commanders were communicating with their troops, and even with Baghdad, by carrier pigeons.

Now we are at the heroic stage — welcome the warriors home, honor them, not like Vietnam. High tech soldiers fighting an army that communicated by carrier pigeons. Something to be proud of.

In December, I heard a Vietnam vet (a peace activist) say that only permanent peace could vindicate 58,000 dead American soldiers in Vietnam, and all the misery suffered by those who returned; only if Vietnam was truly the war to end all wars, revealing as it did the brutality and senselessness of war in general, and the wrongness of U.S. imperialism; only permanent peace, he said, could allow the Vietnam vet self-forgiveness and significance; that another genocidal war against a brown people would make him and other Vietnam vets murderers, not fallen innocents, victims of history. There was a plea in his voice, a heartbreaking crack. I thought of what he had said when I heard a soldier say to a reporter on National Public Radio, regarding waiting in the desert for the ground war to begin: “I’m so tired of just sitting around here that if I don’t get to kill somebody soon, I’m going to kill somebody.” [Published in CrossRoads, March 1991]


Fast forward to March 2003. A rare and little read report from Associated Press correspondent, Ellen Nickmeyer, is telling. Once again we find the armored scouting vehicles and their troops, reenacting its bloody and imperialist history:


Tank crews from the Alpha Company 4th Battalion 64 Armor Regiment perform a “Seminole Indian war dance” before convoying to a position near the Iraqi border Wednesday, March 19, 2003.

Capt. Phillip Wolford’s men leaped into the air and waved empty rifles in an impromptu desert war dance. Troops of the 101st Airborne Division ate a special pre-combat meal of lobster and steak. Soldiers sent e-mails to loved ones and savored what could be a last good shower for a long while.

To the ever-louder drone of warplanes, American soldiers in the northern desert that will serve as a launch pad for attacking Iraq engaged Wednesday in some final rituals before a war that seemed inevitable

Upon hearing of the attack, Marine Lance Cpl. Chad Borgmann, 23, of Sydney, Neb., said: “It’s about time. Today we’ve been here a month and a week. We’re ready to go.”

“It’s the right thing to do. We are going to be part of the liberation of Iraq,” said a fellow member of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, Lance Cpl Daymond Geer, 20, of Sacramento, Calif.

With no sign that Saddam and his sons would heed Bush’s order to go into exile, the 20,000 men of the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division had received some of the first orders Wednesday to line up near Iraq.

With thousands of M1A1 Abrams tanks, Bradley fighting vehicles, Humvees and trucks, the mechanized infantry unit known as the “Iron Fist” would be the only U.S. armored division in the fight, and would likely meet any Iraqi defenses head on.

“We will be entering Iraq as an army of liberation, not domination,” said Wolford [the commander], of Marysville, Ohio, directing the men of his 4th Battalion, 64th Armor Regiment to take down the U.S. flags fluttering from their sand-colored tanks.

After a brief prayer, Wolford leaped into an impromptu desert war dance. Camouflaged soldiers joined him, jumping up and down in the sand, chanting and brandishing rifles carefully emptied of their rounds

About 300,000 troops–most of them from the United States, about 40,000 from Britain–were waiting Wednesday within striking distance of Iraq. Backing them were scores of attack helicopters and more than 1,000 airplanes.

ROXANNE DUNBAR-ORTIZ is a longtime activist, university professor, and writer. In addition to numerous scholarly books and articles she has published two historical memoirs, Red Dirt: Growing Up Okie (Verso, 1997), and Outlaw Woman: A Memoir of the War Years, 1960­1975 (City Lights, 2002), and is working on a third, Norther: Re-Covering Nicaragua, about the 1980s contra war against the Sandinistas.


Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz is the author of An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States.