Military: The Wrong War

Fact & Fiction

Mr. Fleming is the author of more than forty books including, most recently, The New Dealer's War. He is a member of the board of directors of History News Network.

When the Muslim terrorists struck on September 11, uncounted numbers of reporters and television commentators rushed into print and sound comparing the awful consequences to Pearl Harbor. Never has so much verbiage been wasted on a comparison which makes no sense -- and is still leading people astray, building up false expectations of winning a war based on this non-resemblance.

Some reporters pointed out the difference between Pearl Harbor and 9/. The Japanese attacked military men, not civilians. Afterward, both sides issued declarations of war and began a three and a half year death grapple in the Pacific, in which sailors and soldiers in fleets and armies did the fighting and dying. But the Pearl Harbor comparison is still lurking in the national psyche and often muddles discussions of our campaign in Afghanistan.

Is there any comparison from the national past that fits 9/11 -- and perhaps illuminates our current dilemmas? Only one comes to this historian's mind: Colonel George Armstrong Custer's annihilation at Little Big Horn in 1876 by an army of angry Indians. This disaster stunned an America that was at peace and in the midst of celebrating the centennial of the Declaration of Independence.

The Americans responded with massive retaliation. Soon an army twenty times the size of Custer's puny force was marching into Indian territory to punish the marauders. They had melted away into scattered bands that were hard to bring to battle. But eventually the leading perpetrators, Chiefs Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull, met their fatal comeuppances. Meanwhile, immigrants poured in and the United States continued on its course to becoming the industrial powerhouse of the 20th Century.

Americans of 1876 knew that Little Big Horn was only a chapter in a long war caused by the clash of two very different civilizations. The Dakota battle proved to be one of the final collisions.The American Indians had long used terror and surprise attacks as their chief weapons in their losing war with the white men and women who had come to America in the 17th and 18th Centuries in ever increasing and finally overwhelming numbers. The white men were farmers. That put them in mortal conflict with the Indians' hunter-gatherer way of life, which required vast areas of wilderness to sustain them.

The Indians attacked without warning and slaughtered men, women and children on isolated farms and in undefended settlements with the hope that terror would induce mass flight. Instead, the Americans responded with punitive invasions of Indian territory, bringing the war home to them in ruthless fashion.

A classic example of this warfare was the American response to the Iroquois attack on the Wyoming Valley in Pennsylvania in 1778. The Indians, allied with the British, swept through the valley, burning over 1000 homes and killing every man woman and child in their path. A smaller raid wreaked similar havoc in Cherry Valley later the same year. In 1779, General George Washington sent a 4,000 man army into Iroquois country in upstate New York with the following orders:"I don't want this territory merely overrun. I want it destroyed."

Destroyed it was. The Iroquois lacked the numbers to fight the army and their British allies deserted them. Forty villages went up in flames; tons of corn and other foodstuffs were destroyed. It was the end of Iroquois power in North America. They became pathetic starving refugees in Canada.

Similarly, in the Civil War, an outbreak of Indian violence in Minnesota killed an estimated 10,000 white settlers. A large Union Army marched into the state, hunted down the killers and eventually hanged 39 of them in the largest mass execution in American history.

This is grim stuff. But it provides a far better comparison to how we can and must deal with the hostiles of Islam, who have chosen to attack us. We will not and must not fight a war of invasion and conquest. Instead, it should be a war of ferocious retaliation, of continuing surveillance and guarded vigilance, while we go about our way of life.

The fanatic mullahs of Islam are not so different from the Indian shamans who told their warriors divine magic made them immune to the white man's bullets. The warriors learned the hard way that their wise men were wrong. Eventually, the warriors of Islam will learn the mullahs are equally wrong. In the meantime, they may inflict considerable pain on us. But as long as we make it clear that every attack will draw massive retaliation, they will eventually grow weary of their pretensions to fighting a war.