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.

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dan - 2/27/2003

That warring segment has taken pathological, violent action
against innocents in our society.

So, when I move into your back yard, rape your wife, shoot your dog, and get you fired from your job, you will be fine with that? Are you SERIOUS?

dan - 2/27/2003

Mr. Fleming's essay, which in effect equates Native Americans with al Quaeda,
would be grossly offensive if it weren't in fact so ludicrous.

It is worse than that. You will notice the outcome of the conflict in question: esentially genocide and territorial expansion. Does the author realize that is what he is proposing?

Then there is his proposition that the native population was somehow the aggressor...

Puding - 11/19/2002

Very Very Interesting~

Nick Mallory - 10/10/2002

I think there is a comparison here between Pearl Harbour and Sept 11. In both cases the USA wanted to maintain its comfortable isolationism. While Hitler overran Europe and Japan ravaged South East Asia America wanted nothing more than to do nothing and be left alone in safety. George Bush was elected, as all US presidents are, wanting to stay out of world affairs and tend his garden at home. In both cases the USA was attacked by forces which saw such isolationism as moral and millitary weakness, in both cases such attacks, unable to deliver a knock out blow, merely 'awoke a sleeping tiger'. Just as Pearl Harbour was the beginning of the end, not for the USA, but for Imperial Japan, so September the eleventh heralded not the end of the United States but the end of Islamic fundamentalist terrorism.
Bin Laden made the following mistake. Terrorist operations and killings of US personnel had succeeded in driving the massively powerfull US millitary out of other hot spots. It doesn't matter how many billions you spend on defence if you're not willing to take a few casualties. The suicide bombing of around 250 marines in Leabanon drove the US out of that country, the killings of 18 marines in Somalia allowed the war lords to drive the US out of there. No massive retaliation followed the attack on the USS Cole. Bin Laden reasoned that a larger attack would drive the USA from a larger foriegn commitment - Isreal and the troops in his homeland of Saudi Arabia. He miscalculated, not only were the attacks far larger than he planned - there is no way he expected the towers to collapse - he failed to see that, far from terrifying a post vietnam America into abject flight, they would galvanise a confident post gulf war USA into massive, and intelligent, retaliation.
Rather than pursue the comparison with the Indian Wars, about which i know little, why not compare the American action in Afganistan with the Soviet invasion, who's failure did much to exhaust, discredit and bring down the Soviet empire. Those who predicted a quagmire in Afganistan misread the situation because they drew false comparisons between the two. The Soviets were fought and eventually driven out because they were brutal foriegn oppressors, the Mujahadeen won because they had the support of the population and significant western millitary aid. The Taliban on the other hand were created and supported by Pakistan, their millitary muscle was provided by hated arab Al-Queda terrorists and they oppressed the Afgan people who lacked only the means to rid themselves of this mediavel theocracy. Once the USA leant on Pakistan to drop the Taliban (as if Pakistan had any choice here, support the Taliban or support the USA) the Taliban had no outside support, their Al Queda millitary was hated by the people who would not fight on their side and the USA was welcomed, quite rightly, as liberators, not foriegn oppressors. The USA freed Afganistan from foreign oppression, rather than imposed it.
The coming war in Iraq will remove Saddam Hussein and it will distabalise the middle east. The instability will see the gradual end of tyranny, terrorism and hatred of modernity however, not the explosion of such threats to us, as its critics now assume.

Drew Keeling - 12/6/2001

Little Big Horn is a better analogy to 9-11
than than Pearl Harbor, but there are problems with it as well. For one thing, America's people and economy are more vulnerable to terrorism today than all but the western fringe of white settlement was at risk of American Indian attacks a century ago. It would be as though Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull had sent suicide warriors to start the Chicago Fire of 1871 instead of ambushing a wayward army force in the boondocks of Dakota. John Wayne and the cavalry won't be enough to save us from modern suicidal terrorism, we will have to think long and hard instead about how to slowly drain the many diverse swamps which bred the 9-11 attackers. In that regard, maybe these web postings are a step in the right direction.

Ryan Stanley - 12/6/2001

Whatever the merits or demerits of Mr. Fleming's native American analogy, I agree that the Pearl Harbor analogy seems to be leading some Americans to hold grandiose expectations for the course and outcome of this war. Serious pundits on the right are citing the U.S. policy in Germany and Japan after World War II in advocating the invasion, occupation and forcible political reconstruction of Iraq. Admittedly, such a policy might well succeed (if not in permanently democratizing the country then at least in making its people somewhat freer for a time), would probably have the support of many Iraqis, and would certainly make Iraq, at least temporarily, less of a threat to its neighbors and to U.S. interests. But this is not World War II, and when the war against the Taliban is over the international political conditions simply will not exist to permit the U.S. to go imposing democracy on the Middle East without serious detrimental consequences.

The decimated Belgians and Chinese were in no position to object to the American program after 1945, nor were they inclined to, since they feared a future resurgence of their more powerful, and historically hostile, neighbors. The Saudi, Kuwaiti, Egyptian, Syrian, etc. regimes, by contrast, are in a position to oppose U.S. designs in Iraq if they choose to. They control oil, and/or harbor terrorists they can unleash, and/or can threaten Israel. They're less afraid of Saddam than they are of losing power to forces of democracy which American forcible remaking of Iraq might unleash. That's because they know that if Iraq ever attacks them again the U.S. will come to their rescue, again.

If the U.S. were to defy Arab opinion and invade, occupy, and remake Iraq from bases in, say, Turkey, it might succeed in its immediate objective, but at the price of much ill-will in the Middle East which could have a ripple effect in all sorts of policy areas (oil prices, bases, the search for an Israeli-Palestinian peace, etc.). Not to mention, it would set an ominous example of unilateral action by a great power that would leave the Russians and, perhaps especially, the Chinese salivating.

Ed Strauss - 12/6/2001

Tom Fleming may have slipped a decimal place in his estimate of the number of Minnesotans killed in the Sioux uprising. But his analogy drawn between 9/11/01 to Little Big Horn (in particular) and America's Indian Wars (in general) is characteristically brilliant and astute. It had occurred to me, independently, but I could never have expressed it so effectively.

As in the Indian Wars, our "enemy" in the current "war" is not a clearly identifiable nation-state occupying a specific piece of real estate and defended by an measureable army of combattants. It is an actively combattant segment of a population, most of whose members are either on our side or are neutral. That warring segment has taken pathological, violent action against innocents in our society. We are responding with military power directed against that warring segment, and are allied in our efforts with sympathetic elements in that same population.

The allusion to the Sullivan Expedition brings to mind another historical analogy: the punitive expeditions mounted by European powers in what is now called the Third World, throughout the colonial era. The British were probably the most skilled and frequent practicioners of this form of warfare, in China, South Asia, and Africa, in the 75 years before World War I. A look at the British expeditions into Ethiopia and Afghanistan should prove enlightening, as well as the international response to the Boxer Rebellion. All were examples of the exercise of Western military response without the imposition of permanent colonial political hegemony.

eric blair - 12/4/2001

Mr. Fleming's essay, which in effect equates Native Americans with al Quaeda, would be grossly offensive if it weren't in fact so ludicrous.

Start with the assertion: "Similarly, in the Civil War, an outbreak of Indian violence in Minnesota killed an estimated 10,000 white settlers" which overstates the number of casualties by a factor of 15 and ignores the genesis of the conflict completely: money promised to the Dakota finding its way into trader's hands as "debt payment". (Note to Mr. Fleming: the 1860 census put Minnesota's population at 172,023. So by your accounting the "Indian violence" wiped out nearly 6% of Minnesota's total 1860 population. Hardly.)

Continue then with a description of the Dakota which comes straight out of John Ford's The Searchers: "The Indians attacked without warning and slaughtered men, women and children on isolated farms and in undefended settlements". Damn those stealthy savages. One can only expect that for an upcoming essay on the Seminole wars Mr. Fleming will use the halftime performance at a Florida State football game as source material

Then finish with the rather aphasic assertion:

"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"

which in all its nonsenical glory manages to both misrepresent the religious beliefs of the "fanatic mullahs of Islam" and to equate the Native Americans' self-defense against the continental expansion of 19th-century America with the geopolitical terror strategy of Osama bin Laden.

Bravo. Quite possibly the best work of historical satire published to date.