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The War Nerd July 1, 2005
Massacres Paid Your Mortgage, Dude
By Gary Brecher Browse author Email

After my last column about primitive warfare in Africa I got a lot of mail saying basically, "Gross dude! Why don't you do more on good American warfare?" Well, I have news for you guys, primitive warfare shaped America more than it ever did Africa.

Where do you live? Now answer fast: Who lived there 300 years ago? The reason you can live there without asking some chief's permission is that your tribe wiped out their tribe. Primitive warfare paid the mortgage on your house, dude. And it happened every bit as cold-bloodedly as it's happening in Africa right now.

Take Montana. Now it's vacation land for every Hollywood leftie but 150 years ago it was up for grabs. As the Anglos muscled in on them, North American tribes fought, negotiated or ran. The ones who fought lost. They won some battles along the way, but they were little tribes against the Anglos, the biggest and scariest tribe in the world. The ones who negotiated knew from the start that the stronger tribe always takes what it wants, sooner or later. The ones who ran faced the same old problem: the only places you could run to were already claimed by other tribes. The only solution, in the simple hard rules of primitive warfare, was to wipe out the other tribe.

That was how the Sioux decided to wipe out the Crow in 1860. The Sioux were fierce people. Don't believe that Kevin-Costner Dances-with-Wolves bullshit. The Sioux ate wolves for breakfast. They took what they wanted -- land, horses, slaves -- from anybody they could. But they were already beginning to realize they couldn't fight the white men. Basically, it was the Navajo vs. Ute story on a bigger scale: farmers always beat hunters in the long run, because they can feed so many more mouths. The nomadic, buffalo-hunting Sioux were some of the finest light irregular cavalry in the world -- Genghis Khan would've admired them. But they couldn't cope with the sheer numbers of white farmers overrunning the Sioux lands on the plains.

The Crow tribe's country, in Eastern Montana and Wyoming, was still beyond the range of the whites, so the Sioux decided to wipe out the Crow and take their land. The Sioux chief made a speech setting out the strategic goals of primitive warfare with classic simplicity:

"Today when the sun sets, there will be no more Absarokee [Crow] left! We will kill all their warriors and even the old men; we will save their young boys and raise them to become Dakota [Sioux] warriors, and we shall marry their wives and daughters to raise more warriors to fight the whites when they follow us to our new land."

It was a sound plan. It failed because the Crow got word of it. They were waiting when the Sioux attacked. There was a battle -- which wasn't part of the Sioux plan -- at Pryor Creek near where Billings, Montana is now, and the Sioux were beaten. One of the ironies of the battle is that Pryor Creek feeds the Big Horn River, where the Sioux were going to win their greatest victory against the whites, wiping out Custer's entire force, 16 years after losing at Pryor Creek.

Even if the Sioux had taken the Crow's lands, it wouldn't have done them much good. By 1900 the Crow, the Sioux and all the other Plains tribes were destroyed. The mismatch was too complete. In a classic primitive-warfare scenario such as what you'd have in Africa, they would have been wiped out, with a few boys spared to be raised as members of the conquering tribe. And that's pretty much what happened: the remnants of the tribes were corralled, pushed onto the least desirable land anybody could find, with their kids sent to US government boarding schools to learn Anglo culture.

The famous massacres, like the one at Wounded Knee in 1890, where 300 un-corralled Sioux were shot down by the Seventh Cav (which was still a little steamed about Custer), are usually treated as shocking, evil things, "senseless" outbreaks of savagery. That's just nonsense. Massacre is standard primitive-warfare policy for handling prisoners from defeated tribes, especially if they get ornery.

The Sioux who died at Wounded Knee were hard to handle. They were followers of the new "Ghost Dance" religion. Religion is the last refuge of defeated tribes. The Byzantines spent their last days praying, when the Turkish cannon were blasting down the walls of the city. The Sioux turned to Wovoka, a Ute "messiah" who had the word from God that if the Plains Indians danced the Ghost Dance, their ancestors would return, wipe out the whites, and put the Indians back in total control.

If you read what the Ghost Dancers were preaching, you can see that they saw the situation in classic primitive-warfare terms: wiping out the other side totally. If they could've done it militarily, they would've; instead, they dreamed about it.

Wovoka's vision was counter-genocide, pure and simple: God was going to create a new layer of soil 30 feet deep, and all the whites were going to be buried under it -- instant fossilization. The new soil would make excellent grazing -- lots of paleface fertilizer down there -- for the buffalo that God was going to spread across the prairies, and the Indians would inherit the earth.

In other words, both sides were talking genocide, because that's the point of all primitive warfare.

Us Americans can't seem to face facts like that. We're not as consciously cold-blooded or clearheaded as the Brits, who did hundreds of Wounded Knees all over the world without flinching, and without losing any sleep either.

We had to lie to ourselves about it -- first one lie, then the opposite one. Right after the "battle" of Wounded Knee, Congress went into a frenzy of patriotic bullshit. They handed out more than a dozen Congressional Medals of Honor, the highest decoration our country has, to troopers who died in the "fight," even though most accounts of the battle agree that the Cav's casualties were almost certainly caused by friendly fire. The troopers had made one of the most basic mistakes you can make in an ambush. They surrounded the Sioux encampment from all sides, so when they started firing, anything that missed its target (and that included two Hotchkiss rapid-fire cannon that could get off almost a round per second) was likely to hit the troopers across the way.

Then, a few generations later, when the Plains were safely turned into farmland, the media started telling the opposite lie, turning the Sioux into heroes and the Seventh Cav into monsters.

It really pisses me off, the way these Kevin Costner types romanticize rebel tribes, once they're safely annihilated. It's been happening for hundreds of years, too. The Brits totally wiped out the Scottish Highland tribes -- and they were tribes -- after they rebelled in 1745. It was merciless, classic primitive warfare: men hanged on the battlefield, farms burned to the ground, kids dragged away to be trained as Englishmen, the native Scottish language and songs forbidden by law. And then, once they were sure the Highlanders were gone, the English started romanticizing everything about them, even those dumb skirts the Highland men wore because they were too dumb to make pants that fit.

When I was growing up, my teachers tried to make the Sioux into saints and the Seventh Cav into murderers. I had to read that Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee book in high school, and if my teacher had heard me even hint that it wasn't a good vs. evil story, she'd have expelled me on the spot. Everybody had a great time crying for the poor Indians -- but I noticed nobody said anything about giving them California back.

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Gary Brecher
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Email Gary at, but, more importantly, buy his book.

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