Monday, October 13, 2014

"Indian Country" (Jacobin)

It's easy to feel distant from America's historical militant campaign against the indigenous people of the land we occupy, especially as most of us didn't grow up giving it much thought. I have to admit that "Wounded Knee" didn't mean much to me until a couple days ago. I just thought of it as "one of those battles where the Indians lost big time." But it's not really about losing a battle, is it? It's about losing recognition as human beings. How else can you explain men getting a medal of honor for slaughtering 200 women and children? (These medals have never been rescinded, by the way.) This kind of extermination is not normally acclaimed when practiced upon human beings.

In an excerpt from her history An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz makes the claim that United States military philosophy has not departed much from this dehumanizing perspective on the enemy. "Indian" remains a metonymy for "proposed object of extermination."
During the first US military invasion of Iraq, a gesture intended to obliterate the “Vietnam Syndrome,” Brigadier General Richard Neal, briefing reporters in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, stated that the US military wanted to ensure a speedy victory once it 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 fifteen thousand Native Americans were serving as combat troops in the Persian Gulf.
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 apologized for the statement, and it continues to be used by the military and the media, usually in its shortened form, “In Country,” which originated in the Vietnam War.
“Indian Country” and “In Country” are military terms of trade, like other euphemisms such as “collateral damage” (killing civilians) and “ordnance” (bombs) that appear in military training manuals and are used regularly. “Indian Country” and “In Country” mean “behind enemy lines.” Its current use should serve to remind us of the origins and development of the US military, as well as the nature of our political and social history: annihilation into unconditional surrender.
The problem isn't just that this terminology is disrespectful (which of course, it is). The larger problem is that it makes evident a continuity in how we perceive our military enemies. The comparison of Wounded Knee to My Lai goes a long way to making this point, because the callousness of that episode is so intense and obvious. But I'd like to see the case for the Gulf War and Iraq War as "Indian" Wars more fully drawn than Dunbar-Ortiz has done.

A difficult question here is what war should look like if the enemy are respected as peers who happen to be on the other side. Would a fighting force trained to feel repugnance at the notion of enemy civilian deaths be an ineffective force? Is there a paradigm in history for such a fighting philosophy?

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