The best way to put a new war in perspective is to compare it to older wars. The conclusion's soon reached that "there's nothing new under the sun." Early on, the Iraq war reminded me of the Mexican War. That war, too, involyed putting into a very foreign country a small but technologically superior army whose real enemy was opposition politicians and peaceniks back home.
Much the same can be said even of the Indian wars, as I'm reminded by recently reading several books about the now very politically-incorrect Custer.
Yet in one way at least, our modern army has it over its forebears. Today, even the most militant anti-militarists pay lip-service to the soldiers' bravery and devotion: "Sure, our cause is rotten, our leaders are halfwit criminals; but the troops, they're great!" The Indian wars were so far off the radar, and so cloaked in ignorance, soldiers too were fair game, often justly so. The Civil War heroes had gone home. Those left in service were the dregs.
And disdain, even contempt, for military men and the martial virtues was then as fashionable across broad segments of society as it is today only on college campuses.
The Indian Bureau, formerly under the War Department, was taken over by some strange civilian bedfellows. On one hand, with slavery gone, abolitionists needed a new cause. Eastern philanthropists in general, their own bloody Indian wars far in the forgotten past, took their ideas of Indians out of Cooper, or even Rousseau: the "noble savage." On the other hand, bureaucrats and contractors were busy raking fortunes out of one of the most corrupt campaigns of would-be benefaction, in perhaps the most corrupt administration, in our history.
The government's right hand, as so often, didn't know what the left was doing. Soldiers found themselves being shot at with rifles, bought at jacked-up prices, paid for by the taxpayers, and given by do-gooders to certifiedly "peaceful" Indians.
To keep the do-gooders off its back, the Grant administration "declared peace" with the Western tribes, ever happy to make treaties they couldn't keep. As a sop to infuriated Western victims of Indian atrocities, it went through the motions of sending out the army. An army kept forever starved, literally, of the sinews of war, filled with social misfits, and typically officered by bumbling, drunken political appointees.
Enter George Armstrong Custer, sober, conscientious, and as even his enemies admitted, an able, even heroic cavalryman. But alas! A Democrat in a Republican era, politically incorrect on slavery, undiplomatically critical of corruption clear up to the White House. Those who hated him for his very achievements, in his own time, laid the foundation for the hatred, or disdain, he suffers from in our day, in which his adversaries have become the heroes.
To those who knew him personally, he was likeable, much liked. Yet in the public eye he could come across as brash, boastful, egotistical, self-promoting. A simple, smalltown boy, he had no knack for "public relations" (an expertise that hardly then existed in any case). He lacked the subtlety and finesse needed to thrive in the cutthroat world of public affairs.
Custer came West as lieutenant-colonel of the newly formed Seventh Cavalry, to find the 1868 summer campaign in shambles. While Black Kettle's Southern Cheyennes were officially "at peace" his young warriors went right on raiding settlements, leaving a wake of gratuitous murders, mutilations, rapes, tortures, and kidnaps for ransom. In our politically correct times few ever come to know, or want to know, about this grisly record.
To keep furious settlers from taking more drastic action themselves, the army grudgingly gave Custer the green light to wipe out Black Kettle's Washita camp.
As the Indians scattered, Custer and his men saw an Indian woman run out dragging a half- starved-looking white child. Seeing her flight was hopeless, she drew out a butcher-knife and disemboweled the boy. In this village certified as "peaceful" by the Indian Bureau, the soldiers found stashes of such trophies as fresh white women's scalps.
Small wonder some soldiers, not to say settlers, echoed Gen. Phil Sheridan's "The only good Indian is a dead Indian."
Yet in Eastern newspapers the sentiments of the do-gooders prevailed. The "massacre of the Washita" was instant controversy, instant scandal. That bloodthirsty Custer had gratuitously committed genocide against those peace-loving Redmen! The irony is, like all decent army officers, Custer admired and respected Indians. Their free life appealed to the boy in him (he was only 29, after all). But the grownup in him clearly saw that that life was doomed, that the only course for the Indians was accommodation to the inevitable; that the only merciful course, for white people, yes, but even more for the Indians, was to get it over with as quickly as possible. It was a case, as Clausewitz puts it, for "being cruel to be kind." The army could have wound up the Indian wars in a single summer campaign if given the chance, if fully turned loose and supported to the hilt.
Instead, their civilian masters let the struggle drag out for whole decades, making the same mistake as in Vietnam, trying to wage war on the cheap, with halfway measures, with divided counsels, listening to humanitarian "experts" on Indian affairs who'd never laid eyes on an Indian, and condemning the white settlers filling the last pockets of Indian hunting grounds, a human tidal wave such as no government on earth had the power to oppose.
Custer, it can be argued, had saved the Union at Gettysburg. While others dithered, he rallied outnumbered Union horsemen and blunted the charge of 7,000 of Jeb Stuart's undefeated cavalry, which if they'd gotten through would have been the hammer to Pickett's anvil, crushing the Union army between them. To a suddenly armyless Union, Gen. Robert E. Lee would have dictated terms in occupied Washington.
Yet Custer is recalled today only for his one military mistake, and for doing his duty in trying to end, with merciful swiftness, the hopeless struggles of a doomed cause with which he really sympathized.