Tuesday, February 10, 2009

"What Students Need to Know about America's Wars"

I'm on a listserv for the National Council of Teachers of Social Studies. Yesterday a subscriber posted information about an upcoming "History Institute for Teachers" called "What Students Need to Know about America's Wars." Curious, I checked out the webpages, looking specifically at the video of a session that was on war with Native peoples.

It was an unpleasant experience. Perhaps I should not have taken the time...

The material is developed by the Foreign Policy Research Institute. The lecturer, a man named Skarstedt, notes that there are ideological disagreements over the ways that history of American Indian/United States conflict is presented, but it is clear in his remarks where he stands in the debate.

He begins by saying students wonder why they need to study the frontier wars. He tells the teachers gathered in the session why it is important, using Apaches as an example.

He shows a photograph of four Apache men. He carefully describes the weapons they hold and talks at length about how skilled they were. How they were able to blend into their surroundings, very resourceful, could survive for days with little food or water. They knew the terrain and were "tough as nails."

Then Skarstedt asks "What did the US do to get them?"

He shows the next photograph: men on horses. It is the cavalry! On horseback, he tells us, the US was able to wear down, defeat, and capture the Apaches. And here is why studying the Frontier Wars matters:  He says the US learned valuable lessons by fighting the Apaches, lessons that it uses today, in Iraq and Afghanistan. Because of wars with Indians, he says, the US developed its "special ops" teams.

Next slide?

It is a photograph of two men, with weapons, wearing masks. They're in Afghanistan or Iraq (Skarstedt doesn't specify). They, he says, are like those Indians. Tough, well-armed, fast moving, blend into the environment, lots of firepower, willing to endure great sacrifice.

His next photograph is one of soldiers, again, on horseback. They are, he tells us, the special ops unit that is pursuing fighters in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Seeing those images used that way was deeply troubling to me. Apaches and Iraq/Afghan's. Obviously he feels they were/are enemies of the US who must be taken down. Who do you think they are? What do you think they were/are doing?

He argued at the opening of his lecture, for people to recognize the complexity of conflict and how it is presented, and then he goes on to do otherwise. In making his points about war tactics, he introduces and affirms simplistic notions.

Later in the lecture he speaks about the people of Cahokia and Taos Pueblo. Both, he says, are gone. They were very advanced and peaceful, he tells us, but they are no longer around. Probably, he says, due to the warring tribes, of which he names the Apache, Comanche, and Sioux. Of course, the people of Taos are not gone. They're a thriving Native Nation!

I wonder if he's ever tried to give this lecture to an audience that includes American Indians?

Update, May 3rd, 2011: You can view the entire lecture, or see Skarstedt's slides by going here. Scroll down to the section called "The Frontier Years."


Megan McCullen said...

Debbie, I was reading an article in American Anthropologist a few months ago that talked about the metaphor of the Wild West and 'Indian Country' among soldiers. They discussed it's use from the Vietnam Era up through the present. Considering the number of Native military folks there are, I was pretty surprised. You should check it out. 'The 'Old West' in the Middle East: US Military Metaphors in Real and Imagined Indian Country' AA 2008 Vol 110(2) p 237-247, by Stephen Silliman.

Mantelli said...

The people of CAHOKIA? Say WHAT? I don't think the speaker's ever visited Cahokia Mounds or read much of the current theory about why that civilization collapsed.

Environmental degradation, internal political problems, famine and pressures from population explosions, floods and droughts are just as big a part of the reason for the collapse of that civilization as attacks by neighboring tribes.

I also wouldn't have called them "peaceful". Certainly the interlocking chiefdoms functioned without constant warfare, but the archaeological record shows evidence of a number of attacks throughout the history of the city, as well as the existence of thriving weapons manufacture throughout.

Mindy said...

Wow - that's disturbing. I teach language arts, but I still hear the question: "Why do we need to learn about history?" all the time. (Well, kids complain a lot, so they ask that question about any subject really.)However, when it comes to history; I think "So we can better defeat our enemies," is just about the last thing I would say, right before actually showing pictures of American Indians as “enemies.”

I think that the importance of history is to teach our next generation not to make the same mistakes we have and those before us have made. It does little for my faith in the progress of humanity to read about such lectures as this.

eclecticdog said...

I don't think he had it right. The special forces of the Indian Wars were other Indians. Exploiting inter/intra-tribal rivalries the US Army developed the US Scouts to track, shadow, and pin "hostile" bands. All empires have used this divide-and-conquer technique.