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Lessons from the Bozeman
there's a lot familiar about Afghanistan.......
While the police forces of the United States play soldiers with Swat Teams and becoming – in essence – Special Forces assault

 

This All Sounds So Familiar………

                                                  

Twenty miles, more or less, south of Sheridan Wyoming, visible from Interstate 90, is a lonesome minor monolith to a military fiasco of the first water fully as insignificant as the cairn suggests.  Just a few miles north of the once famed if short lived Fort Phil Kearny, the Fetterman battlefield is small, remarkably confusing, and so lovely in summer it’s hard to correlate to the gruesome slaughter of outclassed soldiers in December of 1866.  A slaughter so gruesome it became a cliché.

 

Ft. Phil Kearny was the middle and main of three outposts along the southern half of the Bozeman Trail, a spur off the Oregon Trail that led up the east side of the Bighorn Mountains to the Montana goldfields.   In the area known as the Powder River country, under the intimidation of the Oglala Sioux and therefore the area most at risk to travelers, the Army after the Civil War expanded one camp into Fort Reno, built Ft. Phil Kearney into the iconic model of Western cavalry forts as the center, and elevated a squalid little way station into Fort C. F. Smith on the Little Bighorn.  The center fort, Phil Kearny, was by far the most impressive and by far the most annoying to the Indians, primarily the Oglala Sioux of Red Cloud’s band. 

 

It was envisioned that these forts would do two things.  The first was to keep communications and travel between western Montana and the East as uninterrupted as possible.  Towards that end, whenever wagon trains or travelers were attacked on the Bozeman, the gates would open and a determined charge of cavalry would disperse the attackers, or at least make them regret the day they were born by chasing them back to their camps and disposing of them and/or make significant progress in changing their views of life.  In this way, the Bozeman Trail would soon be as safe as the road between New York and Boston, perhaps with wagon trains of singing tourists offering refreshment to the tired, sweating, but not wounded members of each horse troop as it bounded back to the fort. 

 

The second goal of the forts was to discourage warfare between the tribes themselves.  The Indians were viewed as violent idiots - much like the Irish - who had few redeeming features at all absent good horsemanship.  But their brutal and pointless tribal warfare discouraged travel across the Great American Desert to those outposts of advanced civilization, the lovely mining camps, and so this quintessentially delinquent activity simply must stop.  There was nothing to be done but to punish and thrash the childish natives into submission because their culture and stupidity would never ever produce Mozart societies and sleigh rides among the buffalo herds at the rate things were going.

 

The military didn’t particularly like this assignment.  They were soldiers, after all, not cops, and their training was to destroy an army like themselves and acquire land until the pleasant day when a peace treaty could be signed with humiliated leaders of shamed peoples whose bravery and military might had proven inferior to their own.  They chaffed, and sorely longed for large battles with clear victors, and after the bloodbath of the Civil War they could only envision themselves in that role.  After all, the Indians didn’t even have good bands, much less artillery.

 

Anno 1866.

 

Anno 2002, the United States military is involved in…..well, several places around the world, the most recent of which is the scorched waste of Afghanistan.  It is assumed that there are two primary goals to the Afghan mission.  First is to make it safe for a western style government to arise and care for its people amongst brutal and pointless tribal warfare which discourages travelers of all sorts, from diplomatic missions to tourists slowed with large wads of fiscal liquidity.  If any instrument of westernization falls under attack, soldiers will emerge to make the miscreants regret the day they were born by calling down the wrath of God, or at least our Air Force, and chasing them back to their camps and disposing of them or at least make significant progress in changing their view of life.

 

The second mission is to discourage warfare between the tribes themselves.  The Afghans are viewed as violent idiots - much like the Irish - who have few redeeming features at all absent good taste in tapestry.  But their brutal and pointless tribal warfare discourages travel to those outposts of advanced civilization, the lovely mining camps and poppy fields, and so this delinquent activity must simply stop.  There is nothing to be done but to punish and thrash the childish natives into submission because their culture and stupidity will never ever produce Mozart societies and sleigh rides among the T-74 carcasses at the rate things are going.

 

The military doesn’t particularly like this assignment.  They are soldiers, after all, not cops, and their training is to destroy an army like themselves and acquire land until the pleasant day when a peace treaty can be signed with humiliated leaders of shamed peoples whose bravery and military might have proven inferior.  They chaff, and sorely long for large battles with clear victors, and after the dainty Gulf War - where a significant percentage of mostly insignificant casualties was from friendly fire - they can only envision themselves in this role.  After all, Al Quada doesn’t even have good bands, much less artillery.

 

Well…..some artillery, but this is a historical metaphor, see, and it doesn’t have to be exactly true.  Well, yes, it does, it just isn’t.

 

It seems, these days, the various police forces of the United States have succumbed to their inner Barney Fife and play soldiers with swaggering Swat Teams, robotic armored vehicles, and accounts at Darth Vader Clothiers.  It is, apparently, unconscionable to inquire if this alienation of civil law enforcement has made any of us safer or encouraged respect for civilized life within our citizenry.  Further, there is an internal dichotomy here, for police work is best done on foot, face to face every day with likely problem elements, children, merchants, and the elderly to instill a sense of benign presence, security, punishment for nefarious activity, and never a physical threat absent actual cause.  It is true that any legal violence must be swift, effective, and successful, and this is the impetus behind the surge in equipment and battle implements.  But for police work, their use – their existence – is a sign of overall failure.  

 

The Armed Forces of the United States, designed to annihilate simultaneously several different armies in at least two different fields of combat, is now being used almost exclusively as a police force: not in acquiring and holding territory, but becoming - in essence – Special Unit SWAT teams appealing not at all to the George Pattons of the world but to the Darryl Gates.  They are where they are, be it in Korea or Afghanistan or Columbia, to keep the peace either by inspiring fear in real and potential enemies or by attacking targets of opportunity in pre-emptive strikes.

 

They operate outside the United States, but in terrain, mission and duration, the Special Ops forces now deployed share many similarities to the soldiers assigned to the forts along the Bozeman Trail in the mid 1860’s.  Given that the forts were the victims of a war that the United States lost to Red Cloud and his Oglalas, and that their projection into enemy territory accomplished little besides giving the winter-bored Sioux an activity, it might be well to carry the analogy as far as it goes.

 

In some ways, not too far.   The military of today is equipped to the nines, and it can be effectively supported around the world.  But it has an assigned mission of defense, masquerading as offense, that has subtly created the image of what a ‘victory’ would look like to western minds. 

 

It is a picture of occupation, probably around a series of pipelines that would provide much income and stability by Afghani standards to the aboriginals, but also much temptation to violent extortion.

 

It is a picture of occupation surrounded by believers of a religion in the dumps.  Just as the religions of the Sioux failed to grant them the slightest break in dealing with the new white enemy – either in spiritual comfort or material product - Islam struggles to justify its economic status to its own people with the western world that doesn’t even honor their beliefs.  Even its wealthy nations attained that wealth at western initiative and are allowed to exist only at western leave.  Everyone knows this or senses it in the Muslim world, just as the Sioux, pounded relentlessly westward by European advance, sensed their own inferiority and helplessness.

 

Having projected force into Afghanistan, the West now needs to protect that force.  It is better equipped to do so than Colonel Carrington was in 1866, but the metaphors – similes, actually - rise to the surface as you describe the short, bloody, and awful Bozeman Trail War which the United States lost to Red Cloud….and has never admitted.

 

Next: The Fetterman Massacre


 
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