Saturday, June 09, 2012

Son of the Morning Star (Custer)

This book by Even S. Connell came out in 1984. It concerns General Custer and the events at Little Bighorn. I have read it numerous times. Periodically, I pick it up and read it again.

Why I’ve repeatedly read it owes not so much to scholarly study. The book and the story it tells simply catches my interest and reverberates within it. Perhaps in the book resides the reason why I like history and narrative.

The first time I read it, the detail that Connell dug up astonished me. Tho written little more than a century after the events, the story itself seems more like ancient history. The Wild West, to use that phrase, has become so iconic as to seem back in the mists of time.

Furthermore, one realizes that the Indians were more connected to and even integrated with the settling wave from Europe than you might have expected. They were not off by themselves. Despite the antagonisms and cultural differences, considerable exchange went on. A common human denominator appears, even as people try to eradicate it.

Trying to recall my earliest inkling of these events, I guess they were presented as Forlorn Hope. There was a battle and the outnumbered side didn’t fare so well. Contemporary representations of the events at Little Bighorn portray brave men fighting for some glory to the very end. As portrayed here with cool precision, that picture holds little water.

Columbus discovering America bears a similar if more potent motive in history as taught. Presented as a benign example of human enterprise, we see a hero animated by the urge of discovery. We know how it turns out. Samuel Eliot Morison wrote a pretty good biography of Columbus. He doesn’t hide Columbus’ effort at annihilating the native population, but he balances it against Columbus’ abilities as a seaman. That sounds ridiculous now.

Custer was brave in a headlong way; he proved that in the Civil War. And he was a charismatic leader. But this last action displayed disobedience, malfeasance, and, frankly, hubris out the wazoo. When you realize that some 200 soldiers attacked a village of thousands, you start to see a different picture from the Errol Flynn sort that followed the man. Something was way wrong in the planning,

Connell has managed to deliver biographical sketches of an astonishing number of people involved in the fight including most of the troops and many of the Indians. Custer gets the hubris award for making sure that shit hit the fan. Dynamic loose cannon par excellence, he charged.

And the 7th cavalry’s intention smacks not a little of something similar to what happened at My Lai. There was a crazy hope for a deadly end all. Ending the Indian problem, to put it in delicate terms, was the Army’s goal. Two hundred troopers gaining a Final Solution in a single action was not. Not reasonably, at least.

That’s the historical terms of the story, currently at least. We also see implacable Greek theatre forces at work. So many had onlys steered events, leading Major Reno into Shit Creek, in the form of an entire village of hostiles fired up to defend themselves.

Reading the various accounts of soldiers up that creek with no paddle is a keen and terrifying thought experiment. Here’s death, just or not, waiting with clamour. It’s no use anymore to put demons and heroes to work here. Horrors happen because we make them.

Eleven years ago, the World Trade Centre was destroyed. Without defending the act, one must at least understand that it answered iniquities. We live small in our world, aghast at the forces that propel events. Some mule driver suddenly represents hundreds of years of mishandled human endeavour, and so suffers mutilation and death. And so on, and on, every person on that field. Some fought bravely, if that means anything, and some saved the last bullet for themselves.

And Wounded Knee answers Little Bighorn, but not really. The times change, pushing people along. Death, says Reverend Gary, don’t have no mercy. We keep getting stuck on that one.
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