Red Cloud’s War

The Sioux and Cheyennes enjoyed a great deal of success against the U.S. Army in the Powder River and Bozeman Trail campaigns for four primary reasons: the presence of Southern Cheyenne warriors intent on exacting revenge for the massacre of their women and children at Sand Creek; numerical superiority and intimate knowledge of the terrain on the part of the Indians; the expert ability of the Sioux and Cheyennes to engage in highly mobile guerilla warfare; and, perhaps most importantly, the inspiring leadership and stubbornness of Red Cloud.

The Southern Cheyennes had split after Sand Creek, with Black Kettle leading a portion south, while others, among them William Bent’s wife Yellow Woman and her sons, moved north to join their northern cousins. Both factions were hoping to move to an area free of white intrusion and soldiers, and those heading north to the Powder River assumed soldiers would not “dare march into that great stronghold of the Teton Sioux and Northern Cheyennes.”[1] Not long after they arrived in the north, however, Red Cloud decided to deal with the increasing numbers of soldiers in the area, and he invited the Southern Cheyennes to join him. The combined Amerindian force carried out a successful attack on Platte Bridge Station, with the Cheyenne warrior Roman Nose playing a significant part in the battle. Southern Cheyenne warriors, including the Bent brothers, also played leading roles in the attack on the Sawyers wagon train, an incident that gave Red Cloud and Dull Knife their first news of the Powder River campaign. Roman Nose continued to inspire the Cheyennes and the Sioux with his bravery and amazing feats in battle, right up to the time of his death at Beecher’s Island.[2]

The Indians outnumbered the soldiers during much of the fighting, and took advantage of this fact in battles such as the Fetterman Massacre, in which nearly two thousand Sioux and Cheyennes killed all eighty-one members of Captain Fetterman’s command. The Amerindians also had the advantage of fighting in their own homeland, and their intimate knowledge of the boundless plains and rugged mountains allowed them to fight at times and places of their choosing. Throughout the entire area of operations, the Sioux and Cheyennes enjoyed nearly total freedom of movement, as the soldiers began to fear venturing out of their few isolated forts. Crazy Horse’s decoy tactics in the Fetterman Massacre and Sleeping Rabbit’s plan to derail a train and loot its contents were typical of the irregular warfare engaged in by the Indians. Wagon trains and wood-cutting parties were defended by cavalry escorts, but the American troops were outmatched in both numbers and tactics, and deadly ambushes continued.[3]

Red Cloud’s tenacity in insisting that peace would only come about if all Americans abandoned the Powder River region was noble and inspiring to his followers. In meeting after meeting with soldiers and Indian agents, Red Cloud repeated his demands, and insisted that the Indians would never move east to the Missouri River, as was being demanded by treaty agents. Red Cloud even sent a message to Sherman at Laramie that he would not come in to discuss peace until the soldiers left the area. Humiliated and discouraged by the lack of progress, the Americans abandoned the Powder River country; just as Red Cloud had demanded, the soldiers left, and the forts were abandoned. In celebration, Red Cloud’s warriors burned the forts as the soldiers skulked away.[4]

[1] Dee Brown, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West (New York: Picador, 2007. Originally published 1971 by Holt, Rinehard and Winston), 96.

[2] Ibid., 98-99; 105-107; 165-66.

[3] Ibid., 132-39.

[4] Ibid., 145.


An Interesting Article About the End of the Civil War

I’m not a Civil War buff, per se, but Tom Ricks published a link to a pretty fascinating article. Ricks seems most impressed by the fact that Andrew Johnson did not consider Texas pacified until mid-1866, but that is only a minor point in the article. Much more interesting to me is the discussion about former Confederate soldiers conspiring to establish a colony in Mexico, and their idea that such an army of disgruntled former CSA soldiers would be useful to Mexico should that country go to war with the United States. Also interesting is the attempt by the author to generate sympathy for the ruined former plantation owners and slaveholders, which fell flat with me. The article was published in 1901, so don’t be shocked by the liberal use of the term “darkies.”

Secessionism 101: Feds maintain the Civil War didn’t end in Texas until mid-1866 | The Best Defense.

Chivington at Sand Creek, and Sibley at Wood Lake

In comparing the actions of the US Army—and particularly the behavior of individual soldiers—against Little Crow’s Santees in Minnesota and Black Kettle’s Cheyennes in Colorado, obvious and enormous differences appear. Though anti-Indian sentiment ran high in both areas before, during, and after the conflicts, Colonel Sibley’s Sixth Minnesota volunteers never sank to the barbaric levels of Chivington’s Colorado volunteers. There are several factors that contributed to these differences, including the fact that the Americans were fighting a primarily defensive war in Minnesota while the Coloradans waged a premeditated offensive campaign. However, the leadership of the respective regiments appears to have been the most important difference.

Officials in Colorado territory were spoiling for a fight with the Cheyennes and Arapahos, and indeed Governor John Evans had formed Chivington’s Third Regiment specifically for war with the Indians. Evans was concerned that if war did not materialize, then officials in Washington would insist that his volunteers were needed to fight the Confederate army. Chivington and his men had decided that they would rather take their chances “against a few poorly armed Indians” than face the full-scale war raging in the East.[1] Governor Evans issued a decree that all friendly Cheyennes and Arapahos must report to Fort Lyon, where they would be safe; any Indians ignoring this order were assumed to be hostile, and would be treated accordingly. It was impossible to get the word out to all the bands, since they were scattered across the plains hunting buffalo, and Chivington’s men began patrolling the plains and provoking skirmishes.[2]

Little Raven (Arapaho) holding his granddaughter Grass Woman (Arapaho), William Bent, Little Bear (Arapaho) the son of Little Raven, Shield (Arapaho) the son of Little Raven - 1869

Little Raven (Arapaho) holding his granddaughter Grass Woman (Arapaho), William Bent, Little Bear (Arapaho) the son of Little Raven, Shield (Arapaho) the son of Little Raven – 1869

Black Kettle’s Cheyennes, along with some Arapahos, eventually received the message, and they made camp on Sand Creek, about forty miles north of Fort Lyon. Several chiefs, including Black Kettle and the Arapaho Little Raven, traveled to Denver to meet with Evans and Chivington so that they might make their peaceful intentions known and receive assurances of their peoples’ safety. The tone of the meeting left the chiefs more frightened and confused than before, but they returned to Sand Creek hopeful that their people would be safe. They were assured of their safety by Major Edward Wynkoop, the commander at Fort Lyon, but he was soon replaced by an officer less friendly to Indians and more loyal to Chivington and Evans. Major Anthony, Wynkoop’s successor, cut the rations of the Cheyennes and Arapahos, but assured them that it was acceptable for their men to go out hunting buffalo. At the same time, Anthony was requesting reinforcements.[3]

Moke-tavato (Black Kettle) - Southern Cheyenne - 1865

Moke-tavato (Black Kettle) – Southern Cheyenne – 1865

When the reinforcements arrived, Chivington was leading them, and preparations were made for what would become the awful climax of the war. Plans were made to attack Black Kettle’s friendly Cheyennes at Sand Creek, and despite resistance from some of his officers, Chivington proclaimed his “right…to use any means under God’s heaven to kill Indians.”[4] The column set out, with soldiers drinking along the way, and attacked the sleeping Cheyennes and Arapahos, most of whom were women and children. Despite the American flag and white surrender flag waving above Black Kettle’s teepee and numerous attempts by the Indians to show that they wanted only peace, Chivington ordered his men to attack. In the end, there were over 130 dead Cheyennes and Arapahos, the vast majority of them women and children, though Chivington claimed to have killed several hundred warriors. Soldiers, many of them drunk, mutilated bodies and engaged in numerous other atrocities, all with the approval of Colonel Chivington.[5]

In Minnesota, Little Crow’s Santees were doing their best to live in peace with the growing numbers of white settlers who surrounded them. The Indians had ceded much of their land in questionable treaties, and unscrupulous agents and traders often skimmed a large portion from the annuity payments before they were distributed to the tribe. In 1862, the payments failed to arrive from Washington, and Little Crow and his Santees, already angry about the string of broken promises and abuses, reached a breaking point. The starving and destitute Santees were told to “eat grass or their own dung,” and a crisis erupted.[6] Four young Santee men killed some settlers one night, and several chiefs went to Little Crow to persuade him to go to war with the white men. Little Crow reluctantly assumed the mantle of war chief, and preparations for battle were quickly made.[7]

Little Crow (Ta-oyate-duta) Mdewakanton - 1858

Little Crow (Ta-oyate-duta) Mdewakanton – 1858

The Santee uprising took the countryside by surprise, and the Indians had some successes in their first skirmishes. Dissension among the chiefs began to take its toll on Santee cohesion, however, and the Indians began suffering setbacks even before Colonel Sibley’s regiment arrived from St. Paul. The Santees did fight well against Sibley’s men at Birch Coulee, but a combination of treason on the part of Wabasha and bad luck on the battlefield dealt Little Crow a defeat at Wood Lake. It was at Wood Lake where the contrast between Sibley and Chivington became most clear; after some soldiers scalped the dead Santees, Sibley put a stop to it, saying, “The bodies of the dead, even of a savage enemy shall not be subjected to indignities by civilized and Christian men.”[8]

Wambdi Tanka (Big Eagle) the son of Gray Iron - Mdewakanton - 1863

Wambdi Tanka (Big Eagle) the son of Gray Iron – Mdewakanton – 1863

Chivington by his words and deeds made it clear that he considered Indians less than human, and this attitude was absorbed by the men under his command. Sibley, on the other hand, allowed that even the corpses of hostile Indians deserved to be treated with dignity. It is interesting to speculate about the reason for Sibley’s views on this subject; there is some evidence that Sibley had been involved with a Mdewankanton woman, Red Blanket Woman, around 1840, and had in fact fathered a child with Red Blanket Woman. Helen Hastings Sibley, also known as Wahkiyee, or Bird, was born in 1841, though Sibley refers to her cryptically and only once in writing.[9]

[1] Dee Brown, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West (New York: Picador, 2007. First published 1971 by Holt, Rinehard and Winston), 79.

[2] Ibid., 74-75.

[3] Ibid., 79-86.

[4] Ibid., 86-87.

[5] Brown, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, 86-91; Carl Waldman, Atlas of the North American Indian, 3rd ed. (New York: Checkmark Books, 2009), 184-5.

[6] Brown, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, 38-40.

[7] Ibid., 43-45.

[8] Ibid., 45-57.

[9] Jane Lamm Carroll, “’Who Was Jane Lamont?’ Anglo-Dakota Daughters in Early Minnesota,” Minnesota History Quarterly 59, no. 5 (Spring 2005): 192.

Journal Article Review: David Sim, “The Peace Policy of Ulysses S. Grant,” American Nineteenth Century History 9, no. 3 (September 2008): 241-68.

When Ulysses S. Grant was elected President in 1868, he resolved to change the way the United States dealt with Native Americans. It was obvious that previous approaches to the “Indian problem” had failed miserably, and it was Grant’s hope that the reforms he sought would usher in a new era of enlightened United States-Indian relations. Central to this new approach was the reformation of the notoriously corrupt Bureau of Indian Affairs, which Grant endeavored to clean up by replacing administrators and agents with persons of upright and honorable character. These positions had been viewed previously as patronage appointments, and had been filled by awardees of the spoils system. Grant and his supporters recognized the graft and corruption inherent in such an approach, but many members of Congress reacted strongly to any attempts to change the way in which appointments to the Bureau of Indian Affairs were made.

Much has been written about the Peace Policy, and historians are divided on whether or not it succeeded, though most, such as Robert Keller, Jr. and Robert Utley, conclude that it did not.  Some, however, such as Francis Paul Prucha, have focused more on the spirit of the policy, and have noted that Grant’s attempts at reform utterly changed the way the United States dealt with Native Americans through the end of the nineteenth century and long after the Peace Policy itself had been formally rejected. In that context, according to Prucha, the Peace Policy was a success.

British historian David Sim, in his article “The Peace Policy of Ulysses S. Grant,” surveys the historiographical record of Grant’s Peace Policy, and concludes that historians have missed the point in their discussions of whether the Peace Policy succeeded or failed. Much more interesting and salient to Sim is the notion that the Peace Policy was characterized by inconsistency and political considerations throughout its development and execution. He focuses on three specific events in the formulation of the policy, which he rightly reads as having been interdependent: the failure, in January 1870, of the transference of oversight of Indian affairs from the Interior Department to the War Department; the increasing dependence upon religious denominations and their members to fill the ranks of the Indian bureau, which began in July 1870; and the end of the treaty system in 1871. In each of these areas, Sim explores how contingencies and circumstances forced the Grant administration into reactionary roles, and how, taken as a whole, the Peace Policy developed incoherently and by happenstance.

In discussing the failure of the transfer of Indian affairs to the War Department, Sim explores the attitudes of soldiers and ex-soldiers, many of whom had extensive and first-hand experience in dealing with Native Americans. Grant, Sherman, Sheridan, and Custer are noted as having been in favor of transfer, due in large part to their more realistic understanding of Indians and their cultures in contrast to the idealized conceptions of Eastern humanitarians. Unfortunately, as Sim points out, a series of questionable actions on the part of the Army provided ammunition to humanitarian reformers in their attempts to keep the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the Department of Interior. Although, interestingly, Sim does not discuss Sand Creek, he does point out the role that Pawnee Fork and the Battle of the Washita played in galvanizing opposition to the question of transfer, and he notes that the Piegan massacre took place at the height of the debate, in January 1870. This final incident sounded the death knell for any opportunity for military control of Indian affairs.

Regarding religious appointments to fill vacancies in the Indian bureau, Sims posits that this had not been Grant’s original intention, and that Grant was not in fact a particularly religious man. He only hit upon this idea after his other attempts to end the patronage system had failed, and, despite his noted opposition to mingling church and state affairs, Grant was forced by contingency to explore this alternative. Sim discusses Grant’s irritation at Congress’s success in blocking the appointment of Army officers to civilian Indian posts, and quotes Sherman’s version of a meeting between Grant and Congressional leaders. In it, Grant acknowledges his defeat, but vows to the Congressmen that he will ultimately prevail, because he plans on “divid[ing] these appointments up among the religious churches, with which you dare not contend.”

Finally, Sim points out that the Indian treaty system had for decades endured significant and reasonable criticism. He goes on to discuss the ways in which resentment about the system came to a head in the House of Representatives during Grant’s first term. The House had long taken issue with the fact that treaties were proposed and ratified entirely outside their purview, and began flexing its legislative muscle by blocking appropriations for annuities to tribes, funds promised to those tribes by the President and ratified by the Senate. Grant realized that such a situation was untenable, and that Native Americans, already suspicious of the United States government, would only become increasingly so and that hostilities would surely be initiated. Once again, Sim concludes, Grant was forced by circumstances beyond his control to alter his vision of how the United States should treat with the Native Americans.

Sim gives a good overview of the historiographical treatment of Grant’s Peace Policy, and discusses the views of the most prominent historians in the field. He proposes an intriguing thesis in that the Peace Policy was formed and implemented in incoherence and contingency, and he provides plenty of primary evidence to support his thesis, from both sides of the debates. Sim also does a reasonably good job of untangling the jumbled issues of the policy, and he points the way to other avenues of research, such as the role executive-legislative skirmishes may have played in the failures of other Indian policies. Ultimately, though, and despite the fact that this was not his point, I want to know: does David Sim believe the Peace Policy failed or not?

The Navajos, Apaches, and Modocs

When comparing the United States government’s efforts against the Navajos, Apaches, and Modocs, one must consider several aspects, notably the terrain on which the campaigns were undertaken (which influenced the manner in which the U.S. Army approached the fighting), the role that reservations played in precipitating or prolonging hostilities, and the cultural characteristics and attitudes of the native peoples involved.

L-R front row: Adelnietze, Zhonne (with child in front of him), Naiche, Fun - Chiricahua Apache - circa 1886

L-R front row: Adelnietze, Zhonne (with child in front of him), Naiche, Fun – Chiricahua Apache – circa 1886

Formidable terrain played a major role in all three campaigns, serving as a natural defense for the Indians and presenting special challenges to the Army. The Apaches roamed a large area of northern Mexico and southern Arizona and New Mexico, a region characterized by large expanses of desert broken up by forbidding mountain ranges. They were able to use this terrain to their advantage for decades as they eluded the bluecoats and sought refuge in remote mountain hideouts. They were also able to take advantage of the international border and conduct raids in United States territory only to melt away into Mexico, though the Apaches lost much of the protection this afforded when the Mexican army began conducting patrols of their own and cooperating with American troops. The terrain the Army met the Navajos and Modocs on was just as formidable, though in each of these cases the tribes were confined to a much smaller area and ended up trapped in their redoubts. The Navajos had retreated to Canyon de Chelly, a place in which they had always felt safe, but Kit Carson was able to turn the terrain to his advantage by placing a blocking force at one end of the canyon and patiently working his way through the canyon from the other end. Carson destroyed villages, fields, and orchards as he did so, and the Navajos were utterly demoralized and defeated. The Modocs retreated to a similar position in the lava beds south of Tule Lake in northern California, and the convoluted canyons of this area provided a great deal of protection for the tribe at the outset. The area was relatively small and easily surrounded, however, and the American soldiers simply brought in numerous reinforcements and broke the Modocs’ resistance through simple attrition.

Kintpuash (Having The Water Brash, aka Captain Jack) - Modoc - circa 1870

Kintpuash (Having The Water Brash, aka Captain Jack) – Modoc – circa 1870

Forced removal to reservations played a role in all three conflicts, though in differing ways. The Modocs had been relocated to the reservation of the rival Klamath tribe, even though they had been living peacefully in their traditional homeland. Dissatisfied with their situation at Klamath, they moved back to northern California and hoped that by maintaining their peaceful ways they would be able to remain. Pressure from white settlers eager for their land, however, forced the government’s hand, and the Modoc War began when another forced removal was attempted. One of Captain Jack’s primary surrender conditions was that his people be allowed to remain at Tule Lake, or even in the desolate lava beds. When this condition was refused, hostilities continued. The Navajos were not forced to relocate to a reservation until after Carson’s Canyon de Chelly campaign, but when they were, they were forced to move far to the east to Bosque Redondo. Manuelito, upon hearing of wretched conditions at the reservation, refused to move his band to Bosque Redondo, and low-intensity warfare continued for some time.[1] Various bands of the Apaches were settled on reservations throughout Arizona and New Mexico, and for decades a pattern continued in which dissatisfied and restless chiefs left with their warriors only to be hunted down by the Army and returned to the reservation.

Two Navajo men shortly after arriving at Bosque Redondo in New Mexico - 1866

Two Navajo men shortly after arriving at Bosque Redondo in New Mexico – 1866

Finally, the general cultural characteristics of the three tribes influenced how and why hostilities began, and affected the duration and intensity of the conflicts. The Modocs had been a largely sedentary, agricultural people who had lived in peace with their white neighbors in northern California, both before their removal to the Klamath reservation and after their return to the Tule Lake area. The Apaches, on the other hand, were a more mobile and predatory tribe whose young warriors were difficult to control in the decentralized groups of autonomous bands. The Navajos could be characterized as fitting somewhere in between, having settled down to a mainly peaceful life tending their flocks, fields, and orchards. They continued to conduct some raids, however, as they had for generations against the Spanish, Mexicans, and Pueblos.

[1] Dee Brown, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West (New York: Picador, 2007. First published 1971 by Holt, Rinehard and Winston), 29-33.

It is sweet and right to die for your country?

Over the past couple of years, I’ve shared with my fellow soldiers my opinion that our job used to be fun, and that it simply isn’t anymore. Some of these soldiers are my peers, seasoned veterans with twenty years in, give or take, and some are new to the Army, having entered the world as I was entering the Army. I’ve been unable to give anybody, myself included, a precise reason why this is the case; I simply know that I used to enjoy what I do, and now I don’t. And it isn’t just that I don’t enjoy what I do, it’s as if the entire atmosphere in which I work has changed; where there were once lighthearted but purpose-filled days and missions, life in the Army today seems monotonous, tedious, and somehow ultimately pointless. I know the change took place after September 11, 2001, and I know the ensuing wars somehow helped cause the change, but I’ve never been able to pinpoint the exact reason. Tonight, I may have stumbled upon a semblance of an answer, at least for me.

As I was lying in bed trying to fall asleep, a memory from 1998 surfaced. I was assigned to the United States Continental Army Band (TUSCAB) at Fort Monroe, Virginia, and we were hosting a military tattoo in honor of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC). At the time, TRADOC was headquartered at Fort Monroe, and TUSCAB was (and still is) often referred to as the “TRADOC Band.” It was a very big event, with the four-star commander of TRADOC hosting the Chief of Staff and Sergeant Major of the Army. During our portion of the show, TUSCAB performed an arrangement of a song entitled “We Were There,” a patriotic song about the Army’s storied history and exploits in defending our nation. Our commander, Major Thomas Palmatier, had extended the song to include some narration extrapolating on the feats of derring-do being sung about, and I was the narrator. Soldiers in period costumes came on to the field in front of the band, and I moved down the line as I delivered my spiel about each one. The narration began with, “The soldiers of the Continental Army endured the hardships of Valley Forge for the cause of liberty,” which I spoke as I gestured to the Revolutionary War soldier. I don’t remember all of the rest of the narration, except for the very end, which was something along the lines of: “Remember, it was the American soldier who fought for freedom in Korea and Vietnam, and who provided the thunder and lightning of Desert Storm!” Major Palmatier wanted me to deliver that last phrase in as booming and triumphant a voice as I could muster, and the line drew wild applause from the audience. It is in that phrase, and in the reaction to it, that I may have found my answer to my original question.

I joined the Army in October 1993, and the memory of the victory in Desert Storm was still fresh. There had been a few bands who deployed to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and there were still some musicians in the ranks who wore combat patches. I remember being in awe of those soldiers; they had been to a combat zone after all, something most Americans assumed (and still do) that Army musicians didn’t do. The stories they told, however, didn’t sound very glorious or heroic; rather, they centered primarily around sand, burning feces, and boredom. Still, they were combat veterans, and that combat patch looked like a Medal of Honor to me.

Fast forward to February 2006. I deployed for the first time, and was going to earn that coveted combat patch. I spent several months in Afghanistan, and a couple in Pakistan, doing a few dangerous things, I suppose, and playing my trumpet a little bit. But mostly it was sand and boredom, with no burning feces, thankfully. Somewhere along the way I began to feel that the only thing I was doing over there was wasting a year of my life, a year separated from family and missing out on the life that the rest of America was enjoying while ignoring what was happening in Afghanistan and Iraq. When I returned to the States, I found myself angry and bitter over things like “Support the Troops” magnets on cars, and the chest-thumping, flag-waving songs of Toby Keith. I had viewed those magnets and listened (and sung) those songs with pride before I left. Now, though, they looked like empty gestures from people largely unaffected by the wars overseas. I’ve gotten over that feeling, mostly, though I still cringe a little inside when I hear the live version of Toby Keith’s “The Angry American (Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue);” when the crowd roars their approval at the line “we’ll put a boot in your ass, it’s the American way,” I think to myself, “Of course you’re cheering. It’s not your boot, and you’re not the one doing the putting.” I deployed to Iraq in April 2008, but this time there was little excitement on my part. I already had my combat patch, it was not the Medal of Honor I thought it was going to be, and I knew I was looking at another year of my life wasted. Once again, sand, boredom, a little trumpet playing, and no feces burning.

I did not kick in doors while I was downrange, I did not have to shoot anybody, and nobody shot at me. I did absolutely nothing heroic while I was deployed, and I do not have PTSD from my experiences over there. My demons are home-grown and predate my military service. I have, however, played Taps at a whole bunch of funerals for soldiers who died doing those heroic things. I have stood on the tarmac at Bagram Airfield as a dozen flag-draped caskets were loaded on to a C-17 for their final trip home. I once saw a soldier at a redeployment ceremony at Fort Drum who had come home early and was at the ceremony to welcome his brothers-in-arms home; his entire body was in bandages except for his head, which was covered in scars from the fire that had burned off his nose and ears. These things contribute somehow to that nagging and vague question about why my job isn’t fun anymore. I am a little proud of my deployments; after all, in simply going over there I did more than most Americans did. But that pride is mixed with a lot of bitterness that I did something that most Americans didn’t. And I am increasingly uncomfortable with strangers shaking my hand and thanking me for my service. I’m not sure exactly why, although I think somehow it has something to do with that “empty gesture” thing I mentioned earlier. I know they mean well, but still…

In 1998, war seemed glorious and heroic, and not just to me, but to an entire nation still  heady about a quick and relatively painless victory in Iraq. We had watched CNN as Wolf Blitzer and Colin Powell and Norman Schwarzkopf spoke of smart bombs and “cutting off the head” and “killing it.” War was sanitary and fun, like a video game. By 2006, though, “shock and awe” had given way to talk of “quagmires” and “another Vietnam.” The wars dragged on and on, and the body counts got higher and higher. Today, ten years after the invasion of Iraq, we have withdrawn all our troops and declared the mission a success. I’m not so sure the Iraqis agree with that assessment, as they struggle to put their country back together and sectarian violence increases. Next year, thirteen years after we arrived in Afghanistan, we are supposed to leave and let the Afghan people chart their own course. Are we leaving it any better than we found it? I am not interested in debating whether or not we should have invaded those countries; someone else can make that determination. But I do wonder if it was worth it, for me, for the Army, for our country and theirs. Was it all truly worth the blood and treasure, the broken bodies and hearts, the shattered dreams and psyches?

And so my answer: perhaps what I thought was “fun” in 1998 was merely a naive patriotism bolstered by false notions about the true nature of war. Perhaps the ennui that I sense today in both myself and the Army is in fact the realization that war is not glorious or heroic or fun. It is brutal and boring, tedious and chaotic. My job was never supposed to be fun in the first place, and perhaps we all would be well-served to keep that in mind.

“If in some smothering dreams you too could pace behind the wagon what we flung him in, and watch the white eyes writhing in his face, his hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin…you would not tell with such high zest to children ardent for some desperate glory, the old lie: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.”–Willfred Owen