Senator Bob Kerrey's recent admission he was involved in the killing of Vietnamese women and children as a highly trained combat novice comes as no surprise to American Indians.
Senator Kerrey was a child of his times, when indigenous peoples were depicted as barely human, given to irrational acts of violence stemming from societies which were crude and barbaric.
Savages, all of them, without the temperance of Western values. Tribal peoples were believed to be impediments to European style development whose Christian duty was to bring the pesky heathens the benefits of civilization-by the sword if necessary.
The dehumanization of Native people, American Indians included, was a matter of fact in Kerrey's youth whether is was in the movies, on television, in popular literature or by the denigration of our culture by qualifying us as mascots affixed to athletic teams.
By simple transferal, Sen. Kerrey would replace the Indian with the Vietnamese when he arrived in Viet Nam. US military forces perceived the territory occupied by the Vietnamese as "Indian country" full of hostiles waiting to lift the scalp of any white man who left the safety of the fort.
No less a commander than General William Westmoreland referred to the Vietnamese as "termites" infesting the countryside, an racist opinion echoed by Gen. Maxwell Taylor who described the anti-American forces as "Indians" in need of pacification.
US troops received little or no instruction in the subtleties of Vietnamese life, they assumed they would be welcomed as liberators as they tried to swagger, John Wayne style, into the communities of a people who neither wanted, or needed, their bullish ways.
Kerrey was also a product of a US military which has an inglorious tradition of killing noncombatants, a nasty habit begun by George Washington during the American Revolution.
Washington ordered the complete and utter destruction of the Iroquois Confederacy in 1779 by sending General John Sullivan on a scorched earth campaign meant to drive the Native people, the majority of whom were women and children, into submission by starvation and disease. Washington may well have approved of the use of Agent Orange to kill the South Asian forests in which the Viet Cong set their ambushes.
Washington was followed in turn by Thomas Jefferson, who proposed the forcible removal of Native people from their ancestral eastern homelands to the western plains. Jefferson was an advocate for the use of total war, including the killing of women and children, against those Native nations who resisted the western expansion of the US.
Perhaps the bloodiest of US presidents was Andrew Jackson, US general and Senator from the state of Tennessee. Jackson issued specific orders to kill Native women and children; his troops were fond of skinning their victims for use as belts and bridle reins.
In a prelude to Viet Nam, Jackson's soldiers sliced the noses from Indian bodies as evidence of their prowess. Jackson himself is said to have boasted of the Native scalps he had in his possession. He defied the US Supreme Court by using the military to force the Cherokee people from Georgia to Oklahoma, a Trail of Tears during which thousands of Native women, children and elders perished.
With instruction into the history, traditions and culture of Viet Nam, Kerrey might have overcome this sorry history and been less inclined to perceive the inhabitants as a faceless, threatening mass. He may have come to an understanding as to the circumstances under which the Vietnamese lived and reacted with compassion which in turn would have made it less likely he would have ordered their deaths.
Senator Kerrey has endured decades of emotional anguish for his actions. He would do well to adopt an ancient Native custom of releasing the spirits of the dead by returning to the killing place and seeking forgiveness from the families he left in his terrible wake.
Doug George-Kanentiio Box 450 Oneida Iroquois Territory Oneida Castle, NY 13421 Tel. and Fax: (315) 363-1655 E-Mail: Kanentiio@aol.com
In 1971, John Kerry (now Senator) organized and participated in Operation Dewey Canyon III with Vietnam Veterans Against the War. As documented in The New Soldier they cast down their medals and ribbons on the steps of the Capitol.
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