While I was in Japan I read two books on George Armstrong Custer and his Last Stand. One was called The Last Stand by Nathaniel Philbrick. The other was Custer by Larry McMurtry. The Last Stand was the more scholarly of the two, even though it would still probably be called popular history, or as I like to call it readable history. Custer was a shorter book that was more the author’s musings on Custer’s life and times. McMurtry’s book was a highly entertaining read, but if you are looking for something more substantial and don’t know anything about Custer, then I would read the Philbrick book.
I became interested in Custer because of Johnny Cash’s Bitter Tears album and by the work of Buffy Sainte-Marie. I have already read two excellent books on the west and the Indian Wars, Hampton Sides Blood and Thunder and S.C. Gwynne’s Empire of the Summer Moon, and I was looking for something as readable as those two. If you haven’t read either of those books and are interested in the history of the west, they are must reads. I was going to get Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, but I know how that turns out and thought I’d read something slightly less depressing on vacation. I think now that I’m home I’ll move on to heavier ground and give the Wounded Knee book a read.
Anyway, while I was in Japan the question kept coming up how the Japanese people, who are so outwardly kind, could do something like the Nanking massacre. This is when, during World War II, the Japanese butchered the Chinese people in Nanking (now Nanjing). It seemed often posed as a Japanese question, but after reading so much about the Indian Wars, I couldn’t help but think of it as a human question.
We often like to think of the Japanese during World War II as being the bad guys. We often think of them as people who did things that we would never do. The truth of the matter is that the Japanese were extremely brutal and did things during that war that were horrific. If you want to read something a little closer to home read Hampton Sides excellent Ghost Soldiers, a book about the Bantam Death March. If there can be a right side in war, then during that war against the Japanese we were on it.
However, they aren’t people that did things that we would never do. Is there really any difference between what they did at Nanking and what we did at Wounded Knee or at many other points in our western conquest? Sure there might be a scale issue. But they had better technology. If we had better technology in the 1800’s wouldn’t we have hunted down and exterminated the Indians as a far higher rate if we could have? I guess that is a historical what if question that can never be answered. We were extremely brutal given what methods were at hand.
That’s not to say that the Indians weren’t often brutal in their own right. When you read about depredations in a historical book, what they often called Indian brutality back then; it means rape, killing, and horrific mutilation. The Indians liked to do things like cut people’s private parts off and stick them in their mouths. Looking through the lenses of history no one comes out clean.
However, we were the ones that made the treaties and then broke them time after time. We committed brutal atrocities of our own. Except for little pockets on reservations, which are really pale sad imitations of what Indian life was like before we intervened, we basically wiped out a people and their culture. We acted with extreme prejudice. The Indians that led raids against us were really hard to find, so we often just killed the ones that we could find, even if they were women and children.
The thing I’m trying to get across with all this barbarity is that at some point most peoples have atrocities in their past. While it is perfectly in the right to denounce violence and judge people for what they are doing right now, we should think long and hard before we go that extra mile in demonizing them. Demonizing others is how one can make the mistake that leads down the road of darkness. All races and people, given the right circumstances, have the potential for great evil. We should be extra vigilante, and make sure that in the future, that our potential is never again realized.