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A brave new book

Growing up in small town India, my earliest introduction to the English language and fiction were ‘cowboy’ novels of Oliver Strange. For someone who grew up in crowded, downtown mohallas, adventures of gunslingers like James Green, the dark, brooding hero of the ‘Sudden’ series, on the Texas planes and harsh landscape of the ‘Injun Country’ held strange fascination and offered momentary escape from my humdrum existence.

Indeed, as Roxanne Dunbar-Otiz argues in her new path-breaking book, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, those cheap novels, movies and television shows, classified as westerns, and even classics like The Last of the Mohicans were imbibed by every American and by the mid-twentieth century were popular in every part of the globe.

One endlessly dreamed of America, the ultimate land of opportunity and freedom. Little did one realise then the reality of the great American dream and how it was accomplished by painting the indigenous inhabitants of the land, methodically and mercilessly, out of the picture. They were hunted and killed like wild animals in their thousands or simply starved to death by shutting off access to food and water. Today the native Americans or red Indians (or just ‘Injuns’ in settler speak), are to be found in small, isolated reservations, like some endangered species, which they indeed are now.

The same story was repeated in South America, wiping out indigenous populations and capturing their resources. In Africa, the colonial project was not limited to plundering and pillaging the continent’s natural wealth but also stealing its most precious resource – its people. Millions of Africans ended up as slaves in plantations – and worse. Israel most successfully emulated the US example in dealing with Palestinians, stealing their country and locking them away in tiny enclaves. Little wonder Dunbar-Ortiz argues that the entire “North America is a Crime Scene” because of the grave crimes against humanity committed on the continent by settler armies and conquistadors.

In her intro, Dunbar-Ortiz argues: “The founding myth of the United States is a lie. It is time to re-examine our ruthless past – and present.” Ortiz opens her book with a quote from Jodi Byrd, an expert on indigenous communities and the author of The Transit of Empire, Indigenous Critiques of Colonialism: “That the continued colonization of American Indian nations, peoples, and lands provides the United States the economic and material resources needed to cast its imperialist gaze globally is a fact that is simultaneously obvious within – and yet continually obscured by – is essentially a settler colony’s national construction of itself as an ever more perfect multicultural, multiracial democracy. The status of American Indians as sovereign nations colonized by the United States continues to haunt and inflect its raison d’être.” And the political and legal sanction for this unprecedented ethnic cleansing and extermination of an entire people came from the very top.

Justifying the military campaign against the ‘Indians’, the US Supreme Court, in its 1873 Modoc Indian Prisoners ruling, noted: “It cannot be pretended that a United States soldier is guilty of murder if he kills a public enemy in battle, which would be the case if the municipal law were in force and applicable to an act committed under such circumstances. All the laws and customs of civilized warfare may not be applicable to an armed conflict with the Indian tribes upon our western frontier and the Indians concerned in it fully understood the baseness and treachery of their act.”

The 1873 ruling was famously invoked in 2003 in the case of Guantanamo Bay detainees, declaring them ‘unlawful combatants’ and denying them all rights and basic dignity under the Geneva Conventions. While this is hardly the first of its kind book tracing the origins of the ‘shining nation on the hill’ and its eventful history, what makes it extraordinary is the audacity and stark courage that the author displays in chronicling the crimes against indigenous people across North America and beyond with clinical accuracy and objectivity.

More important, she makes a compelling case that the western imperial project to conquer new frontiers, subjugate their people and take control of their resources was far from over with the conquest of Americas.

Led by the most powerful nation, the imperium project continues and has now expanded to take control of the entire planet, dictating, manipulating and monopolising the affairs, resources and lives of all its inhabitants. The militarism dictating the US foreign policy did not begin as fallout of the World War I and II but has been the continuation of the same policy that had driven the white colonial nation to subjugate ‘Injun Country’.

The continuous US and allied military campaigns and wars that followed the two Great Wars, from Korea to Cambodia and from the Philippines to Vietnam and more recently in the greater Middle East in the last century or in this century, are all part of the same worldview and conscious design.

The author quotes neocon ideologue and military analyst Robert D Kaplan to debunk the notion that the 9/11 attacks brought the US into a new era of warfare and prompted it to establish military bases around the world. Long before the September 11 attacks, as early as 1980s, US military bases existed in more than 170 countries.

Kaplan sums up his thesis, in the prologue to his book, Imperial Grunts, interestingly subtitled “Injun Country”: “…The Pentagon divided the planet into five area commands – similar to the way that the Indian Country of the American West had been divided in the mid-nineteenth century by the US Army. To be sure, the problem for the American military was less [Islamic] fundamentalism than anarchy. The War on Terrorism was really about taming the frontier.”

Yes, this had never been about ‘Islamic fundamentalism’ or terrorism but about ‘taming the frontier’. And the frontiers of the white, western civilisation and the empire project now extend to the entire planet.

The whole world is now ‘Injun Country’ as far as America and the Coalition of the Willing are concerned. Pax Americana rules the world through its proxies and satraps and more than 900 military bases across the globe and by waging perpetual wars not merely for the sake of global hegemony but also as an expression of its obsessive militarism mindset.

Besides, without forever wars and military campaigns, how will the gargantuan, profiteering military industrial complex that fuels western economies survive? At no point in history has a single nation or a group of countries enjoyed such awesome, unlimited and unquestioned power. And the American way of war, in Kaplan-speak, is nothing but a legacy and continuum of the western colonial project that Uncle Sam inherited from the cousins across the pond.

No wonder there’s little change in US policies no matter who moves into the White House. No wonder the Middle East remains perpetually crackling with wars raging everywhere. If it was Saddam Hussain, Al-Qaeda and the Taliban yesterday, today it is Isis. If the enemy did not exist, he will have to be invented. This is one book you must not miss.

The writer is a Middle East-based columnist and editor of ‘Caravan’, an online news magazine. Email: aijaz.syed@hotmail.com

Aijaz Zaka Syed, "A brave new book," The News. 2014-10-21.
Keywords: Social sciences , International policy , Supreme court , Military-United States , Prisoners-India , Al-Qaeda , Humanity , Democracy , Terrorism , Fiction , Crimes , Jodi Byrd , Roxanne Dunbar , Saddam Hussain , Robert D Kaplan , United States , Africa , 9/11