excerpted from the book
by David Stannard
Oxford University Press, 1992
... one of the preconditions for the Spanish
and Anglo-American genocides against the native peoples of the
Americas was a public definition of the natives as inherently
and permanently-that is, as racially-inferior beings. To the conquering
Spanish, the Indians more specifically were defined as natural
slaves, as subhuman beasts of burden, because that fit the use
to which the Spanish wished to put them, and because such a definition
was explicable by appeal to ancient Christian and European truths-through
Aquinas and on back to Aristotle. Since the colonizing British,
and subsequently the Americans, had little use for Indian servitude,
but only wanted Indian land, they appealed to other Christian
and European sources of wisdom to justify their genocide: the
Indians were Satan's helpers, they were lascivious and murderous
wild men of the forest, they were bears, they were wolves, they
were vermin. Allegedly having shown themselves to be beyond conversion
to Christian or to civil life-and with little British or American
need for them as slaves-in this case, straightforward mass killing
of the Indians was deemed the only thing to do.
"Well, you know, that was the worst
of it-this suspicion of their not being inhuman"-for surely
the purpose of this passage is to demonstrate as powerfully as
possible just how absolutely inhuman the Africans truly seemed,
and how close to the murky borderland of the animal world they
really were; thus the impact of the European's haunting sense
"that there was in you just the faintest trace of a response"
to-and a "remote kinship with"-such brutal, monstrous
beings. As Achebe says in a different essay: "In confronting
the black man, the white man has a simple choice: either to accept
the black man's humanity and the equality that flows from it,
or to reject it and see him as a beast of burden. No middle course
,exists except as an intellectual quibble." In fact, however,
it is precisely that "intellectual quibble" that has
poisoned Western thought, not only about Africans, but about all
peoples of non-European ancestry, for centuries long past and
likely for a good while yet to come. And therein lies the true
heart of Western darkness. For the line that separates Martin
Luther's anti-Jewish fulminations from those of Adolf Hitler is
a line of great importance, but ~t also ~s a line that is frighteningly
thin. And once crossed, as ~t was not only m Germany in the early
twentieth century, but in the Indies and the Americas four centuries
before, genocide is but a step away.
From time to time during the past half-century
Americans have edged across that line, if only temporarily, under
conditions of foreign war. Thus, as John W. Dower has demonstrated,
the eruption of war in the Pacific in the 1940s caused a crucial
shift in American perceptions of the Japanese from a prewar attitude
of racial disdain and dismissiveness (the curator of the Smithsonian
Institution's Division of Anthropology had advised the President
that the Japanese skull was "some 2,000 years less developed
than ours, ' while it was widely believed by Western military
experts that the Japanese were incompetent pilots who "could
not shoot straight because their eyes were slanted") to a
wartime view of them as super-competent warriors, but morally
subhuman beasts. This transformation became a license for American
military men to torture and mutilate Japanese troops with impunity-just
as the Japanese did to Americans, but in their own ways, following
the cultural reshaping of their own racial images of Americans.
As one American war correspondent in the Pacific recalled in an
Atlantic Monthly article:
We shot prisoners in cold blood, wiped
out hospitals, strafed lifeboats, killed or mistreated enemy civilians,
finished off the enemy wounded, tossed the dying into a hole with
the dead, and in the Pacific boiled the flesh off enemy skulls
to make table ornaments for sweethearts, or carved their bones
into letter openers.
Dower provides other examples of what
he calls the "fetish" of "collecting grisly battlefield
trophies from the Japanese dead or near dead, in the form of gold
teeth, ears, bones, scalps, and skulls"-practices receiving
sufficient approval on the home front that in 1944 Life magazine
published a "human interest" story along with "a
full-page photograph of an attractive blonde posing with a Japanese
skull she had been sent by her fiancée in the Pacific."
(Following the Battle of Horse Shoe Bend in 1814, Andrew Jackson
oversaw not only the stripping away of dead Indians' flesh for
manufacture into bridle reins, but he saw to it that souvenirs
from the corpses were distributed "to the ladies of Tennessee.")
A little more than two decades after that
Life photograph and article appeared, General William C. Westmoreland
was describing the people of Vietnam as "termites,"
as he explained the need to limit the number of American troops
in that country:
If you crowd in too many termite killers,
each using a screwdriver to kill the termites, you risk collapsing
the floors or the foundation. In this war we're using screwdrivers
to kill termites because it's a guerrilla war and we cannot use
bigger weapons. We have to get the right balance of termite killers
to get rid of the termites without wrecking the house.
Taking their cue from the general's dehumanization
of the Southeast Asian "gooks" and "slopes"
and "dinks," in a war that reduced the human dead on
the enemy side to "body counts," American troops in
Vietnam removed and saved Vietnamese body parts as keepsakes of
their tours of duty, just as their fathers had done in World War
Two. Vietnam, the soldiers said, was "Indian Country"
(General Maxwell Taylor himself referred to the Vietnamese opposition
as "Indians" in his Congressional testimony on the war),
and the people who lived in Indian country "infested"
it, according to official government language. The Vietnamese
may have been human, but as the U.S. Embassy's Public Affairs
Officer, John Mecklin, put it, their minds were the equivalent
of "the shriveled leg of a polio victim," their "power
of reason . . . only slightly beyond the level of an American
... During the brief duration of the [Gulf]
war itself, American pilots referred to the killing of unarmed,
retreating enemy soldiers as a "turkey shoot," and compared
the Iraqi people- otherwise known as "ragheads"-to "cockroaches"
running for cover when allied planes appeared overhead. Graffiti
on bombs slung under the wings of American aircraft labeled them
as "Mrs. Saddam's sex toy" and "a suppository for
Saddam," while the American field commander subsequently
admitted in a television interview that he wished he had been
able to complete his job: "We could have completely closed
the door and made it a battle of annihilation," he said;
it was "literally about to become the battle of Cannae, a
battle of annihilation" before-to his disappointment-the
general was called off.
It should be noted that the third century
B.C. battle of Cannae, during which Carthaginian troops under
the command of Hannibal almost completely exterminated a group
of 80,000 to 90,000 Romans, is still regarded as an exemplar of
total destructiveness to military historians. Even today, Italians
living in the region where the attack took place refer to the
site of the massacre as Campo di Sangue, or "Field of Blood."
In his own words, this is what General Norman Schwarzkopf had
hoped to create in Iraq. And when confronted by the press with
evidence that appeared to demonstrate the American government's
lack of concern for innocent civilians (including as many as 55,000
children) who died as a direct consequence of the war-and with
a United States medical team's estimate that hundreds of thousands
more Iraqi children were likely to die of disease and starvation
caused by the bombing of civilian facilities-the Pentagon's response
either was silence, evasion, or a curt "war is hell."
To some, the question now is: Can it happen again? To others,
as we said in this book's opening pages, the question is, now
as always: Can it be stopped? For in the time it has taken to
read these pages, throughout Central and South America Indian
men and women and children have been murdered by agents of the
government that controls them, simply because they were Indians;
native girls and boys have been sold on open slave markets; whole
families have died in forced labor, while others have starved
to death in concentration camps. More will be enslaved and more
will die in the same brutal ways that their ancestors did, tomorrow,
and every day for the foreseeable future. The killers, meanwhile,
will continue to receive aid and comfort and support from the
United States government, the same government that oversees and
encourages the ongoing dissolution of Native American families
within its own political purview- itself a violation of the U.N.
Genocide Convention-through its willful refusal to deal adequately
with the life-destroying poverty, ill health, malnutrition, inadequate
housing, and despair that is imposed upon most American Indians
who survive today.
That is why, when the press reported in
1988 that the United States Senate finally had ratified the United
Nations Genocide Convention-after forty years of inaction, while
more than a hundred other nations had long since agreed to its
terms-Leo Kuper, one of the world's foremost experts on genocide
wondered in print whether the long delay, and the obvious reluctance
of the United States to ratify the Genocide Convention",
derived from "fear that it might be held responsible, retrospectively,
for the annihilation of Indians in the United States, or its role
in the slave trade, or its contemporary support for tyrannical
governments engaging in mass murder." Still, Kuper said he
was delighted that at last the Americans had agreed to the terms
of the Convention.
Others were less pleased-including the
governments of Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands,
Norway, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom, who filed formal
objections with the United Nations regarding the U.S. action.
For what the United States had done, unlike the other nations
of the world, was approve and file with the U.N. a self-servingly
conditional instrument of ratification. Whatever the objections
of the rest of the world's nations, however, it now seems clear
that the United States is unlikely ever to do what those other
countries have done-ratify unconditionally the Genocide Convention.
Greatly varied though the specific details
of individual cases may be, throughout the Americas today indigenous
peoples continue to be faced with one form or another of a five-centuries-old
dilemma. At the dawn of the fifteenth century, Spanish conquistadors
and priests presented the Indians they encountered with a choice:
either give up your religion and culture and land and independence,
swearing allegiance "as vassals" to the Catholic Church
and the Spanish Crown, or suffer "all the mischief and damage"
that the European invaders choose to inflict upon you. It was
called the requerimiento. The deadly predicament that now confronts
native peoples is simply a modern requerimiento: surrender all
hope of continued cultural integrity and effectively cease to
exist as autonomous peoples, or endure as independent peoples
the torment and deprivation we select as your fate.
In Guatemala, where Indians constitute
about 60 percent of the population-as elsewhere in Central and
South America-the modern requerimiento calls upon native peoples
either to accept governmental expropriation of their lands and
the consignment of their families to forced labor under criollo
and ladino overlords, or be subjected to the violence of military
death squads. In South Dakota, where Indians constitute about
6 percent of the population-as elsewhere in North America-the
effort to destroy what remains of indigenous cultural life involves
a greater degree of what Alexis de Tocqueville described as America's
"chaste affection for legal formalities." Here, the
modern requerimiento pressures Indians either to leave the reservation
and enter an American society where they will be bereft and cultureless
people in a land where poor people of color suffer systematic
oppression and an ever-worsening condition of merciless inequality,
or remain on the reservation and attempt to preserve their culture
amidst the wreckage of governmentally imposed poverty, hunger,
ill health, despondency, and the endless attempts of the federal
and state governments at land and resource usurpation.
The Columbian Quincentennial celebrations
have encouraged scholars worldwide to pore over the Admiral's
life and work, to investigate every rumor about his ancestry and
to analyze every jotting in the margins of his books. Perhaps
the most revealing insight into the man, as into the enduring
Western civilization that he represented, however, is a bland
and simple sentence that rarely is noticed in his letter to the
Spanish sovereigns, written on *he way home from his initial voyage
to the Indies. After searching the coasts of all the islands he
had encountered for signs of wealth and princes and great cities,
Columbus says he decided to send "two men upcountry"
to see what they could see. "They traveled for three days,"
he wrote, "and found an infinite number of small villages
and people without number, but nothing of importance."
People without number-but nothing of importance.
It would become a motto for the ages.