excerpted from the book

American Holocaust

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 six-year-old."


... 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.

American Holocaust