Happy Anniversary, George A. Custer. You Didn't Learn From Interventionism Either.


Battle of the Little Big Horn
Public Domain

On June 25-26, Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho warriors demonstrated that even underdog natives have a fighting chance against the forces of an advanced and aggressive power—at least if the advanced troops are led by a vain and arrogant commander and hobbled by idiotic bureaucracy. Once widely venerated as an American hero, George Armstrong Custer is now largely regarded as a brutal enforcer of inhumane policies against Native Americans, and man who paved the way to his own demise—while taking a lot of other people with him.

James "Public Policy Hooligan" Bovard notes the historical significance of the date, and the lessons to be drawn from it.

On this day in 1876, George S. Custer led his 7th Cavalry regiment to their demise in Montana. The Battle of Little Big Horn was one of the biggest defeats suffered by the U.S. Army in the war against the Indians. It is only in recent years that proper attention has been paid to the role of atrocities by Custer and other military leaders in stirring up the wrath of oppressed Indians.

Custer was something of a protégé of General Philip Sheridan, he of "the only good Indians I ever saw were dead" fame. That was a quote Sheridan denied uttering, though his prosecution of the Indian Wars lived up to its tone, and Custer was a tool in that prosecution. Not surprisingly, such ham-handed attacks on Native Americans provoked anger and led to retaliation.

The Battle of Little Big Horn was lost by Custer and his soldiers not just because he stirred a hornet's nest and then stuck his head (and those of his men) in, but because his troops were denied the products of the industrial civilization they represented. As Bovard puts it, "Custer's men were wiped out in part because the Army Quartermaster refused to permit them to carry repeating rifles—which supposedly wasted ammo. The Indians didn't have a quartermaster, so they had repeating rifles, and the rest is history."

There is no arrogant, oppressive power so overwhelming that it can't be crippled by red tape.

It's not as if Custer hadn't had ample warning that his good looks on horseback were insufficient defense against the wrath of guerrilla forces. While leading his troops at the Washita Massacre, during which he attacked and killed Cheyenne Indians living peacefully on reservation land, he was almost cut off when he discovered that the settlement he attacked was only one of many.

Custer also went up, at great cost, Bovard points out, against the Confederacy's Col. John S. Mosby. Mosby very effectively used irregular tactics against Union forces in a lesson from which Custer apparently learned nothing.

Failing to learn from experience, whether it's a matter of response to tactics, or to avoid policies that invite blowback, is as much a problem now as it was then.