Massacres, Part 1: The Rules of War Are Made For Breaking

Steve Russell

“Massacre” is a slippery pejorative like “terrorist.” If one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter or asymmetrical warrior, it’s also true that the prevailing party in a battle never describes it as a massacre. Just typing those words reminded me of a one-sided battle from WWII, which our prevailing airmen have always called “the Marianas turkey shoot” instead of the more anodyne “Battle of the Philippine Sea.”

The Turkey Shoot was as one-sided as many if not most battles from the Indian wars. Both the colonists and the Indians generally took whatever advantages they had and went for not just decimating but destroying. The Indians never completely gave up driving white people back where they came from and the white people came to view the Indians as vermin that threatened the entire colonial enterprise and therefore had to be exterminated.

The English colonists, declaring political independence from their motherland, listed a bill of particulars against King George III as justification for what would certainly be treason if they lost the resulting war. Among the offenses alleged against the King:

He has…endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

Raised where Indians were the most numerous minority, I was supposed to be lucky that, unlike the black kids, I was offered the same education as the whites. As soon as I knew the word “massacre,” I was told it was something Indians did to white people.

The black and white “westerns” we saw for a nickel at the Walmur Theater, where we could sit where we pleased while the black kids sat in the balcony, taught the same.

History as taught in K-12 is a largely mythical narration of the story that led inevitably to the Greatest Country in the World. I suppose it’s taught that way everywhere, with only difference being the identity of the Greatest Country in the World.

Only in what we call “higher education” do we begin to understand history as many sets of narratives, “contested discourses” in postmodern jargon. Historical reality is thought to be like sex in that only adults are equipped to handle it

A very early encounter with the merciless Indian savages was the colony at Roanoke Island, in what is now North Carolina. At this point, nobody really knows if the Indians assimilated the colony or massacred it. The history of Roanoke colonization makes either outcome possible, but if the colonists died at the hands of the Indians, it did not happen at the location of the colony, because no remains were found. Forced to guess, most scholars would hold that the colonists married into local tribes, and the Indians saved their lives rather than took them.

If the locals did wipe out the Roanoke Colony, the body count would have been slightly over 100, including women and children, and the killing would have occurred between 1587 and 1590. Faced with the mystery of the Roanoke Colony, many colonial leaders used it to feed the narrative of a frontier ruled by dangerous and merciless savages, a narrative that pumped up their importance and justified appropriations for military hardware.

A hundred years later, the merciless savages were still at it, according to colonist John Douglas Borthwick, writing in History and Biographical Gazetteer of Montreal to the Year 1892. Borthwick acquainted his readers with the Lachine Massacre of 1689, when Mohawks fell on a French settlement named in ridicule of French explorers going up the St. Lawrence to find China (“la Chine”).

All sources agree the Mohawks killed about 250 of a Lachine population just north of 350. Borthwick called the Lachine Massacre an example of the “treachery of the Indians” who were “savages” and “fiendish murderers.”

Mohawks attacked Lachine as part of the “Beaver Wars,” in which the French deployed military force to stop the Haudenosaunee Confederacy from trading with the English.

Two years earlier, French Governor Jacques-René de Brisay de Denonville, Marquis de Denonville, claiming to seek trade concessions (which was true as far as it went), attended a meeting 50 Haudenosaunee Confederacy sachems under a flag of truce at the Onondaga council fire. At this time, the Haudenosaunee peoples we know today as the Six Nations were the Five Nations, because the Tuscarora had not yet joined. The Council at Onondaga was equipped to negotiate for the Five.

Disregarding his flag of truce, Denonville kidnapped all 50 leaders and sent them in chains to France to be used as slaves, assuming he had just decapitated the hereditary leadership of the Five Nations. He then attacked the Senecas, destroying settlements thought to be trading with the English at Ganondagan and Totiakton. As important as killing the inhabitants, from the French point of view, was the theft and destruction of Seneca animals and crops, starvation as a tactic of war—in our day, a war crime.

After the Mohawks destroyed Lachine in retaliation for the French devastation of the Senecas, Denonville was replaced by Louis de Buade, Comte de Frontenac et de Palluau, who quickly realized the damage done by kidnapping Indian leaders under a flag of truce. Frontenac had the survivors, 13 of the 50 taken, returned to “New France” for repatriation.

Frontenac was an early example of “going native.” He learned the war songs of the friendly tribes and the customs of speaking in council. He had a major clash with the Black Robes over selling brandy to the Indians, which the Black Robes thought sinful and Frontenac thought normal among men.

There was a lot of barbaric by modern standards tit-for-tat before the Beaver Wars wound down with both sides realizing they could not destroy the other entirely. The dueling demands of French and English colonists for exclusive trading rights and the habits of both colonial nations keeping back certain goods for political reasons—more often firearms than alcohol—kept the pot of shifting tribal alliances stirred until it boiled again three generations later in La Guerre de la Conquête, the North American front in the Seven Years’ War, known in the English colonies as the French and Indian War.

Tribes took sides according to their immediate interests, but most sided with the French in a war where the future military leader of the colonial revolt, George Washington, saw his first combat. Washington’s success in the revolution—using tactics copied from the Indians but thought by the British to be beneath a gentleman—would set off a wave of colonial encroachment on Indian lands and plenty of massacres perpetrated by colonists grasping for land and Indians defending what they had left.

We are taught that the modern idea of total war, erasing the distinction between soldiers and non-combatants, started with the idea of “strategic bombing” by both sides in WWII. The purposes were to demoralize the home front and disrupt supplies.

The history of the Americas shows slaughter of non-combatants is nothing new. If Carl von Clausewitz had it right in his famous dictim, “War is merely the continuation of politics by other means,” the slaughter of women and children has been the continuation of war by other means.

The other obvious commonality between WWII and the Indian wars is both sides pointing fingers at the other on the issue of who started it. There were always “rules of war,” for what they were worth. Any attempt to enforce those “rules” has always been met by what we lawyers call tu quoque, “you do it, too.”

Part II will bring this discussion to current events in Afghanistan.

Steve Russell, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is a Texas trial court judge by assignment and associate professor emeritus of criminal justice at Indiana University-Bloomington. He lives in Georgetown, Texas.

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