It happened today - June 25, 2015

Little Big HornOn this date back in 1876 George Armstrong Custer bit the dust. At the Battle of Little Bighorn on June 25 he and his Seventh Cavalry were slaughtered to the last man. It’s hard not to cheer.

Military enthusiasts debate every detail of the battle from when exactly Custer died to what kind of idiot he was. A dead one is the basic reply. Custer may have been a pretty good officer through most of his career, despite graduating from West Point last in his class, though he certainly achieved permanent fame for his disastrous last battle. But I’m not cheering because of any particular animus against Custer. Indeed, I rather admire the way he annoyed President Grant because he exposed corruption. But my goodness, in the long and dismal history of American Indians being cheated beaten and driven off their land how can you not be happy that for once they won a major victory?

It doesn’t matter whether you’re a pacifist, or someone who thinks the emergence of the free societies of North America has been hugely beneficial to the course of world history. It doesn’t matter how much you admire the American military tradition. The fact remains that the Indians were treated miserably for centuries and never seemed to get a break and so when they win this one it’s got to make you happy.

To be sure, it didn’t help. Nothing could have. The fate of aboriginals in the Americas, as I have argued elsewhere including the National Post, was basically sealed when the first Europeans arrived in the late 15th century.

I’m no fatalist, but in this case (see Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel for more on this point) the gap in technology, the clash between literate and non-literate ways of life, and aboriginal susceptibility to European diseases bred in long centuries of intensive agriculture including animal husbandry, and of urbanisation, would have spelled doom for the traditional societies of the Americas regardless of human agency.

No amount of military heroics by Indians, or stupidity by cavalry commanders, could have changed the result. Indeed from the earliest resistance to the settlements at Jamestown and Massachusetts Bay to the final skirmishes in the late 19th century, individual battles just couldn’t alter the general trend. And so any enjoyment you derive from the victory at Little Big Horn is undermined by the fact that you know that what follows the battle is as dismal for the Indians as what went before.

Still, at least they won big once. How can you not cheer?