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Echoes of Very Distant Wars

Abraham in ArmsEchoes of Very Distant Wars, an essay by Ann M. Little, Associate Professor of History at Colorado State University and author of Abraham in Arms: War and Gender in Colonial New England

The current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq may appear to be a disturbingly different kind of war to modern Americans, most of whom encounter warfare only on the History Channel.  In nonstate warfare and wars of occupation, it’s very difficult to distinguish the warriors from noncombatants, so small-scale raids on neighborhoods and villages rather than large confrontations between armies on battlefields are the order of the day for Coalition forces.  The murderous struggle between the Sunnis and Shi’as in Iraq, and a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan, are manifested in attacks on civilian homes and families, including the taking of civilian and military captives—American journalists, soldiers, marines, and employees of private contractors as well as Iraqi and Afghan civilians and combatants.

But rather than being new, this is in fact a very old form of warfare.  From 1636 to 1763, Anglo-American settlers in colonial New England were embroiled in increasingly frequent wars with Native Americans and, as of 1689, New France.  New Englanders were enthusiastic about being the front line of defense against the intertwined evils of Indian “savagery” and French Catholic “heresy.”  And most of these wars were waged on civilian populations—Indians, French, and English people alike, on the northern and western frontiers of English settlement.  During the border wars from 1675 to 1763, 1,579 Anglo-American civilians and soldiers were taken captive, not to mention the hundreds of Indians who were taken and enslaved by Anglo-Americans in these wars.

There are other, more disturbing similarities between colonial and
modern warfare that center on ideas about family and gender roles.
Colonial Anglo-Americans complained that Native American women were
victimized as “squaw drudges” because they labored in the fields while
their men hunted and fished and, at the same time, criticized Indians
because of women’s real authority in the home, which New Englanders
called “insolence” and dismissed them as “proud gossip[s].” Similarly,
at the start of the Afghan invasion in 2001, Americans were told that
we needed to destroy the Taliban not just because it provided a safe
haven for Al-Qaeda but also because of its retrograde notions about
women’s roles, symbolized by the suffocating blue burkha. And although
Iraq under Saddam was a secular state, the U.S. invasion has resulted
in the greater suffering of Iraqi women under the de facto rule of
repressive fundamentalist factions. After hundreds of years, Americans
have yet to make our peace with feminist values and figure out if we
really want to make good on them or merely use them cynically when it
suits us.

Commentary on our current wars is similarly rife with language
about masculinity and sexuality, just as it was in seventeenth- and
eighteenth-century New England. In colonial warfare, Indian and English
men constantly taunted each other to “fight like a man,” and declared
“you dare not fight, you are all one like women,” demeaning both their
manhood and their humanity by hurling insults like “children,”
“greenhorns,” “dogs,” and “wolves.” While Anglo-American soldiers
believed they “acquitted themselves like men and like Christians,” they
also impugned the masculinity of their French foes in the eighteenth
century, viewing them as complicit victims of “Popery, Slavery, and
Arbitrary Power.” Throughout all of the recent conflicts in the
Middle East, we’re told by right-wing commentators that enemy soldiers
and civilians aren’t real men, and proponents of U.S. military actions
use language that demeans both the masculinity and the sexuality of
Arab and Muslim men, and of American opponents of Bush administration
foreign policy. The torture and sexual humiliation at Abu Ghraib
prison under U.S. control was a shameful example of this rhetoric made
flesh. Similarly, Americans who questioned the urgency of and the
planning for the invasion of Iraq were called “Saddamites,” in an
attempt to link them to the term “sodomite,” which is used exclusively
by religious fundamentalists and other people who believe being gay is
a degenerate lifestyle. This summer during the Israeli invasion of
Lebanon, Rush Limbaugh repeatedly referred to Hezbollah as “the
Hezbos,” an allusion to a demeaning term for lesbian. (Google these
words yourself, if you’ve got a strong stomach for the sweaty bluster of
talk radio and the right-wing blogosphere.)

Something else that connects these wars of the colonial
northeastern borderlands to our current wars is the strategic use of
ideas about family life to demonize an ethnically and religiously
different enemy. For example, we’re told that Muslims in Iraq and
Lebanon don’t have the same family values we do—they don’t love their
children as we do, but rather raise them to be suicide bombers.
Therefore, attacking civilians is legitimate—after all, these monstrous
mothers and their demonic children are just as guilty as any enemy
soldier in uniform.  Or, as Cpt. John Underhill put it in his apologia
for an English attack on a sleeping village of women, children, and
elderly Pequots in 1637, “it may bee demanded, Why should you be so
furious (as some have said) should not Christians have more mercy and
compassion?” Perhaps, he says, but “sometimes the Scripture declareth
women and children must perish with their parents.”  John Podhoretz
made a similar claim in July in the New York Post: “What if the
tactical mistake we made in Iraq was that we didn’t kill enough Sunnis
in the early going to intimidate them and make them so afraid of us
they would go along with anything?. . . . Are [our enemies] seeking
victory through demoralization alone – by daring us to match them in
barbarity and knowing we will fail?” At least Underhill had the guts
to answer his own rhetorical question.

For all that we like to flatter ourselves as modern and enlightened, in
contrast to our backwards-looking religious fundamentalist enemies, the
language we use to describe them betrays our investment in the same old
categories as our colonial forbears and contemporary foes alike. If we
can’t liberate ourselves from these old categories, what does that say
about our attempts to “liberate” Iraq and Afghanistan?