March 9, 2007
I’ve been meaning to post about my great-uncle Neil, but I just never get around to it… Until I was motivated today after I pulled off the bookshelf a collection of articles that had been given to me via my grandfather, with the title Nacirema (wikipedia). I had an inkling about what the name might mean, but when I read the Introduction, it read like a real collection of scholarly articles on American cultural anthropology. In fact, Neil writes the final article, “The Mysterious Fall of the Nacimeran: This Vigorous Culture’s Obsession with Altering its Land and Waterways May Have Caused its own Death,” written in 1972 (I was delighted to have found the article online–hence the link). Put down your Harry Potter and read this article–it is wonderfully illuminating.
Over the last two years, as both of my maternal grandparents passed away, I had the unexpected good fortune of discovering a previously unknown family relative: Neil Baird Thomspon, a former professor of American Studies at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota. He died prematurely of cancer in 1977. An intellectual and a man with vision, he took his illness as an opportunity not only to prepare the manuscript on which he was working, and which would be published two years after his death, but to prepare his own “humanistic” funeral. There is a surviving audio tape of the funeral that I have not heard; but I am told that in the car on the way back from Minnesota, I (a year and a half old) uttered my first word: wa-ter.
The book was completed by a colleague who wrote “In Memoriam” that “Because Neil was a careful and complete craftsman, his drafts and notes eased the final work of publication.” I cannot imagine much higher a complement to be paid. When I received a copy from my aunt last year, I read it with the enthusiasm of meeting someone I had longed to meet. There are many wonderful features of the book, but most of all its careful, concise and measured prose made reading it a joy.
The Foreword describes the book as “a vivid portrayal of the events which transpired during the Indian Wars Campaign following the Civil War and services performed by that relatively small Regular Army force engaged in securing the western plains for occupation and settlement by the white man.” More than anything, it is a meditation on the real life situation (‘on the ground’ as we say today) of the American footsoldier. Its title, Crazy Horse Called Them Walk-A-Heaps, expresses much of Thompson’s final assessment in a few, poignant words. Published in 1979, it provides a well-developed complement to, for instance, Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (1970). Using the Battle of Little Bighorn as its guiding point, it supplements that pioneering work on the Native American realities of the great plains wars with an equally sensitive portrayal of the American footsoldier himself.
Like any good historical account, Thompson’s study of the Regular Army has as much to teach us today about the politics of war as it teaches us to distrust our romantic visions of the past. Indeed, it seems that the United States was singularly unprepared to undertake its mission of securing the west from the “ravages” of the “lawless” Native Americans. The Regular Army was a rag-tag force of Civil War veterans, foreign recruits and vagabonds. They were underfunded, ill-prepared, inappropriately supplied and their various forts and encampments were only loosely connected. Meanwhile, the political establishment and the media back east kept the populous woefully ignorant of the real status of the ongoing conflict. In concluding a chapter called, “The Hydra-headed Monster: The Nation’s Interests and the Army,” Thompson writes:
Two of a kind, those–the soldier and the Indian. Disliked, feared, treated with contempt, they were kept from an intimate relationship by ambiguities, animosities and the greediness of those people who created the murky situation in which they were the primary pawns. And so the trooper and the warrior fought and killed each other while developing hatreds to last more than a lifetime.
Neil Thompson, like his brother (my grandfather), was a WWII GI and a devoted soldier. He does not bring to his analysis any a priori distain for war or soldiers. Just the opposite, his assessment of the R.A. soldier is admiring and illuminating. He sees the soldiers as victims of a bureaucratic tangle, brought about by greed for expansion to the west and an army that was unfit to fight a war over such a vast landscape, against a superbly trained guerrilla warrior. As the previous quotation makes clear, he extended the same respect and empathic perspective to the Native American warriors. For them, Thompson observers, horsemanship and the ability to navigate the landscape were simply part of life: “the lifestyle of the horse Indian produced a superior fighting man. His value system, his concept of logistics, his use of the horse, his tactical sense, his medical knowledge, all contributed to make the warrior.”
A chapter called “Gentlemen by Act of Congress: The Officer’s Corps” describes how the American soldier, though undertrained and underequiped, rose to the occasion of the war. Despite woeful conditions and a lack of funds, these soldiers made the most of it. Select officers who possessed innate military acumen adapted to the style of warfare waged by the Native Americans to some effect. Almost more remarkably, however, Thompson records impressive scientific observations of the topography, flora and fauna of the western plains carried out by officers. One developed into what Thompson calls a “litterateur,” writing some 86 novels, while others preserved a more modest body of information about paleontology or weather.
No, there was nothing reprehensible about the American soldier; and there remains a wealth of reasons to ponder over what we lost with the deaths of so many American Indians… It was simply the war itself, the policy that governed it and the way in which it was executed that made that period such a morally bleak era in American history.
In fact, Thompson is quite clear that the stated policy of expansion was hardly advanced by this foolhearty war. Indeed, it seems that white settlement, the railroads, disease and the destruction of the buffalo were the real reasons for the annihilation of the Native American civilization. In fact, the most positive outcome of the great war in the plains was that it readied an outdated and aging military for the wars of the twentieth century.
One can only conclude that the R.A. was really a quite minor factor in the “civilizing” of our last frontier. We can surmise that the men who faced the Indian Campaigns, risked life and limb against some of the finest light cavalry the world had ever seen, finally learned what it took to make a modern army. Those hard lessons finally forced that army into being.
As I mentioned at the outset, the book was posthumously edited and published. Though I believe the argument is complete and the writing certainly fluid, I wonder what more uncle Neil may have had to say. As it stands, the book seems to end abruptly. But the last few paragraphs portend wonderful insights:
Given such a slap-dash organization, the history of the Indian Campaigns could be little more than the series of ill-managed episodes that it was…. The Old Army was a grand spectacle–of individuals. It certainly was not a grand army. the historian finds it difficult to call it an army at all.
One wonders how he would have understood this claim in light of the broader identity and development of a nation of frontierspeople. A nation, as his tongue-and-cheek “Nacirema” article suggests, that is so driven by consumption and its desire to alter its environment that it would someday (gasp!) bring about its own demise.