The Reluctant Conquerors

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If we appreciate the military’s doubts—of its mandate, of its justice, of its ability, as well as of its commitments to civilization, duty, and progress—the tragedy of the West does not go away. It deepens. Was there an escape from the emotional trap in which the Army found itself? To refuse to win the West would have required a conversion to primitivism hard to imagine inside the ranks of army life and scarcely imaginable in ordinary men living ordinary lives outside of the Army. But the career of one lieutenant in the Nez Perce war illustrates that such a transformation was possible.

Charles Erskine Scott Wood (1852-1944) served on General O. O. Howard’s staff, and it was he who took down the very moving speech of the defeated Chief Joseph. Wood’s reflections on the Nez Perce campaign, published in the early 1880’s, struck the conventional balance between remorse and pride. Surveying the shameful record of white treaty violations, he warned his army colleagues that retribution might follow. Yet there seemed to be no other possible outcome—“forces” were “silently at work, beyond all human control,” against the red man’s survival. Wood, a gifted literary man, proceeded to join the somewhat crowded celebration of the culture he had worked to destroy, hymning the vividness and nobility of the Indian, qualities that seemed poignant by their passing. But in all this he declined to attack directly the civilization that had corrupted and supplanted the Indians’, and his fashionable sympathy sounded much like General Ouster’s.

But Wood was, in time, to change greatly. He quit the Army, entered the Columbia Law School, and began to cause trouble. Not satisfied with the state of letters or the law in his time, Wood allied himself with the radical Industrial Workers of the World and searched for a literary form to express his increasingly anarchistic temperament. The fruit of this veteran’s singular rehabilitation was a long experimental poem, The Poet in the Desert , an affecting personal renunciation of “civilization” and a call for the revolt of the masses against privilege. Wood, with booming voice and flowing white beard, was in the twentieth century rather like Father Time—reminding Americans of sins against the Indians. He knew:

I have lain out with the brown men And know they are favored. Nature whispered to them her secrets, But passed me by. I sprawled flat in the bunch-grass, a target For the just bullets of my brown brothers betrayed. I was a soldier, and, at command, Had gone out to kill and be killed. We swept like fire over the smoke-browned tee-pees; Their conical tops peering above the willows. We frightened the air with crackle of rifles, Women’s shrieks, children’s screams, Shrill yells of savages; Curses of Christians. The rifles chuckled continually. A poor people who asked nothing but freedom, Butchered in the dark.

Wood’s polemic is more straightforward than many that are asserted today on behalf of the native Americans. He learned—and his colleagues in the Army demonstrated—that respect and compassion for another culture are very unsure checks on violence. And Wood’s life points out one of the costs of war that Americans have generally been spared: in a prolonged campaign the victor can emerge attracted to his enemy’s faith. Our frontier officers had put a civil war behind them and were not ready to turn against their society to save the red man. But their thoughtfully expressed ambivalence toward their task of winning the West throws a revealing light on a history that is still too often falsified with glib stereotypes.

An Officer’s Son With Chief Joseph