Sunday Morning at the Movies: Hostiles

Widely reported are the statistics on suicides in the US military. Also reported are the number of Post-Traumatic Stress cases in the groups who were deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq. The reported percentage is somewhere between 11 and 20 percent.

Unreported were the number of veterans from the protracted war with the various Native American tribes who suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress, but the number must have been high. The Indian Wars were low level conflicts between competing ways of life, which would sometimes turn hot and deadly in a moment. In that way, they were much like the wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Non-combatant deaths were high and sneak attacks were common.

The aftermath of the wars with the tribes, America’s first big civilizational as opposed to tactical, conflict, is admirably captured in the movie Hostiles with Christian Bale.

The story concerns Joe Blocker, a veteran US Army soldier who is reaching the end of his career. He is ordered to accomplish one final mission before retirement; he is to take a sickly Cheyenne Indian chief from New Mexico to Montana so the old man can die in The Valley of the Bears, which were once part of his ancestral homeland.

Blocker knows Chief Yellow Hawk well; in earlier years, before the US Army finally overcame all Indian resistance, the two were adversaries. Blocker witnessed Yellow Hawk kill US soldiers, including many of Blocker’s friends. But, as the film begins, the wars are drawing to a close and Blocker is assigned the duty to protect his former enemy on the long and perilous trip up the spine of the Rockies. The order has come from the president himself because the fate of the now defeated Natives was emerging as a political issue.

Before embarking on the journey, Blocker has a conversation with one of his men, Tommy, who tells him he has “the melancholia” and has had his weapons and rank taken away. They speak about what they’ve seen over the passing years, about the slaughter they’ve both witnessed and perpetrated in the long years of fighting. They’ve seen bloody close up violence, carried out with guns, knives, and rifle butts on wounded and dying men. They’ve seen the suffering of women and children. They’ve seen rape, murder, torture, and bodies left to rot in the sun.

Now, it’s all coming to an end. All of Blocker’s men are suffering from what we’d now call PTSD.

Blocker leaves New Mexico with the Chief and his family and comes across a burned-out farm house where he finds a woman cuddling her dead baby and surrounded by her dead family. She is the lone survivor of a Comanche attack. The bloodshed, it seems, is still not over. Blocker takes her along with his party, though she is clearly sick with shock over what she’s seen. Knowing the Comanche are “rattlesnake people,” Yellow Hawk begs to be unchained so he can fight with his former enemy against the Comanche, an even deadlier enemy. Blocker relents and unchains his captives; he knows not all Natives are created equal. Such are the expediencies and dichotomies of war.

In the end, Chief Yellow Hawk is returned home. Blocker protects the old man and delivers him to his final resting place but at great cost; most of his men are killed along the way. In their final moments together, Blocker acknowledges what the US Army has done, and the men make a final and separate peace.

Cut forward 100 years…

When Saddam Hussein ordered the invasion of Kuwait in 1990, an outraged Saudi citizen named Osama Bin Laden contacted the Saudi King and offered the use of his tribal Afghan forces, men hardened through years of battle with the atheist and nominally European Soviets, to defend the Kingdom. Saudi Arabia contains Mecca and Medina, Islam’s holiest sites, and the fear was that Hussein, who had already tried to invade Iran, and now had invaded Kuwait, would make the next clock turn West towards the Saudis.

The Saudi King declined Bin Laden’s offer, and instead turned to the Western powers, specifically the United States, for protection. American soldiers, an infidel army led by President George H. W. Bush, swarmed into the region.

Bin Laden was outraged that the non-believers were in his native land and 11 years later he converted that outrage into a airborne suicide attack on the World Trade Center in New York, which set in motion the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq by more Western forces, led by the United States under the direction of George W. Bush.

Thousands of US soldiers died in Afghanistan and Iraq, and thousands more bear the scars of such a conflict in both body and mind. The American military spend 8 years in Iraq and 20 more in Afghanistan.

In many ways, the conflict with the Natives was similar to the situation in the Middle East. The violent jihadists say that the Western powers (which means mainly the United States) have incurred on their land, brought their foreign religion and values to them, and consequently, the enraged jihadists use terror and attacks on civilians to fight back. The United States has made common cause with the Saudis and others to fight the terrorists. It was a civilizational conflict. With the Native, the combatants were those with a European derived life view versus the tribal natives who still lived as hunter-gatherers. In the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the fight was between the tribal forces of Islam versus the nominally Christian and industrial forces of the US and their middle Eastern allies.

Shia, Sunni, Cheyenne, Comanche… In both cases, the fighting was between rival ideas on how to live.

In Hostiles, Chief Yellow Hawk dies peacefully, but no such fate awaited Osama Bin Laden; he died as the result of taking a bullet to the head delivered by an American special forces soldier, thousands of miles from home, and then his body was dumped in to the Indian Ocean. No apologies given. Nevertheless, the war with the jihadists is not over and complete victory is not in sight. This conflict between civilizations is likely to carry on for a long, long time.

We only won the wars with the native tribes because we functionally killed them all and cowed the few survivors. The cost of ending slavery and taming the Natives was high on all sides. The American men who fight our wars pay a steep cost, now and forever.

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