This article originally appeared in Cicero Magazine on 30 June 2014.
The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office have cancelled the trademark registration of the Washington Redskins football team, convinced the team’s logo and name is an offensive racial slur against Native Americans. It is an offensive name, more so than any other sports mascot with an ethnic connection. The decision followed a widespread public campaign and letters from 50 U.S. Senators urging a name change. Following the ruling, some, such as Simon Waxman, claim the effort needs to go further. He claims the U.S. military is guilty of the same racist conduct in using Native American tribal names and the names of Native leaders for equipment and operations. Is there a difference between the Washington Redskins and an AH-64 Apache attack helicopter?
Waxman claims that the use by the U.S. military of the tribal names such as Kiowa and Chinook, weapons such as the tomahawk, or names such as Grey Eagle and Geronimo are offensive. His evidence is the systematic U.S. campaign of “manifest destiny” which saw America expand its way across the whole of the continent, crushing Native tribes in the process.
It is true. The United States fought, tricked, cajoled, murdered and coerced Native tribes into moving off their own land and the U.S. military was the tool most often used to achieve it. By the turn of the 20th century, Native tribes had all but vanished from America. According to Waxman, the campaign was racist and it is therefore racially offensive for the military to use Native terms.
The U.S. military does honor Native American tribes for their warrior culture and fighting spirit because it is worthy of respect and honor and the American military requires and fosters a similar warrior culture.
However, there is no such thing as a “Redskin” helicopter or a “Native Savage” cruise missile. The military does have Kiowa helicopters and Tomahawk cruise missiles. The Kiowa were a real tribe and the tomahawk was a real weapon and Geronimo and Grey Eagle were real Native leaders. There is no racist connotation in the use of the names themselves. Waxman’s assertion is that since the U.S. military crushed Native tribes it is racist for the military to use terms associated with peoples it defeated. Waxman compares it, citing Noam Chomsky, with the hypothetical situation if the Nazi’s would have called their tanks or fighters “Jew” or “Gypsy”.
So why is it different? The U.S. military almost always uses themed names for different series’ of equipment. Aircraft carriers are named after U.S. Presidents or other leaders. Battleships were named after U.S. states. Submarines are often named after aquatic animals. Fighter jets are christened with birds of prey. Armored vehicles are named after Generals. The military does this to impart an association to that system of characteristics of its namesake and to honor them, not to disparage a vanquished foe. The association helps to build esprit de corps among those who are stationed on, maintain, use or operate the system.
How can it be that the U.S. military named its helicopters after Native tribes for racist motivations, but named its aircraft carriers after Presidents and Senators out of respect and to honor them? Was it racist against the British to commission the USS George Washington? How about the Sherman tank against white Southerners? If military equipment is named after vanquished foes, why don’t we have a “King George III” submarine, a “Nazi” landing craft, or “Hammer and Sickle” tanks. Waxman would surely argue that it is cynical to believe that the U.S. military, which spent decades hunting the Natives in the Southwest, would honor the same tribes today. That is because Waxman—who never served in the military—like many other people does not understand the concept of warrior culture.
Most Native American tribes had some form of warrior culture. They trained their young men not only to peacefully hunt animals and gather berries in the woods, as naïve and unbalanced narratives picture them, but to fight against neighboring bands, sometimes from the same tribe. They developed and conducted religious rituals in preparation and upon return from war. For many Native tribes, war was a way of life. They were not just the wide-eyed peaceful daisies waiting to be plucked as many postmodernist thinkers—like Noam Chomsky—portray them as. They were proud warriors, not just victims.
They believed there was no greater feat than to meet and defeat a foe in battle and no greater honor than to die in battle one’s self. When white settlers moved into their territory, they conducted raids upon them. It was on their land and therefore fair game. They knew violence would be met with violence. That was life. However, the tribes did not have the technological ability or the population to defeat a European foe which had systematic designs on making the entire continent their own. Despite the overwhelming odds against them, they resisted the white man for decades. The Comanche stopped the northern advance of Spain from Mexico, the westward advance of France out of Louisiana, and the advances of both Texas and the United States as well. Not a bad return for a people forced to live in the Llano Estacado, a desert corner of west Texas which even today is barren land. The warrior culture and fighting spirit of Native Americans is indeed worthy of respect.
Ask an American soldier today if they consider Native Americans defeated enemies of the country or if they consider them warriors worthy of respect. They will answer with respect, hands down.The United States military has a warrior culture of its own. American troops believe that, as George Orwell says, “People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.” Today less than 1% of America serves in the all-volunteer military and they come home to a country that does not understand them when they do. American veterans turn to one another for support. It reinforces a warrior culture. No one pays the costs of war more than the soldier. They understand that the world is a real and dangerous place where there are other people who want to see America fail and to harm and kill Americans. It is not something that just happens to someone else on TV. It is because of America’s warriors and their warrior culture that people such as Waxman and Chomsky never have to see or experience this first-hand. America’s warriors keep the wolf from the door.
So, yes, the U.S. military does honor Native American tribes for their warrior culture and fighting spirit because it is worthy of respect and honor and the American military requires and fosters a similar warrior culture. But those who do not understand warrior culture or violence and reject it in all of its forms would not understand such a feeling. They would have to believe that is just cynical, racist mocking to name a weapons system a Tomahawk, or a deadly attack helicopter an Apache, or a drone Grey Eagle. Ask an American soldier today if they consider Native Americans defeated enemies of the country or if they consider them warriors worthy of respect. They will answer with respect, hands down.
Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder has attempted to justify the racist name of his team by using a similar argument. He argues that the Redskins moniker is a “badge of honor” and its use is meant to impart to his football team the fierce warrior fighting spirit associated with Native tribes. So what’s the difference?
It may come as a shock to some, but football is just a game. No one dies. Nothing tangible for the country rides upon victory or loss by one side or the other. While players are skilful and do risk injury, they also get paid ridiculous sums of money and receive excellent health care. Real soldiers are lucky to receive either. Many professional athletes act more like prima donnas than warriors. The tired old metaphors that equate sports with combat should be retired. They are offensive to those who really do fight. Many professional and amateur athletes themselves recognize that. There is no real warrior culture in football. It is just a game. Dan Snyder should not equate his team’s racist mascot with honor. Retire the “Redskins”.
On the other hand, Simon Waxman and likeminded individuals should suspend their disbelief that the U.S. military can in fact honor Native Americans and that it is not just cynical racism. It is clear to see why they have made the mistake and misunderstand the difference. It is an alien concept to them. The U.S government, the U.S. military and the American people of the time all took part in an act of genocide against Native Americans. That is a fact. That cannot be undone. However, no one alive today took part in those actions. The people who named these weapons systems after Native Americans did not have it in mind as a cynical ‘endzone dance’ against a defeated opponent when they did so.
The U.S. military chose to adopt Native American terms for these weapons and platforms in order to honor the warrior culture associated with them, to build esprit de corps among those servicemembers associated with them, and because the U.S. military has a proud warrior culture of its own. That is not racist. Get rid of the Washington “Redskins”, but keep the AH-64 Apache.