The Battle of the Little Big Tinhorn

I used to think that “history is what it was” but that really isn’t true. History is what it is, and that “is” is eternally in flux.

One of the most popular images of “Custer’s Last Stand”
It hung in bars and saloons across Budweiser’s distribution  network 

Let me give you the most obvious example: when I was a kid, Col. George Armstrong Custer was a venerable American hero, and had been for decades. Errol Flynn and Robert Shaw (neither Americans) had played him in the movies, along with countless others.

An entire Custer publishing industry had sprung up after his death, not the least of which was his widow  Elizabeth Custer, who spent a lot of time burnishing her late husband’s reputation.

Elizabeth “Libby” Custer

And, in classic military screwup manner, more Medals of Honor* were given for “The Battle of the Little Bighorn” or the “Custer Massacre,” or “Custer’s Last Stand” than in any other U.S. Military engagement, before or since.

[* 24 Medals of Honor were awarded to Reno and Benteen’s surviving troops, 19 for getting water.]

But we see that history differently now, and Custer is no longer the “Hero” and Sitting Bull the “Villain” of the set piece.

And, I don’t think Congress has awarded a Medal of Honor for fetching water in the intervening 135 years.

So, too, Nine-Eleven. And Nine-Eleven has its Libby Custer. Two, in fact.

This weekend, there is already a concerted effort to burnish the reputations (a euphemism) of those far less capable strategists, George Bush, Jr. and Richard Bruce Cheney. By theirownselves, coincidentally.

Bush Credits ‘The Work That Was Done’ During ‘My Presidency’ For Osama Bin Laden’s Death
By Ben Armbruster on Sep 9, 2011 at 10:19 am

President Bush sat down with USA Today to discuss the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks and his role in shaping U.S. policy in their aftermath. During the interview, Bush thought he’d take the opportunity to pat himself on the back for Osama bin Laden’s death:

Bush said the events that led to the death of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in May began during his administration.

“The work that was done by intelligence communities during my presidency was part of putting together the puzzle that enabled us to see the full picture of how bin Laden was communicating and eventually where he was hiding,” he said. “It began the day after 9/11.”

The reality, of course, is that Bush’s attempts to capture or kill bin Laden were huge failures. While it’s been well documented that the Bush administration missed an opportunity to get bin Laden in Tora Bora in 2001, Bush himself subsequently stated publicly that he wasn’t spending much time thinking about getting him. “I truly am not that concerned about him. I am deeply concerned about Iraq,” Bush said in 2002, “I really just don’t spend that much time on him, to be honest with you.” Bush told reporters in 2006 that hunting the al Qaeda leader was “not a top priority use of American resources.”

And in 2005, Bush shut down the CIA’s unit dedicated to finding bin Laden in order to shift resources to Iraq….

Just like Dick “Darth” Cheney to(a)day(ie):

Dick Cheney defends use of torture on al-Qaida leaders
Former US vice-president says Bin Laden would not have been found without information gathered by waterboarding

Chris McGreal in Washington
The Guardian (UK)
Friday 9 September 2011 18.17 BST

Dick Cheney, the former US vice-president, has claimed Osama bin Laden would not have been tracked down and killed if it had not been for information gathered by torturing captured al-Qaida leaders.

In a robust defence of what he called “enhanced interrogation”, Cheney said it produced “phenomenal” results and dismissed the Obama administration’s investigations of its legality as “objectionable” and a “terrible precedent”.


Cheney said that waterboarding Khaled Sheikh Mohammed “helped produce the intelligence that allowed us to get Osama bin Laden”.

“It was out of the enhanced interrogation techniques that some of the leads came that ultimately produced the result when President Obama was able to send in Seal Team 6 to kill Bin Laden,” he said.

“They’ve been successful in part because of the capabilities we left them with, the intelligence we left them with, because of what we learned from men like Khaled Sheikh Mohammed back when he was subjected. I think it’s a mistake not to have an enhanced interrogation programme available now. I don’t know what they would do today if they captured the equivalent of Khaled Sheikh Mohammed.”

Obama administration officials and Dianne Feinstein, head of the Senate intelligence committee, have denied Bin Laden was tracked down using information gained from waterboarding of Khaled Sheikh Mohammed.

Custer’s Last Stand

Now, was this enough? No. Darth insists on swinging the DeathStar around to complain about the investigation (but no prosecutions) of his torturing minions:

The former vice-president took a swipe at former administration officials who have since sought to distance themselves from the decision to use waterboarding. Colin Powell, the secretary of state at the time, has said there was no meeting at which the use of such methods was officially endorsed.

“The president signed up to it as did the other members of the national security council. Some of my colleagues may have forgotten that but in fact everybody who was a member of the national security council was informed about the essence of the programme and signed up to it,” he said.

Cheney said justice department officials had been “severely harassed” for offering legal opinions that waterboarding and other tortures did not breach the Geneva Conventions and were legal.

One of the things I’ve found most objectionable with respect to the Obama administration when they came in was the initial decision by the president and attorney general that they were going to investigate and prosecute the people in the intelligence community who had carried out this interrogation programme at our direction. I thought that was a terrible precedent to set,” he said.

The investigation went ahead but no prosecutions resulted.

I think it’s called doing a “Reverse Custer.” (Not to be confused with a Reverse Cowgirl.)

DETAIL: E.S. Paxson “Custer’s Last Stand” 1899
Click for more “last stand” paintings through the years. 



A writer, published author, novelist, literary critic and political observer for a quarter of a quarter-century more than a quarter-century, Hart Williams has lived in the American West for his entire life. Having grown up in Wyoming, Kansas and New Mexico, a survivor of Texas and a veteran of Hollywood, Mr. Williams currently lives in Oregon, along with an astonishing amount of pollen. He has a lively blog His Vorpal Sword. This is cross-posted from his blog.

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About Hart Williams

Mr. Williams grew up in Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas and New Mexico. He lived in Hollywood, California for many years. He has been published in The Washington Post, The Kansas City Star, The Santa Fe Sun, The Los Angeles Free Press, Oui Magazine, New West, and many, many more. A published novelist and a filmed screenwriter, Mr. Williams eschews the decadence of Hollywood for the simple, wholesome goodness of the plain, honest people of the land. He enjoys Luis Buñuel documentaries immensely.
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