There is always one! One book in the airport bookstore that looks like something I might actually want to read. This time it was “Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History,” by S.C. Gwynne (Scribner, 2011).
Mind you, the title alone carries at least one red flag. Were the Comanche really the “most powerful Indian tribe in American history?” Reading the book, I began to wonder if there was ever a raid, or a battle, or a tribe that didn’t strike the author as “the most’ or “the greatest” something? Seriously, this book, has the most superlatives contained in any volume published in this century. (Okay, not really, but it has enough of them that it looked kind of fun. So, I thought I’d try it.) But faced with 16 hours in the hands of the airlines (the most air-time ever… Okay I’ll stop, really, I will), it just looked like the kind of fun-read that might do the trick for all those hours imitating a sardine. So, I bought it and put my larger, more theoretical, volume on the back burner, at least until Quanah could be “tamed,’ as I thought surely the book would put it.
I was not disappointed.
It is certainly an enjoyable yarn, and I learned a few things while reading it, but excessive superlatives aside, there are also a number of factual problems in the book. Gwynne, for example credits Spanish failure to protect the Pueblos with the cause of the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. This is simple confirmation bias. It ties their story more closely to the one Gwynne is telling. But it’s outright fiction. The Pueblo’s rebelled against the Spanish because what the Spanish were doing to them, not because of what the Spanish were not doing for them. Other critics have raised similar objections to other parts of the book, but I’m not really interested in picking apart the details.
What does strike me about this work is its use of a familiar spin. Gwynne is a firm believer in the march of progress, and he does not hesitate to frame the Comanche squarely in this larger story. Channeling Frederick Jackson Turner, Gwynne is telling the tale of the clash between savagery and civilization at the edge of the frontier. And Comanche play a damned familiar role in that story.
It is not really that Gwynne describes the horrors of Comanche raiding in vivid detail, or that he recounts the torture and execution of white captives in numerous chapters. I don’t need sugar-coating in my history books, nor do I need constant reassurance that an author is not a racist. But “progress” is a faith I can do without, and this book would have been much better without it.
Simply put, Gwynne sees Comanche’s as exemplars of a more primitive life-way than Europeans, or even a number of other Indian peoples. His reasons are familiar; they are hunter-gatherers, which sets them apart from and well behind the progress of agricultural societies, from the Pueblos to the Spaniards, …maybe even the Texans. To Gwynn, the cruelties that Comanche’s inflicted on their enemies stem from their lack of progress in comparison to Agricultural tribes such as those found in Mexico.
If the irony of that comparison doesn’t scream in your ears, then perhaps we could take a little time to discuss the history of Central American civilization. …Well some other time, anyway.
On some level, I cannot help but think Gwynne must know better. He certainly does not hesitate to tell us about the atrocities committed by other peoples, including Texans. At times, he seems quite prepared to concede all the facts which should suggest a degree of moral parity. Yet Gwynne sees a difference between the cruelties of commanches and those of other people.
Gwynne has at least the beginnings of an explanation for the difference. He maintains that other peoples consistently show some level of condemnation for the act of torture. Such brutal violence may be carried out by civilizations as modern as our own, but Gwynne seems to suggest, we at least know it is wrong. The Comanche however, revel in it. And that makes all the difference in the world to Gwynne. It is the difference between a “savage,” a “low barbarian,” and someone from a civilization.
So, apparently, cognitive dissonance is a virtue. If you have to torture someone, then you should at least feel bad about it.
But I cannot help thinking we can do better than that! We can relegate the job to soldiers serving on some far-flung corner of the world, and if those soldiers should fail to be just as violant as we wish them to be (no more and no less), or should they fail to cover up any actual cruelties they might commit, then perhaps we can just disown them. If nothing else fails, we can at least wring our hands about it, schedule a few talking heads to debate it on the news channels, and sweat a lot over the whole thing. Because knowing at least that torture is wrong sets us apart from those that do not, or so it would seem
In torture, as in Christmas gifts, it is apparently the thought that counts.
It is an interesting question, just how it is that societies allocate boundaries within which cruelty becomes objectionable, and how do they square those boundaries with the interests of military defense, …or outright conquest? Both of these are damned tough problem to sort out, and woe be unto those who end up on the wrong side of the sorting, at least when someone with a camera-phone is around to record it!
The story of Quanah Parker would not be a bad spring board for addressing questions about the cultural construction of violence. It certainly provides enough fodder to get the issue squarely on the table, but of course all this falls by the wayside when the author has recourse to a convenient explanation with a lot of cultural force behind it. The Comanche’s are cruel because they are savage. Others are cruel because their civilization has yet to be perfected.
This probably is not the best place to try to refute the notion of progress. Suffice to say, that I consider it largely a dead issue, at least as applied to the history of Indian-white relations, and certainly in reference to the comparison between hunter-gathering economies and those of settled agriculturists. Hell, the critique of this notion has been done and redone for a couple of generations of scholarship now. Were I to come across a learned article purporting to refute the notion of progress, I would no doubt feel sympathy for the dead horse that was about to be kicked. And yet, in this book, I find that dead horse alive and grazing in the pastures of every airport in the country.
When the average American reads about Comanche history for the next few months anyway, there is a damned good chance they will read it in this book. They will learn a lot to be sure, much of it reasonably accurate, informative, and interesting. And they will also read in that book yet another chapter in the myth of the progress of civilization.
It is just a little depressing.