Monday, January 30, 2012

American Experience: Custer's Last Stand (PBS, 2012)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ended up screening the recent PBS program American Experience: Custer’s Last Stand, which despite its title was actually a fairly complete biography of George Armstrong Custer, an historically ambiguous figure of whom many details are obscure — even his actual rank in the officer corps of the U.S. army. The tombstone for him on the site of his last battle at the Little Big Horn (though his body is actually buried in the cemetery at West Point) in what was then Montana Territory has an inscription that refers to him as “Brt. Maj. Gen.,” with the “Brt.” standing for the no-longer-used military term “brevet.” It meant an officer who was temporarily promoted from a lower rank to a higher one during a war but only for its duration, with him being reduced automatically to his original rank when the war ended. In Custer’s case, he was promoted to brevet general from captain during the Civil War, rose from captain to colonel during the Indian Wars and when he went into battle at the Little Big Horn he was a brevet general (but only a brevet general!) again. The show, written and directed by Stephen Ives, blessedly kept those tacky re-creations of actual historical scenes with actors (usually filmed at angles avoiding showing their faces so as not to expose their non-resemblance to the images of the real people!) that have burdened many recent PBS documentaries, and it made at least a partial attempt to parallel the lives of Custer and Sitting Bull. (Oddly, the show did not mention Crazy Horse at all, even though when an historical commission had oral interviews done of survivors of the Little Big Horn — on the side that had survivors, the Indian side — in the 1920’s, the actual fighters said that it was Crazy Horse who had led the battle and was the person they credited with commanding the victory.)

The show’s version of Custer was basically a brilliant scapegrace, always falling behind on his classwork at West Point and then suddenly catching up, challenging authority even while attempting to rise in an institution — the military — probably more obsessed with order, discipline and hierarchy than any other human-created entity, and also (like his first Civil War superior, the notorious General George B. McClellan) convinced that he was destined for greatness. At times Custer seems a 19th century prototype of Newt Gingrich in his sheer egomania, and at other times he seems to have cast himself perfectly as the hero-villain of a typical war movie, the gung-ho commander who puts himself and his men at unnecessary risk but ultimately prevails. (It’s no accident that one of the most famous war movies of all time, They Died With Their Boots On, was made about Custer — or that an equally flamboyant, larger-than-life personality, Errol Flynn, played him.) The show also has a running theme of America’s treatment of the Indians, which was basically to drive them into ever smaller and smaller “reservations” on the ground that the whites were a superior race and therefore they should be able to expand their settlements across the whole country, the previous inhabitants be damned. When the Americans did it, they called it “Manifest Destiny”; when the Nazis tried it in 20th Century Europe they called it Lebensraum — “living space.” Like just about every honest depiction of the settling of the West, this program confirms that Adolf Hitler’s famous remark to Edward R. Murrow — “I’m only doing to the Jews what you did to the Indians” — was dead-on accurate. (Remember that Hitler’s favorite reading materials were the German-language Western pulps of Karl May, who had never visited the American West but had learned all the conventions of the Western genre from reading its American practitioners and faithfully copied them.)

Indeed, when this show mentioned that Custer had studied Indian languages and customs and considered himself sympathetic to them, I could only think of how Adolf Eichmann similarly researched the tenets of the Jewish religion and even considered himself a Zionist (he was one of those Nazis who favored exiling the Jews over killing them, but once the final decision was made to exterminate them he was totally on board), and when he was captured he astonished and revolted his captors by reciting the holiest prayer of the Jewish religion in the original Hebrew. The final battle of Custer’s life — after his genocidal attack on an Indian village at the Washita River in Kansas in 1868 — was the result of an expedition he had led into the Black Hills of the Dakota Territory (one of the holiest sites to the Lakota people; anyone who’s seen both this show and the movie Avatar won’t be able to ignore how much James Cameron drew on Native American spirituality, in particular the idea of being destined by God to inhabit certain areas of land and thereby literally being damned if they move from there, whether willingly or by force, in creating the culture and beliefs of the Na’vi) in 1873.

At the time the Black Hills were part of a reservation that had been deeded to the Lakota and the Cheyenne “in perpetuity,” a U.S. government bit of Newspeak in Indian treaties that never meant its literal meaning of “forever.” With white settlers already pushing on the bounds of this reservation, and the government looking for an excuse to seize the Black Hills, Custer led his expedition and found one: the two miners he’d brought along discovered gold, leading to the next great gold rush in American history after the one in California in 1850 and before the Klondike in 1890. Immediately word of the discovery got back to the east and settlers flooded the area — and, when the Indians fought back, they demanded federal protection. Part of the government’s strategy was to insist that the local Indians cross into the reservation and “register,” essentially giving up their hunter-gatherer lifestyle and becoming domesticated in both the human and animal senses of the term — and Ives’ program describes Sitting Bull as a “conservative,” a leader of the old-school people who regarded any compromise with the U.S. government and the reservation system as a denial of the destiny God had ordained for them. The show detailed Custer’s conflicts with his fellow officers and also his and the other officers’ racist disdain for the Indians, figuring that they would never attack en masse but, confronted with an organized force, would always withdraw into the hills. (In that sense the Little Big Horn was sort of like the Tet Offensive in the Viet Nam War in 1968 — also a mass attack by an enemy the U.S. commanders had been sure would never launch one.) Ironically, the most effective fighters Custer had in his force were the Indians on his side — mostly Crow and Arapaho, the traditional enemies of the Lakota and Cheyenne — who at least knew what they were up against.

The show mentions Custer’s legacy as well, how his life has been used for propaganda purposes — his widow Elizabeth “Libby” Bacon Custer commissioned a fawning biography and later wrote three books of her own (she died in 1933) — and paralleled clips from They Died With Their Boots On and the 1971 film Little Big Man to show how a World War II-era America lionized Custer and a Viet Nam-era America turned him into caricature. It was a fascinating if sometimes draggy documentary of a figure at once antique and modern in his awareness of P.R. and his ability to sell himself as a dashing hero, a 19th-century knight-errant and cavalier — he not only had reporters accompany him into battle but he wrote for magazines himself (indeed, that was how he supported himself during his one-year suspension from the Army after the Civil War).