Tuesday, May 27, 2008
Battle Field Blues
I am not sure why history in America seems to be the story of war. Possibly it is just so simple since we seem to have so many of them. Could be that men that never fight them find them romantic. I do not share that opinion even though I was a peacetime soldier, airman actually. I suspect that is because I was a medic just post the Vietnam war and took care of a lot of guys with some pretty nasty problems from that conflict. Could just be I may have studied more of them than other people and I just have a perception problem. Whatever the case we have a great number of battle fields preserved in one form or another around this nation and I have visited many of them.
Visiting these places always stirs me but the reactions are never quite the same. The history of the war ,why it was fought has some impact combined with my sense of right and wrong. Walking in the fields and thinking about what happened there, the death and destruction as well as the desperation and bravery coat the pallet of my emotions. The day that I visited Wounded Knee and the Little Big Horn in the same afternoon created such an odd blend of sensations on that pallet I am still a little disturbed by it as I set the tale to paper.
The Little Big Horn in southeastern Montana and Wounded Knee South Dakota are close enough together that one can easily see both in the same day which I wanted to do. I was curious to experience both sides of the coin so to speak and compare the locations while they were fresh in my mind. The Black Hills Badlands area is a place that a man can go to feel insignificant. “Big Sky”, and vast tracts of emptiness with the lone surviving large herd animal left in North America lend a unique perspective to a day. Dances with Wolves was filmed there if you want to see it without braving the constant wind.
I wish I could remember the location I camped the night before but in those days I was all about escaping and failed to diary many details. It was in October, not long after Columbus day of that much I am sure ,arrived at Harts ranch on the 14th that is the closest I can pin it down not that it really matters but the timing was not lost on the natives I encountered later in the day but I am getting ahead of myself.
It is hard to know how much of the emotions one feels at any place are due to what you know going in and the vibe that the location retains. I am not talking about spirits just the energy that seems to linger at the site of terrible happenings, information in the physics sense so to speak. Growing up I watched lots of TV westerns and there was a show about Custer that painted him as some sort of heroic victim of the savages that was of course weapons grade bullshit but it was on my mind at the time.
Starting out at the interpretive center you get the “white mans” side of the story as told by the surviving cavalry officers in the newspaper accounts of the day. It is not my desire to relate them here as the greed and bigotry that were the “Indian Wars”doesn’t figure into my tale other than as backdrop. From there a walking tour lets you see the location as marked out by succeeding troops when they came and buried the dead, the white bodies anyway. Small white marble markers are spaced about the hills and gullies with the names and ranks of the men. The army was very good at identifying bodies even then. The wind is constantly howling making me think about the screams of the warriors and the cries of the wounded and dying. Little clusters of men in depressions in the earth waiting for the relief that was never going to come.
I cannot imagine what it would be like to be running out of water and ammunition as men that hated me and that I hated for no good reason crept up intent on my death. That to me is the horror of war and why I am a pacifist at heart. Listening to men groan in their death throes knowing that my time is probably next. I have been with lots of people at the end of their lives but not like that. Most of the folks I attended at their end were actually quite peaceful, the feelings this place imparts to me say that is not the case here.
I stop reading the names as unlike the civil and revolutionary war battle fields I don’t want to find any of my ancestors in the place. It just screams senseless waste, all this open desolate space all this empty land that men are fighting over for some oddly colored gold saddens me. I walk on in silence until the pain in my back and legs forces me to retreat to the RV.
Fortified by hot tea and a sandwich I drive east into a cloudless sky. The sun is at my back and the long prairie grass ripples waves in waves the color of tide flats at ebb. The Story of a young child, Black Elk runs through my mind as I pull into the dirt parking lot at the Wounded Knee monument. I am struck by the contrast of the after thought quality of this site when contrasted with the effort that went into preserving the Big Horn site. No rangers or interpretive center here. A wrought iron and brick gate with 3 Sioux at a card table and an old El Camino black and rusted. The men are dressed in wranglers and boots selling dream catchers.
I walk up the hill to the monument and see the names of the slaughtered, women men and children by the hundreds. This gray colored obelisk surrounded by empty fields of grass conveys the loss in much the same way the wall in Washington does. Death writ starkly on stone name after name until the power overwhelms one unhappy little man on the plain drowning in his own losses. I do not weep for the dead. I can find no tears, only shame at what happened here and the sense that it is only begrudgingly acknowledged.
It is late in the day when I walk back to the parking area my face red and wind chapped. I am tired deep in my joints and break out a chair to sit for a while before looking for a place to spend the night. The three men join me for a cool drink, rum and coke I think and I offer them each one of my cigarettes in an attempt to honor their customs. We sit and smoke and sip the cold liquid and Mike Brown Beaver tells me a little of the story of his people. Not the massacre, he can tell by the reverent way I have behaved that I already know that tale but of the struggle his father went through to get the monument built here. Of the AIM sit ins and the continuing struggles he and his friends have to stay on this land keep the old ways in some small way alive.
By the time I depart the sun is low in the west and I want to be away from these places. I do not want to think about the things men do to each other in the name of fear or god or greed. I want only to hope that next time it will be different that when we encounter the other we will embrace the differences and celebrate the common ground of all human experience. As I drive east into a darkening sky I am filled with despair knowing that my hope is still just a fantasy.