When I was growing up in eastern Missouri it was de rigueur that the man-children of the clan become Boy Scouts. Thus, despite little aptitude or inte...moreWhen I was growing up in eastern Missouri it was de rigueur that the man-children of the clan become Boy Scouts. Thus, despite little aptitude or interest, I was duly enrolled in the Cub Scouts and spent summer weekends attending den meetings and going on the occasional camping trip. (Don’t fear that this diversion is going to descend into horror stories about mental and physical abuse – happily my life as a Scout was quite banal. I never got beyond the Cub stage, truth be told, and my parents were “cool” with that.) I bring this episode in my life up because it was as a Scout that I first encountered the Native American. Admittedly it was a highly white-washed (there’s a loaded word!) version that stressed the most admirable aspects of Indian culture (at least “admirable” in Anglo eyes) and ignored the complexities and less savory history of relations between Indians and Europeans (and between Indians and Indians). It also tended to focus exclusively on Plains Indians, blinkering my perception of non-Plains tribes for the longest time. Subsequent reading (remember, I’m not the Grizzly Adams type) led me to other works sympathetic to the Native perspective. In particular I remember a YA biography of the Seminole chieftain Osceola (giving me the animus I bear toward Andrew Jackson to this day). It was a kid’s book so the more gruesome details of the war against the Seminoles didn’t figure in the narrative but I understood that the white man had been grossly unjust to the Indian. Even my fiction reading favored the Indian (or at least sympathized with their plight). I remember a book about the lost Roanoke colony (they were saved and incorporated into one of the local tribes); and Andre Norton wrote many novels with Native characters (The Sioux Spaceman, among others, and one (title unremembered) where, in an alternate Earth, there’s a powerful, modern Iroquois empire). All this prepared me to accept the great myth of our national epic with an appropriately jaundiced eye; all this prepared me to accept this wonderful book about a near-forgotten era in the history of the New World.
Despite a writing style that’s sodden with academic jargon (like “fundamentally a study of indigenous agency”), I’m giving this book four stars because of the intense pleasure I felt discovering a world and era I never realized existed and enriching my understanding of my country’s history. To be fair, Hamalainen’s language becomes less turgid once you get past the first chapter or so (he only relapses in the Conclusion but I’m all for forgiving him). This book is divided into eight chapters that cover an era from about 1700, when the Comanches arrived in the southern Great Plains with their then-allies the Ute, to 1874, when the tribes were finally confined to reservations by the US Army. The author chronicles the Comanches’ rise as the dominant power on the plains and their sudden, catastrophic collapse.
Before going on, I wanted to say that one of the strongest overall features of the book is that Hamalainen doesn’t ennoble or demonize anyone. The Comanches are not noble-but-doomed indigenes standing up to European imperialism; nor are they mindless savages futilely resisting the advance of modern civilization. They (and the other actors in our drama – Spaniards, Mexicans, Texans, Americans and other Native nations) are just human beings acting like human beings have acted for thousands of years. There are instances of noble and generous behavior just as there are instances of the most savage cruelty. That balance, for me, makes the book all the more convincing.
What follows are brief synopses and impressions gleaned from reading each chapter. If you’re interested in Hamalainen’s arguments and proofs, read the book yourself :-)
Introduction: If you can hack through the jargon, the Introduction sets up the basic arguments of the book. Thus: (1) The rise of a Comanche hegemony on the southern Great Plains (roughly from the Arkansas river south to the Rio Grande, and stretching c. 200 miles from the eastern face of the Rockies) foiled Spain’s (and Mexico’s) attempt to create a stable inland empire. (2) Again, we have an examination of a frontier zone as a region of flux and innovation similar to the situation along the Rhine in the Roman histories I’ve been reading lately. And (3), an examination of the character of Comanche imperialism and an analysis of why it failed in the face of US expansion.
The first five chapters - Conquest, New Order, The Embrace, The Empire of the Plains, Greater Comancheria - document the Comanches’ rise from just one of many tribes moving into the area in the 18th century to the zenith of their power in the first half of the 19th.
In the early 1700s, the first tribes that could be called “Comanche” wandered down out of Utah with the Utes, one of the first Native cultures to adopt the horse. “Comanche” is the Spanish form of a Ute word that probably meant “enemy” or “those guys who won’t stop attacking us” (I freely paraphrase here as I don’t have the reference in front of me but that’s the gist). Comanches called themselves numunu, which (as is often the case) simply means “The People” (cf. German deutsche).
Though Spain claimed northern Mexico and the southern Great Plains it could not colonize it nor even properly hold it, and the Comanches moved into the power vacuum. The Apache, the original, dominant power in the territory, were overmatched by the newcomers’ command of horses and their more cohesive political organization. This shouldn’t suggest that the Comanche had any form of government recognized by Western eyes nor that they had a conscious plan of expansion. To the Spaniards (and their American successors) the Comanche appeared as savage marauders without mercy, appearing out of the plains to murder and ravish. To most of them. Spain was fortunate in mid-century to have a man named Cachupin as the territory’s governor. He possessed an understanding of Comanche culture and sensibilities that allowed him to create a modus vivendi that gave the provinces of New Mexico room to prosper in (relative) peace. Not surprisingly, it was rare that a man of Cachupin’s quality occupied the post so Spanish/Comanche relations always hovered close to outright hostilities. Even under Cachupin, Hamalainen argues that the Spaniards made a fundamental error in believing that they were in control of the situation. Much like our own politicians in Washington, those in Mexico City and Madrid ignored the reality and the reports of their agents on the ground in preference for a world where their desires and power signified. It made for a delicate balance that only the ablest governors could maintain.
Spanish policy attempted to make the Comanche dependent upon them but the exact opposite occurred – the Spanish colonies became dependent upon the Comanche for their survival. This dependence became so great in New Mexico’s case that she had practically severed relations with the Mexican government. Texas’ case became so desperate, Mexico invited American colonists into the province.
Internally, Comancheria (the region dominated by the Comanche) could be divided into eastern and western halves, which developed differently and faced different challenges along their borders but which maintained unity via complementary trade and periodic general councils that met to deal with regionwide issues. Below these councils, Comanche political/economic society rested on nomadic rancherias of a few hundred souls (at their largest). Chiefs, called paraibos, ruled by common consent of the adult males. Warriors (sometimes from several rancheria) would organize under warchiefs for raids but such figures only commanded during the raid, they had no authority otherwise (though often paraibos in their own right).
In the 1820s, Spain disappeared as a factor in plains history to be replaced by a newly independent Mexico and a rapidly, aggressively expansionist US. For the moment, though, no one enjoyed an overwhelming advantage. Mexico’s position steadily eroded as it proved incapable of creating an effective presence north of the Rio Grande (and only a minimal one south of the river). The US’s attention was focused on lands beyond the Rockies – the plains were just a path to the riches of the far West. Without direct interference from the Americans, Comancheria continued to expand and tighten its economic stranglehold over the region. In 1840, no Comanche would have believed that in a little over a generation they would be a broken remnant dependent upon American generosity to survive.
Children of the Sun – the anthropology chapter: And one of the most fascinating. Comanche society was in a constant state of flux, balancing hunting vs. pastoralism, a market vs. a subsistence economy, localism vs. centralization, egalitarianism vs. inequality, the individual vs. the group and slavery vs. assimilation.
Two animals – the horse and the bison – were essential to creating and maintaining Comanche superiority. Hamalainen contends that the Comanche were the only Native culture to wholly devote itself to an equine-based, pastoral lifestyle. In the process, they sacrificed the “gathering” side of their previous hunter-gatherer existence, becoming dependent upon the more sedentary Native and European societies around them for goods (like metal tools and guns) and staple crops. In essence, the Comanches became the New World equivalent of the steppe tribes of Eurasia.
Becoming pure pastoralists brought about a significant change in the division of labor and a deleterious shift in women’s status: Boys tended the great horse herds; women maintained the households and provided much of the labor that converted horse and bison products into marketable goods; and men occupied themselves with scouting for pasture, taming feral horses, raiding and commerce (two sides of the same coin in Comanche eyes). Beyond relegating women to servility, the changeover to pastoralism also militarized Comanche society – a man’s worth depended upon his prowess in battle and his ability to secure and protect his wealth (i.e., horses). This chapter is all too short and I would have liked more information about Comanche society. Evenso, I haven’t touched upon the author’s discussion of slavery or the Comanche tradition of individualism and meritocracy that mitigated the strong pressure toward political centralization and economic stratification.
As the final chapters - Hunger and Collapse - show, by the 1830s, the Comanche had created a flourishing and stable polity that preserved much of traditional Comanche culture while accommodating the demands of “empire.” But it was supremely vulnerable to the disruption of its foundation – the horse and the bison. Comancheria’s tragedy was that its success sealed its doom. Access to the wealth generated by their trade monopolies led to larger populations and pressure to expand. Combined with treaties which allowed outsiders to hunt the bison, the Comanche fatally weakened the herds. A 20+ year drought beginning in 1845 broke the “empire.” The only reasons the Comanche didn’t succumb until 1874 was that America was distracted in the 1850s and 1860s with the slavery question and the Civil War and the rains returned in the mid-1860s. Comancheria enjoyed an “Indian” summer (sorry, couldn’t resist) but when the US government determined to eliminate the Comanche threat, it unleashed a total war against them (tactics perfected in the Civil War); Comancheria proved unable to survive the onslaught.
In a pattern repeated a few years later in the northern Great Plains, the final days of Comanche resistance were dominated by an apocalyptic religious movement that fell apart at the “battle” of Adobe Walls, when its leader (Isatai) fell to US Army-issue bullets. In 1874, all resistance disappeared and the remnants of the Comanche nation were herded into reservations and forced to give up their way of life, enduring second-class status in the triumphant American empire. This last point brings up a characteristic of Comancheria that I neglected to mention earlier: the Comanches’ Roman-like capacity to accommodate and assimilate. Like Rome, as long as Comanche partners adopted or accommodated Comanche culture, stable and relatively peaceful relations pertained. A far cry from America’s xenophobia. It still smacks of imperialism but of a “gentler” species. (And we shouldn’t forget that when neighbors couldn’t mesh with the Comanche, they suffered the savage raids the nation was known for.)
In concluding, Hamalainen asks, “Why the Comanches?” and comes up with 5 answers:
1. Geography favored horse breeding and bison hunting, and the Comanches were in the right place at the right time to exploit it.
2. Their timing was also fortunate in that they could play the Europeans off against each other to achieve hegemony.
3. Comanche culture was remarkably flexible and innovative.
4. The horse allowed Comanches to shift wholly to pastoralism, opening routes to wealth and the ability to dominate the trade routes across the plains.
5. Diseases which decimated more sedentary Native tribes had a smaller impact on the dispersed populations of Comancheria, and the Comanche were able to maintain a relatively larger population up through the 1840s.
This is only a snapshot of the wealth of information contained in this volume. Considering the rating I’ve given Comanche Empire it should come as no surprise that I highly recommend this book to the interested, especially as you don’t need a particularly deep background in Southwest American history.(less)
I read this book in 2nd or 3rd grade. I can remember the scene: The teacher had spread out a group of biographies on the Willie Harris Elementary scho...moreI read this book in 2nd or 3rd grade. I can remember the scene: The teacher had spread out a group of biographies on the Willie Harris Elementary school library's table and asked us to chose one to read and do a report on. For whatever reason, I picked up Booker Washington's and enjoyed it. It was probably my first conscious introduction to slavery and blacks in American society; and his philosophy of self-reliance and education has influenced my own outlook to this day.
I don't know how I would react to it today but it's probably one of those books that I should reread.(less)
In Disunion!, Elizabeth Varon looks at the 70 years between the founding of the Republic and the opening salvos of the Civil War, focusing on the poli...moreIn Disunion!, Elizabeth Varon looks at the 70 years between the founding of the Republic and the opening salvos of the Civil War, focusing on the political vocabulary in use at the time. Specifically, as the title strongly suggests, the use of the word "disunion." She argues that "disunion" was once the most provocative and potent word in American political rhetoric. "From the time of the Constitutional Convention in 1787 up to the Civil War, disunion conjured up the most profound anxieties of Americans as they considered the fate of their republic.... Disunion was...a keyword of the nation's political vocabulary - a word that had no fixed `content,' that captured complex ideas of values, and that served as a site for protracted moral, political, and economic conflicts in a deeply...divided nation." (p. 1-2)
Varon seeks to provide a more nuanced view of antebellum America that shows the North and South were not (at first) fundamentally antagonistic societies. Many in the North could live with slavery, their concerns were focused more on the problems of industrialization and workers' rights than on slavery per se (though it's true in the latter half of the period, the anti-slavery side raised the specter of slave-labor competition to rally support). In the South, while slavery was arguably the most important pillar of the economy, the slave-owning class was very small, and class and regional divides make blanket generalizations about the Slave Power inadequate. For example, in the years just after the Revolution plans were noised about in Virginia for the gradual emancipation of slaves (it was, unfortunately for subsequent history, never seriously pursued). Simultaneously, in the North, there was a general movement to deny the franchise to black Americans, and otherwise deny them equal status.
The author considers the idea of "disunion" in five ways:
1. Disunion as prophecy: In this guise, disunion adumbrated apocalypse. Like the prophets of Israel, American politicians bewailed the consequences of disunion (war, chaos, widespread death and terror) to encourage a final solution to the problem of slavery.
2. Disunion as a threat: An especially potent weapon in Southern rhetoric but also found in Northern quivers, the threat of disunion was used to cow political opponents. It was a threat not seriously contemplated except by the most radical partisans (such as Southerner Robert Rhett or the Garrisonian wing of the abolitionists).
3. Disunion as accusation: Here, disunion was used to accuse opponents of treason or of fomenting slave rebellions and disrupting the harmony and future prosperity of the country. As such it was used by all sides: Proslavery advocates (mostly Southerners); abolitionists, who were feared because of their radical ideas about social and gender equality (though there were degrees of commitment, as in any mass movement); and anti-abolitionists, who were antislavery in the sense that they didn't want to see its spread beyond its current limits but were against the abolitionist agenda(s).
It's important to remember that the North was not a bastion of racial equality much less a redoubt of abolitionist crusaders. Its racism could be quite as vicious as any Southerner's. Even among abolitionists and antislavery activists (e.g., Lincoln) black Americans were too often considered little children or hardly better than savages. And the best solution to the slavery problem? Return them to Africa; at the very least, keep the races apart because they could never live together.
4. Disunion as a process: In this manifestation, disunion was part of a process most clearly articulated by that great advocate of nullification and slavery as a "positive good" John C. Calhoun. He invoked disunion as a way to rally Southern and anti-abolitionist interests, and build up an impregnable consensus to resist antislavery agendas. A similar development occurred in anti-slavery circles that eventually coalesced in the late 1850s into the Republican Party.
5. Disunion as a program: As the 1850s passed and all sides became radicalized, the North painted the South as hell bent on disunion; the aggressors in a campaign to destroy the Union and perpetuate slavery in the U.S. and expand it into Latin and South America. Southerners, meanwhile, painted their Northern cousins as plotting to force the South to secede and then launch a war of conquest that would abolish slavery and destroy the Southern way of life.
"Disunion" was a far more pervasive concept than "secession." (p. 14) Secession was an end to be avoided and the horrors of disunion were constantly brought forth to discourage it. But the rhetoric of disunion only exacerbated sectional differences, and contributed to the radicalization of both sides. "Suffused as it was with images of treason, rebellion, retribution, and bloodshed, the discourse of disunion bred disillusionment with party politics; mistrust of compromise; and...the expectation that only violent conflict would resolve the debate over slavery once and for all." (p. 16)
I have written elsewhere on this site that my knowledge of U.S. history between the Revolutionary and Civil Wars is abysmal so I found this book extremely informative and well argued. Varon doesn't call for her argument to support more weight than it can and presents a fascinating and nuanced account of the factors that led up to the bloodiest conflict in American history. Inevitably, the book also invites a comparison between the politics of the era and our modern predicaments. Specific comparisons break down quickly but I chose the quote in the previous paragraph because the zeitgeist it describes in the decade before Fort Sumter could be applied to today's discourse. Americans don't yet have anything as fundamentally divisive as slavery (or as obviously immoral) to radicalize most people but the impulse to demonize opposition and the desire to paper over different interests in the interests of "bipartisanship" are alive and increasingly strong. And the question that faced our forebears is the same one facing us - Is this union ("the last, best hope of the world," to paraphrase Lincoln) worth preserving?
I'm sure better read readers can find holes in parts of Varon's argument or details to quibble about but I would recommend the book to anyone interested in this critical period in U.S. history (and read it in conjunction with Sean Wilentz's The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln, which offers a related but broader view of the same period).(less)
The blurb on the dust jacket of my edition says that Vietnam At War is “a penetrating history of how the Vietnamese people experienced the wars for th...moreThe blurb on the dust jacket of my edition says that Vietnam At War is “a penetrating history of how the Vietnamese people experienced the wars for their country” and “Mark Philip Bradley paints a vivid picture of how Vietnamese people of all classes…came to understand the thirty years of bloody warfare that unfolded around them.” It was comments like these and favorable reviews of this book that got it on my GR wishlist and convinced me to acquire it when given opportunity. Unfortunately, that’s not what I got with this book. It’s a perfectly adequate primer on the war in Vietnam (from the French attempt to recolonize the region after 1945 to Saigon’s fall in 1975) but it’s hardly a “penetrating” look at how the Vietnamese experienced the wars; it’s hardly a look at all.
One problem is that the book’s too short. At 196 pages of text in my edition, it wastes too many of them setting the background and not nearly enough talking about the Vietnamese. We meet some individuals: Dang Thuy Tram, a young Northern medical student who worked in a field hospital from 1967 to 1970, when she was killed; the writers Tran Huy Quang and Bao Ninh; Trinh Công Son, a musician; and Dang Nhat Minh, a film-maker. But Bradley barely mentions them and their lives before returning to the straight-up narrative.
This was not the book I expected or hoped for. At the end of the day, I expected to know more about both how the Vietnamese responded intellectually to the wars and how individuals lived through it. I’m sure – if I could read Vietnamese – that I would find a wealth of sources to satisfy my curiosity but lacking that skill I found Bradley’s slim volume a not-very-credible attempt to convey that information to an English-reading audience. (The best parts of the book are the “Introduction” and “Coda,” where the individuals mentioned above are most visible, because they show the kind of book that Bradley could have/should have written.)
Another complaint I have is that the photographs included don’t seem to be very well organized and there are too few.(less)
The lectures on this CD were recorded in 2004, before the Texas school textbook circus and before the recent upsurge in whitewashing Civil War history...moreThe lectures on this CD were recorded in 2004, before the Texas school textbook circus and before the recent upsurge in whitewashing Civil War history to make the South the oh-so-innocent victim of evil Northern aggression, and I wonder what Loewen makes of such recent developments. He ends his lectures on a hopeful note, urging his listeners to "write history on the land to represent the past accurately." (p. 75 of the accompanying "Course Guide") I can only imagine he must be feeling a certain amount of despair with the publication of such books as The Real Lincoln A New Look at Abraham Lincoln His Agenda and an Unnecessary War. But as he argues in his "Civil War" and "Race Relations" lectures, it's merely further evidence that the South may have lost the war on the battlefield but it won the war of ideas.
As usual with my Audio CD books, I listened to this in the car and didn't take notes so this review will be short and sweet (short, anyway).
Loewen is at his devastating best when he's analyzing the subjects that he's particularly interested in - namely the Civil War era and after and race relations, to which he devotes nearly a third of the 14 lectures. Their power comes from his reliance on primary sources. He quotes letters, newspapers and speeches that put the lie to the simplified, pasteurized gruel that passes for popular history (and not just in our schools).
For example, to the contention that the Civil War was not about slavery, he quotes Jefferson Davis in 1861: "(the Lincoln administration's policies would) make property in slaves so insecure as to be comparatively worthless, thereby annihilataing, in effect, property worth thousands of millions of dollars." (p. 38, "Course Guide")
Loewen is not as strong in other areas. He overgeneralizes in his discussions of prehistoric America and in regards to Socialism (a term which, for him, appears to cover everything from Stalin's Russia to British Labour). And his discussion of US foreign policy in Lecture 12 lacks the "umph" of earlier lectures because it is based on secondary sources. He's back in form in Lecture 13, "Capitalism and Social Class," when he returns to quoting the primary sources.
All is not a tale of woe, however. Loewen takes pains to highlight positive aspects of American history: What the Founders got right in the Constitution, the real progress made among the races between 1865 and 1890, the Civil Rights movement, John Logan's progress from racist to equal rights advocate, and a list of examples in the last lecture of people making the effort to learn the truth - good and bad - about their history. And it's the latter that is Loewen's point. People need to make the effort to understand their history:
1. Don't trust what you learned in school or read in books. Check it out. 2. History is a process of forgetting. 3. Modern perspectives are projected onto past subjects. 4. America's current status in the world invites a dangerous ethnocentrism. 5. Resist the process of "heroification."