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Cowboys and codenames

Why was the great Apache chief's name used for Osama bin Laden?

india Updated: May 05, 2011 22:01 IST

Why would the first African American president of the United States, as US commander-in-chief, think nothing of military forces applying the codename 'Geronimo' to Osama bin Laden during the assault against that long-sought enemy of the US? Apparently, having an African American president in the White House is not enough to overturn the more than 200-year American tradition of treating and thinking of Indians as enemies of the US.

George Washington, in 1784, used the analogy "the savage as the wolf" to refer to Indian ancestors as less-than-human "beasts". As Henry Wheaton said in his Elements of International Law, "The heathen nations of the other quarters of the globe were the lawful spoil and prey of their civilised conquerors." Thus, one of the normative American metaphors throughout the history of the US has been 'Indians are enemies'. We're talking about a US tradition of dehumanisation and dominance used against our nations and peoples.

From the perspective of non-Indian colonisers, our indigenous ancestors were enemies to be uprooted from the vast extent of our traditional lands and territories and confined to 'reservations' in remote areas, under US control. Someone who has gone off the reservation is considered to be an 'outlaw' — which in our case is outside the bounds of imposed laws and policies of the US.

Geronimo's life story is a direct result of the invasion of the Apache territory and attempts to subdue the free and independent Apache. After his family was massacred by Mexicans in 1851, Geronimo became a Chiricahua Apache leader who fit perfectly into the non-Indian metaphorical frame 'Indians are enemies'. He and a small group of fellow Apaches brilliantly eluded capture by 5,000 US Army soldiers, 500 Indian scouts and 3,000 Mexican soldiers. The desert terrain was steep and formidable. The temperatures were extreme: intense cold and blistering heat. Geronimo and his band had very little food or water.

What those Apaches accomplished is very likely one of the most amazing physical feats of stamina in the history of the human race. He finally surrendered in 1886.

In the reported stories of Osama bin Laden being killed by US military forces, bin Laden was codenamed 'Geronimo'. According to CBS News, those who came up with that "inappropriate code name" apparently "thought of bin Laden as a 21st century equivalent" of Geronimo. In other words, the codename was based on an extension of the metaphor 'Indians are enemies' to 'Geronimo was a terrorist', thus perpetuating the US tradition of treating Indian nations and peoples as enemies.

Geronimo was fighting against the invasion of his country and the oppression of his people. He did not invade the US. Rather, Spain, Mexico and then the US invaded the Apache territory and the territories of hundreds of other indigenous nations. Horrific atrocities were committed against the Apache, and men such as Geronimo, whose family was massacred by Mexicans, did not hesitate to retaliate. Geronimo died a 'prisoner of war' in 1909.

The views expressed by the author are personal.