Exorcising the Ghost of Geronimo

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More than the sobering effect an ill-advised codename might have had on giddy Americans celebrating the Osama killing, it was a reminder of the country’s own historical injustices

In the fortnight following Osama bin Laden’s killing (assassination being too politically charged, if accurate, a word), perspective, the designated driver at a drunken party, has not been allowed to cast a sober pall on the self-congratulatory hubbub in the American media. This is still a time for national chest-beating. And, if the swift sales of celebratory T-shirts is anything to go by, an opportunity to cash in, free enterprise being that defining American virtue. Another defining American trait, self-confidence, abashed by economic woes, has emerged from the rubble of that Abbottabad compound. Each leaked detail about heroic Navy Seals, stealth helicopters of unimagined sophistication and German-made assault rifles has been pored over and recycled by gleeful journalists like schoolboys swapping issues of Boy’s Own. Then there is the thrillingly terse confirmation of the mission’s success: ‘Geronimo EKIA’. The snappy acronym dispatched from the field to inform commanders that the enemy had indeed been killed in action.

So often, though, the corollary to unheeding revelry is embarrassment. ‘In a triumphant moment for the United States,’ reported The Washington Post, ‘the moniker has left a sour taste among many Native Americans.’ Here again was a reminder of just how precariously held together is the united multi-racial, multi-ethnic American family Barack Obama had evoked in his announcement of Bin Laden’s death. Here again was a reminder of the genocidal counterpoint to the resonant founding ideals of the United States of America. Noam Chomsky, in an article for online magazine Guernica, drew the obvious, if crass, parallel—‘It’s like naming our murder weapons after victims of our crimes: Apache, Toma- hawk… It’s as if the Luftwaffe were to call its fighter planes ‘Jew’ and ‘Gypsy’’.

Geronimo, of course, is the famous 19th century Apache warrior who fought the American and Mexican incursions into Apache lands in the southwest. He is a figure etched into American lore. The threat he posed was subsumed into celebrity even while he lived; ‘Geronimo’ became a pop mantra only distantly linked to the historical figure. American paratroopers in World War II, for instance, shouted “Geronimo!” as they jumped out of planes. Reverence had long been forsaken for a kind of jocular affection. It must have come as a surprise to many Americans that the historical Geronimo lives on in the American Indian imagination, that the casual use of his name as code for the operation to kill Osama, or Osama himself, would raise hackles, suggesting to some native Americans that the Indian as enemy is still a cultural trope, is still enmeshed in the weft of the American mentality.

Advocacy groups for American Indians have called on Obama to apologise. The Senate Indian Affairs Committee has held hearings on racial stereotypes. A great-grandson of Geronimo, who served like others among Geronimo’s descendants in the US armed forces, described the codename as “disgraceful” and a “grievous insult” and an “unpardonable slander of Native America and its most famous leader in history.” The White House has not gone so far as to acknowledge wrongdoing, but the official story is that the operation was called ‘Neptune Spear’, a nonsensical conjoining of words vaguely implying mythical provenance that appears to be the American military’s preferred form for codenames.

Thus the Libya operation is saddled with the bemusing ‘Odyssey Dawn’, while the operation to capture Saddam Hussein was called ‘Red Dawn’. In February last year, ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’ was renamed ‘Operation New Dawn.’ It’s clear which word scored best with focus groups. This sort of puzzling, quasi-uplifting name is plainly a conscious departure from the ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’ school, which included the messianic ‘Operation Infinite Justice’, later changed to the equally bombastic ‘Enduring Freedom’. It is a partial return to the way military operations were codenamed from the mid-1970s to the late-1980s. The US government began releasing codenames for missions to the general public after World War II. Broad public access would complicate the naming of these operations. What was inspiring to troops in battle was less palatable to civilians and foreign governments with whom diplomatic ties had to be maintained. These considerations led to a decision to automate the process, to strip the names of meaning, and, as a consequence, interpretation.

Words selected by a computer at random meant that in 1989 the US excursion into Panama would be called ‘Operation Blue Spoon’, a mission that incorporated operations ‘Nimrod Dancer’, ‘Nifty Package’ and ‘Acid Gambit’. George Bush the Elder, then President, understandably pulled the plug on the computer and opted for ‘Just Cause’. In 1990, the inspired decision to name the first Gulf War ‘Desert Storm’, the kind of video game title that looked good on the new 24-hour cable news networks, renewed the desire to shape the narrative from the very start. The codenames for major US operations would now reflect the moral imperative for intervention. A desert storm, while an accurate description of the impact of US troops in the Middle East, was after all only a means to achieving the goal of enduring freedom and justice throughout the region. The morass that is the Iraqi and Afghan conflicts has made a mockery of ‘Iraqi Freedom’ and ‘Infinite Justice’. In tacit acknowledgment, the Obama regime, apparently more sensitive to appearing vainglorious than its predecessor and more attuned to irony, has reverted to a random (if carefully guided) process in which names for operations are jumbles of words and letters memorable or meaningful only to those deeply involved.

It is the very dullness of codenames such as ‘Odyssey Dawn’ that makes the contretemps over ‘Geronimo’ so fascinating a digression. Was the choice to use Geronimo to refer to Bin Laden, a fact reported extensively in such publications as Time magazine and The New York Times, a Freudian slip? Were the reviled leader of Al-Qaida and the fiercest of Native American freedom fighters analogous? Was the implied comparison then an acknowledgment, if unintended, that Bin Laden too fought for his people against oppressors, as Hamas would insist in its message decrying his death? The prevalent media narrative of a triumph of good over evil made no room for such a possibility. It was an ill-conceived codename that forced Americans to introspect, to pause in their celebrations to confront the irony that an enemy, a once demonised figure could just as easily be venerated and lionised.

There are glancing similarities between Osama and Geronimo. Both evaded thousands of American troops for a decade or more, both hid in caves, and both were icons for certain oppressed peoples. But they hardly explain why Bin Laden would have been referred to as Geronimo for the purposes of the operation, assuming there was some intent behind the name. The White House and Pentagon have not offered an explanation. Perhaps most stinging for Native Americans is the likelihood that no thought at all was put into the codename. Writing in Indian Country Today, a Native American magazine, Lise Balk King, a graduate student at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, suggests that using Geronimo to refer to Bin Laden ‘equates being Native American with being hated’. The defence propagated on blogs and op-eds across the country is that instead the Native American fighting spirit is being hailed. Why else would the military name its weapons Tomahawks and its helicopters Apaches; why else would so many American sports teams be named the Braves or Seminoles? One can see how the unthinking appropriation of American Indian symbols must grate, how it must grate to be so patronised as to have your heritage reduced to cartoonish mascots and then be instructed to see it as a tribute.

The anger and outrage expressed by Native Americans has prompted much scrambling in recent days to modify the story as initially reported. Fox News asserts that ‘Geronimow’ “was not Bin Laden’s codename, but rather a representation of the letter ‘G’.” “Each step of the mission was labelled alphabetically,” the report continues quoting two unnamed officials, “and ‘Geronimo’ meant that the raiders had reached step ‘G’, the killing or capture of Bin Laden.” What, this barely plausible account seems to be asking, is all the fuss about? The fuss, as always, is about representation.

Codenames are generally chosen at random precisely to avoid representing anything, particularly the operation itself. Later, as the American military understood the media potential of codenames, they became a broad way to define a mission’s objectives, to keep those objectives front and centre on television screens. So even if, say, you don’t think the US invasion of Panama is a particularly just cause, the military, by codenaming the mission ‘Just Cause’, co-opts the phrase and steers the conversation. Of course, if the mission fails or is seen to be a failure, it is too easily hoist by its own petard—see ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’ or ‘Infinite Justice’. And see ‘Geronimo’. American Indians, already on the very margins of the mainstream, were made to feel further marginalised by the association of one of their greatest heroes with a man considered their country’s most implacable enemy since Hitler. In a time of joyous affirmation of the American nation, the American community, Indians felt further cast adrift.

At the end of his life, a prisoner of war, Geronimo became something of a sideshow, defanged by celebrity. He appeared at the 1904 World’s Fair in St Louis, selling photographs of himself, and even rode the following year in Theodore Roosevelt’s inauguration parade. If American reports are to be believed, at the end, Bin Laden’s life too descended into bathos, his beard gray, his health frail, forlornly flipping channels on a modest television set searching for evidence of his continued relevance. Perhaps these Americans did see a parallel between the two warriors. It remains unclear why the Seals chose to refer to Bin Laden by the codename Geronimo (if they did at all). Was the codename a mark of respect or contempt? It matters little. What emerged out of this minor controversy, as America claimed justice for the victims of 9/11, was a salutary reminder to a giddy country that its own historical injustices have yet to be rectified and that the resentment lingers.