A Massacre By Any Other Name: From Ft. Hood to Wounded Knee

by Akim Reinhardt

Major Nidal HasanOn November 5, 2009, U.S. Army Major Nidal Hasan opened fire on soldiers and civilians alike at the Fort Hood military base in Killeen, Texas. He killed thirteen people, including a pregnant woman, and wounded thirty-two more. Hasan is now awaiting a military trial that is scheduled to begin on April 16.

There is ample evidence that Major Hasan was working on behalf of Al Qaeda when he launched the attack. He had been in communication with Al Qaeda leader Anwar al-Awlaki, and was very likely acting on Anwar al-Awlaki's orders. That would be the same Anwar Al-Awlaki who was killed in Yemen two years later when a CIA-led joint operation struck his vehicle with a Hellfire missile fired from a predator drone.

There is now little doubt that Hasan's bloody rampage was a planned military strike by an Al Qaeda operative against the U.S. military. But that's not how the U.S. military wants to frame it.

Instead of classifying Hasan's attack as combat or an act of terrorism, the Department of Defense is officially deeming it an episode of “workplace violence.” Essentially, they're saying Hasan was just another disgruntled worker who “went postal.”

This stance defies evidence, including that which the military itself will be presenting at Hasan's upcoming court martial. For example, the prosecution is using an expert witness named Evan Kohlmann who says Hasan meets numerous criteria that define him as a homegrown terrorist.

Beyond defying logic and truth, labeling Hasan's attack as workplace violence has very real consequences for the survivors and the loved ones of those who died. On a ceremonial level, the military is refusing to hand out Purple Hearts, the medal awarded for injuries sustained in combat. On a more practical level, as the lawsuit waged by the survivors asserts, the designation of “workplace violence” also means that survivors and the loved ones of those killed are receiving lower priority for treatment and are being denied benefits that would have come their way if this was officially recognized as combat.

As one might imagine, this has led to no shortage of outrage. There has even been a Congressional effort to pass federal legislation that would grant combatant status to all casualties. The Fort Hood Families Benefits Protection Act was first introduced two years ago by Congressman John Carter (R-Texas) and Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas), but it died in committee.

Carter reintroduced the bill again earlier this year, but withdrew it under pressure from the military. They claim that publicity stemming from the legislation, the awarding of medals, and the classification of Hasan's action as combat or terrorism, will make it difficult to successfully prosecute him in his upcoming court martial. Upon withdrawing the bill, Carter recently stated:

“After additional investigation into the potential implications of pre-trial publicity, I am postponing any future publicity on these bills at this stage of Maj. Hasan's trial. However, the victims of this tragic shooting fully quality for compensation pay and purple heart recognition.”


The Department of Defense has even written a Language Position Paper outlining its reasons for opposing the proposed legislation. Should the Congress officially declare Hasan a terrorist on the eve of his trial, the DoD claims, it would “fundamentally compromise the fairness and due process of the pending trial.” And in doing so, it would open up anFt. Hood in Killeen, Texas opportunity for the defense to argue that “Major Hasan cannot receive a fair trial because a branch of the government has indirectly declared that Major Hasan is a terrorist – that he is criminally culpable.” That in turn may compromise the case at voir dire (empaneling an impartial jury), thereby delaying the trial by a year or more.

In other words, the U.S. military must pretend that what everyone knows to be true is not true so that it can formally prove that it is true.

It's a rather peculiar situation, but it's hardly the first time that the U.S. military has fudged the definitions of its engagements. Throughout its century-long involvement in the conquest of America at the expense of Indigenous nations, the Army had a funny practice for naming those engagements. The simple formula went like this:

Every time the United States defeated Indians, the engagement was officially a “Battle.” No matter if, such as at the Washita River in Oklahoma, that the fight was little more than a surprise, pre-dawn attack on a peaceful village that resulted in the slaughter of mostly women, children, and the elderly. It was still a Battle. The Battle of the Washita River.

And every time the United States suffered a defeat at the hands of Indians, it was a “Massacre.” No matter if, such as at Fort Phil Kearney in Wyoming in 1866, or at the Little Bighorn River in Montana a decade later, it was a case of the U.S. Army looking for Indians to fight, finding them, and then losing miserably in a fair fight. It was a Massacre. The Fetterman Massacre. The Little Bighorn (or Custer) Massacre.

But of course such nomenclature was not as complicated as the Hasan incident. That particular formula was nothing more than simple propaganda. Unlike the military's current twisting of the Hasan situation, the technicalities were irrelevant. It was little more than window dressing for U.S. imperialism.

But that changed after Wounded Knee.

In 1890, a collection of colonial officers, some civilian and some military, some bumbling and some striving, inadvertently coalesced to foster phantom fears about a new Indian religion called the Ghost Dance. Having originally emerged in the Southwest, it was now gaining converts and popularity among the Lakota Sioux in North and South Dakota, who since capitulating in the 1870s had been suffering under the colonial yolk on their impoverished and shrinking reservations. The new religion promised a better world to come, but some colonial officials marked it as an instrument of rebellion. Initial efforts to repress the movement were laughably ineffective.

When colonial officials proved unable to suppress the Ghost Dance, federal troops were deployed to the Lakota Sioux reservations. By early December, fully one-third of the entire U.S. Army fighting force was stationed in and around their remaining lands. Between 6,000-7,000 troops were now responsible for repressing the religious activity of about 4,000 Indians, most of them women and children.

Lakota Ghost Dance shirtMany of the Ghost Dancers began to submit. But when renown Lakota leader Tatanka Iyotanka (Sitting Bull) was assassinated during a bungled attempt to arrest him on December 15, 1890, it setoff a panic. Several groups that had agreed to come in now fled. A Miniconjou band led by Sinte Heyaka (Spotted Elk, later popularly known as Big Foot) were tracked down on December 28. They had been camped along a small waterway they called Ĉankpe Opi Wakpala: Wounded Knee Creek.

About five-hundred troops surrounded about 325 Indians, most of whom were unarmed and about two-thirds of whom were women and children. It was winter in South Dakota. They were cold, hungry, massively outgunned, and ready to surrender.

The next day, as U.S. soldiers were disarming the Indians, a skirmish broke out. Someone fired a shot. We still do not know for sure who it was. Regardless, the 7th Cavalry Regiment, a reconstituted version of the same one that George Custer had led into the jaws of death in 1876, opened fire on the Indians. What happened next was sheer butchery as the soldiers slaughtered Lakota Sioux Indians.

We don't have an exact number because the bodies were unceremoniously dumped in a mass grave two days later. Conservative estimates are about 125. It might have been twice that. Most of the dead were women, children, and the elderly, though a fair number of men, many of them unarmed, died while desperately trying to defend their families. Some of the women's and children's bodies were found miles away. They had been hunted down like animals. A handful of soldiers were killed, almost all of them from friendly fire.

Predictably, the Army called this a Battle. The Battle of Wounded Knee. More formulaic propaganda. But should an Indian kill a soldier, that of course would be murder. Or so it seemed until January 7, 1891, when a Lakota Sioux man named Ota Tašunka (Plenty Horses) did just that.

Less than two weeks after the massacre at Wounded Knee, Plenty Horses shot and killed Army Lieutenant Edward Casey. He was arrested and tried for murder.

But Plenty Horses had two lawyers who were working pro bono, and they came up with what proved to be a winning defense strategy. They upended the murder trial by contending that the reservation had been in a state of war when Plenty Horses shot Lieutenant Casey. This wasn't murder. This was one enemy combatant killing another, and therefore the incident was not subject to a murder trial.

The implications were soon overwhelming. Plenty Horse's lawyers noted that if there had not been a state of war, and their client could be could be tried for the murder of Casey, then all the members of the 7th cavalry could be tried for the murders at Wounded Knee.

The federal government immediately realized they were cornered. The prosecution soon brought in a witness, Army Captain Frank Baldwin, to testify on behalf of the defense's contention: Yes, a state of warfare had existed on the resePlenty Horsesrvation, Baldwin said. To bolster this assertion, Baldwin even claimed that Plenty Horses had killed Casey while the latter was spying on a hostile Indian encampment.

The judge ordered the jury to find that a state of war existed on the reservation. Plenty Horses was acquitted. And for their participation in the “Battle” of Wounded Knee, twenty soldiers subsequently received the Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest award the nation can bestow for military action.

That some of the soldiers who committed the massacre of Wounded Knee received the nation's highest honor is an unspeakable outrage. That the injured soldiers who survived Captain Hasan's killing spree at Ft. Hood cannot now receive Purple Hearts, shows that the the twisted rhetoric of war remains with us still.

A massacre by any other name is just as bloody.

Suggested Reading:
On the Ghost Dance and Wounded Knee massacre: Jeffrey Ostler, The Plains Sioux and U.S. Colonialism from Lews and Clark to Wounded Knee (Cambridge University Press, 2004).

On Plenty Horses: Robert M. Utley, “The Ordeal of Plenty Horses” American Heritage vol. 26 (December 1974)

Akim Reinhardt's website is The Public Professor.

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