MM 2001: War - Research

December 21, 2000

Colonial Adventurism
Why Creek indians were armed and trained by the British in the 1812 war

Heaven, for Ross Hassig, an anthropologist on sabbatical from the University of Oklahoma, is the Public Record Office in London. "You think, 'I'd like to buy a house in Kew Gardens and go there every day'," he says.

Hassig, an Aztec specialist and author of seven books, has debunked the notion that Aztecs fought wars in a ritual fashion. He looked instead at logistics, tactics and strategy, and where and how they attacked.

But he has taken time off from the Aztecs to look at a lesser-known chapter in British colonial adventurism: how the British armed and trained the Creek Indians at the close of the 1812 war as a thorn in the side of the Americans.

The war itself, notes Hassig, turned the received wisdom about British and American military strengths on its head. Britain, the great naval power, suffered humbling defeats at sea while its land forces inflicted heavy losses on the American army, commanded by political appointees. At the conflict's outset, the Creek Indians, spread through coastal communities in and near Florida, were probably the most powerful Indian group in what was then America. A legendary figure in British marine history, Major Edward Niccols, negotiated a treaty with the tribe and led them at the Battle of New Orleans; Creek leaders were received in London.

In the wake of the disastrous battle, the British government declined to stand by Niccols treaty; the Creek were left high and dry, their power shattered.

The future of war
Great moral crusades require few casualties

Robert Kaplan is a correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly, a consultant to the US Army's Special Forces Regiment and a fellow at the New America Foundation. Eastward to Tartary (Random House) is his eighth book, covering travels from Turkey, across the Fertile Crescent, to Central Asia and the Near East.

"In most of these places, institutions are very flimsy," Kaplan says. "It is impossible to know what kind of regimes will be in power. The issue in many places is not so much democracy but the survival of the state itself, in any form.

"We won't have the luxury of bombing Serbia in the future," he says, "because Serbia was a very convenient target. It was a rogue state, but was developed sufficiently to have water plants and an electric grid and bombable targets. What do you do if your enemy is Osma Bin Laden? If you destroy his infrastructure, you take down a bunch of burlap tents, a cell phone and some portable computers.

"In the US, humanitarian war is great provided there are no casualties. The Europeans have a different view, the British, the French, can take casualties, their publics don't revolt. We can take casualties provided someone has articulated a naked self- interest. For moral goals, we can only go to war if there are no or relatively few casualties. One shudders to think what would have happened if five jets had been shot down in the 1999 air war.

"Most people in the military are not kidding themselves. They know the future of war will be messy, dirty, deadly and confusing. Lack of information caused the fog of war, the surplus of it will make it just as confusing. Computer software is brittle. One or two bugs and it won't work. The more antiseptic war becomes, the more people will challenge us."

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