(This is an updated and expanded version of an essay originally published on the LewRockwell.com blog.)
In the lexicon of official depravity, there are few if any expressions more despicable than the phrase “combatant children.” That term of art is inscribed on a plaque found at a memorial to the Bear River Massacre located just a few miles north of Preston, Idaho.
“The Battle of Bear River was fought in this vicinity January 29, 1863,” the official inscription lies, using the expression “battle” to describe an incident that is more honestly depicted as state-authorized mass murder. The attack was carried out because Shoshones gathered in the village had been designated, without due process, or even a perfunctory effort to provide evidence, as “guilty of hostile attacks on settlers and immigrants.”
A company of federal troops from California, under the command of the detestable Colonel (later General) Patrick Edward Connor, attacked a village of Shoshones at daybreak, killing at least 300 of them, “including about 90 combatant women and children.”
For the Indian men defending their village, the engagement was a battle against an immensely stronger aggressor. Some of the women might have joined in that effort, facing the enemy with desperate, doomed courage. There is no sense, however, in which the children could have been considered “combatants” – apart from the fact that they were murdered by agents of the US Government, which means that they could not possibly have been innocent.
Among the “combatants” who were defeated by Col. Connor’s bold and valiant troops was a young mother named Anzeechee, who “swam under an overhang on the bank and survived, head barely above water in the frigid shelter,” records historian Rod Miller in his book Massacre at Bear River: First, Worst, Forgotten. Her infant, however, was claimed by the pitiless river, his lifeless body “left to drift downstream amidst ice and swirling blood.”
Once the assault on the village began, recalled a sergeant in an account written while he recovered from frostbite, “no officer was heeded or needed…. It was a free fight [with] every man on his own hook.” No military discipline was required, because the troops were not engaged in a military conflict. The men defending their homes and families mounted what resistance they could for an hour or two before being overwhelmed.
At that point, recalled another sergeant, “the work of death commenced in real earnest.” Shoshones repeatedly offered to surrender, the sergeant continued, “but there was no quarters that day.” Settlers who witnessed the onslaught described how many terrified and disarmed victims were channeled into a ravine, where there “were shot at arm’s length in the face.” Many were gunned down as they attempted to flee by casting themselves into the ice-choked river, or driven into a dense willow thicket on the river bank, where they were tracked down and killed by the troops.
A handful of the Shoshones were captured and allowed to live long enough to provide sadistic amusement for their captors. Bear Hunter, who had taken several rounds, was kicked, tortured, and then murdered by having a heated bayonet driven through one of his ears. A Shoshone survivor named Matigund testified that some of the “combatant” women were raped to death. Israel Clark, a local settler, collected several similar eyewitness accounts, describing to local Mormon leaders how soldiers had raped Shoshone women while they were “in the act of dying from their wounds.”
As soldiers set fire to the village, a Shoshone child named Yeager — who would be among the survivors — was taken by his grandmother to a pile of bodies and told to feign death.
“When the soldiers came around prodding bodies with bayonets in order to extinguish any sign of lingering life, Yeager opened his eyes for a look, only to see a trooper looking back,” writes Miller. “The boy closed his eyes for a time, then opened them and found himself staring down the barrel of the same trooper’s gun. This soldier lowered the weapon and Yeager again closed his eyes. The ritual was repeated a third time, after which the soldier walked away” – his ardor for killing apparently extinguished.
Yeager was immensely fortunate. His brother Be-shup, who also survived, later recounted how the soldiers who carried out the massacre could be found “taking little infants by the heels and beating their brains out on any hard substance they could find.” After all, what other treatment is appropriate in dealing with “combatant children”?
William Hull, one of three people dispatched by the Mormon bishop in nearby Franklin, Idaho to search for Shoshone survivors the day after the massacre, described seeing “dead bodies everywhere. I counted eight deep in one place, and in several places they were three to five deep.”
This was the triumph of arms celebrated in the monument erected by the Department of the Interior in 1922. Several decades later, following a prolonged and justified outcry from Indian activists, that monument was clumsily revised by the attachment of a second plaque referring to the incident as a massacre.
A larger display on the site attempts a dialectical reconciliation of those two versions, describing the incident as a “battle” that “became a massacre” without clearly acknowledging that the “battle” itself was an act of criminal aggression against innocent people.
Recalling the Massacre and the hostilities that precipitated it, local Mormon leader Peter Maughan pointed out that the supposedly hostile Shoshone and Paiute Indians “look upon the very lands we occupy as a portion of their inheritance.” While acknowledging that Indians had carried out raids and other acts of armed violence against settlers, Maughan urged his peers to “look at the catalogue of crimes perpetrated by the whites themselves, and ask who should cast the first stone.”
Not surprisingly, when Maughan died in 1871, local Indian leaders were conspicuous among attendees at the funeral of a man they praised because he “never had two tongues.”
After the Bear River Massacre, Col. Connor generously distributed “commendations” to subordinates who had distinguished themselves through their viciousness.
“Continuing with unflinching courage for over four hours, you completely cut him to pieces, captured his property and arms, destroyed his stronghold, and burned his lodges,” read a typical commendation written by Connor –the word “him” in this instance being used as a collective personification of the Indians as a single, nameless enemy.
It should be acknowledged that Indians were not the only enemies Connor intended to subdue.When he assumed command of Fort Douglas in Salt Lake City in 1862, Connor publicly denounced what he described as “persons who are endeavoring to destroy and defame the principles and institutions of our government.” According to Connor, “Traitors shall not utter treasonable sentiments in this district with impunity.”
With the Civil War underway and Indian children to butcher, Connor didn’t have the time or the means to chastise anti-government extremists. Those who subscribe to Freudian assumptions might wonder if the unprecedented sadism of the Bear River Massacre might have been an exercise in displaced rage by the commanding officer responsible for that crime.
P.E. Connor and the mass murder over which he presided continue to be honored in the institutional memory of the Regime that employed him, and killing “combatant children” continues to be an acceptable practice for those who do that Regime’s bidding. Among those who have explicitly endorsed the summary execution of “combatant children” is Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who more recently described the family and supporters of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy as “domestic terrorists.”
During a March 11, 2012 interview with CNN anchor Candy Crowley, Reid was asked about the Obama administration’s use of drone strikes to kill U.S. citizens – including 16-year-old Abdulrahman al-Awalki – who had been found “guilty” of terrorism without the benefit of due process.
While claiming not to know the details of the process behind those “targeted killings,” Reid declared: “I do know this – the American citizens who have been killed overseas … are terrorists, and, frankly, if anyone in the world deserved to be killed, those three did deserve to be killed.”
“Those three,” once again, included a 16-year-old boy, a U.S. citizen, who was among a dozen or more people who were vaporized by drone-fired missiles while sitting down to dinner at a backyard barbecue.
In addition to describing the Bundy family and supporters as “domestic terrorists,” Reid put into circulation the patent falsehood that they have used their children as “human shields” – a fabrication that was seized on, and embroidered even further, by Sgt. Tom Jenkins of the Las Vegas Metro Police Department.
That latter charge acquires genuinely ominous undertones in light of Reid’s explicit endorsement of the summary execution of “combatant children,” and the way that some Obama-adoring Progressives demanded that their Dear Leader dispatch drones to deal with the Bunkerville Rebellion.
It is worth remembering as well that the Department of the Interior, which includes the BLM, created the propaganda display north of Preston describing the children annihilated at Bear River as “combatants.”
Most importantly, we shouldn’t forget that lethal force training for contemporary law enforcement officers is designed to break down inhibitions against killing “combatant women and children.” This was the entire purpose of the notorious “No More Hesitation”training targets created by Minnesota-based Law Enforcement Targets, Inc.
Following a public outcry, the company withdrew from circulation several of its training targets – which included pregnant women, children, and elderly people holding guns. But this is trivial cosmetic surgery in a Regime that routinely massacres “combatant children” by remote control overseas and continues to count terrified mothers and children among the enemies vanquished in its triumph at Bear River.