Geronimo! Or: What's in a Name?

Paul Greenberg

5/9/2011 1:55:00 PM - Paul Greenberg

For once I find myself firmly, indignantly and thoroughly on the side of political correctness.

It's a strange sensation, but a deeply satisfying one. As if something needed to be made absolutely clear, spelled out, published far and wide -- and you proceeded to do just that. Which is the purpose of my writing this column. And this is why it had to be done:

It seems the historical ignoramus who devised code words for the wholly admirable -- indeed, inspiring -- operation to get Osama bin Laden came up with "Geronimo EKIA" as the message that would signal OBL's long awaited demise.

Thank you, U.S. Navy SEALs and all those who worked with you in the chain of command right up to the president of the United States and commander-in-chief of its armed forces.

But why flash "Geronimo EKIA" -- Geronimo Enemy Killed in Action -- to mark this happy occasion? Unacceptable. Completely unacceptable.

It's also a sign of the ignorant times. Like some mastermind's decision early in the War of Terror to refer to it as a Crusade -- when an essential aim of this long struggle against terrorism must be to make it clear that we have not embarked on a religious crusade against Islam. On the contrary, we are waging a just war against those who violate Islamic civilization's long tradition of chivalry, learning and tolerance.

There was a time when American fighting men knew their history better, as during the Second World War when our paratroops began yelling Geronimo! as they jumped out of their planes to attack the stunned enemy below. (That battle cry is supposed to have originated with the 82nd Airborne.)

Whether the troopers got that yell from history or Hollywood's version of it, it was appropriate homage to a legendary American warrior who inspired many a story. As we hope and trust the saga of the SEALs last week will do. May they, too, be celebrated generation after generation, like Merrill's Marauders, Orde Wingate's Chindits and other daring commandos who descended on the enemy when they were least expected.

I can still remember being taken out to the picturesque cliff at Fort Sill in the badlands of Oklahoma where the legendary Geronimo, great rider that he was, was said to have leapt off his horse and into the chasm below to evade capture. He did evade capture many a time before the U.S. Cavalry finally caught up with him. But this particular tale was wholly fictive, since the Apache chief's exploits were confined to the Southwest -- and Mexico, too.

It was true enough that, when finally captured, he was imprisoned in a dusty little calaboose at Fort Sill, Indian Territory. To visit it was to be overcome by the sad and sordid end of a great chief who once roamed the buttes and canyons, but ended his days locked up in a narrow little cell.

So allow me to second the indignation of Loretta Tuell of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee and the Nez Perce tribe, who pointed out how inappropriate it was to associate so heroic a name with so low a villain. The codemaker might as well have called our enemy Tecumseh, the name of another great American hero -- even if it was the U.S. Army he was fighting. That detail does not diminish his heroism, as anyone who can recite Confederate heroes by the hour well knows.

Like so many tasteless offenses, this one surely was committed out of ignorance rather than malice. But it does reveal the vacuum we have allowed to develop in place of even a basic knowledge of our own history, myth and folklore. Somebody ought to tell the "intelligence" officer who let this code name get by him to go and study. Which wouldn't be bad advice for a lot of us. A people that does not know its own history will not remain one people for long.

Almost as offensive are the kind of outraged reactions that might lead one to believe that the use of Geronimo's name to identify someone wholly bereft of his qualities insulted only American Indians, now known as Native Americans. (The rest of us native Americans don't seem to be included in that designation, an act of discrimination I also protest.)

Using Geronimo's good name in association with someone as vile as Osama bin Laden insults, intentionally or not, all Americans, for -- lest we forget -- Geronimo belonged to all of us. Let it not be claimed that only a hyphenated kind of American need object when Geronimo's name is used so carelessly.

To some of us, there are no hyphenated Americans. That's one of the beauties, and strengths, of this country. And one of the things that explains our remarkable growth, endurance and continuity. We may be a young people, but we have a remarkably continuous history because each generation accepts the heroes of the others that have gone before it. Over time political passions fade into a More Perfect Union, and we become one nation indivisible.

Now let the celebration of these latest American heroes proceed unhindered. And let the story of their deeds not be tarnished by this speck some unthinking type had to go and leave on the saga of a raid so daring that it would surely have pleased, most of all, Geronimo himself.

A name the 82nd Airborne knew how to use properly.