combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 04 Number 03 Summer ©Jul 2006

Pass in Review
an inspection of the literature

A book may be as great a thing as a battle.
Benjamin Disraeli, Earl of Beaconsfield

Life Among the Apache
by John C. Cremony; Bison Books, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, NE (©1868; repr 1985)

Cremony's book is not alone in the genre of 19th century memoirs recounting life and experiences with indigenous people of the Great Plains and deserts of the diminishing western frontier, yet it is a unique work by an intelligent man who obviously had both a formal education and sadly uncommon common sense.

Though describing a number of battles with Apaches and other tribes that Cremony actually participated in, including one hand-to-hand fight, won with a knife, the book does not deal as much with war per se as it does with elements too often overlooked in warfare, particularly when one is either aligned with and/or fighting against people quite different, ethnically and mentally, than oneself. Cremony did both, and penned an intriguing account in which he forthrightly expresses his disagreement with U.S. government policies and tactics in the Indian Wars.

He first served with a U.S. Boundary Commission in 1849 and into the early 1850s, and later, in the early to mid 1860s, with U.S. cavalry elements assigned to first defeat Confederate forces in the southwest, and then to secure areas of Arizona and New Mexico subjected to Apache attacks. Anyone serving in Viet Nam – or Iraq or Afghanistan – particularly in an advisory role, will stumble across parallels of their own experiences, and perhaps wonder why this book is not included on recommended reading lists for today's military servicemembers.

The book clearly reveals Cremony's mental acuity, maturity and astute judgment, and almost seems too good to be true, and perhaps the product of an author with more imagination than direct experience. Yet a cursory search revealed no reason to doubt Cremony's credentials or character, and the Bison Press imprint carries great credibility, hence the book is taken at face value.

A recurring theme is injected, bluntly and directly, in the preface:

"Our government has expended millions of dollars, in driblets, since the acquisition of California, in efforts to reduce the Apaches and Navajos, who occupy that extensive belt of country ... but we are as far from success to-day as we were twenty years ago. The reason is obvious. We have never striven to make ourselves intellectually acquainted with these tribes. Nearly all that relates to them is as uncertain and indefinite to our comprehension as that which obtains in the center of Africa."
This point is convincingly reinforced throughout the book, sometimes sounding eerily like the complaints of district or province advisors in Viet Nam, and perhaps those now serving in Afghanistan or Iraq.

Cremony admits to not understanding what was in front of him, visible to the eye, during his Boundary Commission tour, and it is only years later, while in charge of Apaches placed in a government camp in what is now Fort Sumner, New Mexico, that he goes beyond the cultural curtain, the one-way mirror through which indigenous people viewed interlopers with much greater clarity than they themselves were observed. Yet Cremony does not go native and is not blindly mesmerized by what some saw as Rousseauian noble savages. He bluntly describes, and with clinical candor, practices he views, with justification, as being cruel and unworthy of emulation, to include torturing captives and mutilating bodies of dead enemies. Acknowledging the Apache tendency to view the world in eternally combative terms, of inexorable enmity between the other, be they whites or other tribes, Cremony set out to learn from his Apache charges. Rather than view them with contempt and arrogance, which the Apache could smell in a second, Cremony employed a simple yet effective technique: he asked Apaches about their language, their ambush tactics, their hunting techniques, their burial practices, and other aspects of their lives. In the course of this learning process, he also learned their language and compiled a study of Apache linguistics that was later submitted to the Smithsonian for future scholars to examine.

This effort was in part motivated by the scorn Cremony held for whites who simply viewed the Apaches, and all native Americans, as ignorant savages incapable of rational thinking. He viewed this as both stupid in its own right and also leading to counter-productive policies which prolonged troubles on the frontier, and promoted more violence and death. His views are succinctly spelled out in relevant passages throughout the book, among which is his observation that

"In our dealings with the Indian tribes we have quite underrated their abilities, and in this we have demonstrated our own stupidity. The vanity and self-conceit of civilized and educated men are never more stilted than when brought in contact with savage races. Such persons are prone to address the Indian with a smirk or patronizing air which is very offensive, and would never be used toward an equal."

Ethnocentric myopia also contributed to bumbling by high ranking territorial commanders and general officers who were simply out of their league:

"Whenever an intelligent and well conceived movement has been concerted within the power of the limited force in Arizona, official stupidity has invariably disconcerted and paralyzed its efficiency. ... Personally, my regard for that officer [General McDowell, one-time commander in Arizona] as a gentleman is very sincere; but it may be doubted if the army register contains the name of another so wholly, so utterly incapable of comprehending Indian nature and the requirements of Indian warfare."
Many who served in Viet Nam will cringe in recalling similarly ill-equipped superior officers, people who, for some reason, simply could not grasp, could not relate, to what was around them. Just as they will relate to Cremony's indictment of careerism among inept Indian agents, and an equally withering damnation of the fort-building fetish, in contrast to the need for vigilant cavalry constantly on the move.

The book is delightfully free of clichés and the typical cast of standard characters frequently encountered in movies or shallow histories. Some Apache individuals are depicted as the dignified people they were; others as the duplicitous poltroons they showed themselves to be. The de rigueur caricature of idiot Indian-hating whites is almost absent, aside from brief mention of sociopathic scum on the frontier (some of whom are reported to meet a cruel – and deserved – fate), and instead the reader encounters mention of Doctor David Wooster, a physician who befriends and is respected by the Pima and Maricopa tribes, and a Captain Updegraff, who allows Cremony to lead Apaches on an emergency hunt to relieve food shortages at Fort Sumner. Conversely, the noble savage myth takes a beating, showing that Apaches were just as capable of infantile selfishness as are many contemporary people described in Dear Abby columns. An old warrior, formerly a valiant fighter, is described as ignored and neglected by the tribe. Cremony also discerned that Apache females most admired the shiftiest thieves and con men rather than the tribe's less-wealthy quiet and humble hunters and warriors. This all changed, of course, whenever external threats upped the value of warriors, but once normalcy had been restored, the horse-thieves once again enthralled tribal maidens. Kipling probably wrote something on that topic.

While Cremony's insight, mature character and quest for knowledge are engaging elements in this work, the book also functions on another level as an adventure story, featuring treks across the burning – or freezing – southwest, hot pursuit by hostile Yuma Indians across the barren sand dunes, a later stand-off with the same Yumas along the Colorado River, Apache ambushes, contentious negotiations to free Mexican slaves from Apaches, and even a bloody engagement in which U.S. Cavalry forces joined with Apaches to recapture sheep stolen by marauding Navahos, leaving scores of dead. Once again, parallels with later wars are found, illustrating that the tactical principles remain the same, discounting differences in weaponry. A rare Apache night attack is broken up by alert sentries positioned on perimeter listening posts , the same kind of LPs commonly employed in Viet Nam. Overnight laagers are located beyond range of Indian weapons, and with clear fields of fire all around, similar to practices employed at times by mechanized infantry units in Viet Nam. Superior firepower is applied to break up a deadly Apache ambush in a narrow defile, not in the form of a 105mm main gun nor quad-.50 machine guns, but with a small 12-pounder field piece brought to bear on Apaches concealed on the high ground.

Physical hardships are almost blandly mentioned, quite understandable given the fact that life itself, absent central heating, indoor plumbing, and air conditioning, was a constant ordeal in those days. Oddly, Cremony only once mentions the famed blistering heat of the Arizona and New Mexico desert summers, and has more to say about almost unbearable cold encountered during winter operations.

Altogether, this is a memorable and edifying book, all the more valuable because of the author's maturity and inquisitive nature, character traits leading him to comprehension of Apache ways, and a degree of respect from the Apaches themselves. It is not too much of a stretch to suggest this book should be on contemporary military reading lists, particularly for those who may be deployed to Afghanistan or Iraq, and who might be impelled to develop some linguistic and cross-cultural skills which, if Cremony's account and later similar experiences in Viet Nam or Laos are any indication, will enhance performance and play a role in the important subordinate mission of connecting, on the underlying human level, with indigenous peoples of these and other countries to which Americans may be assigned.

Minor shortcomings exist. The edition reviewed had no maps, the inclusion of which would be welcome and beneficial. Nor is there an introduction providing more information on Cremony's life and education, or perhaps similar works. There is no index, nor any drawings, if only to illustrate terrain features and varying topography of the southwest. Several editions are available over the internet, and readers, particularly those familiar with the region's terrain and climate, are encouraged to get an edition with Carl Hantman's cover art, Abandoned, an intriguing piece of art portraying an Apache band, alert to something unseen, gazing into the distance from a desert hill. Hantman visually captures, through astute placement of shadows, showing high sun elevation in summer, and mid-day heat haze of the southwest desert, the feel of the southwest's harsh yet haunting desert mountain country, while depicting the very same tough, durable Apaches Cremony describes in this memorable work.

contributed by William S. Laurie

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C O M B A T, the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones