Politics & Policy

Why Can’t They Name Attack Helicopters After Hippies?

Army AH-64 Apache gunship (Sergeant Alun Thomas)
With the Redskins under attack, a Boston Review editor wants weapons systems renamed.

First they came for the Redskins. Now, following up on charges that the name of Washington’s football team is racist, offended activists are calling on the United States military to rechristen the military vehicles — including the Apache and Black Hawk helicopters — that are now named for American Indians.

At the Washington Post, Simon Waxman, managing editor of Boston Review, has an Onion-worthy op-ed outlining the case.

Why do we name our battles and weapons after people we have vanquished? For the same reason the Washington team is the Redskins and my hometown Red Sox go to Cleveland to play the Indians and to Atlanta to play the Braves: because the myth of the worthy native adversary is more palatable than the reality — the conquered tribes of this land were not rivals but victims, cheated and impossibly outgunned. . . .  It is worse than denial; it is propaganda. . . .  In whatever measure it is tribute to the dead, it is in greater measure a boost to our national sense of superiority.

Waxman evidently has more of an inclination for psychoanalysis than for scholarship. While helicopter names may suggest a worthy former adversary, these names exist with that adversary’s blessing. The military helicopter was envisioned by General Hamilton Howze, first director of Army aviation, as “a fast, mobile, stealthy machine on the field of battle using terrain and vegetation to an advantage similar to the Warrior Tribes,” says Bob Mitchell, curator of the U.S. Army Aviation Museum. But unlike “redskin,” which is sometimes considered a racial slur, “Apache,” “Comanche,” and other designations are official names for tribes that are not “dead” at all but still around today. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the population of Americans Indians and Alaska Natives grew by 27 percent between 2000 and 2010, nearly triple the rate of U.S. population growth overall.

Army Regulation 70-28, dated April 4, 1969, made the tradition of conferring tribal names on military choppers official policy, and names are selected from a list provided by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. In 2012, American Indian leaders came out to ritually bless two new LUH-72 Lakota helicopters. These and other easy-to-locate facts can be found in U.S. Army aviator Major Crispin Burke’s “Everyone Relax — The Army’s Native American Helicopter Names Are Not Racist.”

In his pity for American Indians, Waxman ignores the very strong warrior ethic that girded many native cultures, and that still does today — which helps explain why American Indians serve at higher per capita rates than almost any other group.

“The first thing I can remember is my father telling me about war,” Chief Apache John told the Last Great Indian Council in 1914. “At that time if an Indian wanted to win distinction, he must be a good man as well as a good fighter.” Courage was a quality to be prized, valor in combat a virtue.

Indians were not alone in placing a high premium on martial courage, of course. Until about the time Franklin and Penelope Rosemont started printing “Make Love, Not War” buttons and distributing them on the streets of Chicago in 1965, people tended to see war as an unavoidable part of the human condition, and it was a truth universally acknowledged that a society seeking to survive would need a sizable corps of men fierce enough to fight. Vergil, following Homer, sang “of arms” and the men who bore them.

But the progressivism that has flourished over the past half-century is not interested merely in eradicating war (a doomed, if well-intentioned, undertaking). It sees a self-evident evil in the martial virtues themselves. Progressives see not an America whose martial virtues have been exercised in defending and liberating but rather a jingoistic country that has used superior military force to conquer and brutalize. They would much prefer an army (if such a thing is necessary) of SNAGs: Sensitive New-Age Guys. American Indians such as Apache John, who embrace warrior glory rather than victim status, are not only unwelcome in the progressive vision but impossible. Like offensive team names, they need to be disappeared. 

Rewriting the history of American-Indian relations the way Waxman desires has nothing to do with Indians’ feelings or wishes. Unanimous tribal support for AR 70-28 would not convince Waxman that he is wrong — only that the timing is. Rather, the military’s capitulation to this latest demand would signify an admission of American guilt, which would bolster the progressive version of American history and ground new demands for sweeping policy changes. As long as institutions submit to the notion that America must be constantly repenting past injustices, real or imagined, those with the inclination to revise history will continue to demand concessions.

A military that renames its attack helicopters for flower children will eventually fight like them. America’s native peoples produced very fine warriors, whose courage and ferocity in battle were prized virtues. Christening our military equipment in their honor symbolizes our dedication to promoting those same qualities in our armed forces — and broadcasting that to our foes.

National security is not achieved by diplomats, or by experts in racial sensitivity, or even by editors at quarterly reviews. Diminishing a military’s militarism is a luxury no society can afford.

— Ian Tuttle is a William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow at the National Review Institute.


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