“Geronimo!” That was the call that went over the command net on May 1, indicating that Navy SEALs had found their man. And that code name for Osama bin Laden has angered some Native Americans, who have demanded a formal apology from the Obama administration.
Their complaints are understandable, but misguided. The code name doesn’t denigrate the Apache war captain, a hero to some students of Native American history, through comparison to the Saudi terrorist leader. The similarities are not in the men themselves but in the military campaigns that targeted them.
In May 1885, Geronimo led the breakout of 120 Chiricahua Apache from the San Carlos Reservation in what is now Arizona, creating mass hysteria in the American Southwest. The Chiricahua had legitimate grievances: Civilian “Indian agents” were corrupt and consistently cheated the Apache on their rations, while the land the tribe had been given was almost worthless for farming but still encroached upon by miners.
The Apaches were such fierce adversaries that even as hardened a soldier as William Tecumseh Sherman, in an 1870 letter, recommended abandoning the Arizona territory altogether. As Geronimo biographer Angie Debo notes, the fugitives, after a previous breakout, “killed everyone they encountered.”
So, taking advantage of a reciprocal pursuit treaty, Gen. George Crook, commander of the Department of Arizona, ordered his troops into Mexico to capture or kill Geronimo. Eventually, 5,000troops — one-quarter of the entire U.S. Army — were deployed on the border and into Mexico in pursuit of Geronimo.
The 16-month campaign was the first of nearly a dozen strategic manhunts in U.S. military history in which forces were deployed abroad with the objective of killing or capturing one individual. Among those targeted were Pancho Villa, Che Guevara, Manuel Noriega and Saddam Hussein.
The original Geronimo campaign and the hunt for bin Laden share plenty of similarities. On May 3, 1886, more than a century before a $25 million reward was offered for information on bin Laden’s whereabouts, and almost 125 years to the day before the al-Qaeda leader’s death, the U.S. House of Representatives introduced a joint resolution “Authorizing the President to offer a reward of twenty-five thousand dollars for the killing or capture of Geronimo.”
In both operations, the United States deployed its most advanced technology. Whereas a vast array of satellite and airborne sensors was utilized in the search for bin Laden, Gen. Nelson Miles directed his commanders to erect heliograph stations on prominent mountain peaks, using sunlight and mirrors to transmit news of the hostiles. Neither system helped anyone actually catch sight of the man who was sought.
Small raiding forces it was proved more decisive than large troop formations in both cases. In 1886, Lt. Charles Gatewood was able to approach the 40 Apache warriors still at large with a party of just five — himself, two Apache scouts, an interpreter and a mule-packer. He convinced Geronimo and the renegades to surrender on Sept. 4, with a deftness that would have been impossible with 5,000 soldiers. Similarly, the United States could never have deployed the thousands of troops necessary to block all escape routes out of Tora Bora — the deployment of 3,000 troops three months later to Afghanistan’s ShahikotValley in Operation Anaconda failed to prevent the escape of the targeted individuals from similar terrain — but a lightning strike by a few dozen commandos was successful.
Both campaigns also demonstrated the importance of human intelligence to manhunting. Gatewood was alerted to Geronimo’s location near Fronteras, Mexico, by a group of Mexican farmers tired of the threat of Apache raids, but he also needed the assistance of Apache scouts familiar with the terrain and with Geronimo’s warriors to close in on his quarry. So, too, according to administration officials, did the success in finding bin Laden depend upon the interrogation of his former confederates in al-Qaeda and upon the efforts of local agents in Pakistan to track the courier who led U.S. intelligence officers to the Abbottabad compound.
The parallels between Geronimo and bin Laden may extend to the strategic effect of the campaigns that targeted them. Geronimo’s surrender to U.S. forces at Skeleton Canyon was important and symbolic — but the effective end of Apache resistance to the settlement of the Southwest came through Gen. Miles’s cruel policy of exile, under which even those Chiricahua who resisted Geronimo and stayed on the reservation were sent to Florida, where many died because of the change in climate. Today, most terrorism analysts do not believe that bin Laden’s killing will end the struggle against al-Qaeda, noting that in the decade since he has gone to ground, affiliated groups such as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula have become an increasing threat to America’s safety.
Almost from the moment of his surrender, Geronimo began the transformation from monster to legend, participating in “Wild West” shows, marching at Theodore Roosevelt’s 1905 inauguration, and selling souvenir bows and arrows and autographed pictures of himself wherever he traveled. Bin Laden’s legacy, on the other hand, will always be defined by the 3,000 innocent lives lost on Sept. 11, 2001, and the thousands of innocent Muslims killed by extremists inspired by the ideology of “bin Ladenism.”
No linkage of their names, whether intentional or incidental, will change how they are remembered.
Benjamin Runkle, a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom and a former Defense department and National Security Council official, is author of the forthcoming “Wanted Dead or Alive: Manhunts from Geronimo to bid Laden.”