There have been some complaints from Native Americans about the use of the code name “Geronimo” during the operation that killed Osama bin Laden. Geronimo’s great-grandson Harlyn is particularly upset. “Whether it was intended only to name the military operation to kill or capture Osama bin Laden or to give Osama bin Laden himself the code name Geronimo, either was an outrageous insult and mistake,” he said in a statement. He wants Defense Secretary Robert Gates to explain “how this disgraceful use of my great-grandfather’s name occurred,” and purge the name from all official records of the assault on bin Laden’s compound.
The government responded in several predictable fashions. First they laughably denied that the “Geronimo” code name referred to bin Laden himself. This is obviously not true – the SEAL who spotted bin Laden said “We have a visual on Geronimo,” while the code for his successful eradication was “Geronimo-E KIA.” It’s really splitting hairs to claim the name was not being used as a reference for the primary target of the mission.
Next, our ponderous federal bureaucracy began using its flabby arms to spank itself, as the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs “took the opportunity to discuss complaints by some Native Americans” about the Geronimo code name. There was some anguish over “inappropriate uses of Native American icons and cultures” which are “prevalent through our society.”
People feel what they feel. If Harlyn Geronimo takes the use of his ancestor’s name as an insult, no one can tell him he’s “wrong,” although we may fairly mourn the increasing amount of mourning in our high-strung society. I would ask him to reconsider, though.
“Geronimo” is not actually the great Apache warrior’s name. His real name is rendered as “Goyathlay,” “Goyaale,” or “Goyahkla” in various sources. “Geronimo” was a nickname – a code name, if you will – said to have been given to him by the Mexicans, who probably called him a great many things during his years of war against them. He was later written into history by Americans who never heard any other name for him.
He was a husband and father before he became a warrior. Mexican soldiers killed his family, and he ran through hails of gunfire with a knife in his hand to avenge them. He fought white settlers too, with a ferocity that intensified after the government tried to force his Chiricahua Apache tribe onto a bleak reservation in Arizona.
The difficulty of catching Geronimo was a matter of legend. It took five thousand soldiers half a year to corner his band of a hundred raiders in the Sonora Mountains… and a few days after surrendering, he changed his mind. Another six months passed before the government lured him into another surrender, offering a promise of temporary exile in Florida. Like all temporary government programs, his exile from Arizona ended up lasting forever.
Some of the things Geronimo did were terrible. His courage and determination were glorious. It would truly dishonor his memory to forget either of those truths. He was so famous that he marched in President Theodore Roosevelt’s inaugural parade in 1905. He was so lonely that he died of pneumonia after being thrown from his horse four years later, and spending a night lying in the rain.
His legend is part of America’s legend now. Would the most unforgettable of Apaches have approved? Would those who died in battle against him? It doesn’t matter, because history is not an act of consensus. The future will remember what it remembers, just as people feel what they feel.
Osama bin Laden is a part of our history too, and few among us are pleased about it. (I will not say “none,” because that would not be true.) He was tough to catch. The men who took him down made a bold leap into dangerous territory to get the job done. Their commando training owes much to what Geronimo and the Apaches added to the American understanding of warfare.
There’s an old cliché about people shouting “Geronimo!” when they jump out of airplanes, but Geronimo wasn’t a paratrooper. They use his name because they remember his bravery, a century after the passing of the last people who would have used his name as a curse.
It’s inconceivable that anyone connected with Operation Geronimo intended the name as an insult to the Apache or his descendants. To assume otherwise comically underestimates the eagerness of official America to avoid offending segments of our population that have their own Senate Committees. We may never know for sure, but I suspect the name was chosen because it’s so familiar. If there was any deeper significance, it may lie in the courageous way our SEALs ended a very long hunt.
No one in their right minds thinks the sniveling coward who answered for over three thousand murders last Sunday has anything in common with the eternal avatar of the Apache warrior spirit. The U.S. military doesn’t name its weapon systems after “Native American icons and cultures” as a gesture of contempt. Sports teams are not given Indian names because the fans look down on Indians. His great-grandson may choose to disagree, but I don’t see any disrespect in writing the fabled name of Geronimo into American history one more time, as part of a great victory for freedom, and justice for so many murdered families.