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The Little Bighorn had to happen precisely as it did, with the ensuing loss of life, for America to grow into the place that it is today. Think of it this way: for Americans in 1876, the massacre at the Little Bighorn was the very visceral twin of the attack on 9/11.

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Petraeus’ Last Stand

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The enduring lessons of George Armstrong Custer and his 7th Cavalry are as relevant today as they were back in 1876.

Let’s hope that General David Petraeus, the newly-installed head of America’s Central Command, is as aware of them, as he is the political realities of Washington and Baghdad.

George Custer was a pretty good politician, too, but that didn’t stop him from leading his troops to slaughter.

The 7th Calvary was created in the restive days following the Civil War to bring some sense of military order and safety to the vast reaches of the American West and upper Midwest.

Two similar regiments, both primarily composed of Buffalo soldiers, or freed black veterans, were drummed up for service in the even more dangerous Southwest, where Mexico and the Apache were constant antagonists.

But the 7th was the true glory brigade: Custer was the Army’s top war-fighter, if not strategist; the 7th depended heavily on professional soldiers from European countries, many of them Civil War vets, like Custer, and the outfit’s main mission was defense of the enormous open Canadian border, as well as subjugation of the Plains Indians.

The 7th was seen as an elite unit, a kind of American version of the British Light Brigade. Its duty was clear – fight America’s growing colonial war against the Indians and against any form of European interference that might come spilling south from the frozen, unguarded border with Canada.

It was imperialism, or in the young America’s case, Manifest Destiny, on the cheap. One regiment, with no back-up. It was kind of like the original Dick Cheney/Don Rumsfeld vision for the Middle East. Subdue the terrorists of 1876 (the Plains Indians) with one elite expeditionary force and not too big of a budget.

The strategy was exhibit number one in how not to fight and win a war. But, it must have seemed awfully cost-effective and macho to the neo-cons of 1876.

When the 7th was suddenly and shockingly wiped out by the largest gathering of Plains Indian warriors in the history of North America, it hit the newly united America like a forerunner of 9/11. There was disbelief and dread. And a thirst for vengeance. Just like Iraq and Afghanistan.

In the end, a combination of infrastructure (the railroads and steamboats) and sheer military might (the military expeditions that followed Custer) finally opened the West and subdued the Indians.

David Petraeus has studied all this at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pa. Determining exactly what he learned from it; however, is still an open question. Especially in Afghanistan where both the British and the Russians lost about 20,000 each before finally withdrawing. Now, the USA is next in line.

The final outcome was never in doubt, but the fate of the 7th became the stuff of myth and legend mainly because America initially asked the regiment to do the impossible.

The parallels with what we are expecting of our military in Iraq and Afghanistan are chilling and steeped in lessons still unlearned.

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