Among the many myths used to conceal the real history of the United States is one that says the Indigenous population of the Americas was lost primarily—and inevitably—to disease. This myth simultaneously obscures the reality and exculpates generations of colonizers from genocide. But it isn’t true, and it doesn’t hold up to close inspection:
According to the current consensus among historians, the wholesale transfer of land from Indigenous to Euro-American hands that occurred in the Americas after 1492 is due less to European invasion, warfare, and material acquisitiveness than to the bacteria that the invaders unwittingly brought with them. Historian Colin Calloway is among the proponents of this theory, and he writes that “epidemic diseases would have caused mass depopulation in the Americas whether brought by Europan invaders or brought home by Native American traders.” Such an absolutist assertion renders any other fate for the Indigenous peoples improbable. Professor Calloway is a careful and widely respected historian of Indigenous North America, but his conclusion articulates a default assumption. The thinking behind this assumption is both ahistorical and illogical in that Europe itself lost a third to one-half of its population to infectious disease during medieval pandemics. The principal reason the consensus view is wrong and ahistorical is that it erases the effects of settler colonialism with its antecedents in the Spanish “Reconquest” and the English conquest of Scotland, Ireland, and Wales. By the time Spain, Portugal, and Britain arrived to colonize the Americas, their methods of eradicating peoples or forcing them into dependency and servitude were ingrained, streamlined, and effective. If disease could have done the job, it is not clear why the European colonizers in America found it necessary to carry out unrelenting wars against Indigenous communities in order to gain every inch of land they took from them—nearly three hundred years of colonial warfare, followed by continued wars waged by the independent republics of the hemisphere.Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, page 39
Those same methods, as Dunbar-Ortiz goes on to show, would later be used in Puerto Rico, Hawaii, Guam, and other present-day territories, and again in Vietnam and the Middle East.
Elsewhere, Dunbar-Ortiz shares this passage, from military historian John Grenier:
US people are taught that their military culture does not approve of or encourage targeting and killing civilians and know little or nothing about the nearly three centuries of warfare—before and after the founding of the US—that reduced the Indigenous peoples of the continent to a few reservations by burning their towns and fields and killing civilians, driving the refugees out—step by step—across the continent.... [V]iolence directed systematically against noncombatants through irregular means, from the start, has been a central part of Americans’ way of war.Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, page 196
Recent reporting makes present that despite assurances to the contrary, civilian deaths are a common and accepted part of US military engagements. But in framing such discoveries as a lack of accountability—rather than part of a longstanding and well-documented set of codified practices—we provide cover for what really happened, what is still happening, and what will keep happening.