It s too bad reality television didn t come along about a century earlier than it did. There might never have been a Battle of the Little Bighorn because George A. Custer would have channeled his energy into competing on Dancing With the Stars instead.
In a fascinating American Experience, Custer s Last Stand, to be shown Tuesday on PBS, Custer emerges as a classic fame addict, tasting public adoration early because of his battlefield exploits during the Civil War but never quite being able to say, I had a nice run; now I have my memories. Instead he kept looking for opportunities to return to the limelight and embellish his legend.
Today, of course, we have outlets for people who want another dose of fame and don t care how they get it: they can create a degrading reality TV show along the lines of The Osbournes or sign up for a spectacle like Dancing With the Stars.
Custer would have been perfect on that show. He was no doubt in great shape from all that horse-riding, and with the right partner he could have certainly left clods like Bristol Palin and David Arquette in the dust. But instead he kept pursuing the spotlight the only way he knew, through military adventurism, with increasing recklessness.
Custer had incredible success at a very young age, and the qualities that made him a success his daring, his flamboyance were qualities of youth, says Michael A. Elliott, a cultural historian and one of several engaging experts who propel the program along. I think throughout his entire life he worried that the clock was running out, and that if he didn t achieve a kind of permanent glory before a certain point in his life, he would never have the chance. He was somebody who was really preparing to kind of go for broke.
Fame lust, though, is only one of the intriguing present-day echoes in the story of Custer, who was just 36 when he and all his men were killed in 1876 in a clash with a much larger Indian force at the Little Bighorn River, in what is now Montana. A video showing Marines urinating on dead enemy fighters may be causing an uproar at the moment, but the attitude is nothing new. Custer and his troops once desecrated an Indian burial ground, we re told. And earlier, in 1868, he and his cavalry had attacked an Indian encampment at the Washita River in Oklahoma under dubious circumstances, killing women, children and elderly tribe members in addition to some warriors.
To attack at dawn, the historian Philip J. Deloria says on the program, speaking of this engagement, to attack a village that s full of a few warriors, a lot of women, a lot of children, and to kill indiscriminately, as often happens in these battles, this is a new kind of warfare, and it reflects contempt for Indian people as human beings. And Custer s right there at the heart of it.
Such a résumé can make Custer feel as much of this time as of his own.
The way that Americans sometimes rush into a military action, the way that America has treated American Indians and other peoples now around the world these are questions that are really raw and nagging, Mr. Elliott says. We haven t resolved them, and until we do we re going to keep returning to Custer and the controversies that surround him. --NEIL GENZLINGER for the New York Times