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Geronimo: The Warrior

Edward Rielly tells of the tragic massacre which underpinned the life of resistance fighter Geronimo.
National Archives Catalog (Wikimedia Commons)

Geronimo was primarily a fighter, a lasting reputation that led American paratroopers in World War II to call out the name “Geronimo” before plunging from their planes. Schoolchildren, for decades after Geronimo’s death, would similarly yell his name before undertaking a real or imagined feat of bravery, such as leaping from a swing into a river. A much more recent, and highly controversial, use of Geronimo’s name was its employment by the U.S. military as a code name linked to the 2011 operation that resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden.

The association of Geronimo’s name with that of the hated terrorist elicited considerable resentment by a wide range of organizations and individuals, including the National Congress of American Indians, the Onondaga National Council of chiefs, Native American publications, Fort Sill Apache Tribal Chairman Jeff Houser, and Geronimo’s great-grandson Harlyn Geronimo. Their response was so intense that the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs took up the issue at a hearing previously scheduled to discuss use of Indian names and images as sports mascots and in other areas of popular culture. Defense Department officials argued that they had intended no disrespect to Geronimo and had named the total operation against bin Laden Operation Neptune Spear, further naming each step alphabetically. The “G” step involved the capture or killing of bin Laden and was coded with the Indian leader’s name, an explanation that did not do much to satisfy those who had raised objections to the use of Geronimo’s name.

So what led Geronimo onto the path that would lead from the battlefields of Mexico and the Southwest to a raid into Pakistan? Although it would be serious oversimplification to reduce all of Geronimo’s public life to one incident, certainly his life as a warrior was deeply influenced by a very personal event — an attack on an Apache camp by a Mexican general, José María Carrasco.