Having just finished Blood and Thunder, a more-or-less biography of Kit Carson, I am struck by the similarities between the war on the Navajos and American foreign policy of the last 50 years. Although tangential to the book, I would throw the Mexican-American War into the pot, as well. The basic playbook runs like this: we can go wherever we want and do whatever we feel is good for the people who live there. If someone fights back, that becomes a casus belli that justifies our sending full military might to suppress the opposition. We don’t look at matters from the point of view of the people whose lands we’ve intervened in, because we are Americans and, ipso facto, what we do is good, whether it is set up reservations or install democracy.

The Mexican-American War was a naked land grab, one of the low points in American morality. Move troops onto contested territory and when someone takes a swing at you, holler that you’re being attacked and, in righteous self-defense, start a war. Although the Vietnam War was fought for different motives, the tactics to start it – the Gulf of Tonkin incident – were remarkably similar.

As America expanded westward, primarily in search of gold, the Navajo nation was in the way. We built forts on their land, disrupted their hunting grounds and cheated them with treaties. When some of the more hot-blooded Navajos fought back by stealing livestock and, on rare occasions, kidnapping and killing settlers, the invading Americans decided that all Navajos had to give up everything and move to a distant (unhealthy) location or be killed. Today, it’s hard to think of what more we could do to disrupt lives in Iraq and Afghanistan, yet when Muslims commit acts of terror in Paris we act shocked and offended and announce a war on ISIS, whom we’ve already been extensively bombing. Each life lost in the West is a milestone. No one counts or cares about the far greater loss of lives in the Mideast.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have labeled this post “American” exceptionalism, although that is the dominant force in today’s world. The situation between Israel and the Palestinians is exactly the same. Israel occupies Palestinian territory and commits manifold outrages; yet whenever an Israeli is killed by a Palestinian we see it as justification for more outrage and, even, war. The history of African and Asian colonialism is full of similar examples, with the British Expeditionary Force’s destruction of the Kingdom of Benin coming immediately to mind.

As I’ve said before, we are not likely to “defeat” ISIS militarily, although we will undoubtedly try. It’s too bad, though, that although we will claim and believe ourselves to be the good guys in this conflict, history will undoubtedly paint a far more nuanced picture.