Rules in a Knife Fight? From the Americas to Syria

Steve Russell
5 min readOct 29, 2019
Stereograph Image of Cheyenne Prisoners on the Steps of the Dodge City Courthouse Getting Civilized, 1879. Photo Lot 90–1, number 184, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution.

After allowing ethnic cleansing of our Kurdish allies, we claim Syrian oil.

Wimps like myself, who prattle about rules of war or even international law generally, are slogging uphill against the feelings that create the emotional hook for a famous line in a famous film, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid:

“Rules? In a knife fight? No rules!”

I have no answer for those feelings beyond principles said to be universal when they can’t possibly be universal or we would not go to war in the first place. I often make fun of Christians because I was raised in the Bible Belt surrounded by industrial strength hypocrisy and because some Indians are better than others at forgiving in that they think it entails forgetting.

Christianity did more than stand by during evils for which the nascent idea of international law had no name. It provided moral cover that enabled those evils to be presented as morally correct behavior. Hugo Grotius, the father of international law, published The Rights of War and Peace in 1625, when the rape and pillage of the Americas had been rolling for over a century.

Even if there had been rules of war, it’s not clear in the historical rearview mirror that any rights would attach to H. sapiens not legally understood as human beings. History informs us that the status of American Indians as having souls was disputed in the Valladolid Debates of 1550–1551. We know that Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda defended the dominant thinking that Indians had no moral sensibilities and were so many animals, in need of civilization at the point of a sword before they had standing as human beings. We know that the Bishop of Chiapas, Bartolomé de las Casas, took the contrary position that Indians could be recognized as victims of theft or murder.

While we know that the academic dispute at Colegio de San Gregorio took place, we do not know who “won” except by implication. The bloody business continued and as I write from Texas, formerly the northern edge of the Mexican state of Coahuila y Tejas, land titles to the dirt on which my home sits trace to Spanish monarchs who never set their royal feet in the Americas.

Steve Russell

Enrolled Cherokee, 9th grade dropout, retired judge, associate professor emeritus, and (so far) cancer survivor. Memoir: Lighting the Fire (Miniver Press 2020)