Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

The Bulletproof Project

November 6th, 2009 · 13 Comments

If you’ve yet to read this jarring New York Times piece, do yourself a big favor and click over stat. It’s a damning account of how the Iraqi cops have been duped into buying a handheld “bomb detector” that apparently works no better than an old-school divining rod. Scary stuff, considering that so much of the country’s security depends on the effectiveness of checkpoints.

The article got us thinking about how folks come to believe in snake-oil solutions, even when the consequences of that belief can be fatal. And that line of inquiry has led us to launch yet another semi-regular Microkhan feature: The Bulletproof Project, in which we will document the various instances throughout history in which people foolishly believed that a certain charm, garment, or spell made their bodies impervious to ordnance.

We’re kicking off the series with the case of the ghost shirts, sacred garments worn by the Lakota Sioux during the Wounded Knee Massacre. The shirts were an integral part of the Ghost Dance religion (depicted above), a sort of 19th-century ethnic pride movement crossed with traditional Native American mysticism. In the fervor to resist American expansionism, Lakota Sioux shamans created a dangerous delusion at the worst possible time:

After issuing hardtack for breakfast rations, Colonel Forsyth informed the Indians that they were now to be disarmed. “They called for guns and arms,” White Lance said,” so all of us gave the guns and they were stacked up in the center.” The soldier chiefs were not satisfied with the number of weapons surrendered, and so they sent details of troopers to search the tepees. “They would go right into the tents and come out with bundles and tear them open,” Dog Chief said. “They brought our axes, knives, and tent stakes and piled them near the guns.”

Still not satisfied, the soldier chiefs ordered the warriors to remove their blankets and submit to searches for weapons. The Indians’ faces showed their anger, but only the medicine man, Yellow Bird, made any overt protest. He danced a few Ghost Dance steps, and chanted one of the holy songs, assuring the warriors that the soldiers’ bullets could not penetrate their sacred garments. “The bullets will not go toward you,” he chanted in Sioux. “The prairie is large and the bullets will not go toward you.”

We wonder how this madness could have come about, given that the Lakota Sioux were perfectly familiar with firearms. How could they possible overlook the total absence of first-hand evidence attesting to the shirts’ uselessness? It never ceases to amaze us how people will see only what they want to see, if their circumstances are desperate enough.

We already have a few more Bulletproof Project entries in mind, but we could use some suggestions, too—contemporary as well as historical, please. We know these kinds of lethal delusions persist, despite the supposed triumph of the scientific method.


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13 Comments so far ↓

  • Jordan

    In the fantastic This American Life episode “Superpowers”, there’s a story from a journalist who interviewed Luther and Johnny Htoo, the former leaders of God’s Army in Burma. Another case where it’s hard to tell where belief and deception began and ended.


  • scottstev

    This one is probably on the list, but I know Karens use magic bullet charms to render themselves invicible. Also, I remember a story about child-soldiers in either Siera Leone or Liberia using Ju Ju to render themselves invisible. I’ll look out for a Theodore Darymaple where he describes talking to an African colleague (Darymaple is an MD), who described a politician’s staying power due to his strong magic. People can hold strong beliefs in the supernatural while being deeply involved in real-world pursuits.

  • shothotbot

    Didn’t one of the resisters to the Boers paint his warriors bulletproof? Not Shaka…

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    Thanks for the leads, y’all. The Htoo twins! Hadn’t thought about those kids for eons. Good times, good times…

    What strikes me about the whole “this will protect you against bullets” promise is that it’s so demonstrably false. It’s one thing to have a “magic amulet” that helps you, say, do better in business, or bring sickness to your enemies. The laws of chance stipulate that once in a while such magic will at least seem to work, right? (Sort of like Lisa Simpson’s bear-repelling rock.) But a ghost shirt or holy body paint? No chance.

  • scottstev

    I’d like to formally apologize to your Karen readers by confounding God’s Army with mainstream Karen resistance movements in Burma. I stand corrected and regret the error.

    I love how this blog is basically a justification for reading that story in A17 of the paper.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    The best stuff is always on page A17. Or sometimes A19.

  • shothotbot

    scottstev reminded me of the Lords Resistance Army who anoint their soldiers/kidnapping victims for bullet-proofing. Tangential reference here: http://www.nytimes.com/1997/03/05/world/christian-rebels-wage-a-war-of-terror-in-uganda.html

  • omellet

    Can’t forget Liberia’s cross-dressing soldiers: http://slate.msn.com/id/2086490/

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    Ah, yes, the unimaginably dreadful LRA. A close pal of mine covered this conflict in northern Uganda. I seem to remember him telling me that the LRA forbids the use of bicycles in areas they controlled, and they chop off the feet of those caught violating this tenet.

  • Gramsci

    I think the Ghost Dance needs to be understood as an apocalyptic movement, one in which certain shards of a religious tradition are grasped in order to survive an ocean of chaos. Though I have to reread some of the secondary lit, the link you provide rightly points out how desperate the Lakota were, materially and, one might say, existentially. Their guns were being taken, the writing was on the wall.

    Do Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Thelma and Louise really believe they’re going to make it, despite how demonstrably false that belief would be? In some contexts meaning and value are more important to human beings than survival.

    A good recent book about this issue:

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @omellet: You have no idea how much of an impact the Liberian civil war made on me as a college kid. I was endlessly fascinated by those chilling photographs of child soldiers wearing Salvation Army cast-offs. I distinctly remember this one photo of a nine-year-old holding an AK-47 and wearing a t-shirt advertising a dentist’s office in Ohio. Something about that juxtaposition sparked my curiosity, and helped lead me down the road I’ve been on ever since. (Though, regrettably, I’ve yet to travel to Liberia.)

    @Gramsci: I don’t know enough about Wounded Knee to comment right now, but I’ll look into it. The impression I got was that the Lakota Sioux were genuinely surprised when their ghost shirts didn’t work, but I could be wrong.

    As for Thelma and Louise–yeah, no doubt, they were doing their own personal version of a Balinese puputan:


  • Peter

    You asked for suggestions both historical and contemporary. I’d offer

    for historical: Sir Kenelm Digby’s Powder of Sympathy
    for contempo: Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars

    but honestly I’m hoping the latter was already one of those you’d already thought of….

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