Botched battles and preconceptions overturned

Caitlin O’Connell-Rodwell, a Stanford ecologist and author of The Elephant’s Secret Sense, has been studying elephant behavior since 1992, primarily in Namibia’s Etosha National Park. In “Male Bonding,” she describes a hair-raising confrontation between two bull elephants that overturned all her preconceptions—and the conventional wisdom—about challenges to pachyderm hierarchy. “I thought for sure I was going to see the dominant bull get displaced by the bull in musth,” she says. “When I didn’t, I realized that social structures are not all black and white; once you start focusing, you see there is a lot of gray. There are all these fascinating soap operas to try to figure out.” The biggest challenge with studying elephants is time—they can live up to 70 years in the wild. “Every year there are different dynamics within a social group, but if you have enough years to string together, you can see how relationships are shaped and how they are maintained—or not.”

Thomas Powers is best known for his probing dissections of the CIA and other intelligence agencies. His latest book, The Killing of Crazy Horse, from which “How Little Bighorn Was Won” was adapted, would seem a departure. It’s a moment-by-moment account of the battle that cost George Armstrong Custer and his men their lives—told from the Indian point of view. But as with his earlier books, Powers had to piece the story together like a puzzle. “The most challenging thing,” he says, “was to stop trying to figure out what Custer did and start listening to the Indians. When you do that, everything becomes much simpler. It stops being a mystery; after all, there were thousands of Indians but only some 200 soldiers under Custer.”

Powers was stunned by the soldiers’ callousness—and ineptitude. “They raced across the country to attack these Indians, who were not at war with them and were not threatening them in any way. They were attacked out of the blue, basically, by soldiers who didn’t know who they were attacking, didn’t know the lay of the land and didn’t know how to reach the Indians. That was startling to realize, that this thing was such a complete botch. I promise there will be 10,000 guys out there that will rise up and want to lynch me because they don’t like to think of Custer that way.”

A reminder: Smithsonian’s 8th annual photo contest closes December 1, 2010, at 2 p.m. E.S.T. Visit to enter your photographs and to view past winners and finalists.

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