Indian Wars Everywhere?

A 2011 monograph published by the US Army War College reflects on the similarities between the Indian Wars and the Global War on Terror:

“It’s not a stretch when looking at an early photo of military officers sitting in a circle with Indians having council or “pow-wow” over some grievance; just as we have seen young officers doing in Afghanistan with the local tribal elders. The times, places, names and combatants are different, but the human nature of the conduct of insurgent war remains the same… the Indian Wars in general can provide us with many lessons learned to help in the fight against insurgents of the 21st Century” [1]

The writer proposes a striking visual continuity: the frontier soldier transplanted to the mountains of Central Asia, dual images that evoke the colonial nostalgia of continental expansion and the imperial ambitions of the War on Terror. This has proven to be an attractive comparison, one that many US soldiers, strategists, and historians have made in the years since the terror attacks of September 11th, 2001, and the subsequent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

As soldiers scrambled to relearn and update the counterinsurgency tactics often relegated to the fringes of US military doctrine, the Indian Wars emerged as a historical “success,” an example on which to draw. The Indian Wars have always exercised a powerful cultural hold in the United States, particularly in the military. Enemy territory has often been “Indian Country,” and soldiers have imagined their enemies as “Indians” and themselves as “Indian/fighters,” inheritors of what my recently published book refers to as the “shadow doctrines” that continually drive US imperial power. But during the 21st century “Indian Country” went beyond a series of discursive resonances as soldiers offered recommendations for the War on Terror that attempted to draw strategic lessons from wars with Native peoples. The contemporary military discourse on counterinsurgency and other forms of irregular warfare now often situates continental expansion as the earliest, and one of the most effective, examples of this form of warfare.

It remains unclear where American warfare is headed. It is possible the strategies championed by the Counterinsurgency Field Manual will fade away in the face of technological advances and “great power” rivalries. However, similar arguments were made in the 1990’s, and that did not prevent the US military from deploying large numbers of troops to sustained occupations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Regardless, given the violence against protesters enacted in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd in 2020, and the continued repression of indigenous Water Protectors, perhaps we know exactly where the long history of US irregular warfare is headed: once more into Indian Country, into the police departments of American cities, and into the ranks of private security firms promoting the interests of capital, empire, and resource extraction.

This first appeared on the University of California Press blog.