We should not be surprised that the United States will not condemn Israel’s violence, or that it describes such activities as merely a defensive response to indigenous “terrorism” and insurgent forces. Below, I describe how early US history and the nation’s construction of its own political legitimacy compel this stance. As in Israel now, in America, the nation’s origins in colonization by settlement has been suppressed. Further, this suppression has been achieved by displacing the recognition of how people were forcefully removed from their ancestral homes with a narrative about the creation of a liberal democratic beacon of a state; and alongside this narrative, any expression by the displaced indigenous community in resistance to the destruction of their communities has been warped into “threats” within a dominant discourse of security. Here, I suggest that if “terrorism” and “counterinsurgency” have become a cover for settler colonial economic expansion, they have done so in part through the definitions and discourse of counterinsurgency that this history has shaped. The way we talk about counterinsurgency, how we participate in this discourse, is therefore a way of engaging or ignoring particular histories of settler colonialism here and elsewhere, of transmitting it, or keeping different versions of history alive or dead.
We should begin by reviewing our reference point. Counterinsurgency (COIN) is also known as irregular, asymmetric, or “low-intensity” warfare in dominant discourse today. This kind of combat is identified by a distinction between “regulars,” or soldiers in uniform on one side, and “irregulars,” or “elusive” forces on the other; the term describes situations in which “organized armies” struggle “against opponents who will not meet them in the open field.” Those “terrorists,” we are told, fail to make or manifest the distinction between combatants and noncombatants that characterizes enlightened modern “war in form.” These “irregular forces,” therefore, constitute a “unique” threat that requires the use of extraordinary defensive measures, not only because they move in the guise of civilians but because they kill them, and do not abide by the bright line international rule of war distinguishing the civilian from the combatant. This vexed distinction is at the crux of public opinion, tilting the debate toward support for or protest against military action. The time is ripe for critically thinking through it. Here, I look at how this distinction has functioned in the past by examining how histories of counterinsurgencies have been told.
It is an open secret that the history of European and American involvement in “irregular” warfare is a trail of colonial wars, or “small wars” as they were called, including in India, Cuba, the Philippines and, later, Vietnam. The way that “insurgents” or “terrorists” were cast as “savages” to justify those wars is already at the surface of the literature. But although this language saturates histories of early America, the history of warfare through which the United States conquered the continent remains curiously absent from histories of counterinsurgency. In one exception–curious for its singularity—Andrew Birtle, Chief of the Military Operations Branch at the Center of Military History, recognizes the US Army as “a child of the frontier,” and in conformity with the discourse of COIN, describes “Indian pacification” as its first “counter-guerrilla operations,” which would serve as a model for other campaigns abroad.
The history I relate below shows that the violence between European settlers and indigenous populations in early America is foundational in the history of irregular warfare. However, this history does not conform to COIN narratives. Rather, I hope to show their far-reaching, destructive power, and to imagine ways to think outside of that dichotomy. Further, the conquest of America refutes the putative newness of the “new” COIN doctrine, codified in the 2006 Army Field Manual and its subsequent editions, and championed by Generals David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal. I seek to reverse the traditional racial alignment with the binary between the regular and the irregular, and to counter the derivative ideas that counterinsurgency is essentially a defensive response to a moral, civilizational conflict brought on by an external, lawless threat. Instead, the wars between European settlers and indigenous nations in America indicate that colonial conflict was driven by economic incentives, and was racially structured and entangled with civil laws. This confluence not only governed but established property relations in the land.
Early American history subverts counterinsurgency doctrine’s paradigmatic racialized distinction with this simple, uncontroversial fact: the white combatants on the frontier were primarily not members of the British imperial military or the US Army, which, after the Revolutionary War, was too tiny and poor to accomplish a take-over the continent. Rather, these wars were waged by informal civilian forces recruited to assume the risks of frontier conflict with promises of property. Consequently, Europeans’ territorial land-base in early America principally grew from neither formal military conquests nor essentially defensive acts, but from cross-Atlantic and westward migration by settler-colonist “civilians” whose movements were controlled by government to effect Indian removal and the appropriation of tribal lands. Government policies and practices stoked and harnessed private violence to facilitate expansion without the expense of a standing army. In this scenario, the role of the formal military was merely auxiliary—namely, to police interracial violence across the changing frontier and to defend the conquests by preventing the eruption of full-scale, interracial war.
Before and after the Revolution, the Anglo-American political community required and sought two things above all for its further growth and development: more population and more land. For this reason, governments in the colonies engaged in widespread, strategic pamphleteering to advertise frontier life to potential immigrants. From the earliest days of settlement, many colonies, including Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maine, and Georgia, offered incentives to men and families capable of settling and defending the expanding landscape. These incentives took the form of military bounties, land grants, and tax subsidies.
Colonial American politicians considered settlers cheaper, more effective, and more incentivized than mercenary troops for removing Indians, since their presence helped to reduce tribal presence by spreading disease and thinning game. In order to render conquered land more secure and valuable, colonial governments required settlers to “improve” land by clearing acreage and building structures upon it in order to claim it. They concentrated people on the frontiers because scattered and sparsely populated settlements were harder to defend, and their inhabitants were more reliant on the military’s services for protection. Further, colonial governments deliberately placed newcomers along the borders to serve as a buffer between the British settlers and French or Indian raiders.
The colonists’ success in gaining control of the economy and appropriating indigenous land made immigration levels rise, according to plan. But the success of their efforts to promote frontier migration caused governments to fear the eruption of all-out war. Consequently, many governments passed laws to constrain settler aggression, and at times deployed formal troops to police settler-indigenous relations and evacuate squatters, especially in the years directly preceding the Revolutionary War. For example, so many Virginians moved to occupy unpurchased Indian land in defiance of repeated warnings that in 1766, Governor Fauquier announced that transboundary migrants “must expect no protection or mercy from Government, and be exposed to the revenge of the exasperated Indians.” Pennsylvania imposed the death penalty for illegal settlements in 1768 for fear that settlers would provoke an expensive, unmanageable war with local tribes. Much to the frustration of frontier settlers, the government exploited the informality of their service to turn against them to placate tribes—if only to prevent violence from reaching levels that would deter further expansion.
On the eve of the Revolution, interracial violence was especially rife along the borders of Virginia and Pennsylvania, and in the backcountry of Georgia and South Carolina—all states that had encouraged expansion by offering easy terms for lands to lure immigrants. While many historians of this era dismissively describe informal settler-militias as a “rabble” of “aggressive, undisciplined” squatters, it is worth considering how this characterization obscures the colonial governments’ role in cultivating the dynamics of the time. Colonies most in need of migration carefully rewarded settler violence to remove tribes, and controlled their settler militias through an increasingly complex legal system structuring these incentives and prohibitions.
The Expanding United States
Although for indigenous nations, the American Revolution marked only one episode in the ongoing war to defend their lands, the establishment of the United States introduced a key shift in the Anglo-American institutional approach to conquest and interracial relations. Where the British had issued the Royal Proclamation of 1763 to try to halt the movement of settlers, squatters, and speculators, the US government had no such aim. Rather, it fueled and harnessed the energy of private incentives for conquest by regulating expansion.
Right after the Revolutionary War, the United States boldly asserted its claim to Indian lands by conquest because the new nation was steeped in war debt, close to bankruptcy, and had paid soldiers with promises of land. The Continental Congress, perceiving western lands as the nation’s principal asset, resolved to use the sale of Western Territories to generate revenue. But tribes responded with disgust, and began to organize amongst themselves to resist. As indigenous resistance and hostilities provoked by the settler colonists increasingly threatened to halt expansion altogether, the government recognized the necessity of appeasing tribes, of keeping them from forming alliances, and of avoiding direct military conflict.
Secretary of War Henry Knox observed, however, that even if the government were sympathetic to the settlers’ demand to forcefully remove indigenous peoples, “the finances of the United States would not at present admit of the operation.” He did a cost benefit analysis, and concluded, as Pelatiah Webster commented, “It is much cheaper to purchase their lands, than to dispossess them by force…” At Knox’s urging, therefore, Congress proffered friendship to tribes with the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 which launched a strategy of conquest that would lean heavily on civil law and policies intended to weaken indigenous groups’ inclination and ability to repudiate US encroachment. As in colonial times, George Washington found that “settlers formed a rough, ready, and cheap border militia.” To avert violence arising from interracial trade relations, in 1790, Congress made the government the mediator of Indian-settler trade, and in 1796, set up government-run Trading Houses and remedies for Indian complaints about encroachments with an early form of tort against the government.
The United States found itself with an unprecedented capacity to coordinate steady westward expansion from its central seat of control. The federal government passed its first immigration laws to attract more immigrants to increase the size of the settler nation. These laws worked in tandem with its public land laws; naturalization, which was restricted to “free white persons,” meant access to lands. By making the government the sole purchasing entity of Indian land, Congress was able to direct settlers’ movements and control land prices that otherwise would have skyrocketed from competition and demand. Through successive Land Acts, Congress provided for the sale of smaller and smaller tracts to make it commercially accessible to more immigrant families. When immigrants agitated after the War of 1812, Congress made the process for immigrant purchase of federal lands, already not restrictive, even easier.
The United States thus correlated its legal structures of private incentives with public law to create a force for expansion and Indian removal that was expendable, self-renewing, and willing to voluntarily assume the risks of losses of property, labor, or life. Like troops during the colonial era had done, the US Army supplemented this settler force with troops that provided leverage to the government when it emphasized non-monetary compensation to tribes for lands. Such non-monetary compensation included military protection for tribes against strong neighbors. However, throughout the nineteenth century, formal militia were dispatched when tribes refused to negotiate the sale of lands that settlers had come to occupy.
Pacification and Assimilation
As with contemporary COIN doctrine, the use of force in operations that comprised the war against indigenous tribes in America was calibrated and tactical to achieve political or strategic ends. Birtle underscores that “Indian pacification” was “inherently civil-military in scope,” and from the earliest days of settlement, conquest of tribal lands included concomitant Christianizing and assimilation efforts—or what one might euphemize today as “cultural outreach” to indigenous people.
In the civil-military approach to war, we see how rhetorical equivocations about war worked as a tactic of war. Terms were crafted and used to map “aggression” and “defense” onto a civilizational confrontation, and to obscure the very nature of the conflict as war. Just as the United States dubbed its plan for efficacious conquest “conciliation,” it described the use of formal military force to subdue resistance as “Indian pacification.” This language locates aggression within a world-view that was taken for granted: Anglo-Americans were conciliatory and had chosen to rely on the law rather than the sword; Indians required pacification; their savagery was a threat to civilization.
The movement of the frontier and the sheer land mass conquered over the nineteenth century furnishes a ready map of aggression and defensive actions in these wars. But by looking at the practices, rather than the results, the violence of US policies of pacification and assimilation was unmistakable. Birtle acknowledges that most Army officers accepted “the brutal fact that government policy ultimately entailed the destruction of the Indians’ traditional way of life, something many Native Americans were unwilling to accept without a fight.” President Monroe further admitted in 1817 that “if the Indians did not voluntarily submit to the civilizing programs, compulsion would have to be resorted to.”
After the Civil War, Indian “pacification” efforts heightened in newly acquired northern Mexico, and the maturing Army finally became the principal force fighting tribes. Also for the first time, in the late nineteenth century, the ongoing efforts to “assimilate” Indians became a comprehensive national policy. Indigenous people confronted a newly professionalized civil service that sought to institute systematic and widespread reforms, including bans on traditional dances and feasts under the Code of Indian Offenses. These programs were directed by bureaucrats and military officers such as Colonel Richard Henry Pratt, who founded the first Indian boarding school. Pratt was a vociferous advocate for the destruction of the reservation system and material support for the collective existence of tribes.
Thus, post-war(s) “peacetime” and full-blown conquest were simultaneous events. As Birtle comments, “small wars were often peacetime affairs of a quasi-police nature.” Just as some critics of contemporary counterinsurgency efforts have observed, American hearts and minds operations past and present were deemed compatible and coterminous with intensified force. During this period, US policy increasingly involved separating the “population” from its “insurgent leaders,” and attempting to make Indian “hearts and minds” more American by offering inducements to the civilian population.
The civil-military aspect of the conquest of America (along with the entire history of small wars) underscores that the supposed “shift” of military operations from a “kill-capture” framework toward a “civilian protection” paradigm is emphatically not new. Commentators from General Petraeus to the activist-turned-arts-activist Nato Thompson have celebrated the purported new focus on culture, the dawn of a “kinder, gentler” approach to war. But they have conflated the distinctions between “tradition” and the “new,” and “regular” and “irregular” warfare; their mistake confuses the colonial tradition and the new. There is a presumption that with the “war on terror,” conventional “war in form” has become obsolete.
Memory and Politics
The American public’s consciousness has long been insulated from the nation’s ongoing and nearly constant engagement in “small wars.” As European settler society successfully enlarged its collective territory in North America, security concerns shifted increasingly to the frontier. By the time of the early Republic, society in the east carried on daily life with a sense of peacetime, with little comprehension that the nation was still at war as conquest proceeded in full force in the west. The extent to which the Indian wars were forgotten even as they were happening is a result, too, of the settler narrative about the “vanishing Indian.” This narrative emerged early in the colonial period, as Jean O’Brien has perhaps best shown us. Her remarkable study of New England, Firsting and Lasting, along with numerous other works, shows that cultivating amnesia about the history of settler-indigenous conflict in early America was an integral component of the colonial project.
In this light, we should be clear about the particular kind of myopia of the present that makes a military historian like Birtle interpret conquest within the traditional COIN story in which the army confronts the savage. He does not simply project contemporary ideas about counterinsurgency back into his reading of the conquest of America. Rather, he continues a settler colonial practice of narrative erasure that he inherited. This erasure is so deeply inculcated in the national consciousness that it has become practically hegemonic.
These habits of discourse and reflexes of thought depend on a lacuna in US history, and vice versa. Even bracketing the more recent history of material US entanglement with the Israeli state (an admittedly huge bracket), surprise about the government’s position vis-à-vis its ongoing violence indexes how submerged the history of the nation’s founding remains. The US was born from a struggle for cultural survival and to preserve ancestral homelands, in the face of a settler population’s assertion of its absolute cultural superiority and aggressive economic expansion. Could analogous struggles fail to activate the pervasive American ideological orientations that protect the legitimacy of its own political existence?
The history of early America disrupts these reflexes and habits. because it shows that European settlers relied on tactics now said to quintessentially characterize the “insurgents” targeted by the new COIN. This disruption illuminates the present differently, and raises new questions. For example, the use of informal settler militias to absorb the costs of conquest appears to have created unique dynamics that frame international conflict as a matter of individual families’ defense of their private homes, even as these settlers are agents furthering the state’s aggressive, economically motivated plan for expansion. Further, settler-indigenous conflict in early America and the early Republic was waged as a classic “poor man’s war.” This settler violence was the “insurgency” that aimed to dismantle preexisting tribal political orders from coast to coast.
If that political insurgent community of Anglo-American settlers has grown into a world-hegemonic nation-state, how do we understand the targets of counterinsurgency efforts in this era? Are they insurgents, too? Or is the response to the projection of US power conceivable as a “counterinsurgency,” a reaction (rather than aggression) to defend local, established orders that are assaulted to access desired resources?
Where they control global discourse, it is useful to turn these terms against the grain, like Evo Morales recently did in his powerful statement about the state of Israel. Understanding how these insidious terms have operated is a way to let the history they helped shape illuminate the present, and clarify the context and purpose of US actions. For despite the well-cultivated historical amnesia that reigns over US institutions and the consciousness of its population, this history’s formative power is discernable everywhere: not only in US counterinsurgency doctrines and practices, domestic and abroad, but in the national economic logic of limitless growth, and in the market functions of its ongoing racially inflected sub-war engagements.
The history of the Indian wars continues in the nation’s relationship with surviving indigenous communities. The history of this relationship invites us to consider its ubiquitous ramifications, including, for example, how US leaders and the civilian population have remained unable to contemplate an unarmed peace, or peace that is not perpetually a kind of “peace-war.” This history can help us understand the country’s most everyday laws, its social fabric, and the institutions that maintain its carceral police state today.