Academic journal article Policy Review

Lessons from the Indian Wars

Academic journal article Policy Review

Lessons from the Indian Wars

Article excerpt

BEGINNING WITH THE 1778 Treaty with the Delawares, the United States engaged in some 375 treaties with Native Americans. While many were concluded hopefully, even earnestly, none ended well for Indian tribes. From George Washington forward, American presidents were confronted with the problem of Americans coveting and taking Indian land. Moreover, from the time of the French and Indian War in 1754, what would become the American army was fighting Indians.

Subjugating those Indians was a challenge of enormous magnitude: Only 5,000 soldiers patrolled a million square miles that was home to 200,000 to 300,000 Indians. And the Indians were generally more proficient at warfare. Soldiers fighting successive tribes of Indians as white settlers moved south and west to occupy the continent were mostly militia, with little prior experience of warfare. By contrast, most Indian tribes fought as their profession. As S. C. Gwynne emphasizes in Empire of the Summer Moon, "American Indians were warlike by nature, and they were warlike for centuries before Columbus stumbled upon them."

Yet the United States had innumerable advantages it could bring to bear against the Indians: wealth, numbers, technology, industrial organization. Why did it take so long--over a hundred years--to do so? The answer is a complicated story, interweaving policy and military failures, failures of understanding and execution, and throughout it all an obdurate unwillingness of Americans on the frontier to uphold their government's policy. The Indian Wars were finally won with the combination of simplified objectives, ruthless prosecution by both military and economic means, and international cooperation to preclude sanctuaries from which tribes could operate. But the lessons, and especially the military lessons, were there from the start.

These lessons are immediately relevant to the war we are fighting in Afghanistan. Nor are the lessons of the Indian Wars solely applicable to countering insurgencies. When asked by George Marshall in 1942 how the Army should train for pivoting from the war in Europe to the Pacific, the commander of the Marines on Guadalcanal answered "go back to the tactics of the French and Indian days ... study their tactics and fit in our modem weapons, and you have a solution." Many would now prefer to consider this kind of war a narrow subset of the spectrum of conflict; the Defense Department's 2012 strategic guidance concludes the United States will no longer engage in large-scale counterinsurgencies.

Yet the impediments to winning the Indian Wars will be impediments to winning any kind of war. They have to do with an unwillingness by political leaders to acknowledge the scope and contradictory nature of their strategic objectives; an enormous gap between the campaign's objectives and the resources political leaders are willing to put toward the effort; dramatic overestimation of the capacity of our government to effectively carry out a sophisticated policy with political, economic, and military elements; corruption delegitimizing the idealistic components of the policy designed to win support of "reconcileables"; military gains far outpacing civilian agencies' ability to capitalize on them; existence of safe havens because of our inability to bring border states into cooperation; insularity in Washington against the consequences of the policy's failures, which are principally borne by others; a military hesitant to credit their adversaries with superior tactics and even strategy; a cost-exchange ratio significantly favoring the enemy and therefore making our strategy episodically followed and their strategy more sustainable over time; ideological unwillingness to adjust the strategy to one more in line with conditions and resources. In fact, these are the same impediments preventing us winning the Afghan war.

In the beginning

WASHINGTON AND HIS Virginians were beaten back from Ft. …

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