That the continued colonization of American Indian nations, peoples, and lands provides the United States the economic and material resources needed to cast its imperialist gaze globally is a fact that is simultaneously obvious within—and yet continually obscured by—what is essentially a settler colony’s national construction of itself as an ever more perfect multicultural, multiracial democracy. . . . [T]he status of American Indians as sovereign nations colonized by the United States continues to haunt and inflect its raison d’etre. —Jodi Byrd
The conventional narrative of U.S. history routinely segregates the “Indian wars” as a subspecialization within the dubious category “the West.” Then there are the westerns, those cheap novels, movies, and television shows that nearly every American imbibed with mother’s milk and that by the mid-twentieth century were popular in every corner of the world. The architecture of US world dominance was designed and tested by this period of continental U.S. militarism, which built on the previous hundred years and generated its own innovations in total war. The opening of the twenty-first century saw a new, even more brazen form of U.S. militarism and imperialism explode on the world scene when the election of George W. Bush turned over control of U.S. foreign policy to a long-gestating neoconservative and warmongering faction of the Pentagon and its civilian hawks. Their subsequent eight years of political control included two major military invasions and hundreds of small wars employing U.S. Special Forces around the globe, establishing a template that continued after their political power waned.
One highly regarded military analyst stepped forward to make the connections between the “Indian wars” and what he considered the country’s bright imperialist past and future. Robert D. Kaplan, in his 2005 book Imperial Grunts, presented several case studies that he considered highly successful operations: Yemen, Colombia, Mongolia, and the Philippines, in addition to ongoing complex projects in the Horn of Africa, Afghanistan, and Iraq. While US citizens and many of their elected representatives called for ending the US military interventions they knew about—including Iraq and Afghanistan—Kaplan hailed protracted counterinsurgencies in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Latin America, and the Pacific. He presented a guide for the U.S. controlling those areas of the world based on its having achieved continental dominance in North America by means of counterinsurgency and employing total and unlimited war.
Kaplan, a meticulous researcher and influential writer born in 1952 in New York City, wrote for major newspapers and magazines before serving as “chief geopolitical strategist” for the private security think tank Stratfor. Among other prestigious posts, he has been a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, D.C., and a member of the Defense Policy Board, a federal advisory committee to the US Department of Defense. In 2011, Foreign Policy magazine named Kaplan as one of the world’s “top 100 global thinkers.” Author of numerous best-selling books, including Balkan Ghosts and Surrender or Starve, Kaplan became one of the principal intellectual boosters for U.S. power in the world through the tried-and-true “American way of war.” This is the way of war dating to the British-colonial period that military historian John Grenier called a combination of “unlimited war and irregular war,” a military tradition “that accepted, legitimized, and encouraged attacks upon and the destruction of noncombatants, villages and agricultural resources . . . in shockingly violent campaigns to achieve their goals of conquest.”
Kaplan sums up his thesis in the prologue to Imperial Grunts, which he subtitles “Injun Country”:
By the turn of the twenty-first century the United States military had already appropriated the entire earth, and was ready to flood the most obscure areas of it with troops at a moment’s notice.
The Pentagon divided the planet into five area commands—similar to the way that the Indian Country of the American West had been divided in the mid-nineteenth century by the U.S. Army. . . . [A]ccording to the soldiers and marines I met on the ground in far-flung corners of the earth, the comparison with the nineteenth century was . . . apt. “Welcome to Injun Country” was the refrain I heard from troops from Colombia to the Philippines, including Afghanistan and Iraq. To be sure, the problem for the American military was less [Islamic] fundamentalism than anarchy. The War on Terrorism was really about taming the frontier.
Kaplan goes on to ridicule “elites in New York and Washington” who debate imperialism in “grand, historical terms,” while individuals from all the armed services interpret policy according to the particular circumstances they face and are indifferent to or unaware of the fact that they are part of an imperialist project. This book shows how colonialism and imperialism work.
Kaplan challenges the concept of manifest destiny, arguing that “it was not inevitable that the United States should have an empire in the western part of the continent.” Rather, he argues, western empire was brought about by “small groups of frontiersmen, separated from each other by great distances.” Here Kaplan refers to what Grenier calls settler “rangers,” destroying Indigenous towns and fields and food supplies. Although Kaplan downplays the role of the U.S. Army compared to the settler vigilantes, which he equates to the modern Special Forces, he acknowledges that the regular army provided lethal backup for settler counterinsurgency in slaughtering the buffalo, the food supply of Plains peoples, as well as making continuous raids on settlements to kill or confine the families of the Indigenous fighters. Kaplan summarizes the genealogy of U.S. militarism today:
Whereas the average American at the dawn of the new millennium found patriotic inspiration in the legacies of the Civil War and World War II, when the evils of slavery and fascism were confronted and vanquished, for many commissioned and noncommissioned officers the U.S. Army’s defining moment was fighting the “Indians.”
The legacy of the Indian wars was palpable in the numerous military bases spread across the South, the Middle West, and particularly the Great Plains: that vast desert and steppe comprising the Army’s historical “heartland,” punctuated by such storied outposts as Forts Hays, Kearney, Leavenworth, Riley, and Sill. Leavenworth, where the Oregon and Santa Fe trails separated, was now the home of the Army’s Command and General Staff College; Riley, the base of George Armstrong Custer’s 7th Cavalry, now that of the 1st Infantry Division; and Sill, where Geronimo lived out the last years of his life, the headquarters of the U.S. Artillery. . . .
While microscopic in size, it was the fast and irregular military actions against the Indians, memorialized in bronze and oil by Remington, that shaped the nature of American nationalism.
Although Kaplan relies principally on the late-nineteenth-century source of US counterinsurgency, in a footnote he reports what he learned at the Airborne Special Operations Museum in Fayetteville, North Carolina: “It is a small but interesting fact that members of the 101st Airborne Division, in preparation for their parachute drop on D-Day, shaved themselves in Mohawk style and applied war paint on their faces.” This takes us back to the pre-independence colonial wars and then through US independence and the myth popularized by The Last of the Mohicans.
Kaplan debunks the argument that the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, brought the United States into a new era of warfare and prompted it to establish military bases around the world. Prior to 2001, Kaplan rightly observes, the US Army’s Special Operations Command had been carrying out maneuvers since the 1980s in “170 countries per year, with an average of nine ‘quiet professionals’ on each mission. America’s reach was long; its involvement in the obscurest states protean. Rather than the conscript army of citizen soldiers that fought World War II, there was now a professional military that, true to other imperial forces throughout history, enjoyed the soldiering life for its own sake.”
On October 13, 2011, testifying before the Armed Services Committee of the US House of Representatives, General Martin Dempsey stated: “I didn’t become the chairman of the Joint Chiefs to oversee the decline of the Armed Forces of the United States, and an end state that would have this nation and its military not be a global power. . . . That is not who we are as a nation.”
The Return of Legalized Torture
Bodies—tortured bodies, sexually violated bodies, imprisoned bodies, dead bodies—arose as a primary topic in the first years of the George W. Bush administration following the September 2001 attacks with a war of revenge against Afghanistan and the overthrow of the government of Iraq. Afghans resisting U.S. forces and others who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time were taken into custody, and most of them were sent to a hastily constructed prison facility on the U.S. military base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, on land the United States appropriated in its 1898 war against Cuba. Rather than bestowing the status of prisoner of war on the detainees, which would have given them certain rights under the Geneva Conventions, they were designated as “unlawful combatants,” a status previously unknown in the annals of Western warfare. As such, the detainees were subjected to torture by U.S. interrogators and shamelessly monitored by civilian psychologists and medical personnel.
In response to questions and condemnations from around the globe, a University of California international law professor, John C. Yoo, on leave to serve as assistant U.S. attorney general in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, penned in March 2003 what became the infamous “Torture Memo.” Not much was made at the time of one of the precedents Yoo used to defend the designation “unlawful combatant,” the US Supreme Court’s 1873 opinion in Modoc Indian Prisoners.
In 1872, a group of Modoc men led by Kintpuash, also known as Captain Jack, attempted to return to their own country in Northern California after the U.S. Army had rounded them up and forced them to share a reservation in Oregon. The insurgent group of fifty-three was surrounded by U.S. troops and Oregon militiamen and forced to take refuge in the barren and rugged lava beds around Mount Lassen, a dormant volcano, a part of their ancestral homeland that they knew every inch of. More than a thousand troops commanded by General Edward R. S. Canby, a former Civil War general, attempted to capture the resisters, but had no success as the Modocs engaged in effective guerrilla warfare. Before the Civil War, Canby had built his military career fighting in the Second Seminole War and later in the invasion of Mexico. Posted to Utah on the eve of the Civil War, he had led attacks against the Navajos, and then began his Civil War service in New Mexico. Therefore, Canby was a seasoned Indian killer. In a negotiating meeting between the general and Kintpuash, the Modoc leader killed the general and the other commissioners when they would allow only for surrender. In response, the United States sent another former Civil War general in with more than a thousand additional soldiers as reinforcements, and in April 1873 these troops attacked the Modoc stronghold, this time forcing the Indigenous fighters to flee. After four months of fighting that cost the United States almost $500,000—equal to nearly $10 million currently—and the lives of more than four hundred of its soldiers and a general, the nationwide backlash against the Modocs was vengeful. Kintpuash and several other captured Modocs were imprisoned and then hanged at Alcatraz, and the Modoc families were scattered and incarcerated on reservations. Kintpuash’s corpse was embalmed and exhibited at circuses around the country. The commander of the army’s Pacific Military Division at the time, Lieutenant General John M. Schofield, wrote of the Modoc War in his memoir, Forty-Six Years in the Army: “If the innocent could be separated from the guilty, plague, pestilence, and famine would not be an unjust punishment for the crimes committed in this country against the original occupants of the soil.”
Drawing a legal analogy between the Modoc prisoners and the Guantánamo detainees, Assistant U.S. Attorney General Yoo employed the legal category of homo sacer—in Roman law, a person banned from society, excluded from its legal protections but still subject to the sovereign’s power. Anyone may kill a homo sacer without it being considered murder. As Jodi Byrd notes, “One begins to understand why John C. Yoo’s infamous March 14, 2003, torture memos cited the 1865 Military Commissions and the 1873 The Modoc Indian Prisoners legal opinions in order to articulate executive power in declaring the state of exception, particularly when The Modoc Indian Prisoners opinion explicitly marks the Indian combatant as homo sacer to the United States.” To buttress his claim, Yoo quoted from the 1873 Modoc Indian Prisoners opinion:
It cannot be pretended that a United States soldier is guilty of murder if he kills a public enemy in battle, which would be the case if the municipal law were in force and applicable to an act committed under such circumstances. All the laws and customs of civilized warfare may not be applicable to an armed conflict with the Indian tribes upon our western frontier; but the circumstances attending the assassination of Canby [Army general] and Thomas [U.S. peace commissioner] are such as to make their murder as much a violation of the laws of savage as of civilized warfare, and the Indians concerned in it fully understood the baseness and treachery of their act.
Byrd points out that, according to this line of thinking, anyone who could be defined as “Indian” could thus be killed legally, and they also could be held responsible for crimes they committed against any US soldier. “As a result, citizens of American Indian nations become in this moment the origin of the stateless terrorist combatant within U.S. enunciations of sovereignty.”
Ramped Up Militarization
The Chagos Archipelago comprises more than sixty small coral islands isolated in the Indian Ocean halfway between Africa and Indonesia, a thousand miles south of the nearest continent, India. Between 1968 and 1973, the United States and Britain, the latter the colonial administrator, forcibly removed the indigenous inhabitants of the islands, the Chagossians. Most of the two thousand deportees ended up more than a thousand miles away in Mauritius and the Seychelles, where they were thrown into lives of poverty and forgotten. The purpose of this expulsion was to create a major U.S. military base on one of the Chagossian islands, Diego Garcia. As if being rounded up and removed from their homelands in the name of global security were not cruel enough, before being deported the Chagossians had to watch as British agents and U.S. troops herded their pet dogs into sealed sheds where they were gassed and burned. As David Vine writes in his chronicle of this tragedy:
“The base on Diego Garcia has become one of the most secretive and powerful U.S. military facilities in the world, helping to launch the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq (twice), threatening Iran, China, Russia, and nations from southern Africa to southeast Asia, host to a secret CIA detention center for high-profile terrorist suspects, and home to thousands of U.S. military personnel and billions of dollars in deadly weaponry.”
The Chagossians are not the only indigenous people around the world that the US military has displaced. The military established a pattern during and after the Vietnam War of forcibly removing indigenous peoples from sites deemed strategic for the placement of military bases. The peoples of the Bikini Atoll in the South Pacific and Puerto Rico’s Vieques Island are perhaps the best-known examples, but there were also the Inughuit of Thule, Greenland, and the thousands of Okinawans and Indigenous peoples of Micronesia. During the harsh deportation of the Micronesians in the 1970s, the press took some notice. In response to one reporter’s question, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said of the Micronesians: “There are only ninety thousand people out there. Who gives a damn?” This is a statement of permissive genocide.
By the beginning of the twenty-first century, the United States operated more than 900 military bases around the world, including 287 in Germany, 130 in Japan, 106 in South Korea, 89 in Italy, 57 in the British Isles, 21 in Portugal, and 19 in Turkey. The number also comprised additional bases or installations located in Aruba, Australia, Djibouti, Egypt, Israel, Singapore, Thailand, Kyrgyzstan, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Crete, Sicily, Iceland, Romania, Bulgaria, Honduras, Colombia, and Cuba (Guantánamo Bay), among many other locations in some 150 countries, along with those recently added in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In her book The Militarization of Indian Country, Anishinaabe activist and writer Winona LaDuke analyzes the continuing negative effects of the military on Native Americans, considering the consequences wrought on Native economy, land, future, and people, especially Native combat veterans and their families. Indigenous territories in New Mexico bristle with nuclear weapons storage, and Shoshone and Paiute territories in Nevada are scarred by decades of aboveground and underground nuclear weapons testing. The Navajo Nation and some New Mexico Pueblos have experienced decades of uranium strip mining, the pollution of water, and subsequent deadly health effects. “I am awed by the impact of the military on the world and on Native America,” LaDuke writes. “It is pervasive.”
Political scientist Cynthia Enloe, who specializes in US foreign policy and the military, observes that US culture has become even more militarized since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Her analysis of this trend draws on a feminist perspective:
Militarization . . . [is] happening at the individual level, when a woman who has a son is persuaded that the best way she can be a good mother is to allow the military recruiter to recruit her son so her son will get off the couch. When she is persuaded to let him go, even if reluctantly, she’s being militarized. She’s not as militarized as somebody who is a Special Forces soldier, but she’s being militarized all the same. Somebody who gets excited because a jet bomber flies over the football stadium to open the football season and is glad that he or she is in the stadium to see it, is being militarized. So militarization is not just about the question “do you think the military is the most important part of the state?” (although obviously that matters). It’s not just “do you think that the use of collective violence is the most effective way to solve social problems?”—which is also a part of militarization. But it’s also about ordinary, daily culture, certainly in the United States.
As John Grenier notes, however, the cultural aspects of militarization are not new; they have deep historical roots, reaching into the nation’s British-colonial past and continuing through unrelenting wars of conquest and ethnic cleansing over three centuries.
“Beyond its sheer military utility, Americans also found a use for the first way of war in the construction of an ‘American identity.’. . . [T]he enduring appeal of the romanticized myth of the ‘settlement’ (not the conquest) of the frontier, either by ‘actual’ men such as Robert Rogers or Daniel Boone or fictitious ones like Nathaniel Bumppo of James Fenimore Cooper’s creation, points to what D. H. Lawrence called the ‘myth of the essential white American.’”
The astronomical number of firearms owned by U.S. civilians, with the Second Amendment as a sacred mandate, is also intricately related to militaristic culture. Everyday life and the culture in general are damaged by ramped-up militarization, and this includes academia, particularly the social sciences, with psychologists and anthropologists being recruited as advisors to the military. Anthropologist David H. Price, in his indispensable book Weaponizing Anthropology, remarks that “anthropology has always fed between the lines of war.” Anthropology was born of European and U.S. colonial wars. Price, like Enloe, sees an accelerated pace of militarization in the early twenty-first century: “Today’s weaponization of anthropology and other social sciences has been a long time coming, and post-9/11 America’s climate of fear coupled with reductions in traditional academic funding provided the conditions of a sort of perfect storm for the militarization of the discipline and the academy as a whole.”
In their ten-part cable television documentary series and seven-hundred-page companion book The Untold History of the United States, filmmaker Oliver Stone and historian Peter Kuznick ask: “Why does our country have military bases in every region of the globe, totaling more than a thousand by some counts? Why does the United States spend as much money on its military as the rest of the world combined? Why does it still possess thousands of nuclear weapons, many on hair-trigger alert, even though no nation poses an imminent threat?” These are key questions. Stone and Kuznick condemn the situation but do not answer the questions. The authors see the post–World War II development of the United States into the world’s sole superpower as a sharp divergence from the founders’ original intent and historical development prior to the mid-twentieth century. They quote an Independence Day speech by President John Quincy Adams in which he condemned British colonialism and claimed that the United States “goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy.” Stone and Kuznick fail to mention that the United States at the time was invading, subjecting, colonizing, and removing the Indigenous farmers from their land, as it had since its founding and as it would through the nineteenth century. In ignoring that fundamental basis for US development as an imperialist power, they do not see that overseas empire was the logical outcome of the course the United States chose at its founding.
North America is a Crime Scene
Jodi Byrd writes: “The story of the new world is horror, the story of America a crime.” It is necessary, she argues, to start with the origin of the United States as a settler-state and its explicit intention to occupy the continent. These origins contain the historical seeds of genocide. Any true history of the United States must focus on what has happened to (and with) Indigenous peoples—and what still happens. It’s not just past colonialist actions but also “the continued colonization of American Indian nations, peoples, and lands” that allows the United States “to cast its imperialist gaze globally” with “what is essentially a settler colony’s national construction of itself as an ever more perfect multicultural, multiracial democracy,” while “the status of American Indians as sovereign nations colonized by the United States continues to haunt and inflect its raison d’etre.” Here Byrd quotes Lakota scholar Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, who spells out the connection between the “Indian wars” and the Iraq War:
The current mission of the United States to become the center of political enlightenment to be taught to the rest of the world began with the Indian wars and has become the dangerous provocation of this nation’s historical intent. The historical connection between the Little Big Horn event and the “uprising” in Baghdad must become part of the political dialogue of America if the fiction of decolonization is to happen and the hoped for deconstruction of the colonial story is to come about.
A “race to innocence” is what occurs when individuals assume that they are innocent of complicity in structures of domination and oppression. This concept captures the understandable assumption made by new immigrants or children of recent immigrants to any country. They cannot be responsible, they assume, for what occurred in their adopted country’s past. Neither are those who are already citizens guilty, even if they are descendants of slave owners, Indian killers, or Andrew Jackson himself. Yet, in a settler society that has not come to terms with its past, whatever historical trauma was entailed in settling the land affects the assumptions and behavior of living generations at any given time, including immigrants and the children of recent immigrants.
In the United States the legacy of settler colonialism can be seen in the endless wars of aggression and occupations; the trillions spent on war machinery, military bases, and personnel instead of social services and quality public education; the gross profits of corporations, each of which has greater resources and funds than more than half the countries in the world yet pay minimal taxes and provide few jobs for US citizens; the repression of generation after generation of activists who seek to change the system; the incarceration of the poor, particularly descendants of enslaved Africans; the individualism, carefully inculcated, that on the one hand produces self-blame for personal failure and on the other exalts ruthless dog-eat-dog competition for possible success, even though it rarely results; and high rates of suicide, drug abuse, alcoholism, sexual violence against women and children, homelessness, dropping out of school, and gun violence.
These are symptoms, and there are many more, of a deeply troubled society, and they are not new. The large and influential civil rights, student, labor, and women’s movements of the 1950s through the 1970s exposed the structural inequalities in the economy and the historical effects of more than two centuries of slavery and brutal genocidal wars waged against Indigenous peoples. For a time, US society verged on a process of truth seeking regarding past atrocities, making demands to end aggressive wars and to end poverty, witnessed by the huge peace movement of the 1970s and the War on Poverty, affirmative action, school busing, prison reform, women’s equity and reproductive rights, promotion of the arts and humanities, public media, the Indian Self-Determination Act, and many other initiatives.
A more sophisticated version of the race to innocence that helps perpetuate settler colonialism began to develop in social movement theory in the 1990s, popularized in the work of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. Commonwealth, the third volume in a trilogy, is one of a number of books in an academic fad of the early twenty-first century seeking to revive the Medieval European concept of the commons as an aspiration for contemporary social movements. Most writings about the commons barely mention the fate of Indigenous peoples in relation to the call for all land to be shared. Two Canadian scholar-activists, Nandita Sharma and Cynthia Wright, for example, do not mince words in rejecting Native land claims and sovereignty, characterizing them as xenophobic elitism. They see Indigenous claims as “regressive neo-racism in light of the global diasporas arising from oppression around the world.”
Cree scholar Lorraine Le Camp calls this kind of erasure of Indigenous peoples in North America “terranullism,” harking back to the characterization, under the Doctrine of Discovery, of purportedly vacant lands as terra nullis. This is a kind of no-fault history. From the theory of a liberated future of no borders and nations, of a vague commons for all, the theorists obliterate the present and presence of Indigenous nations struggling for their liberation from states of colonialism. Thereby, Indigenous rhetoric and programs for decolonization, nationhood, and sovereignty are, according to this project, rendered invalid and futile. From the Indigenous perspective, as Jodi Byrd writes, “any notion of the commons that speaks for and as indigenous as it advocates transforming indigenous governance or incorporating indigenous peoples into a multitude that might then reside on those lands forcibly taken from indigenous peoples does nothing to disrupt the genocidal and colonialist intent of the initial and now repeated historical process.”
Excerpted from "An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States" by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz (Beacon Press, 2014). Copyright 2014 by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.