The Never-Ending Frontier?Historians in the News
tags: racism, Manifest Destiny
Karl Jacoby is the Allan Nevins Professor of American History at Columbia University. He is the author of Shadows at Dawn: A Borderlands Massacre and the Violence of History (Penguin, 2008) and The Strange Career of William Ellis: The Texas Slave Who Became a Mexican Millionaire (Norton, 2016), among other works.
The United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001. Yet this thoroughly modern war—now grinding through its 19th straight year—remains haunted by the ghosts of the US’s earlier conflicts with the Indigenous peoples of North America. US soldiers label the Taliban-controlled areas beyond their outposts “Indian country.” Helicopters bearing monikers like “Apache” and “Kiowa” hover in the thin mountain air above Afghanistan, providing rocket and machine-gun support for American ground troops. Perhaps most famously, Navy Seals referenced the Geronimo, a 19th-century leader of the Apache resistance to US Manifest Destiny, during their attack on Osama bin Laden. Shortly after executing the architect of 9/11 in a raid on Bin Laden’s hideout across the Pakistan border, the US soldiers broadcast “Geronimo-ekia” (“enemy killed in action”).1
Such unexamined interminglings of past and present underscore how the US has yet to have an honest reckoning with the brutality of its 19th-century “Indian Wars.” Acknowledging the deep scars that this century-long conflict with Native peoples left on American culture appears to be a lesson that the US periodically learns—and then, just as quickly forgets—every time it finds itself involved in yet another counterinsurgency and struggling with an elusive opponent that blends effortlessly into a larger civilian population. Yet there is a direct lineage—in tactics, terms, and even individual officers—from the frontier wars into the US imperialist wars in the Philippines, Korea, Vietnam, and, now, Afghanistan.
This rubble of empires is carefully traversed by Benjamin D. Hopkins in Ruling the Savage Periphery: Frontier Governance and the Making of the Modern State. Although he touches on the United States’s invasion of Apachería in the late 19th century and Argentina’s contemporaneous conquista del desierto, Hopkins’s principal focus, in keeping with his training as a historian of South Asia, is on the British Empire. If there is a central character to his narrative, it is less a person than a policy: the Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR), the 1872 legal doctrine (promulgated in 1872, updated in 1878) that the British first developed along the border of their Indian colonies with Afghanistan.
Although the FCR first took shape along the Afghan frontier, it proved remarkably portable. British administrators soon exported it to other areas on the fringes of the empire, such as Burma and Nigeria, where Frederick Lugard elaborated the FCR to construct his famed system of indirect rule: the governing of colonial possessions through Indigenous leaders and institutions. Hopkins closes with an examination of policies—in both the US and Argentina—toward Native peoples that mirrored aspects of the FCR.
Hopkins’s point seems to be less that there was a direct transmission of ideas from the British to the US or Argentinian contexts, but, rather, that a congruent evolution of sorts took place. With only a limited repertoire of techniques for asserting control over distant, economically marginal areas, expanding powers at the turn of the last century leaned upon a similar set of practices in their efforts to incorporate those it deemed “savages.”
Such practices (including, importantly, the FCR) still cast a long shadow in the postcolonial present. In part, this has to do with continuities in forms of governance: remarkably, the FCR served as the prevailing law in Pakistan’s tribal areas until 2018. But the endurance of such practices also speaks to enduring forms of epistemology, which continue to cast certain peoples as “savage” and to discount their claims to property, knowledge, and political standing. In that sense, Hopkins suggests, the frontier—be it in Afghanistan or America—remains dangerously alive and well.
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