The Never-Ending Frontier?

The US imperialist wars in the Philippines, Korea, Vietnam, and Afghanistan grew from US wars against Indigenous people in the 19th century.

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 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.

By asserting that the frontier did not close and vanish—as his precursor Frederick Jackson Turner so famously did in 1893—Hopkins challenges one of our hoariest understandings of frontier zones. What he reveals is that the frontier, and its violence, can be found wherever imperial soldiers are sent—wherever they imagine the local people over the horizon as inhabiting “Indian country.”

The Vietnam War witnessed a resurgence of echoes of the Indian Wars.

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that today’s war in Afghanistan bears the imprint of the United States’s earlier frontier wars. Most of the officers who waged the US’s war in the Philippines (1899–1902) came directly from postings on the western frontier. These officers readily transferred tactics, first learned while combating Indians, to fighting Moros and other “tribal” peoples in Southeast Asia.

In 1901, for example, Colonel Jacob H. Smith earned the opprobrium of the American press as “Howling Wilderness” Smith, when it emerged that he had ordered the execution of all men over the age of 10 on the island of Samar. But his basic approach was a familiar strategy from the Indian Wars—forcing Filipinos onto de facto reservations (dubbed “protected zones”) and attacking all those found off these reserves and destroying their foodstuffs and other supplies. This was a parallel that Smith himself drew when he compared campaigning against Filipinos to his earlier experiences “fighting Indians.”2

During the Korean War, the 7th Cavalry—the same regiment that George Armstrong Custer commanded at Little Big Horn—carried out one of the worst atrocities of the conflict: the No Gun Ri massacre, when American soldiers opened fire on fleeing South Korean refugees, slaughtering an unspecified number of women and children. Just 60 years before, in 1890, troopers from the same unit took part in the Wounded Knee massacre in South Dakota. Armed with rapid-fire Hotchkiss cannons, soldiers from the 7th Cavalry surrounded a Lakota camp and killed several hundred Native Americans, most of them, like at No Gun Ri, defenseless women and children.

The Vietnam War witnessed a resurgence of such echoes of the Indian Wars. The popular 1970 film Little Big Man—arguably, the first revisionist western—explored the traumatic passage of its main character (played by Dustin Hoffman) through the twin horrors of the Sand Creek and Washita massacres. The movie’s scenes of US cavalrymen attacking camps of peaceful Plains Indians evoked the 1968 My Lai Massacre. To make sure there was no mistaking the ties between the 19th-century Wild West and 20th-century Southeast Asia, the Hong Kong–born actress Aimee Eccles, of mixed Chinese and British descent, played Hoffman’s Cheyenne wife, Sunshine. (It should go without saying that Sunshine did not get to ride off into the sunset with Hoffman’s character but was fated, instead, to be slaughtered by Custer’s soldiers at the film’s rendition of Washita; no matter how “revisionist” a western may be, it almost never features a lasting mixed marriage.)


Make Allies, Break Empires

By Andrew Klein

Just as the ghosts of earlier US conflicts still haunt today’s wars, so too, Hopkins reveals, does Britain’s earlier violence on its imperial frontiers echo down to today.

Even at its inception, the FCR laid bare the fundamental tension—indeed, the outright hypocrisy—of imperial rule. The British justified colonization by claiming to spread the blessings of liberalism: enabling their new subjects to stand as equal individuals before the law. Yet in reality, the British Empire governed by establishing new forms of communal difference. The FCR enshrined this contradiction, creating an alternative judicial system in which Afghan tribe members were governed not by the colonial legal code but, rather, according to the jirgah, or council of Pathan elders. This peculiar arrangement did not just institutionalize those forms of cultural difference that the empire imagined itself to be supplanting; it created them.

In reality, neither the functioning of the jirgah, nor the question of who constituted a Pathan, possessed a clear answer. This meant that the British colonial state—through the FCR—found itself in the ironic position of imposing invented “customs” (including the existence of Pathan “tribes”) onto the inhabitants of its periphery.

Hopkins identifies several subsidiary features of the FCR. Paramount among these was the colonial state’s enlistment of frontier males into “tribal” militias used to extract taxes from and to police other members of their communities. This arrangement, in turn, served to encourage the growth of cash relations along the fringes of empire by turning regimes of violence into wage work. This spread of capitalist relations pushed many other frontier dwellers to turn to migrant labor, drawing them deeper into the colonial orbit.

Comparing the US with Great Britain offers a refreshing rejoinder to the usual exceptionalist treatment of the American frontier.

Such tactics proved effective, allowing small contingents of British officials to rule over far larger Native societies. And even though the demographics were not the same, it nevertheless makes sense why the United States’s management of its own frontier evolved along similar lines. For the US case, Hopkins draws the bulk of his evidence from the short-lived career of John Clum, who served as the agent of the San Carlos Apache Reservation in Arizona in the mid-1870s. Nicknamed Tazhii (turkey) behind his back by the Apache, for his strutting style of walking and self-important demeanor, Clum was not a career bureaucrat with the Office of Indian Affairs.3 In fact, he only lasted three years, before leaving the Indian service altogether.

During his brief tenure in San Carlos, Clum experimented with such innovations as establishing a reservation police force and court system. Despite the opposition of nearby white settlers, who found the idea of arming Apache men anathema under any circumstances, Clum’s police caught the attention of the Interior Department, which created similar constabulary units in a majority of reservations over the next few years.

Hopkins does not trace out the full transition to indirect rule in the US (this, arguably, took place with the establishment of tribal governments in the 1930s, during the “Indian New Deal,” under John Collier, FDR’s Commissioner of Indian Affairs). Still, comparing the US with Great Britain, as Hopkins does, offers a refreshing rejoinder to the usual exceptionalist treatment of the American frontier. It also gestures toward the still-unexcavated history linking the US and European imperial projects.

Many Americans today may prefer to avoid thinking of their nation as an empire. But in the 1800s, the US regularly looked abroad to Europe’s burgeoning colonies for models of how to govern the American West, borrowing the idea of protected forests under governmental control from British India, and even experimenting, briefly, with camels along the US-Mexico border in imitation of the French in Algeria.

Hopkins, however, is after different game. To him, the FCR’s history offers a corrective to James Scott’s influential work on “the art of not being governed.”4 Non-state peoples, he maintains, were in fact governed, if often at arm’s length through local intermediaries.

As welcome as this intervention is, some may find that Ruling the Savage Periphery’s conclusion, which leaps in just a few pages from the turn of the last century to the present day, a bit vertiginous. They may also wish for more evidence that it is frontier governance in particular, rather than the toxic legacy of colonialism in general, that generated the present-day instability that Hopkins examines.

Others may feel that Ruling the Savage Periphery unduly privileges the view from the imperial metropole. By making the FCR and those who implemented it the central features of his narrative, Hopkins provides little sense of the ways that distinct communities of Indigenous peoples responded to frontier policies and tried to rework them to their benefit: for example, why the Apache and the neighboring Tohono O’odham charted such divergent responses to the challenge of US empire.

This somewhat abstracted treatment of Native society explains, in turn, why Ruling the Savage Periphery does not, in the end, overturn Scott’s ideas, as Hopkins claims. Instead, Hopkins’s book ultimately echoes what Scott has described elsewhere as the collapse of “the golden age of the barbarians.” Through this evocative phrase, Scott refers to the end of the era in which the independent inhabitants of the periphery could raid or trade as they saw fit and were, instead, drawn against their will into the embrace of the state.5

Hopkins does succeed, however, in leaving readers with an enduring sense of the palimpsest of empires that continues to structure our contemporary world. Before Seal Team Six assassinated Osama bin Laden in 2011, they first tracked him to a compound in Abbottabad. This town, located in what is today’s Pakistan, derived its name from James Abbott, a deputy commissioner in the East India Company, who established a fort on the town’s future site after participating in the British invasion of the Punjab in the 1840s. As much as contemporary Americans may have thought that they were reliving the 19th-century Wild West—with their invocations of Geronimo and Indian country—in their raid on Abbottabad, they were, in fact, venturing onto territory that already bore the traces of Britain’s centuries-long obsession with empire.


This article was commissioned by Geraldo Cadavaicon

  1. For a discussion of the inappropriateness of equating Geronimo and Osama bin Laden, see Karl Jacoby, “Operation Geronimo Dishonors the Indian Leader,” Los Angeles Times, May 10, 2011.
  2. For more on the resonances between the “Indian Wars” and US tactics in the Philippines, see Katharine Bjork, Prairie Imperialists: The Indian Country Origins of American Empire (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019), pp. 148–97.
  3. For Apache interpretations of Clum, see Karl Jacoby, Shadows at Dawn: A Borderlands Massacre and the Violence of History (Penguin, 2008), pp. 256, 265–66.
  4. James Scott, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (Yale University Press, 2009), pp. 6–39.
  5. James Scott, Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States (Yale University Press, 2017), pp. 219–56.
Featured image: Paghman, Afghanistan (2020). Photograph by Sohaib Ghyasi / Unsplash