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Non-State War: The War Against The Plains Indians

Non-State War: The War Against The Plains Indians



CSC 1995








Title: Non-State War: The War Against the Plains Indians.



Author: Major William W. Bennett. Special Forces, United States Army.



Thesis: Examination of the condct of the United States government's war

against the Plains Indians will shed light on the current problems faced by

modern warriors dealing with non-state war.



Background: An early example of non-state warfare faced by the United States

was the war conducted against the indigenous people of the American frontier.

This paper will examine what led to the political-military successes against one

group of those people, the Plains Indians, between 1866 end 1891. I have

provided an historic example of the weaknesses in the ability of the state to defeat

the non-state unless the state wishes to completely destroy the culture of the

non-state. The only succsses the state has had in defeating non-state enemies,

short of cultural eradication, has been when the state separates the non-state

enemy from its popular support. The only way that the state can accomplish this,

is through understanding the socio-cultural relationship between the non-state

enemy end its popular support. Such understanding will permit identification of

seams or weaknesses in that linkage, and permit exploitation politically,

socially, culturally, psychologically, economically, militarily end temporally.

When the state can package all these facets of national power end focus them on

the seams between the non-state enemy and its popular support, the state will be

successful. If the state fails to develop this synergy, it will fail.



Recommendation: Examine the non-state enemy, determine if there is a seam

his popular support end exploit it to do otherwise will result in failure or the

eradication of the non-state's culture.





The military record of the modern nation-state in state versus state


warfare is excellent; nations fight other nations with great success.


Unfortunately, the record against nonstate actors is less impressive.1 Recent


examples abound. Compare the results of the war against Saddam Hussein's Iraq


and against the clans in Somalia, the British successs in the Falklands and the


campaign in Northern Ireland, or the successful Israeli campaigns against the


Arab States and the its inability to quell the Intifada.


In each of these cases, the end result was the same. Despite being


militarily superior, a national military failed to defeat the non-state enemy.


Unable to force decisive battle, each national military eventually negotiated a


face-saving settlement, then abandoned the field to the non-state enemy.


An early example of non-state warfare faced by the United States was the


war conducted against the indigenous people of the American frontier. This paper


will examine what led to the political-military success against one group of


those people, the Plains Indians, between 1866 end 1891. Examination of the


conduct of this war may shed some light on the current problems faced by modern


warriors dealing with non-state war.



The conduct of the Civil War had prepared the United States Army to


employ a strategy of annihilation in its wars against the Indians because of


political, economic and social reasons. Post Civil War national policy eventually


imposed this approach on the American Indian. Until the Civil War, the


conscious purpose of the United States government in its relations with the Indian


nations was not to eliminate them but to move them out of territory desirable to


the white man end into lends where the white man was not yet ready to venture,


or where he would "never" settle.


An Office of Commissioner of Indian Affairs existed in the War


Department, end a policy was taking shape for the office to administer. In 1825


Secretary of War Calhoun had recommended that the "Great American Desert"


area be set aside as a permanent Indian Country, and the eastern Indians be


moved there to find a permanent home. In 1830 Congress authorized the


President to exchange land beyond the Mississippi for lands held by the Indian


tribes in the east. President Andrew Jackson began a vigorous program of


negotiating removal treaties with the eastern nations, most of which were too


enfeebled and too hemmed in by overpowering numbers of whites to resist. The


Cherokees caused some trouble, end the resistance of the Seminoles, which


brought on the Seminole War of 1836-42, was a major exception to the general


acquiescence. But the Army escorted most of the eastern tribes westward during


the 1830s, with immense suffering and appalling loss of life.2


To underwrite the idea of the permanency of the Indian Country, the


Indian Intercourse Act of 1834 forbade the intrusion of unauthorized white men


into Indian Country, while providing government agencies and schools to assist


the Indians. By 1840 the government had reasonably determined the boundary of


the Indian Country, and for the time being the strategic problem of the Army


regarding the Indian nations became that of guarding a border which amounted


almost to an international frontier.3


Through the 1840s most Americans believed that the bulk of the Great


Plains which made up the Indian Country was unsuitable to agriculture end,


therefore, to white settlement. During the 1850s, the western expansion began


to erode the policy of the permanent Indian Country. After the Mexican War and


the Oregon settlement, the Indian Country no longer marked the effective western


boundary of the United States, but separated two parts of the United States, the


East from the Far West of California and Oregon. No such arrangement was likely


to remain permanent. The California gold rush immensely increased white


emigration over the trails westward through Indian Country, so much so that the


buffalo herds began to avoid the trails, consequently altering the environment and


Indian economy of the country.


In 1849 the government transferred the Office of Indian Affairs to the


westerner dominated Department of the interior. White men along the border of


the Indian country and travelers passing through it ware learning that much of it


was not as unsuitable as white settlers had believed, especially the well-watered


grasslands in the eastern part of it. Conseuently, the United States drew up


treaties with the Indian nations during the 1850s to define the boundaries


between the various nations. These treaties nibbled away at the Indian Country.


For example, the treaty with the Sioux in Minnesota restricted them to a


reservation 150 miles long but only 10 miles wide along the Minnesota River.


Despite these treaties the Indians remained sufficiently undisturbed in Indian


Country with only a few serious armed clashes between Indians end white


soldiers marring the decade of the fifties.4


From 1851 to 1853 the government negotiated the Fort Laramie and Fort


Atkinson treaties with all the the major tribal groups of the plains. The


objective was no longer to separate whites and Indians by an artifical barrier.


Now the government not only intended to clear the Indians away from white travel


routes and keep them off white settlements, but to restrict them to specific areas


called "territories." Policy makers were beginning to look to a time when the


reservation would serve not only to control the Indians but to "civilize" them as




In 1861 the majority of white soldiers left their posts on the Indian


border to travel eastward and fight in the Civil War. Local volunteers from the


western states and the territories replaced the Regular Army in garrisoning the


border forts. In the eyes of the Indians, the volunteers seemed more vulnerable


then the professionals, and they were more likely to bear malice toward the


Indians. These developments occurred just as limitations over their territory


angered the Sioux in Minnesota, and as the consequences of white emigration


across their ranges to the gold fields in the central Rockies began to impact on the


Cheyenne and Kiowa, between the Arkansas end South Platte rivers.


In August,1862, the anger of the Sioux culminated in a mascre of


whites around their reservation along the Minnesota River. Minnesota


volunteers were able to repulse Sioux attacks on Fort Ridgely and New Ulm and


then to suppress the uprising. Here the weight of white population was already


great enough to be decisive as it had earlier been east of the Mississippi. In the


new territory of Colorado in the Rocky Mountains, misunderstandings and armed


clashes between the Indians and the settlers provoked the raising of regiments of


Colorado volunteeers who not only pacified the Indians but massacred many of


them in the process.6


By the time the Regular Army returned to the Indian frontier in 1865-


66, the policy of the permanent Indian territory was obsolete. The Homestead


Act of 1862 opened the prospect of cheap farmsteads throughout the national


domain. The idea of the Great American Desert had changed from a negative to a


positive one. By 1865, the Union Pacific and Kansas Pacific Railroads were


working their way westward from Omaha and Kansas City into the Indian


Country, carrying homesteaders and revolutionizing the Army's old problems of


mobility and logistics in the West.


Federal policy could no longer be one of removal of the Indians to some


distant place. There was no place left to relocate them. The remaining options


were extremely difficult. White men who knew the Indians and were sympathetic


toward them such as William Bent and Kit Carson, began to believe that if


Indians were to live close to white men, they must abandon their own way of life


and take up way of life of the white man. Otherwise, there could be no lasting


peace between the white men and Indians, for their cultures and their economies


were incompatible; and if the white men continued invading the Indian Country


without the Indians' adopting white ways, the white man would eventually


exterminate the Indian.7


While the government developed long-range policies, the immediate


military problem after the Civil War was the protection of the white man's trails


through the Indian Country. The increasing numbers of white men traversing the


trails, the new railroads along the trails, and the resulting increase in


restlessness of the Indians who began to discern the coming calamity to their


independence and their way of life, served to exacerbate the problem.


During the war, John M. Bozeman had opened a trail to take miners from


the Oregon Trail on the North Platte River through the Powder River country and


up the Yellowstone to newly discovered gold fields around Virginia City, Montana


Territory. The trail led through the domain of the most powerful of all Plains


Indian nations, the Teton Sioux or Teton Dakotas.


The Chippewas had pushed the Sioux out of the forest country of Minnesota


in the early days of the white man's westward expansion, when the Chippewas had


acquired firearms, but the Sioux had not. The Sioux had adopted superbly to the


plains and had become excellent horsemen and mounted warriors. The Sioux made


the Bozeman Trail extremely perilous, and during the Civil War the Army was


not able to do much to protect it. In 1866 the Regular Army initiated a major


effort to safeguard the trail, strengthening Fort Reno at the crossing of the main


branch of the Powder River and building Fort Phil Kearnay and Fort C.F. Smith


farther up the trail. Red Cloud ably led the Sioux who ware fierce and determined


to keep white travelers off their range. The Army only consisted of


approximately 57,000 officers and men and could only make a token effort to


police the conquered South, and defend the Indian border and keep the trails


through Indian Country open. About 7O0 men of the 18th infantry guarded the


Bozeman Trail. Red Cloud's Sioux put the soldiers effectively under siege, and on


December 21, 1866, the Indians wiped out all eighty men of a detachment under


Captain William Fetterman who ventured out of Fort Phil Kearny to protect a


woodcutting party.8


The commanding general of the Military Division of the Missouri,


encompassing the Indian Country, was Lieutenant General Sherman. Sherman


reacted to the Fetterman fight with a characteristic proposal for a long-range


policy to deal with the Sioux: "We must act with vindictive earnestness against


the Sioux, even to their extermination, men, women and children."9 Sherman


spoke in anger and embarrassmnet over Fettermans's defeat, but his subsequent


policies made it clear that he was not simply speaking in the heat of the moment.


Instead of following Sherman's prescription, Congress responded to the


Fetterman fight by creating the 1867 Peace Commision to negotiate for the


restoration of order. The purpose of the commission was to deal with the Sioux


and other restless northern tribes, and with the Cheyennne and other southern


tribes still fighting in Colorado. But the means of restoring peace proposed by


Congress, nevertheless, implied the elimination of the Indian nations as


sovereign politles and military powers. A Congressional Committee recommended


dealing with Indians as individuals rather than as nations and eliminating the


Indian Country by concentrating the Indians on much more restricted

reservations. The Peace Commisssioners spent the summers of 1867 and 1868


on the Plains attempting to persuade the Indians to retreat into reservations


whose boundaries would open a large central area of the old Indian Country to


white settlers and their railroads.10


Enough Indian leaders had some inkling of the whites potential power that


the Peace Commissioners enjoyed considerable succss, at least in securing


agreement to treaties. Red Cloud of the Sioux signed a treaty on November 6,


1868, only after the Army had abandoned the Bozeman Trail and the United States


had agreed that the Powder River country should remain unceded Indian country,


closed to whites, not a mere reservation.11


The Army remained as undermanned as before the Civil War in proportion


to the vastness of the Indian territory it had to police. In 1869, another


reduction followed, resulting in a total force in the neighborhood of 25,000


which remained constant until the Spanish-American War.


The new policy of abolishing the Indian Country and forcing the tribes into


limited reservations did ease the military problems of strategy. Before the Civil


War, the Army largely had to confine itself to passive patrolling of the Indian


boundary. The disproportion between its small numbers and the extent of


territory to be patrolled imposed special hardship. In contrast, the new policy


implied that the Army would focus on the offensive, to force the Indians into their


reservations, and to punish them if they did not go promptly or if they wandered


astray. On the offensive, the Army could choose its targets, and by concentrating


its limited strength increase its effectiveness.


The weaker tribes immediately felt the effects of their acceptance of the


reservations and treaty limitations. They could not venture across the


emigration routes westward. General Grant, still the Commanding General of the


Army, said in 1868 that the Army would protect the routes "even if the


extermination of every Indian tribe was necessary to secure such a result."12


In the fall of 1868, the commander of the Department of the Platte, Major


General Philip Sheridan, prepared to force into the reservations the Indians of


four principal southern nations: the Southern Cheyenne, the Arapeho, the Kiowa,


and the Comanche. The strategy Sheridan chose was an innovative one for an


Indian campaign, reflecting his and Sherman's experience in carrying war to the


enemy's resources and people'. He would wage a winter campaign, thus striking


when the Indian's grass-fed ponies were weak from lack of sustenance and the


Indians' mobility was at a low ebb. He would strike against the fixed camps in


which the Indians huddled against the rigors of winter. The camps would then


either submit to him, or if their occupants fled, he would destroy the provisions


they had accumulated for the winter and starve them into helplessness. To


execute this strategy, Sheridan planned for three columns to converge upon the


Indian camps scattered through the northern Texas panhandle and the extreme


western part of Indian Territory (presently Oklahoma). The plan succeeded with


brutal efficiency. It included Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer's


destruction of the camp of the friendly Cheyenne chieftain Black Kettle on the


Washita River on November 29. This action pleased Sheridan's immediate


superior, General Sherman. Just before the campaign opened, he told his


brother, "The more we can kill this year, the less will have to be killed the next


war, for the more I see of these Indians the more convinced I am that they all


have to be killed or maintained as a species of paupers. Their attempts at


civilization are simply ridiculous."13 After the campaign, Sherman told his


officers he was



... well satisfied with Custer's attack.... I want you all to go ahead, kill

and punish the hostile, rescue the captive white women and children, capture and

destroy the ponies, lances, carbines &c &c of the Cheyennes, Arapahoes and

Kiowas; mark out the spots where they must stay,and then systematize the

whole (friendly and hostile) into camps with a view to economical support until

we can try to get them to be self-supporting like the Cherokees and Choctaws.14


The reservation system dissolved tribal sovereignty and military power


and reduced the source of the Plains Indians' economy, the buffalo herds, from


which the Indians took food, clothing, and shelter. The advance of the railroads


into the Plains greatly increased the opportunity for indiscriminate hunting of


buffalo as a sport. In 1871 a tannery discovered a way to turn buffalo hides into


good leather, redoubling the white man's slaughter of the buffalo to obtain hides.


The consequent threat to their livelihood mobilized the southern Plains Indians to


attack white buffalo hunters outside their reservations. The Army responded


with another campaign, the Red River War of 1874-75, aimed at the


destruction of the Indians' military power and ability to live their indepedent


way of life.


Sheridan, now a lieutenant general commanding the Division of the


Missouri, again ordered a cold-weather campaign. Again he sent converging


columns against the Indians in the north Texas panhandle, this time from the


south as well as north, east, and west. Again the Army destroyed the Indians'


winter camps to deprive them of sustenance and shelter. This time the Army


followed its attacks by shipping Indian leaders to exile in Florida. The Red River


War, combined with the extermination of the buffalo, fulfilled its purpose,


destroying the independence of the southern Plains tribes.15


The independence of the northern tribes, even of the redoubtable Sioux,


was shortly to suffer the same demise. In 1864 President Lincoln signed a bill


chartering a second transcontinental railroad, the Northern Pacific. The railroad


began building in 1870, and by 1872 it was approaching Montana Territory. A


preliminary survey indicated that the most feasible route through the territory

was the course of the Yellowstone River, within the unceded domain of the Sioux.


Commissioners sent to negotiate with the Sioux early in 1873 found them


unwilling to grant a right of way. Nevertheless, a column of more than 1,500


soldiers under Colonel D. S. Stanley escorted surveyors far up the Yellowstone


during the summer. The Panic of 1873 kept the railroad temporarily at


Bismarck, Dakota Territory. But the next year Lieutenant Colonel Custer, who


had been with Stanley, led ten companies of the 7th Cavalry and two companies of


infantry into the Black Hills to find a suitable site for a fort to protect the




The Custer expedition also included geologists to investigate rumors that


there was gold in the Black Hills, and Custer sent back somewhat


overenthusiastic reports that there was. These reports naturally touched off a


gold rush, which sent hundreds of prospectors into the Black Hills by the


following summer. All of this was dangerous business, because the Black Hills


were not only part of the unceded Sioux territory; they were also sacred to the


Indians. 16


In September, 1875, federal commissioners made another effort to


persuade the Sioux to open their country to white men, and this time to sell the


Black Hills as well. The commissioners accomplished nothing and were lucky to


escape a threat against their lives. Their angry report encouraged the


Commissioner of Indian Affairs in November to order all Indians to return to


their reservations and report to their agencies by January 31. The order should


hardly have been applicable to the Sioux, for those Sioux bands that were not on


reservations were in their own uncoded country. Furthermore, the months from


November to January were the wrong time for Plains Indians to travel.


Nevertheless, the government assumed those Indians not on reservations by


January 31, 1876 were at war with the United States, and General Sheridan


planned a punitive expedition, three columns, from east, south, and west, to


converge on the Souix and drive them into reservations.17


The southern column, under Brigadier General George Crook, met a


repulse when its advance guard attacked a camp of Northern Cheyennes on March


17 and suffered defeat. This action also had the effect of pushing the previously


quiet Northern Cheyennes into an alliance of convenience with the Sioux. The


other Army columns did not move until the return of warm weather, and then


they found even more trouble. With the heart of their homeland under attack, the


Sioux and Northern Cheyennes rallied perhaps 5,000 warriors with a leadership


capable of conducting operations with tactical skill and inspiring their warriors


to fight with a determination and resolution uncommon in Plains Indians who


often viewed war as a kind of game and missed opportunities because they lacked


the white man's ruthless persistence. Under Crazy Horse of the Oglala Sioux,


Gall and Sitting Bull of the Hunkpapas, Hump of the Miniconjous, and Two Moons


of the Northern Cheyennes, among others, the Indians turned back another


advance by Crook's southern column at the Rosebud River on June 17. On June


25, Custer recklessly led the 7th Cavalry into the Indians' camps ahead of the


remainder of the eastern and western columns under Major General Alfred Terry


and Colonel John Gibbon. Custer died with much of his regiment in the battle of


the Little Big Horn.


However, the Indians lacked the white man's sense of closing in for the


kill. They might have overpowered Terry's and Gibbon's troops when those


soldiers reached the Little Big Horn battlefield the day after Custer's defeat, but


the Sioux and Cheyenne had demonstrated their prowess in battle and hoped that


doing so would be enough to discourage the whites as Red Cloud had done before.


The Indians themselves had suffered heavy losses, and rather then fight Terry and


Gibbon, they withdrew into the Big Horn Mountains to celebrate their successes.


The white soldiers accomplished little during the rest of the summer, though


Terry and Crook resumed the campaign.


For the Army, the Custer disaster only reconfirmed the necessity of


eliminating the military power of the Sioux. Sheridan accordingly ordered


another winter campaign, to repeat the now familiar pattern of forcing either


submission or debilitating, starvation-inducing movement on the Indians. Crook


and Colonel Nelson A. Miles harried the Sioux and Cheyennes through the cold


months, winning some battles, losing a few, but always driving the Indians


toward exhaustion. In February, Sitting Bull and a few of his followers fled into


Canada. By spring, Crazy Horse alone held a reasonably formidable band


together, but it numbered only some 800 men, women, and children, and Crook


persuaded Crazy Horse to surrender. Crook tried to win honorable and generous


treatment for the Oglala chieftain, but in the course of a disagreement during


negotiations one of Crook's soldiers bayoneted the chief. Meanwhile, more docile


Sioux leaders had signed away the previously unceded Powder River country and


the Black Hills, and under this appearance of legality, the Army forced the Sioux


into reservations. The Sioux could no longer offer effective resistance; Crook's


and Miles's winter campaign had broken the military power of the Plains Indians




The final Sioux uprising of 1890 was no real uprising but a last,


desperate bid for freedom to roam the Plains and search for the old ways. The 7th


Cavalry ended it with a massacre of Indians at Wounded Knee Creek. By the turn


of the century , the whole culture of the American Indian seemed almost


extinguished in the wake of the Army's annihilation of the Indian nation's


military power.




National interests and goals would inevitably lead the United States to a


military confrontation with the Sioux Indians. In the 1840's the enlargement of


the national domain and the penetration through the Great Plains of the first


pioneers using the trails to get to the Oregon territory and California, the


miners surging forth following every rumor of gold, and the railroad and


telegraph linking east and west led to the fragmentation of the Plains Indian's


domain. Following this fragmentation came the gradual expansion and occupation


of Indian lands by settlers, ranchers and merchants who wished to own the land,


at first, next to the trails but ultimately, expanding to engulf all the land. In this


background the United States government attempted a series of actions to deal


with Indian and citizen relations.


Policy makers dealt with a myriad of conflicting requirements.


Politically, the idea of Manifest Destiny permeated the population's view of what


it was to be an American. The Civil War left the nation hardened, seeking release


and normalcy. The politically powerful "Western Lobby," while not representing


large numbers of voters, did command great quantities of capital and saw the


expansion and exploitation of the west as good business. To accomplish this


exploitation and expansion, the "western lobby" sought to connect the east and


west coasts. To counter this "expansion at all cost" attitude, small groups


sensitive to the treatment of the Indians developed and molded the political


landscape through the press. The resultant policy, however, was expansionist,


exploitative, and only somewhat ameliorated by sensibilities.


Economically, the government sought to link California and the Oregon


territory to the East. To do this, the government needed to develop reliable lines


of communication across the country. At first the government took a passive


view and merely provided limited protection to the already existing trails.


During the 186Os, the government initiated the development of a series of


transcontinental railroads which quite literally opened up the plains to the


people of the United States. In addition, the gold discoveries added impetus to the


surge to the west. The Indians ware merely seen as obstacles and threats to these


national economic goals.


Diplomatically, the government needed to establish some kind of


relationship with the Indians. The results constantly changed to fit the political


situation and resulted in a series of concepts leading to the unforeseen destruction


of the Indian culture.


The first of these ideas was the Permanent Indian Frontier which was to


be a barrier between the fertile east and the "Great American Desert of the west.


The military's key role was to man a series of monitoring forts along the


frontier's boundary. The Permanent Indian Frontier failed as the


aforementioned penetration grew in intensity. It became obvious to the


government that the collapse of the Permanent Indian Frontier would require an


alternative solution. Next, in the 1850s, the government sought to gain rights of


way, exclude Indians from trails and keep them away from settlements with the


goal of restricting them to their own territories. Finally, the Peace


Commissioners of the 1860s sought to thoroughly restrict Indians to


reservations, with the notable exception of the militarily susssful Sioux.


The failure of these treaties resulted from the government's lack of


understanding of the political nature of the Indians. The government sought to


establish single chiefs over an artificial "Indian nation". The government


emissaries' views were that they were dealing with the sovereigns of other


nations. The chiefs who signed the treaties could not, in the loose political


democracy of the Plains Indians, speak for or bind all their people to the treaty


promises. The Indians' chiefs had no such sovereignty over their people and this

led to violations and continual breakouts from the reservation. Added to this


problem was the legal position, as espoused by Chief Justice John Marshall, that


the Indian tribes were "domestic dependent nations,"19 which implied


subservience, and did not admit that the equality of two sovereign nations existed


between the Indian tribes and the government. Given this legal position, the


emissaries and commisioners probably could not legally make the treaties that


they ware enticing the Indians to sign.


These provided a policy disconnect which would permeate all


government-Indian relations from this point forward. The problem for the


government became one of dealing with a non-sovereign group (a non-state)


which did not fully control the members of its group. Even if the government


signed with the group leaders, individual members were not bound to the


agreement. Negotiators never made any attempt to have individual members sign


treaties, so no legal (in the Indian mind) compunction for compliance existed.


The government failed to understand the cultural basis of the government with


which they were dealing. A situation not dissimilar to the current U.N. - U.S. -


Somali clan relationship.


Socially, there was no interest to support the Indian way of life. The


nomadic lifestyle and large land requirements prevented the Americans and the


Indians from ever coming to common ground. This resulted in a social policy


oriented on turning Indians into whites and shrinking the Indians lands into


reservations until such time that the Indians could join white society. No


society, as militant and independent as the plains Indians, could tolerate such a


total cultural dismemberment, and the result was war.


Militarily, the primary mission of the United States Army was to protect


American citizens and property. Whether this was by patrolling the Permanent


Indian Frontier, securing the transcontinental trail system through a series of

forts, or ultimately chasing the Indians across the plains to herd them into


reservations, this remained the mission. As the advancing migration and


population pressure built up the small army found that it had too few resources


to guard the areas adequately, and when the Indians had sucess in raiding, the


diplomats developed a system of reservations to contain the problem and gave the


army the mission of keeping the Indians on their reservations.


In modern terms the Plains Indians' strategic center of gravity was the


tribal culture. The Indians based their culture on a loose association of family


groups under a chief guided by a small group of respected elders. Government


such as it was, remained highly democratic. Any individual could participate or


not participate in the decisions of the chief or elders. Economically, the tribes


were dependent on the buffalo. The buffalo required large ranges, and the


Indians, dependent upon these staples of their lifestyle, became nomadic out of


necessity. The nomadic lifestyle produced a type of warfare based on dominating


the range to eliminate or reduce the competition for buffalo. Such a lifestyle


resulted in low Indian population densities. The key tools required for such an


existence were firearms and horses. Firearms provided the tribes with the


ability to conduct successful warfare against other tribes and kill buffalo. The


tribes had no capability to produce firearms and were dependent on trade with


whites, directly or indirectly, for the firearms. Horses gave the Indians the


ability to follow and successfully hunt the buffalo. As such horses became the


central source of wealth for members of the tribe, as well as the primary target


of other tribes.


Based on these facts, the critical vulnerabilities to the Indians' center of


gravity were: a psychology of freedom (both nomadic lifestyle and near anarchic


democratic governance), a society of family based tribes, a dependency on the


horse to follow and hunt buffalo, and an ability to dominate his range through


tribal warfare using firearms and horse mobility.


In the Clausewitizian sense, the government sucessfully engaged all the


vulnerabilities of the Plains Indians in a war of annihilation. The diplomatic


campaign slowly assailed the nomadic lifestyle by first preventing the Indians


from entering specified areas, i.e., the trails and settlements. Ultimately,


through the creation of Indian territories and reservations, the government


destroyed their psychology of freedom. The diplomatic campaign accomplished


this by cajoling and bribing the chiefs, and generally exploiting the Indian's near


anarchic democratic government. These chiefs would sign away the range


necessary to sustain the tribes for the majority of the Indians. The remainder of


the Indians exercising their individual veto to such agreements were few in


number, thus reducing the size of the problem for the military.


Economically, the governmental policy of permitting exploitation of the


buffalo severely reduced, in a brutal method, the ability of the Indians to


economically sustain themselves. The Indians no longer had a reason to be


nomadic. At the same time the Indians had no other means of support in their


cultural memory. Many chiefs were extremely willing to give up their former


freedom for any form of economic survival, and thus were amenable to


acquiescing to the diplomatic effort.


Militarily, the government was never able to stem the flow of firearms to


the tribes, as small arms were readily available through innumerable trade


routes. The U.S. Army did develop an extremely effective operational method for


defeating the chief operational asset the Indians possessed: the horse. Throughout


the Plains Indian Wars, the military had their most success when operating in


the winter when the Indians horses were weakened by lack of forage and the


weather. The military's chief failures were in conjunction with campaigns

during the warm months when the horses regained their strength and Indians


regained the initiative through mobility. Eventually the military was able to run


the recalcitrant members of the tribes to ground during the cold season and


capture or scatter them.




The Plains Indian Wars provides an excellent example of applying the


theory of state war to a non-state war. The United States had just experienced a


brutal Civil War which was finally concluded as a war of annihilation. The


theory of annihilation war permeated the military leadership. Pure, antiseptic


military operations in the early stages of this war had produced no result.


Escalation followed and culminated in the national strategy of pinning the


southern army in the east and piercing the Confederacy to totally destroy the


vital economic and cultural underpinnings of that society. The repercussions of


war strongly influenced the political leadership, including the President,


Congress, and the Courts as they struggled through the agony of the post-war


Reconstruction. Given this and the people's euphoria over the end of the war,


expansion to the west was inevitable, sweeping aside all obstacles in an effort


release the pent up energy of the United States held back by the war. The


resulting cultural annihilation was the only response the nation could give to a


non-state enemy.


If the United States is to avoid a recurrence of such events, we must


analyze our ability to respond to non-state war. Thus far, politicians have not


demonstrated the will to commit our military to such conflicts once American


casualties occur. This has limited our response considerably, and luckily has not


had any great impact on our vital interests.


Having only two options available, a war of annihilation, as conducted


against the American Indian, or a withdrawl when casualties occur, reduces our

ability to influence and control areas of the world vital to our interests. I propose


that neither of these options would be sucessful nor in the national interest.


There are many levels of response between low level involvement and




The Plains Indian War provides an insight to how to defeat non-state


enemies. By definition non-state enemies rely directly on the people and people's


culture for their strength. The non-state fighter depends on the population for


intelligence, manpower, sustenance and sanctuary. If the state can separate the


non-state insurgent from his base of popular support, the non-state enemy


becomes nothing more than a fleeing common criminal band, blind, weakened and


without a hiding place. The unsupported non-state enemy, if he does not


immediately disintegrate as an organized enemy, presents a lucrative target for


decisive battle which he can no longer avoid, and for which the state is


preeminently prepared. In either case the non-state enemy is defeated.


The United States government in its war with the Indians accomplished


this separation of the non-state fighter from his popular support by eradicating


the cultural and economic base on which he stood. The technique was effective,


but the moral cost to the United States still remains. Lasting from 1866 to


1891, the war was also a considerable economic and military drain on the




The question remains, however, what can a state do to defeat a non-state


enemy, short of annihilating its society? A continuum of responses exists to


which the Plains Indian War provides but one end. This end of the spectrum can


be justified only if the non-state enemy threatens survival or extremely vital


interests of the state. The other end of the spectrum is total inaction against the


non-state enemy, i.e., Bosnia. If the state has a national interest in the area, this


is tantamount to defeat. Just a short way along the continuum from such inaction

lies the short term commitment of forces (a kind of bluff) followed by a hasty


withdrawl at the first sign of failure or casualties (a called bluff), i.e., Somalia.


Unfortunately, this result has a demoralizing effect on the state and its forces,


and a morally strengthening effect on the non-state forces increasing the


difficulty of dealing with them if there is a recurrence of the conflict. Once again


the result is defeat for the national interests of the state. The longer term


commitment of larger forces does not guarantee success, i.e. Vietnam and Algeria,


and results in even further demoralization of the state, and success for the non-




The failure of this gradual escalation of responses is usually the result of


the statet's inability to separate the population from the non-state enemy. With


the exception of annihilating of the non-state's culture, the state has always


failed to defeat the non-state enemy unless the state employs time, and cultural


and social understanding to the defeat of the non-state enemy, i.e., Malaya.


During the early phases of the Plains Indian War, the government sought,


in a rudimentary way, to fragment the Indian tribes by initially offering them a


large territory and finally smaller reservations. Some of the Indians agreed.


This weakened the recalcitrant tribes, separated them from a portion of their


popular supports and provided limited support to the Army in the form of scouts.


Ultimately, the lack of cultural awareness and mismanagement resulted in many


of the reservation Indians escaping and joining the non-reservation Indians. This


guaranteed that turmoil would continue until the government destroyed the


cultural background of the Indians.




Before committing itself to military operations against a non-state, the


state must decide what level of national interest is involved. This will give an


indication as to the cost in time, resources, casualties and effect on its moral

position that the state is willing to accept, and the level of losses the state is


willing to endure. If the state does not carefully measure the costs versus its


national interests with regard to a non-state enemy, the state will be unable to


determine an appropriate end state. This lack of clear end state will result in


commitment to a quagmire. The nation viewed the Indian Wars as more vital than


many of our half-hearted commitments against non-state enemies today.


The state should determine that its interests call for a commitment of


forces with their associated costs. The state must determine if it can separate the


non-state enemy from its popular (socio-cultural) support. Historically, no


effort, no matter how great, has defeated a popularly supported non-state enemy,


short of annihilating its socio-cultural base, i.e., American Indians. When the


state can separate the non-state enemy from his popular support, the non-state


enemy becomes exposed to overwhelming, conventional attack and destruction.


This separation must become the central focus of warfare against a non-state



To achieve the separation of non-state enemy from his popular support,


the state must understand the cultural and social fabric of the people and seek the


fractures and seams that exist between the non-state enemy and the people. By


exploiting these seams, the state can separate the people from the non-state


enemy. If the state can provide what the non-state enemy promises, the non-


state enemy will lose popular support. If the non-state enemy controls by


terror, security of the population becomes paramount and the state can separate


the population from the non-state enemy.


In cases in which the state cannot separate the non-state enemy from its


popular support, as in the Indian Wars, the state should not become actively


involved and attempt to destroy the non-state enemy with direct force unless it is


willing to destroy the population's culture. Short of eliminating the cultural

basis for popular support, the effort will fail. Instead, the state may wish to


isolate the entire area controlled by the non-state enemy and its popular


support, allow the conflict to go its course while preventing its spread. The state


may become a moral target for its perceived complacency. The final choice is to


do nothing, again opening the state up to moral criticism.


Finally, time is a major consideration in conflicts with non-state


enemies. Popular support of the insurgent often wanes over time, usually 10 -


20 years. This coincides with the passege of the generation in power of non-state


enemy. Quite often the fire goes out of the conflict over this period of time. The


state may wish to wait until the people are tired of the conflict before investing


the resources to an intervention with a non-state enemy. In Latin America,


insurgencies have withered in this way, for example, the Sendero Luminoso in


Peru or the FMLN in El Salvador. Some conflicts, however, are not based on


generations but on deeper cultural conflicts, i.e., Bosnia. In this case the actual


conflict may wane, but the seeds of a future conflict remain to be sprouted when


the non-state enemy and his popular support perceive the next major injustice.


I have provided an historic example of the weaknesses in the ability of the


state to defeat the non-state unless the state wishes to completely destroy the


culture of the non-state. The only successes the state has had in defeating non-


state enemies, short of cultural eradication, has been when the state separates


the non-state enemy from its popular support. The only way that the state can


accomplish this, is through understanding the socio-cultural relationship


between the non-state enemy and its popular support. Such understanding will


permit identification of seams or weaknees in that linkage, and permit


exploitation politically, socially, culturally, psychologically, economically,


militarily and temporally. When the state can package all these facets of


national power and focus them on the seams between the non-state enemy and its

popular support, the state will be successful. If the state fails to develop this


synergy, it will fail.





Athearn,Robert G. William Tecumseh Sherman and the Settlement of the West.

Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1956.


Barnett, John R. "Nonstate War." Marine Corps Gazette. Quantico: Marine Corps

Association, 1994.


Josephy, Alvin M. Jr., 500 Nations: An Illustrated History of North American

Indins. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994.


___________. Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. New York: Random House, 1987.


Kennedy, Paul. Preparing for the Twenty-First Century. New York: Random

House, 1993.


Lind, William S., et al. "The Changing Face of War: Into the Fourth Generation."

Marine Corps Gazette. October 1989.


Marshall, S.L.A. Crimsoned Prairie: The Indian Wars on the Great Plains. New

York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1972.


Prucha Francis Paul. American Indian Policy in the Formative Years: The Indian

Trade and Intercourse Acts 1790-1834. Cambridge: Harvard

University Press, 1962.


Utley, Robert M. and Wilcomb E. Washburn. Indian Wars. Boston: Houghton

Mifflin 1987.


________. Frontier Regulars: The United States Army and the Indian 1866-

1891. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1973.


________ Frontiersman in Blue: The United States Army and the Indian.

1848-1865. New York: Macmilan,1967.


Van Craveld, Martin. The Transformation of War. New York: Free Press,



Von Clausewitz, Carl. On War, Trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret

Princeton: University Press, 1976.





1John R. Barnett. "Nonstate War,"Marine Corps Gazette (Quantico:

Marine Corps Association, 1994).


2Alvin M. Josephy, Jr., 500 Nations: An Illustrated History of North

American Indians (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994) 327-334.


3Francis Paul Prucha, American Indian Policy in the Formative Years:

The Indian Trade and Intercourse Acts 1790- 1834 (Cambridge: Harvard

University Press. 1962), 53-57.


4Robert M. Utley, Frontiersman in Blue: The United States Army and the

Indian. 1848-1865 (New York: Macmilan, 1967), 60, 69-70.and 262.


5Robert M. Utley and Wilcomb E. Washburn, 167- 170.


6Utley, 264-269.


7Robert M. Utley and Wilcomb E. Washburn, Indian Wars (Boston:

Houghton Mifflin 1987), 167.


8S.L.A. Marshall, Crimsoned Prairie: The Indian Wars on the Great

Plains (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. 1972), 59-74.


9Robert O. Athearn. William Tecumseh Sherman and the Settlement of the

West (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. 1956), 99.


10Utley and Washburn, 213-214.


11Ibid., 215.


12Athearn, 228.


13Ibid., 223.


14Ibid., 223.


15Utley. 219-233.


16Josephy. 397.


17Utley. 246-263.


18Marshall, 176-190.


19Robert M. Utley and Wilcomb E. Washburn, 169.


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