Non-State War: The War Against The Plains Indians
SUBJECT AREA - History
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.
NON-STATE WAR: THE WAR AGAINST THE PLAINS INDIANS
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
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
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
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.
IMPLICATIONS FOR NON-STATE WARFARE
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
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
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
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
________. 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.
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.
19Robert M. Utley and Wilcomb E. Washburn, 169.
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